Standing at 2162m, Sabre Peak in the Darrans mountain range is a cool fucking peak (especially with a name like Sabre). Boasting “One of the best alpine rock routes in the country” the standard route up Sabre is a 500m rock climb on the north buttress. Impeccable granite awaits with a crux grade of 17. A direct start is also highly recommended at grade 19.
A four-day weather window had appeared and it was a sign to tackle the classic. Normally, most parties take 3-days to complete the route; one day to approach, one day to climb and one day to get out. That was our intended plan as well, but as usual the Darrans had different plans for us. Alex, Marilla, Myles and myself were to walk in on the 7th of March towards the base of Sabre where we would form two rope teams with Alex and I in one team, and Marilla and Myles in the other. The plan was to climb Sabre on the Friday, descend down to Phil’s bivy and then walk out on the Saturday back to Homer hut. Or so that was the plan.
We set out for the walk in to Sabre. The menu for the day? Up Gertrude Saddle, around Barrier Knob, down Gifford’s Crack, through Phil’s Bivy and up to the base to camp for the night. In high spirits, well rested, well provisioned and with ample amounts of psyche, I remember thinking “What could go wrong?”
It was a freezing morning walking up Gertrude Saddle in the shade, which was pleasant for the uphill, though any exposed skin was like ice to the touch. It was the first day of the high pressure front coming through and the remnants of the previous cold front was still fresh that morning. It is a pretty cruisy walk up the Getrude saddle track becoming significantly more enjoyable once we reach Black Lake, where the sun joins us.
A trail takes us up from the saddle to the west of barrier knob where we reach the sidle around the knob.across a gully to go around Barrier Knob. Rocks were rolling off the scree gully which was concerning, whilst the slabs (not visible) to cross over were covered with a decent layer of ice making the normally easy, exposed traverse pretty treacherous. We went higher and eventually found a place to get across and rejoin the cairns.
After traversing around Barrier Knob, we continue following cairns descending about 500m until we reached the Adelaide saddle where get our first look at our objective.
The little white specks of ice and snow on the peak were not confidence inspiring as we contemplated the potential of climbing wet, icy cracks. We were already here, the weather was getting better and so we decided to continue anyway. We proceed to go down the steep tussock slopes of Gifford’s crack of which another party suffered a fall later that same day (which we learn after).
We reach the base of Gifford’s to Lake South America, have some lunch. Some bush and tussock bashing later we arrive at Phil’s bivy 7 hours later. We straight lined it from the lake to Phil’s bivy on the approach which was not the best option. In hindsight, following the dry riverbed on the SE- end out of Lake South America and sidling as high as obviously possible leads to faint trails and the easiest travel across the high tussock which avoids most of the shitty shrubbery.
Phil’s was a truly luxurious rock bivy with two large rooms and all this flat elevated platforms enough to run a backpacker’s from. A beautiful view of the valley and so much room for activities! Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture so you’ll just have to go and have a look for yourself. I was looking forward to sleeping there on the next night, but alas it was not meant to be.
A saunter across the tussocks accompanied with the occasional section of matagouri bashing and we reach the avalanche chute marking the base of the ascent to the base of Sabre.
The route up is fairly obvious with a left trending ramp up the grass to a second waterfall before heading up to a flattish pasture where we set up camp.
We watch a helicopter fly about and subsequently land by Lake South America on the opposite side of the valley at the base of Gifford’s crack. Later when we return, we find out a member of another party had fallen 25m down Gifford’s crack and had to be evacuated.
Alarms set for 5am, the plan was to climb the direct start at first light in our two teams for a couple of hours, descend and then walk out to Phil’s for the night.
We start walking up in the dark, following the obvious ramp up to the base of the climb. We come across a superior bivy spot with an existing windbreak and as flat as the Earth (JK) higher up which would have saved us a half hour of approaching.
We struggle to find “an obvious crack” that indicates the direct start. Staring at a wall of cracks that are seeping and leaking, I scratch my head and stare on obvious confusion.
The climbing looks fairly straight forward and so I pick a crack that looks decent and quest up it. One pitch up, not what I imagine the starred climbing I was promised but okay. Second pitch and shit hits the fan, the climbing instantly becomes gross and grovelly. The protection is non-existent, the holds are all the rock way, the rock’s loose and wet and now I know this is definitely not the 19 direct start and the climbing that looked easy on the ground was a whole different beast up here.
I’m standing precariously on a sloping ledge on average footholds, one of which I had to make myself by removing a piece of loose rock. My left hand is on a rattling block which I’m half expecting to pull out at any point and the other on a wet, slimy gaston that I’m expecting to slip off at the other point.
My last piece is a marginal #0.3 BD X4 too far away to actually be of any use. If I fall I will definitely be hitting the belay ledge 3m below me, I’m not going to die but it’s going to hurt like a bitch. I shut off that part of my brain and decide to try gun it past this slightly overhanging corner on these holds that don’t inspire any confidence.
I throw up expecting a jug near the top of the corner, but Sabre says fuck you and I’m met with wet, slopers. I have a little panic attack, jam in a shitty #0.4 and #1 in a semi- flared crack whilst holding on to aforementioned rattly block and weight the rope. I hear the #0.4 click hoping to god that it’s not a sign that it’s going to come out.
