BY ALASTAIR MCDOWELL (JANUARY 30, 2020)
The Darran mountains of Fiordland are a land of sheer granite faces, streaming with waterfalls. Dense vegetation clings to the walls and snow caps the peaks. It is the wettest place in New Zealand, with metres of precipitation every year. As you drive into the deep-cut U-shaped valley, you feel like you’re approaching the end of the world.
I’ve tried to make an annual pilgrimage to the Darrans every summer that I have been in NZ. The long multipitch trad rock climbing is exceptional. I made a visit this summer in late January with William Skea.
Our first climb was ‘Finders Keepers’ on Moir’s Mate. 8 pitches with the final five being stacked in the 21-22 grade range. We simul-climbed the first 4 easier pitches in less than an hour using micro-traxions and Gri-gris to shorten the rope as we climbed. An excellent climb consisting of mostly friction climbing on slabs, with some interesting crack climbing near the end also. Mist swirled in and out obscuring visibility creating an atmospheric ambience.
The weather was variable during the week, but staying in Homer Hut makes it easy to keep a close eye on the weather – just look out the window.
One day the weather was due to pack in during the early afternoon, so we decided to take on the classic Macpherson-Talbot traverse in the morning. It turned out to be an excellent half-day adventure thanks to a light-weight ‘trailpinism’ style.
The Macpherson-Talbot traverse is an excellent route beginning up rocky slopes to Homer Saddle, where the infamous ‘Talbot’s Ladder’ begins. Its easy scrambling, less than grade 10, but it is exposed. Its best to attempt this section in dry conditions. For us the rock and vegetation was slightly damp, but the rock has good friction so just take care. We didn’t feel the need for a rope, but that’s a matter of preference. There are metal poles on the ridge that can be used as protection if you are using a rope.
Above, snow slopes lead to Macpherson. The snow-pack was thoroughly water logged and quite firm. I used La Sportiva Bushido II shoes combined with Petzl Leopard aluminum crampons. This offered excellent purchase in the snow. I carried a Camp Corsa aluminium ice axe in case I needed to self arrest. William used Salomon running shoes combined with Kahtoola Microspikes and he also found sufficient grip on the snow, as it is fairly low angle throughout the traverse. He carried a Petzl Gully ice tool in case of self arresting only. It is the sort of terrain that would go well with hiking poles – but ours were stolen by Kea the day before!
From Macpherson to Talbot the way involves sidling on high snow slopes, but it is also possible to spend time on the rocky ridge depending on snow coverage. Here the Microspikes excelled as they are so much quicker to take on and off, whereas the Leopard crampons slowed me down on transitions. This showed the trade-off between grip and transition time.
By now the weather had thoroughly packed in, but determined to reach the summit of Talbot to complete the full route, we continued in increasing rain along the scrambly ridge. Some excellent scrambling and views would be had here in drier conditions. We reached Talbot in total white-out, followed by a quick celebration, and turned around to head back down to Traverse Pass.
From there its a quick descent via snowfields to Gertrude Saddle where you pick up the popular cairned trail back into the valley to Homer Hut.
Once on the defined trail below the rock slabs, we hooned down the valley as fast as possible for a final time of 4 hours 15 minutes at Homer Hut. Every loop needs a defined starting and finishing point. We chose the toilet. Enjoy this short video of the highly recommended Macpherson-Talbot Traverse, one of the best alpine day trips in New Zealand.
This article originally appeared on Alastair’s ‘Mountain Adventure Blog’ on 30 January 2020 and is reproduced here with permission.