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2008 | Newcomers

Although night falls quickly in early winter, I’ve always enjoyed the invernal dark, wandering through the blackness in my own little pool of light, amid the snow and the rock, the leaping shadows. Some folk rush at twilight, but I’ll pause to take in the changing colors, the washed-out pinks and purples of the mountaintops crowning the gloom of the valleys. To me, the Darrans are at their best this time of year, before the snows build up and the avalanche danger becomes too oppressive. Returning after dusk has almost become a habit–much to the amusement of other Homer Hut aficionados.

I’m Glaswegian by birth, and the scratchy rock, thin ice, frozen turf and powder snow remind me of the smaller Scottish cliffs I grew up climbing–but with that distinctive Darrans ambience of accessible remoteness and brooding, overbearing faces. Tucked in the trees by the Gertrude Valley, Homer Hut used to be a lonely place in winter. Most weekends, the same handful of characters moped around, bemoaning the conditions and stoking the fire. One wet and windy night, Allan Uren and I tried to work out how many people actually got out exploring in the depths of the New Zealand winter. We struggled to come up with a couple dozen. Thus was born the idea of a

Darrans Winter Meet, similar to the gatherings of the Scottish Mountaineering Club on Ben Nevis.

The first meet, in 2008, produced an eager new recruit, Rob, who turned up on my doorstep a week early wearing shiny new softshells. A tall, gangly student, Rob was living out of a truck that overflowed with gear, and he claimed to be an experienced climber. I was keen to prove that the Darrans had something for everyone, so I decided on the second ascent of Coumshingaun in Macpherson Cirque, a fine, curving 750-meter couloir similar to Scotland’s classic mid-grade gullies. We set out one crisp Sunday; the peaks shone bright in the wintry sun, while the shadowy South Face of Talbot threatened to drop snow on the unwary. In the valley depths, there wasn’t a breath of wind. The cold caught in your throat. We had the range to ourselves.

As we soloed up the initial neve, Rob moved jerkily, talking himself through the small bulges and making hurried tool placements. Still, I thought, he seems willing and able-bodied. In the central section, I led up an eighty-five-degree ice wall and into a vertical runnel of bottomless powder that kept sloughing away. Fighting through spindrift, I realized there would be no material left for Rob to follow. I made a grovelling slide back down the powder and traversed over some holdless slabs thinly covered in soft snow. After thirty meters, I excavated a peg jammed beneath a boulder that was frozen into the ground–about as much use as a sticky sweetie paper. I climbed on and set up a deadman belay.

“How do I climb this?” Rob’s words floated up, plaintive.

“Delicately,” I said. I kept the rope tight.

Despite the deep blue sky, snow began to drive in over the ridge, and as we topped out, a fine young blizzard scoured our faces. With just fifteen minutes of light left, I should have been in my element, but this evening, I felt uneasy. Rob had been climbing slowly, and snow conditions precluded the normal descent down Talbot’s Ladder. I thought we could rappel to some ledges from a large block on the ridge, so I sent Rob to set up an anchor while I broke down the belay. A few minutes later, I found him sitting on a pile of tangled ropes, burrowing in his bag and telling me about his sandwich fillings.

“Where will we dig in for the night?” he asked.

“Dig in?” I said. “What do you think’s going on, Rob? We need to get out of here–we’re roping down!”

Then: “Al, I’ve never actually rappelled in the mountains….”

I let loose a few Glaswegian expletives. Ahead lay long diagonal abseils across shattered ground above the lightless abyss. I went first, taking my time because lost footing would have meant a horrific swing over the bluffs. Then I held the ropes for Rob. To give him his due, he kept his head screwed down, and he followed my instructions quietly. One anchor was composed of a Warthog buried in semi-soft turf equalized with two shaky nuts behind (I hoped) frozen flakes. As I weighted it, from somewhere in the darkness came the whoomph of wet snow sloughing over a cliff. The gale shredded our voices. Every now and then, we’d see headlights winding up toward Homer Tunnel, hundreds of meters below. While these piercing beams emphasized the exposure, they also gave me a sense of direction and comfort. I wondered, afterward, whether those drivers saw the lights of our headlamps, and what they thought.

It was well after midnight by the time we, too, were driving home. Snow closed the road behind us for five days. A week later, eight of us–including the apparently undaunted Rob–fought our way back through waist-deep snow to the Homer Hut for the inaugural meet. We lasted three more days before another storm chased us out. Perhaps the commitment finally became too much, for Rob hasn’t returned since. But other winter visitors started to come to terms with the unforgiving nature of the Darrans, and I soon found that we’d created a new hardcore. Each year at the meet, nowadays, there are more than twenty keen attendees of various nationalities, and three or four new routes get climbed. And when Allan and I sit around the fire, we complain about having to share our hills with all these newcomers. Above us, however, the snowy peaks still tower through the clear, moonlit sky, their ancient, eerie light gleaming against the dark, and we remember that we are all newcomers to the range.