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'Darrans Story' Story by Pete Ramage

posted 12 May 2013, 20:42 by Chelsea Zgierski-Boreyko   [ updated 12 May 2013, 20:43 ]

A phone jangled in the pre-dawn darkness. It was our alarm: time to get up. I tried to think of an excuse to stay in bed, a reason why the alarm might not apply to me, but drew a blank. It was time to get up. Breakfast was plain porridge, and tasted like ash in my mouth.  I was filled with a deep feeling of foreboding.

We’d decided to try to do the Traverse Pass route, but backwards. It would mean heading up the Gertrude Valley to the Gertrude Saddle, then up the snow slopes to the North West Ridge of Mt Talbot. We’d head along this until we could drop down onto the snowfield on the other side, and scoot across to Mt McPherson. Then it would just be a matter of abseiling down Talbot’s Ladder to the Homer Saddle, and following the steep track back to the road and eventually the hut. We knew it would take a while, but by leaving at 5:00am, we hoped to have the bulk of the route done by lunchtime.

We tramped up the Gertrude valley in the dawn twilight; Tony Stephen and I.  None of us spoke, each preparing for the long day ahead. We made good time up the valley, following the cairns as the path criss-crossed through the long wet grass, and later through the boulder strewn riverbed. Getting from here up to the Gertrude saddle was a slow, hard plod. Tony and I pulled out our axes to cross the first snowfield, eager to put them to use, while Stephen followed behind, axe still on his pack.

Our first stop was at Black Lake. Here we filled up with water, Tony put on his boots and we all donned harnesses, shells and an extra layer. We followed the cables upward, through the slab and snow to the saddle. Here we stopped again. Our estimates of clothes had been way off, and it was time to take all the warm layers off again. We looked upwards at the Traverse Pass on Mt Talbot, the sunlight moving down the face towards us.

From the saddle up to the Traverse started as a scramble. It was precarious: slightly wet, covered in snowgrass, and exposed all the way to the Gulliver Valley, close to a thousand meters below. Despite this, Tony and Stephen made their way up happily, leaving me to scare myself a little way behind. The scrambling quickly gave way to snow though, and we donned crampons, took a sip of water, and headed up.

The Sun was baking hot on the snow. We’d left early to make sure the snow stayed hard while we were on it, but even after just an hour in the sun it was starting to soften. We Soldiered on though, and made it to the North-West Ridge of Talbot by about lunchtime. One look at the ridge though was enough to convince us to turn the other way, towards McPherson, and continue on our way.

We pitched our way slowly towards peak 2021m, our highpoint, at the other end of the ridge, with a yawning gulf below us and the safe side of a cornice above us. Crampons skittered off rocks as we weaved in and out of the ridgeline, trusting our belayer, some hastily driven snow stakes and a sling here and there to keep us from the abyss.

Here was the most amazing sight. From the ridge and Peak 2021m, we were about 500m above the Homer and Gertrude Saddles, and 1500m above the valley floor. We could peer down from our vantage point, and see the aeroplanes and helicopters taking tourists to Milford flying through these saddles far below. It felt like we were seeing the Darrans the honest way, with our own blood, sweat and tears.

 We dropped down onto the snowfield between McPherson and Talbot, after a brief lunch and some summit photos. After so long struggling up to the ridge and then along it, going down felt wonderful, and we made good time to the upper slopes of McPherson in about 20 minutes. Here we met an unexpected sight: one of our fellow guests in the Homer Hut glissading down to meet us from the summit, his girlfriend walking sensibly behind.  We exchanged pleasantries, but were quickly on our way, wary of late afternoon avalanches.

Tony and Stephen then made a quick detour to the summit of McPherson, while I stayed behind, to keep the packs warm: I’d had enough of going up.  Following the snowfield of McPherson brought us to the top of Talbot’s Ladder: a narrow ridge leading up from Homer Saddle. We rigged the ropes and abseiled the four pitches ‘till it flattened out.

At the saddle, feasting on chocolate and bananas in the evening sun, we saw a couple coming down behind us. They were quite happily walking down what we had just abseiled. We met them on the way down, and they were kind enough to return the tat we had left for abseil anchors.

The rest of the way down was a jarring and sore trudge for tired legs; a steep descent down rocky switchbacks. The ground was gravelly, so we had to take great care not to slip and slide all the way down. It was a relief to finally get back to the road. Then it was a short walk back to the hut. We got back at 7:00pm, 14 hours after we had set out, tired, sore and blistered, but with huge grins on our faces.

Chelsea Zgierski-Boreyko,
12 May 2013, 20:43