Half-expecting the cam to blow and hit the deck, I finally let my hand off the rattly motherfucker and not move a muscle while I compose myself.
This is fucked.
A whole bunch of grunting and feeling like I’m going to break my ankles later, I remove my pointless cams and down climb what is definitely not the classic alpine route back to the belay ledge. It is 11am, there is no way we can continue without having an epic.
We rappel back down to where we started and have a discussion on our options. We could try again the next day, but Alex has to leave the following day to get to work. Feeling dejected after being rejected by Sabre, we wander around looking for some possible alpine cragging. A gendarme on the east side of Adelaide Peak looks like an option.
As we walk upwards to explore, I look back towards Sabre and an obvious crack line stares back at me.
We sit around and discuss options and finally decide that we’ll climb the first two pitches of the direct start and then come back down so Alex can at least have some climbing on the trip rather than a long hike. Marilla, Myles and Myself will reattempt the route the next day as a party of three on the normal route.
An airy traverse to the crack and two pitches of pretty good climbing later and . Good protection and just when you need it. The holds are actually holds and a decent amount of exposure provides a pretty nice afternoon of climbing after all.
We go back to our original bivy, Alex decides to stay at the bottom bivy while the three of us migrate to better housing and enjoy chocolate, tea, and a breathtaking sunset.
The next day we start climbing at 0720. I lead the first five pitches on the regular route, things are going smoothly and I’ve clocked up lots of time leading fast.
I notice there is a core shot in my rope about 20m in. Great. I kiwi coil it onto myself until the core shot is out of the rope in use, now we can only pitch up to 50m.
Myles takes over for two pitches while I rest before I lead the remaining three or four pitches before scrambling to the top. The climbing is pleasant, there’s probably only two or three difficult moves on the entire route and the protection is good for these sections. It is quite run out at some points, sometimes as much as 15m but the climbing is easy.
Things go very smoothly and after 10 hours, summit!
Now just to get down. We scramble and stumble down some exposed scree slopes for a wee ways until we find a boulder with a whole bunch of cord on it.
Just a couple of abseils and we’re on our way to Phil’s. The first abseil brings us to another ledge with another station on it. I rig the second abseil and continue on downwards. I abseil half way down the rope, no station in sight. The rope passes on top an overhang, I imagine the next abseil station is over the lip or worst case scenario I can find somewhere to put some cord on.
I go over to have a look under the roof and a sinking feeling hits me when there is no anchor to be seen. I’m suspended in free space with 250m of empty space below me. My ropes are sitting on a less than ideal edge above me and the tails dangle 15m below me. I imagine the ropes rubbing back and forth on the edge above me until they cut.
Stop it, I say to myself. I compose myself and start the long process of rigging my prussiks to ascend up the rope. I jug back up for what seems like an eternity until I’m onto my feet again and climb back up to a more secure spot where I sort out the ropes and get my partners to put me back on belay and take up all the excess rope.
Eventually I reach the station I had just abseiled off. It doesn’t make any sense! Two abseil stations in a line and then nothing. It’s 8pm, getting dark and the possibility of a high, unplanned bivy becomes a reality.
I pitch back up to find a better ledge and belay the others up, the ledge is slightly larger but more angled. It’s probably worse than the one below but I’m knackered after leading most of the day and cannot be fucked wandering around in the dark.
Some landscaping is done to attempt to make a sleep-able spot on the ledge. I’m glad I packed in my bivy bag that morning. We sleep with our harnesses on, tied in to anchors so we don’t wake up in free fall. The night sky is clear and beautiful but I’m too fucking cold and tired to appreciate it.
It’s a looooong, cold night and we have almost no food or water. Between the hypothermia and thirst, I manage to get some z’s in, being woken up to uncontrollable shivering or the moisture build up from condensation inside the bivy bag. Yum.
Wake up, rack up and start climbing immediately. Rereading the beta, we keep our eye out for an obvious gendarme. One pitch of climbing takes us back to the initial abseil station we found. Another pitch of relatively easy, but exposed, climbing takes us to another ledge system and I can now see the gendarme and the abseil station at the base of it.
Some old cord provides an anchor for an abseil down a gully to small, exposed ledge that leads to the gendarme. I set up a hand-line so as not to fall off the 100 or so metres to a timely death. Another two 60m abseils take us to the Sabre-Adelaide col. Cue running down scree, another short abseil down a scree gully and we’re back on easy ground headed back to camp.
We get back to our high bivy, pack up, rehydrate, refuel and begin the walkout.
Backtracking our walk in, we had good conditions which made it pretty straightforward down the slabs, past Phil’s bivy, up Gifford’s Crack and the slog back up Barrier Knob.
Traversing Barrier Knob was significantly easier on the way back, the rock was completely dry and all the ice had melted off making it a straightforward traverse across back the the trail. We reach Gertrude Saddle at sunset and make a beeline back for Homer hut at 10pm.
The hut is the most crowded I’ve seen it, I’m knackered. I go to a corner and start chowing down gummy bears, staring off into empty space while everyone else is socialising. I’m sure it would have been an incredibly odd sight.
We’d done it.
Not quite to plan, but we’d made it back, alive and successful. Four days including an unplanned high shivy.
Sabre. An alpine classic indeed.