Otago, New Zealand: For nearly twenty years, the East Face of Fastness Peak (2383m) has kept a lonely winter vigil overlooking the frosty expanse of Ruth Flat. Every year a plastering of snow and ice coats ramparts of compact schist, slowly filling the back of any recess and gully until a series of continuous runnels streaks down the full 750-meter height of the face–only to melt away with the arrival of spring. Unseen and untouched for another season.
During the austral winter of 1997, Clinton Beavan, Al Wood and Al Uren teamed up to make the first winter (and only the second) ascent of the face. Over the course of two days, they scratched, grovelled and battled their way to the summit. In the process, they overcame everything from steep and brittle chandelier water ice to frozen turf corners and deep unconsolidated snow–not to mention an unplanned bivy with no stove or sleeping bags. The result: Storming the Barbican [VI, 6], a sixteen-pitch testpiece that follows a series of corners to the left of the center of the face. [See alpinist.com/p/online/grades for an explanation of New Zealand grades.–Ed.]
Since then, the East Face has been largely neglected, especially during the cold winter months. Guy McKinnon made his bold first solo ascent along the original 1990 Sveticic-Dickson route [IV, 5] in the austral summer of 2014.
I’m not exactly sure how the idea to make a solo winter attempt on the face was first hatched. I was certainly aware of the potential that existed, both in summer and winter. But Fastness is easily overshadowed by the loftier heights of nearby Mt. Aspiring (3033m). And it wasn’t until I was chatting with Al Uren in mid-July that the notion really took hold.
Looking back, I should have paid more attention to Al when he asked if I was planning to take skis or snowshoes for the approach up Rainbow Stream. At the time I laughed off the idea: I can’t ski to save myself on the best of days and the valley is only around five kilometers long. How hard could it be?
More than six hours of wading through knee- to waist-deep snow, and one rather cold and unpleasant bivy later, and I had the answer! I had set out from Queenstown on Friday morning, August 5, with the promise of an improving weather forecast: slightly overcast and the chance of light snow showers on Friday, clear Saturday with easing winds, clear again on Sunday with a small front forecast for the evening. In fact, it would snow almost continuously from Friday morning through until Saturday afternoon, and I wouldn’t see the sun until Sunday morning. Maybe I was a little too trusting of the accuracy of a winter mountain forecast, but it was the promise of improvement that motivated me to keep going.
On Friday evening, I camped near the head of the Rainbow Stream valley. The next morning, as I dropped down off the toe of the East Ridge, I began to question myself. Fleeting glimpses through the swirling cloud revealed the lower face to be banked with loose snow. The main central gullies flowed with a continuous stream of spindrift. But farther right, the more broken ground seemed to hold less snow, and after a long and harrowing traverse, the conditions began to improve. On the steeper ground, the deep snow quickly turned to ice and rock, and the spindrift avalanches scattered and dissipated to nothingness.
Climbing the first ice step, I slowly gained confidence. The terrain above was unknown, but the deep-set apprehension that had gripped me on the snow slopes began to recede. As the day progressed, I belayed myself through steep ice and mixed cruxes and free soloed the rest. The climb was sustained throughout, primarily on thin alpine ice and neve runnels that linked through a series of blank rock steps.
As dusk fell, the persistent cloud cover slowly broke, and I made my way through the final hurdle to gain the snow slopes below the upper North Ridge. The weather was finally fulfilling the promise of the original forecast–a case of too little too late. Darkness overtook me as I was laboring through the deep snow, robbing me of the opportunity to enjoy the view from the ridge crest.
A long cold traverse over the fore-summit, followed by an arduous descent down the East Ridge into a swirling mist of wind-driven snow, reinforced how wild the New Zealand mountains can be. The climb pushed me close to my limits, and I had little left in me as I finally collapsed back into my bivy in the head of Rainbow Stream. Never has a damp and partially frozen sleeping bag felt so warm and inviting.
The following afternoon I had a fortuitous meeting with Al Uren, and we discussed the merits of various approach tactics over a couple of cold beers at the historic Cardrona Hotel. We laughed at the struggles I had endured while breaking trail to reach the face, and talked about how when you’re alone there is no one to share the workload. We swapped stories about our experiences on the face. He recounted the adventures of its first winter ascent nearly two decades before when he and his partners had shivered for a night without food or shelter before shaking off the numbing cold to tackle the crux ice pitch below the summit. Despite the hardships, he said, it was the fond memories that shone through: the feeling of savoring the first light of dawn as the sun slowly crested the horizon and cast aside the night’s chill. The thrill of stepping out into the unknown on an isolated face in the depths of winter. Al and I had in part shared an adventure. Yet our climbs also stand apart in the unique memoires that we each have, and this paradox will make the journey special to me.
A span of twenty years is a long time between visits, but it does cause the experience to become that much sweeter. I hope the face won’t lie neglected for another twenty before the next group of climbers look to embark on their own winter adventure.
Summary of Statistics: New route (VI, 6 [M5 A1 WI5], 700m) on the East Face of Fastness Peak, Otago, New Zealand, solo first ascent, Ben Dare, August 6, 2016.