On Monday 3rd April 2017 Andy, Ellen and I went for the Mt Talbot summit in the Darrans. The route consisted of going through Homer Saddle, up Talbot’s ladder onto the ridge and crossing a snow field to the base of Mt Talbot. But first, we had to wait for Ellen to fly in the day before our epic began.
On that Sunday, faced with a couple of hours to kill before Ellen flew in to Queenstown, we decided to sharpen our skills for the upcoming adventure by going to go ice climb some trees. After finding a pine tree with suitable branches to sling for protection, which was also conveniently placed immediately next to a well used mountain biking track, Andy led up to the sturdiest branch about 10m off the ground and I followed after, being the amusement of several bikers who stopped to observe our oddities with one of them commenting with a rather curious exchange with Andy.
“So… is this for fun?”
” Yep. Not a lot of ice around at the moment”
I received my second ice-climbing accident, on a tree, when the axe slipped out and I punched the tree (I was particularly angry) grazing a deep cut into one of my fingers. The first, embarrassingly, was also a tree related accident… But that’s for another time.
Upon collecting our third party member, we begun our five or so hour drive for Homer Hut stopping by Te Anau for dinner (after a failed dumpster diving attempt) which consisted of a very salty (presumably MSG laden) fried rice and some signed hilarity, finally reaching our final destination at dark to find the alpine hut (unusually) empty.
It was like a scene from a movie being in an alpine hut for the first time, the timber walls and flue, pretty awesome stuff. Being the only ones at the hut was both an interesting and creepy experience in this random hut in the “wilderness” which was short lived as we were joined by two others later in the night (when I was sleeping).
A 7am rise turned into a 8am start at the car park right beside the entrance to the Homer tunnel with a ride from our new friends Emily and Frankie who turned out had the same exact plan as us for the weather window; Heading up to Mt McPherson and across to Talbot that day and going for one of NZ’s esteemed multi-pitch climbs, Lucky Strike, the next day.
The hiking and rock climbing guide duo raced off ahead of us up to Homer Saddle as our party moved slowly up the steep scree. Upon reaching the saddle, we looked at the next (daunting) part of our adventure; Talbot’s ladder, an exposed scramble up to McPherson. Halfway through the ladder, we decided to rope up to mitigate the consequence of falling off (death) and quite frankly make it a little less scary. It was about a grade 12 scramble with packs and boots while there were some icy parts on the diorite in the shade which had not yet been hit by the glorious rays of sun.
After successfully conquering Talbot’s ladder, we arrived at a mellow snow field to practice self-arresting with our ice tools. A fun exercise which greatly boosted my confidence on snow and expelled my fears of careening down an ice slope to an uncontrollable demise. With our new found abilities, we traversed across moraine until we hit the main snow field to cross over to the ascent route to Mt Talbot.
We donned our crampons, mine on top of my super technical hiking boots and Ellen on top of her approach shoes. The snow was compact and after a couple of steps and brief tutelage on crampon technique from Andy, we were on our way across the field. We reached rock once again, removed our crampons and crossed over to the other face of Talbot where Ellen split off from us to have a rest while we began the ascent to the peak.
With no marked route or track to follow (the normal ascent route is through the East ridge on the opposite side), we scrambled up for what seemed like eternity. With some exposed parts including a ridge which I unglamorously straddled to cross and a lot of bridging.
Reaching the top of a peak only to see a higher peak further, getting our (or rather my) hopes up to crush them again. 2 hours later (presumably, I wasn’t keeping time) we were at the summit and rewarded with magnificent views of the Darrans, mountains and peaks in every direction we looked it was quite spectacularly magical one might say. We then took our obligatory photo and begin the descent back down to find Ellen.
Scrambling down the same path, Andy found a horn to rappel the last bit down back to the base where we met up with Ellen again and faced the journey back to the hut. The fastest way down to the descent through Gertrude saddle? Boot-skiing. Or the more glamorous term, glissading. We saw the crampon tracks of the previous party down to the mellower terrain and said “fuck that”, we’re doing it the cool way. So we blasted down the snow slope, with Ellen opting for the safer option of doing it on belay as I zoomed past what must have been a 40 degree incline, initiating a wet slide on my way down as snow pooled up between my legs.
We reached Gertrude saddle just as the sun set and we were treated to a magnificent view of Milford sound through the Hollyford valley.
However, this meant we had to navigate the rest of the normally beautiful (when you can see) day walk in the darkness. Thankfully, the thoughtful people at DOC had placed reflective markers that we made good use of to finally reach HOMEr hut (see what I did there?) where our duo friends were waiting to see if we were still alive 5 hours after they had finished (to be fair, they didn’t summit Talbot). Several other guests had joined the hut party but after our 12 hour foray, I was dead and had no energy left for socialising. 2105m later, first proper peak summited!
In summary, up the ridge following rock until the large snow field, to the top of the field and on to the other face (not shown), to the summit peak and back down to base!