Attacking the Labyrinth and Gertrude Saddle

Having had a bit of rest and recuperation in the hut, we’d been convinced to set our sights on Labyrinth – a 6 pitch 23 on the North face of Barrier Knob. We were well briefed on the walk so felt pretty happy as we set off. With a 2 or 3 day good weather window the plan was decided to walk in on the first day and set up a bivvie, climb the second day, and walk out the third.

The walk in itself was definitely a trip worth doing. Walking straight out the door of the hut, we started off through the grassland and bush of the Gertrude Valley. After a nice flat warm up it was up to and over the Gertrude Saddle, which was a relatively straight forward scree and rock hop until we neared the top. The top was a cairned track, but there were many alternative routes. It was an experience to walk up huge granite slabs relying on the insane amounts of friction the rock of the area provides. Arriving at the top after about 2 hours provided a stunning view. The aptly named Black Lake at the top of the pass holds a beautiful reflection of the snow capped peaks in the distance, and the view out over the pass is breathtaking. The walk to Gertrude Saddle is a ‘must do’ attraction for the area, a 4 hour return trip provides views that were possibly only beaten by those we saw around Mount Cook and the Ball Pass walk. I’d call it the best scenic bang for buck when weighed up against the effort to get there.

Atop the Gertrude Saddle

From the saddle we continued up towards Barrier Knob and Adelaide Saddle, approaching from the South. From this angle Adelaide Saddle looked rediculously steep and inaccessable, but we had faith in our instructions and kept on up the cairned vague path. We then found the spot to traverse around, which is where the approach started to get scary. Firstly, we had to cross a scree slope that apparently wasn’t in a good mood. The loose rock above kept throwing bits down, so we helmeted up and waited for a pause in the action before passing through. After this there was a small very exposed section that had some bolts and required a few sketchy moves, so we geared up and short roped our way across. It was then a steep scramble around the West side of Barrier Knob. Here the view was pretty good across a range of mountains, but the exposure got to me a bit. Looking over the foot-wide ledge we were on into the abyss below was a tad nerve-wracking, so I was pretty slow and hesitant through this section.

Once we made our way around towards Adelaide Saddle the views of the valley really opened up. We worked our way along the scree and ledge systems until reaching the start of the climbing, and tried to hunt out Labyrinth. Clever as we are, we had taken photos of the route and description in the guidebook in the hut, as we didn’t have the Darrans guide. Not so clever as we are, we also had a camera with a nearly flat battery (Em forgot to mention this to me). As we found the area, and Em snapped one shot of the view, the camera died. We were left with a vague idea of what the route is (and where), and only words to explain the beauty of the sunset we saw. I can’t wait to get back purely for a photo, let alone the climbing. We found a reasonable bivvie site (a challenge when you are on a giant slanting rock slab with a thousand meter drop below) and set up the tarp to settle in for the night.

The sunset from the North Face of Barrier Knob is I think the best sight I have seen in my life. Looking down onto Lake Adelaide surrounded by a range of huge peaks with rivers weaving between was amazing. I have never seen light work as magically as it did that night – the sky truly changed through the entire spectrum of the rainbow. I don’t know what magic (or maybe science) it is that causes the stunning sunsets only seen in the mountains, but it is truly inspiring and can only leave you feeling blown away.

The only photo of the view down

The next day it was all action. We got up bright and early, hastily packed up camp, and were ready to smash Labyrinth… as soon as we could find it. A couple of hours of wandering around on very steep rock systems found us a climb resembling it, so we jumped on it and hoped. We could see bolted belays, and knew we’d be able to bail if need be. After a bit of debate as to who would lead which pitches Em was stuck with odds, and I evens. This meant she had the crux – a 23 on bolts, while I had the hardest trad line and the notoriously run-out fourth pitch.

Em tackled the first pitch which was a nice bolted pitch of pretty comfortable slab climbing. I then had a grade 20 trad pitch – a big (unprotected) slab, before an overhanging roof with a prominent crack to traverse. This was followed by more slab climbing and a tricky corner system. It was a scary struggle to get through, but I made it with both a lot of grunting and fear. As Em arrived at the anchors the revealing “I would never had led that” was muttered. After taking such a punishing from the second pitch we looked up at the third (the crux) and got a bit wobbly in the knees. The bolting was certainly airy, and neither of us were feeling very confident at this stage. Regrettably, we both accepted that we didn’t have it in us today and defeatedly retreated from the belay. It’s hard to say now, but we really should have pushed on and at least given it a go. Sometimes the mind is not in it, and I guess it’s all part of the game. Next time!

We decided that the early end to the climbing left us enough time to get back to camp, so we started the trek back retracing our steps. We were lucky, as the weather packed in the next day so we may have had to take the 8 hour alternative walk out had we stayed. With this being our last big epic in the Darrans we have to admit we were beaten. Considering we are total alpine novices we have had a great time, learnt a huge amount, and filled a list with awesome climbs to come back to. In my mind, this makes our trip despite total failure to send anything, a complete success.

With horrendous weather rolling through Fiordland it’s time to bid farewell to the Darrans and head up through Queenstown to Wanaka.

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