Published in the NZ Alpine Journal, Spring 2022
Words and photos by Derek Cheng
There are plenty of torrid tales to deter anyone from venturing into the Central Darrans.
There’s the two Tasmanian climbers who, one summer, dragged 35kg packs across challenging terrain for much longer than they expected, barely managing to climb anything over five days. A similar fate befell two Kiwi friends, who also took their climbing gear for a massive walk; they managed to get to Turner’s Eyrie, but it took them two days to get there, and they needed the third day to rest before walking out on day four.
The notoriously difficult access is a deterrent as much as it is a drawcard. If you make it, you’ll likely have the mile-high walls and country’s best scenery to yourselves.
There are several ways into the mountains surrounding the Te Puoho glacier and Lake Turner, but they all invariably involve snow and glacial travel, rock scrambling, and the unique Darrans experience of near-vertical plant-pulling.
And then there’s the fatigue and the heavy pack-wobbles, which become ever-wobblier the longer the day drags on. Our route—from the Lower Hollyford River to The Eyrie in one push—was a 17-hour day: bash up to Rainbow Lake, scramble over a col near Mt Tuhawaiki, drop under Taiaroa and the Dur, gain and then negotiate the Te Puoho Glacier, ease nervously down Lindsay’s Ledges and, finally, cross to the Karetai-Patuki col and stumble up the final stretch.
By the time we crawled into The Eyrie, the almost-mythical bivvy cave that’s etched into the northwest side of Karetai, it was 11pm. We were fried. Jimmy only made it through half his dinner before nodding off.
The rewards, though, can be admired in every direction. I’d always thought the view from Mitre Peak across to the cirque above Lake Adelaide was New Zealand’s finest, but this was immediately trumped by the spires towering above the glistening turquoise of the Te Puoho outlet lake, and then again by the majesty of the line of peaks from Madeline to Patuki, resplendent in evening light above Lake Turner.
We were buggered the next morning, but the day dawned clear and we ventured up Katabatic Gravity Well (23) on the 300m-high Statue Wall between Karetai and Te Wera. The route was established in 2015, but you may as well be first-ascenting as you always end up choosing your own adventure.
Jimmy took the first pitch but, as he predicted, the lower and more recently-glaciated slab was thin, with gear options even thinner. “Terrifying,” he cried out at one point, though his tone suggested something comedic rather than any degree of desperation.
Huge questions hovered over my every move when it was my turn on the sharp end. Which way? The line of most radness, or the line of least resistance? How solid is this hold or that foot? Where will my next pro be, and how will I keep my cool if I head into increasingly precarious terrain and find no gear?
I came to a traverse move where, some distance from my last pro, a fall would see a decent pendulum. My right hand was on a good enough hold that I took the brush from my chalk bag and, like the boulderer I’d always longed to be, scrubbed a sloper to the left before committing to it. Maximal friction.
Above it was a series of flakes to a ledge below a small roof. I was now on the line of most radness, shunning easy ledges to my left. I was sure there’d be bomber gear above, but I found only mildly adequate wires—and right below cruxy moves at the roof. Jimmy’s lead! He calmly nestled in two wires before climbing through on thin holds.
Two pitches later, as if to emphasise my poor decision-making, he backed off a crux with no pro and asked to be lowered several metres so he could belay from further below. He could have made an anchor right below the crux, but if I’d led the next pitch and fallen there, I’d have factor-two’d on the anchor.
I ended up avoiding the crux anyway and following the line of least resistance up a feature to the right. But my instincts returned by the top pitch when, instead of taking easy ramps to the top, I placed a bomber cam and took a more direct, steeper line. We were no longer on Katabatic, it seemed, which is meant to finish up a distinct rock rib. Ahead of me was a clean face that lacked pro, but offered good crimps that some divinity had placed exactly an arm’s length from each other.
It was a 10-hour day by the time we got back to the bivvy, and we were quietly grateful when the next day brought unexpected rain. The stash at The Eyrie, discovered by yurt-maker Richard Turner, includes a custom tarp that kept us completely weather-proof. We lay in our sleeping bags, snug and dry, trying to recuperate the vast amounts of energy we’d already spent.
We seemed well rested when we headed up the South Ridge of Te Wera the following day, a route that’s described in the guidebook as “a little loose in places.” A loose block in the finger crack at the start of the ridge quickly affirmed this. From there, the climbing is never harder than grade 14ish, but it might feel harder due to the exposure nipping at your heels from both sides of the ridge.
