I could sense rather than see the face above me as I stumbled through the snow-covered moraine. A presence that loomed out beyond the edge of my vision as a darker shade of black on black in the inky pre-dawn darkness. Flickering glimpses in the beam of my headtorch the only real hint of what lay ahead. Alpine starts can be both a blessing and a curse in that respect. You don’t have to deal with the intimidation of a large face hanging over you on the final approach. But the uncertainty can be equally as daunting. Not knowing what lies ahead and what the coming day will bring. Leaving you with equal parts ignorant bliss and trepidation. All this coupled with the ease at which you can blindly lose the way when there is no path to follow and no light to follow it by. Any way you look at it, moraine bashing in the dark is never fun - no matter how much of a morning person you are.
The lure of the line had been a constant presence lingering in the back of my mind for the past year. A smouldering ember that had started as a spark of an idea during my first trip into the valley. Almost year to the day when I climbed the South Face of Pyramid Peak the previous July. Over time the spark grew, slowly but steadily drawing me back as the sharpness of my memories faded. Previous discomfort largely forgotten, fears and anxiety gradually subsiding, to be replaced with the promise of adventures to come.
The head of Mistake Creek is seldom visited in winter, at least not by climbers. As such, it’s difficult to tell with any certainty how frequently the line comes into condition. The face can be viewed from the Te Anau / Milford Highway, near Plato Creek, and from this vantage point you can get an initial indicator of what you might encounter. Although, as with many winter routes in the Darrans first impressions can often be misleading. Especially those made from a distance, and what looks nice from far, can be far from nice. So, unless you make the effort to get up close and personal, you never know exactly what you are in for. Thankfully it’s a relatively short approach, on a good track, so going in for a more detailed look isn’t that onerous. Even up close it can be deceptive though, and despite it being deep winter the face still catches a lot of sun. With its east facing aspect, it tends to shed its covering of ice and snow much more quickly than its south or west facing counterparts and is not a place to linger on the wrong day.
A warmthless alpenglow began to reveal the hidden secrets of the coming day as I tentatively climbed the final approach slope beneath the face proper. A thin accumulation of plastered snow and neve covering the otherwise blank slabs – slabs worn smooth by a millennia of relentless avalanche and storm cycles. Despite having been on the move for over an hour, my legs still feel sluggish. It’s an internal battle I fight before every alpine climb. Digging deep to find the self-motivation required to overcome the desire to turn tail and flee back to the warmth of my sleeping bag. Above I could glimpse a hanging curtain of icicles emerging from the half-light of the new dawn. A tenuous frozen link to the unknown ground beyond. The first swing and placement into solid water ice both excited and scared me. My breathing slowed and my pulse spiked with the nervous anticipation I always get at the start of a big climb. Losing all sense of time, I immersed myself in the repetitive rhythm of movement. Swing and kick, step up, and repeat. Minutes passed like hours and the day steadily slipped by. The face slowly came to life with the arrival of the sun, bringing with it both welcome warmth and somewhat less welcome intermittent barrages of falling ice and snow. The rattle and hiss from above a constant reminder for caution. Even with its inherent risks though, there is still a basic underlying pleasure to be found in climbing a sunny multipitch ice route in the middle of July. Savouring what limited warmth the weak winter sun can offer, while for all intents and purposes the rest of the world is cloaked in a cold shadow.
The water ice on the lower face gradually transitioned into less consistent alpine ice and neve with height, thinning as the terrain steepened. Protection for belays, and runners, became increasingly hard to find and tricky to place. Forgoing questionable security for speed, I left the screws clipped to my harness and began to trail the rope. It was the type of ice that climbs well but leaves you on edge. Where delicate placements bite, slip then bite again, and more times than I care to admit I found my picks bouncing and skating off the rock below.
Eventually I entered the upper headwall and scratched my way up a thin mixed groove to reach the final exit gully. Steep climbing on fine hooks, often with a veneer of ice overlying the rock below. Followed by an oddly reassuring waist deep snow wallow. It’s not often that you find solace in ploughing a snow trench after a near vertical kilometre of climbing. However, there is a lot to be said for the simple pleasure of being able to stand upright without having to rest on your front points.
Reaching the summit was a relief rather than a celebration. A weight lifted from my shoulders, but the respite was temporary, knowing that the journey was a long way from being complete. While not overly complicated, the descent is nonetheless still engaging. The long traverse of the summit ridge takes your breath away in equal amounts due to the otherworldly beauty of the surrounding mountain vista, and the unrelenting exposure. I felt blessed to look down on the frozen expanse of Lake Erskine, a view enjoyed only by a fortunate few. Wisps of blown snow dancing across the otherwise still surface. Lifting, spinning, and skipping in a random pirouette before settling again into nothingness. Savouring the unparalleled silence of being high in the mountains on a calm day, only to have it broken by the crack and roar of a distant but unseen avalanche. Snapping me back to the here and now with the realisation of how far I still had to go.
They say that life is about the journey and not the destination. While that may be true, sometimes just reaching the end of an adventure is all that you can aspire to. Over time the hardships endured will fade, and the story will be retold to friends over a drink with a laugh and smile. But at the time the feelings are often more acute. The pain still real, and any laughter will be more the result of releasing nervous tension than from pleasure. Over time I know this will change, and I’ll look back with fondness and remember the highs over the lows. The nerves will settle, and fond memories will grow to replace the fear. But as I trudged back down valley, all I was drawn forward by was the promise of a warm fire at Homer Hut. A hefty dram and the all-consuming oblivion of deep sleep.
‘Soulfly’, Grade 6+ (M5, AI5+R), VI, (1100m). Ben Dare (solo), July 2021.