Dirtbag Dispatches – the Darran Mountains, New Zealand’s rain-swept climbing mecca

Published in New Zealand Adventure Magazine, December 2016/January 2017

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by Derek Cheng

The bow of the boat wrestled with the waves and edged closer to the rocky platform. We steadied ourselves. The plan was to leap from the vessel in perfect balletic form and land gracefully on a wet ramp, avoiding the loss of possessions — and dignity — to the watery depths of Milford Sound.

It would be so elegant that the dozens of surrounding seals would not become aggressive at having their slumber disturbed, but instead applaud our skills and general handsomeness.

Uncertainty lingered. The boat bobbed up and down with the swell. Just as it was about to smash into the rocks, we jumped. Waves lunged at our ankles. Shoe rubber slid on wet rock. Seals grumbled, then turned away, as if displeased that we kept our footing.

This is Copper Point, Fiordland, an adventure wonderland at the edge of the Darran Mountains, home to the country’s most ruggedly spectacular scenery. Bordered roughly by the Hollyford Valley and the road to Milford Sound, the Darrans are littered with massive, ominous rock spires looming above steep, curving valleys. When it rains — an average of about seven metres a year — the walls are blessed with countless waterfalls suicidally hurling themselves from clifftops. It seems an odd place for a rock climbing mecca, and many have been thwarted by the rain, sitting in a hut as the skies open and the rivers rage.

But there are gorgeously steep walls of rock, from overhanging walls of grey granite to remote peaks that stand in splendid isolation, catering to every climber’s taste. And the dampness also creates a fantasy-land of thick flora and rich canopy; the steep trail to the crag Little Babylon, which is so overhanging that is stays dry in the nastiest weather, is full of thick moss and gnarly tree roots.

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And the Darrans is a treasured little secret. Every year, about 14,000 trampers head to the Milford Track, while the more dramatic surroundings just around the corner from Homer Tunnel remain relatively unvisited. 

Untouched also means virtually impossible to access. To gain the summit plateau of Copper Point, you have to scramble through steep bush, and then climb a 170m rock face that’s only slightly more friendly than vertical. That’s if you survive the leap from the boat.

We had learned of a new climb – Ship of Fools, first climbed by Bruce Dowrick, Bryan Moore and Tony Ward Holmes – on a cliff near the Tasman Sea. It seemed an exciting prospect, high on the walls of the iconic Mitre Peak with Milford Sound splashing merrily below. Most of the time, climbers won’t go anywhere near any rock face if there is water involved, given its tendency to turn a friction-filled wall into a slippery death-trap. But this climb only had a watery approach – the first ascentionists put up the route after many kayaking trips out in to the sound. 

My buddy, Sam, and I headed to the watery edge of the sound one morning, hoping to chance upon some kayaking groups with some extra vessels. Instead, we chanced upon two relaxed and groovy gentlemen in a sleek fishing boat. I asked if they were headed near Copper Point.

“Not sure where that is,” one of them replied.

“Neither are we.”

That didn’t seem to bother the owner, Ross, who simply chuckled when we showed him a hand-drawn map of the climb, complete with headings like “seal platform”.

The platform was pretty obvious; it’s the only part of the shoreline that doesn’t dive vertically into the water. The platform was broad, slightly angled, and covered with seals. Ross lined the boat up, and promptly hit reverse as soon as we jumped. As he sped off to the fish-filled depths where the sound meets the Tasman Sea, we scrambled higher to drier rock, waving our thanks and silently wondering if they would honour their promise to pick us up later.

New climbs are usually littered with crumbly, dangerous rock fragments and layers of lichen and moss. But the rock at Copper Point was as hard as bullets. And clean. We climbed up four pitches of granite slab, pushing the rope higher as the sound slowly shrunk far below us. 

We were soon relaxing on a benign summit plateau, basking in a view that few have experienced. From our perch, the raw, unexplored north face of Mitre Peak rose menacingly more than a kilometre to a summit ridge that tickled the sky. Steep, vegetated walls, splintered by majestic waterfalls, dwarfed tiny boats below.

As the afternoon drifted on, the wind gathered her forces. When I threw the first rope over the edge of the top of the cliff for the first abseil, the wind gleefully collected all 60m of it and hurled it towards the sky. The only way to control the rope – which could easily get snagged on a rock or a tree root – was to loop a rope over each of arms as I lowered myself. 

Soon, we were safely back on the platform, trying to keep out of the seals’ way. Ross had said he would collect us at 4pm. Or 6pm. Or 8pm, depending on how good the fishing was. We waited patiently, mulling over what to do if our ride never materialised. Swim? Feast on seal-meat until a boat came close enough for us to swim for it? We needn’t have worried. He returned about 5pm and, again, expertly manoeuvred his boat close enough for us to leap aboard.

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Though climbing at Copper Point exposes you to hundreds of camera-armed tourists on passing boats, the interior of the Darrans is a place of cathartic solitude. Unplugged from civilisation. No mobile coverage, no markers, no footpaths. The approach to the shoulder of Barrier Knob, for example, requires passage over steep scree and wet slabs.

If you manage to arrive in one piece, the rewards are abundant. The shoulder is surrounded by a cirque of granite warriors overlooking the dark turquoise hue of Lake Adelaide. The environment leaves you in awe, but eager to explore.

The following day, we traversed snow slopes to a perch above the lake and climbed Labyrinth, touted as the country’s best face climb. It’s 230m high, bold, and with a myriad of challenges. The approach is peppered with wet, sloping rock-faces that will test your balance and fortitude. The crux pitch is steep and 40m-long, but only has eight protection bolts. That’s quite some distance in between protection, with an abyss of granite beneath you, gnawing at your self-preservation instincts. The following pitch includes a 16m stretch with no protection at all. The lead climber, if they faltered near the top, would sail a terrifying 40m before the rope would catch them.

Labyrinth lived up to its billing, weaving a spectacular line up exposed terrain, following cracks through a roof. At the top, looking out over a cascade of peaks, from Mt Sabre to the north to Mitre Peak in the west, we felt the pleasant embrace of total isolation. It brought a feeling of immense peace, surrounded in rugged beauty, and knowing that thousands at the same time were sardined into supermarkets and malls.

There was a lesson in all this. The wilderness shakes up your perspective of reality, of what is important and what really doesn’t matter. We headed back to civilisation only as the sun started to sink and sprinkle the mountains with pink. No rush. Pausing to linger as often as possible.

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About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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