On the summit, we realised we were not as well rested as we thought, and both passed out for a sunny afternoon siesta. We eventually headed back down the same ridge before continuing along the North Ridge of Karetai, an undulating, kilometre-long spine of exposed, granite gloriousness. A delicate step here. A chimney there. A mantle here.
It’s overkill to repeatedly talk up the views, but the summit of Karetai deserves a special mention. Not only does it reveal a different perspective on the impressive granite spires around Lake Turner and the Te Puoho, but you can see countless peaks to the south—beyond Lake Adelaide to Sabre and Christina—as well as the dusk-bathed Donne River Valley.
Statue Bro (19) is probably the best route on the wall, and the reason why it’s known as the Statue Wall. The route was established in 2006, but like Katabatic, it was always going to be a choose-your-own-adventure affair.
‘Looks like it’s about to get steep, and thin,’ I said to Jimmy as I surveyed a section of the second pitch. Translation: ‘This may leave me in a flustered, whimpering mess.’ A few crimps led me to an awkward stance, where I placed an RP while my forearms became more and more flamed. I eventually took the line of least resistance out right, avoiding an overhang in favour of layback moves to a decent ledge with a rock spike I could sling.
Jimmy’s lead was similarly testing—through a small overhang via a series of small crimps. One of them broke off as I seconded, sending me flying with a surprised cry.
We topped out onto the ridge as low clouds filled the valley. It was a warm day, and several times the natural amphitheatre amplified the sound of crashing snow and ice somewhere in the distance.
It was one of countless moments during the week when we were awe-struck by the forces of nature. Similarly, the following day, huge arching clouds in the sky framed our vantage point from the summit of Mt Underwood, an easy peak from The Eyrie after crossing the Taoka Icefall.
On Jimmy’s suggestion, we hustled back to The Eyrie, packed up, and started our exit half a day early. We crossed the descent ledge on the west face of Karetai, donned climbing shoes for the steeper rock section down to the Te Wera-Karetai Col, and then traversed the Te Puoho Glacier in claggy conditions. Wisps of cloud chased us south as we regained the ridge and followed funky rock and snow slopes to the summit of Mt Revelation.
From there, we descended a loose, unnerving slope to the Korako Glacier, and gained slabs high above Tent Flat. As raindrops threatened and darkness fell, Jimmy quipped about how perfect it would be to run into a bivvy spot—which we then duly did, minutes after taking out our headtorches. The rain mercifully held off until after we’d eaten and crawled into our bivvy bags. It continued all night, giving us an incentive to move on at the break of daylight.
There was one final sketchy section—typically steep, and covered in slippery snowgrass—to the moraine below. After that, we knew the most challenging ‘danger walking’ was behind us. By the time we’d trudged past Lake Adelaide and up Gifford’s Crack, the days of calorie deficits were catching up with us. Delirium was settling in.
Sustenance for our last day was a handful of oats, a few peanuts, and six squares of chocolate between us. It was hilarious, and excruciating, to toss Jimmy his last square of chocolate and watch him fumble it, and then lose it down a tunnel of talus. He promptly inverted and dove down to retrieve it, but this took so much energy that he had to remain still—while still inverted—for several moments before he could summon the willpower to pull himself up.
At Gertrude Saddle, we ignored tourists’ questions about where we’d been, and when we later ran into friends we hadn’t seen for a week, we told them to step the fuck aside and let us through—or potentially be eaten.
Huge mouthfuls of cheese took place shortly after reaching Homer Hut, followed by the frying of eggs and cheese and salami and wraps. Our bellies finally satiated, our bodies quickly moved on to the next deficit. When Jimmy dropped me off to collect my car from the Lower Hollyford, he parked up and promptly fell asleep. I, too, was asleep within seconds of crawling into my driver’s seat.
It seemed a fitting end to our adventure in the Central Darrans. Like others before me, all I knew in the aftermath was that I’d had the good fortune to revel in a unique place—the country’s most exquisite, with infinite rock and adventure to be sampled—and that I wanted to return.
It’s the same place that drew Lindsay Stewart, he of Lindsay’s Ledges, who made several forays into the area throughout the 1930s. This remote, wild part of Fiordland always left him, in his words, with ‘that indescribable feeling of exhaltation, which only a climber can know’.