Big splats of rain hit the windshield as we cross The Divide. The summit of Mt. Christina hides behind broiling iron-grey clouds. The lower slopes are smothered in forest, and through the rain, the woods look black. The Hollyford River is in dark-grey flood. Everything is either grey or black, accentuated by the growing dusk. It’s hard to tell what Barry Blanchard, world-famous Canadian ice climber, is thinking. Barry and I met working on a movie set in 1999. I’ve climbed in the Darrans for decades, but this is his first visit to the range. And if I were him, I wouldn’t be too impressed.
Barry looks up into Cirque Creek, saying things like “Didn’t you see that line?” or “What’s that line called?”
“Barry! I’m driving, I can’t look,” I tell him.
By the time we reach the Homer Hut, it’s pouring. No one else is there. It’s cold, September damp cold; it must be snowing up high. But we get the fire going, and open a bottle of wine and some corn chips. The cooking gas has run out, so we puddle around in the wet, trying the various canisters leaning against the back wall. In the end, I fry eggs in the Jetboil.
By 5 a.m. the next morning, we’ve managed to leave the hut, return for my avalanche beacon, drive back down the road, and wade across the river carrying our boots. The walk up the valley is pleasant until we hit snow, break through the crust and fall into the bushes beneath the surface.
After two kilometers of such misery, we reach the bottom of two ice lines that run through the lower bluffs of Cirque Creek. The left-hand route is a 150-meter soggy white smear. The other rambles through middle ground before veering up a steep, wet corner. The sky remains grey, but at least it’s not raining. We can see into the head of the cirque and across the valley to the back side of Mt. Christina. Directly above us is Mt. Crosscut. These mountains are steep, all slicked wet diorite, hanging tussock and sodden snow.
“This right-hand route looks better, don’t you think?” says Barry. “The left looks like the ice is just gonna’ slide right on off it.”
I agree and offer to take the first lead. Past a steep little step, the angle eases off. After thirty meters of no obvious gear placements, I find a fifteen-centimeter square of ice. I wind in a screw that hits rock. Try again, same thing. Oh blow it, I’ll clip it anyway, I think, and then clank my way up the remainder of the pitch. I create an anchor out of nothing, worried that Barry might critique it. He doesn’t.
By now, a watery sun has appeared and the true colors of the Darrans begin to show: the levelled tops iced with fresh snow, the golden tussock, the glowing forest. A thousand waterfalls pour off the mountain flanks; the streams are silver ribbons.
As Barry starts up the next pitch, there’s a sudden whump and a slab of snow across the cirque becomes airborne, disseminates and floats to the valley floor. Whump, another. And another. And another. They aren’t big, so I’m not overly worried. It’s just the first sun of the day hitting the eastern slopes. It’ll be hours before the sun gets to us, tucked inside this south-facing niche–but Barry’s progress has slowed.
Some big clumps of moss and dirt fly past me. I can hear Barry hammering pitons. As I climb up, his protection appears more and more frequently. He has excavated a belay from beneath a small rock overlap, hence all the moss.
“I thought we were going to be avalanched. I’M NOT TOO KEEN ON THIS,” Barry says. He looks over his shoulder at the slope across the way. Another small avalanche cuts loose with a soft bang, hovers for an instant in space before falling in a cloud of sparkle and light.
“We’re OK, Barry!” I say.
He frowns at his boots, scuffs away at the ledge he’s standing on. “OK,” he says. “I guess you know this place.”
I obviously don’t have Barry’s knack of fossicking protection, because on the next pitch I find none. I run out the full sixty meters and end up on a steep, featureless slab covered in melting snow. My nerve deserts me: I envisage slithering off and catapulting down far below. I concoct a spider’s web of an anchor with slings and small nubs of rock.
“Impressive,” Barry compliments me on my anchor.
Now we are under the crux, a steep white sheet that leads left of the overhang. Barry takes a smack at the “ice”: it’s more like soggy snow about three centimeters thick, slicked over smooth eighty-degree rock. Typical of the Darrans in late winter, its sketchiness is born of low altitude and oceanic temperatures.
“Won’t be any gear on that, gal,” Barry says. “Whadda’ ya’ reckon?”
I stare at the pitch. It’s tempting–it seems I’m pretty good at climbing with no gear.
We both jump as another avalanche and then another booms out beyond us. Closer now, much closer! We look at each other, eyes wide. I’ve underestimated the time it takes for the sun to swing around, and now I feel humbled by the unpredictability of these mountains that I thought I knew.
“Something tells me we shouldn’t be here,” says Barry. He’s building an anchor, efficient, officious. As we abseil, the free fall from the avalanches splatters our jackets like droplets of rain. Another boom, a rattle and shake of stones and grey snow shovels down the gulley to our left. We grab our snowshoes and run.