Alpinist 46

44 Mountain Profile: Darran Mountains, New Zealand

Posted on: June 13, 2014

For more than 100 years, small bands of climbers have struggled through rain-soaked forests to reach the great ice and rock lines of the Darran Mountains in New Zealand. And yet, even today, many of the vast walls remain largely unknown. Paul Hersey sifts through the rich stories of this oft-forgotten range, from the early days of Maori exploration to New Zealand alpinist Guy McKinnon's 2013 first ascent of the 1900-meter West Face of Mt. Tutoko. Allan Uren, Mayan Smith-Gobat, Richard Thomson, Alastair Walker and Pat Deavoll offer perspectives on the modern renaissance of a place that's increasingly become the center of New Zealand's technical alpinism.

Mitre Peak (1683m), reflected in the waters of Milford Sound. Jim Dennistoun made the first recorded ascent in 1911, soloing in "rubber sandshoes." At the time, the peak was thought to be unclimbable. Afterward, he wrote, "One rather has the feeling of being on top of a steeple 5,560 feet high!" (Gerard Hall-Jones, Mountaineering from the Milford Road, 2008). [Photo] Colin Monteath/

Rich green woodlands sway to a cooling breeze. There is a shushing of leaves and the distant gurgle of a busy stream. High above, dawn's pastel light shimmies across diamond-white faces of snow, gradually warming an impossibly clear, azure sky. Like the gentle lifting of a veil, the valley's shadows fall away. Before me, fortresses of ice and stone rise, their walls awash with dappled ochre, slivers of ebony and an endless slate-grey sheen. They call to me, these be climb.

But the colors fade. The sky turns pallid. Darkening clouds seep over ridges and saddles, the mountains ghosting into an ashen world. Black rain falls hard, colliding with the rock, swallowing it in wall-sweeping torrents. Dozens of sudden waterfalls pour into the valley. Their roar is crushing. The air becomes thick with vapor. Struggling to see, I begin to understand all that I had hoped for and now fear.

That Obscure, Elusive Object of Desire

In Native Stones (1996), the Scottish climber David Craig wrote that mountains and crags "act on us as the moon does on the seas, inert mineral masses exerting their force." I like this analogy. It suggests an intangible, dreamlike essence to my need to climb. I am drawn forward—upward—first by a gentle curve of frozen snow, then by the sharpening edge of a buttress that rises for hundreds of meters. I seek the elusive, yearning for precious moments of flow, for that sense of weightlessness that sometimes comes as I search for a nick in the rock that might—just might—take protection, fingertips, anything. There are times when these moments pulse a kind of white light into my mind, a brightness reinforced by the distant, beckoning summit.

[Illustration] Jamie Givens

But other times, the reasons I return aren't so endearing. Maybe this is because a particular range, mountain or feature has beaten me, either mentally before I try to climb it or physically when I've found that I'm not capable enough. In these instances, I am driven by the edginess of proving myself to myself. The mountains become an obstacle that I must be determined against. I don't really understand this contradiction between a search for harmony and a drive toward conquest, between a desire to be one with the elements and to fight them—although I've seen the same dichotomy reflected in so many climbers' stories around the world.

The why to our vertical explorations isn't always important, or at least it shouldn't be. But that assumption never stops me from questioning my motivations and decisions. And with the Darran Mountains, I've harbored a prolonged desire to know more about the history of this landscape, a place that has taught me so much about climbing and myself. By absorbing the stories of people who have passed through these mountains for centuries, I've hoped to understand more about my homeland, and my sense of place within it. This is a land still resonating with an untarnished vitality, but there's a loneliness, also. There is history here, and a history yet to unfold....

DOWNLOAD the digital edition of Issue 46 or BUY the printed copy to read the rest of Paul Hersey's tale. In the meantime, read the five short essays from the Mountain Profile for free:

Mountain Profile Essays

1992 | White as a Sheet
Allan Uren
Located in a steep, U-shaped cirque on Mt. Crosscut, White as a Sheet offers no respite from avalanches throughout its 300 meters. Uren wonders whether soloing it is the stupidest thing he's ever done.

2007 | Kaipo Wall
Mayan Smith-Gobat
Smith-Gobat takes comfort in the dark void of high places while emulating a weightless spider on the 1300-meter Kaipo Wall.

2008 | Newcomers
Alastair Walker
Shouting Glaswegian expletives and climbing delicately, Walker breaks in a credulous young climber on Coumshingaun. The 750-meter couloir in the Macpherson Cirque proves to be a weighty training ground.

2008 | Incantation
Richard Thomson
Thomson considers the many kinds of big walls: those you know well, those that live on as the last great problems, the ones you've never seen and the ones you didn't even know existed.

2012 | Cirque Creek
Pat Deavoll
With Barry Blanchard, Deavoll survives the capricious slopes of Cirque Creek.

[A special thank-you to The New Zealand Alpine Journal and The Climber Magazine. —Ed.]

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