The Milford Sound area is a truly unique part of the country. From Te Anau we stocked up on supplies and headed off for 10 days to check out Milford Sound and climb in the Darrans.
We spent our first night at Queens Reach, a free campsite 6km from Te Anau down the Manapouri–Te Anau highway. After this we cruised the stunning drive through to Milford Sound. The Homer Tunnel is a great experience – a kilometer long tunnel through the mountains under the Homer Saddle. The tunnel is one lane with traffic lights on a 15 minute cycle, which offers the chance to get out of the car and snap some photos of the area while waiting for the lights. The drive is truly astounding, surrounded by cliffs and trickling waterfalls with greenery defying gravity everywhere you look.
Thanks to a new friend of ours Mitchell, who we met at Cosy Nook we swindled our way onto a Real Journeys tourist boat for a free tour of Milford Sound. With Mitchell as the nature guide, we learnt all about the geography and history of the area. Mitre Peak is huge, and the rock out in the sound is astounding to look at with so much potential! We fluked the perfect weather for the trip – sun on the way out meant we could see everything, and the rain began to fall as the boat spun for the return trip, so the thousands of waterfalls in the area began to flow. We spent the night at Lake Gunn, a great little DOC campground ($6 per person) before heading to the NZAC Homer Hut to scope out the climbing in the Darrans and get some beta from the locals.
The climbing in the Darrans is better than I ever expected. I had always expected it to be a place of mountainous epics and scary alpine routes, but there is plenty to be had for bolt-baby sport climbers as well. We began at the Shotwell Slabs, a pure friction slab with routes that are up to 6 pitches long – about 250m and fully bolted. Our main aim here was to speed up our multi-pitch climbing, and work out a smooth and fluent system so we could make it up the bigger lines in the area in a day. We were both a bit rusty on swapping over leads on big multipitch, so it was a good chance to hone our skills. We climbed the right hand line – a 6 pitch grade 20, and were reasonably happy to complete it in 5 hours including plenty of photo opportunities, a decent lunch break and all the abseils back down. The climbing was great. It was my first experiences on true slabs and the super grippy diorite provided foot holds anywhere as long as you were game enough to push your shoes and body positioning to the limit.
On lead the climbing was intimidating with occasional run outs, but realistically it was all safe and the climbing comfortable. For the second it was a totally different ball game – it was a matter of running up the rock smearing and gathering draws. Some of the 50m+ pitches were seconded in under 4 minutes, and neither Em nor I are particularly fast climbers. Make sure to take two 60 meter ropes, as we learnt with our 55m ropes that one pitch is very close to that – I had to come off belay and start simul-climbing for a few meters before Em reached the anchors leading.
Shotwell slabs is a great area for learning to multi-pitch, and a perfect introduction to the area. Not only is it on the road into Milford Sound before you reach the Homer Hut, but it is also the perfect climbing for getting a feel for the place. After our success at the slabs we were happy with our introduction to the area, and ready to tackle something a tad more adventurous. We scoped out ‘Lucky Strike’, a grade 20 mostly bolted 7 pitch line. This was up on Moirs Mate, which is an adventure in itself to access for inexperienced mountaineers such as ourselves.
At the time we knew nothing about it, other than it was a 20ish, and about 8 pitches. The access involves a walk up to Homer Saddle – an hour long scree scramble, but if you first walk straight along the bottom there is a cairned track up which is much easier than bashing up diagonally (we found this out later). This is a great walk in itself with amazing views, but was only the start of our adventure to find Lucky Strike. From the top of the saddle we needed to traverse the ridge for a few hundred meters, which was the section concerning me the most. Most people (hardass mountaineers) don’t rope up for the traverse, but with no idea what we were getting into we opted to short rope our way across. Two weeks earlier an experienced mountaineer had slipped on the ridge, unfortunately tumbling 300m to his death, so we were not willing to take any risks.
The first time across the traverse really tested me mentally. At one point we were sliding along a narrow ridge top on our bums (I’m sure this is a common mountaineering technique) with around 500m straight down into a valley on one side and even further down on the other. The knife blade ridge we were on would leave no room for a slip unroped, and we were glad we opted to rope up. Once we finally made the traverse, we were a long way behind schedule and still needed to find the climb. For future reference to reach Lucky Strike you need to climb Homer Saddle, traverse the ridge, follow the scree gully down and right, traverse right along the narrowing ledge system until it heads up (some sketchy climbing moves required), follow it up, and then move back left to a single ring bolt marking the start. We spent a long time looking for the route before we realised we needed to head further right, and then head left once we were higher. We began the route at about 2pm (after a 7am start), so knew from the outset we had no chance of topping it before we needed to bail. We had agreed it was important to get across the ridge before nightfall, so were leaving at 6pm no matter what. We climbed the first 5 pitches, before backing off and heading down in order to get across the traverse before dark. The climbing was superb, and it was a unanimous decision that this is something we will come back to on another trip. It is a mostly bolted line with a few bits of gear required, and some of the coolest and most varied climbing I have ever done. From slabby traverses to overhung bulges, it had everything. I can’t wait to return on another trip and top it out.
The ridge traverse was tricky on the return trip, but we found the more we did it the happier we got moving on the unforgiving terrain. I think I will always opt to be roped up, but we could easily cut our time accessing the route down on future trips. We took 6 hours to access and find the route, while experienced climbers do it in an hour and a half or less. Throughout the trip we learnt that our inexperience in alpine environments let us down, as well as our route finding skills.
After stumbling into the hut at 9pm exhausted, we agreed on a rest day where we would plan our next adventures in the mountains.