New Zealand Alpine (Retropost)

Talbot Traverse – Fiordland National Park

Retropost: March 20th – 22nd, 2009

This was to be my first major adventure in New Zealand and the most challenging mountaineering I had undertaken to date. Even now, 5 years later as I write this, I have had few experiences that rival my time in Fiordland.

Fiordland is a truly wild place. I don’t ‘wild’ in the dude-that-party-was-wild! sense of the word. I mean it in the natural, untamed, unexplored, edge-of-the-world sense of the word. Our trip there took us on the road to Milford Sound (there’s hardly another road in the entire region, for that fact). A small group of four (Ben Hepp, Sarah Levine, Rich Ellis, and I) was set to undertake a challenging alpine climb: the Talbot Traverse. Although the expedition was only to have us climbing for a single day, it would involve class 5 climbing and multiple glacier traverses. The below images link to a rough map of the climb. This trip was years ago so all of the markers are approximations and I’m not even 100% positive I’ve marked the correct descent valley, so don’t take any of the information as “beta”.


4 am wake-up call was thanks to the native Kea. We had driven up Friday evening and didn’t bother to set up camp when we arrived at the Homer Tunnel; just rolled out some sleeping pads under the stars. We had prepared ourselves, or at least thought we prepared ourselves, for the onslaught of Kea that we had been warned about. The Kea is an alpine parrot, actually the world’s only alpine parrot. They are curious, persistent, noisy, bold and destructive. All of these make them almost as annoying as sand flies. That night, I woke several times during the night due to these cheeky birds. One Kea  in particular had it’s mind set on giving my face a close inspection with its sharp beak. No matter how many times i yelled, jumped, or tossed rocks at it, it would not be dissuaded. Another bird made several attempts to relieve Ben of a pair of shoes he had left outside. A group of 5 managed to pop Sarah’s thermarest while she slept on it.

The team prepped with standard Fiordland views in the background


You can actually see the malice and contempt in his eyes. I snapped this picture during one of my many attempts to scare them from our camp. In hindsight, they are actually quite funny birds, you just hate them when they wake you up at 4am by eating your stuff. 


A rather bland, early morning picture of our hike. The route starts to the left of the photo by scrambling up a section of class 3 boulders until you reach the ridge. It then climbs a steep, class 4 (low 5) ridge line known as “Talbot’s Ladder”. This leads to just below a summit (I believe to be Talbot Peak) which is hidden in the upper left of the photo. From there the path crosses the top of the glacier, which cannot be seen here, and over the pass near McPherson Peak. 


The team prepping for the traverse 

Although we got an early start, it would still prove to be a long day with us returning hours after dark.


The view as we made our way up the initial class III scramble


The author (several years ago now) looking quite pleased with himself and the scenery.


Ben, our de facto leader, surveying our ascent route through the class II-III scramble with the upper reaches of the glacier starting to come into view. Rock falls frequently rolled off the shear cliffs that can be seen behind Ben.

The route starts with a class II-III scramble up to a rock ridge named Talbot’s Ladder. The Ladder marks the most challenging climbing with continuous class IV and a few sections of low class V. The entrance to the ladder is an extremely narrow knife’s edge with shear drops for several hundred meters on either side. We reached the knife’s edge just as direct sunlight had finally penetrated the valley.


Finishing the last of the class III scrambling at the start of the knife’s edge


Warming in the morning sunlight


The shear wall on the right of the picture blocks one of the directions of the ridge, funnelling climbers to the knife’s edge


Ben surveys the drop on one side of the knifes edge


The author traversing the knife’s edge with Talbot’s Ladder looming in the background

If we were to have turned the other way at the knife edge, we would have been following the ridge seen in the left of the photo below. From across the span we could see another team scaling this route (name unknown) which required full rock climbing gear for its entire length.


Our backdrop as we ascended

As we ascended several hundred meters of Talbot’s Ladder the grade increased until we reached short sections of shear vertical. While the climbing remained technically non-demanding, the exposure demanded our attention. It was great to be moving up solid rock with views of Fiordland in every direction, but if you payed too much attention to the exposure (and therefore fall potential) of the route you could get a little psyched. More than once, I had to get a shake out of my leg. Due to the consequences of any misstep, we opted to rope up for several pitches of the climb. I could tell Ben was mildly frustrated with the choice to include rope work as it would slow us down, but he obliged.


A classic alpine shot of Ben working his way up Talbot’s Ladder.


Sarah as the pitch of Talbot’s Ladder increased toward vertical

For the first pitch or roped climbing, Ben led using only 1 or 2 slings for protection throughout. To save time, Ben anchored the rope taunt to establish a fixed line as opposed to a belay system. Rich and Sarah followed, securing themselves with prusiks, and then Ben belayed me up.


The author at the base of one of the roped sections


Sarah traversing over a particularly precipitous drop


Ben near the top of Talbot’s Ladder

Being the most experienced, Ben led off on the second pitch, also. This pitch consisted of a small traverse on a face (seen above). The section of the face we were on was not vertical but still more than enough to keep your attention. The decision to rope up came from the fact that the face continued down for 20m before dropping off vertical for 100-200 meters.

Above the second roped pitch Talbot’s Ladder flattens off and ends with a second, less defined, knife edge.


This shot was taken looking back at the rest of the group as they wrapped up the gear from the top belay point of the second roped pitch.

The top of Talbot’s Ladder led quickly to the first glacier that we would traverse. The comfort I had on the steep rock quickly gave way to anxiety on the steep ice. At the time, I was easily the least experienced on steep ice and it began to show. I was very unsure of each step, thinking that my crampons would not gain enough purchase or I would lose my balance backwards and start to slide. This led me to move much too slow through this section and burn good daylight.


Rich dons his crampons and starts to ascend the first glacier.

After determining that the angle of the glacier too much to continue up to the summit, we headed straight across toward the pass. We would end up following the rock ridge that marks the top and left end of the glacier. Referring to the below photo, about 100 meters from where the rock line turns right and levels out, we crossed the glacier again to try and find the pass. This ended up being just outside of this photo to the right.


The author traversing the first glacier with the second glacial traverse looming in the distance. This image would end up being one of my favorites from my time in New Zealand

After completing the first glacial traverse we found ourselves back on solid rock; something that my feet and psyche were much more accustomed to at the time. In an effort to avoid the steep, crevassed slopes of the glacier, we made our way along the rock ridge that marked the upper bound of the glacial field.


On the rock ridge above the glacier Ben does his best impression of a cairn


Looking off the west side of the rock ridge. Between and beyond the many peaks of Fiordland we could get glimpses of the Tasman Sea.


The rock line can be seen in the far left. Ben looks up toward the crevasses that would lie below our second crossing.

Finally we determine a route to take us across the glacier again, shortcutting the rock ridge. For this glacial traverse we roped the team together to protect against a crevasse fall. Admittedly, three of us did not have ample experience to execute a professional crevasse rescue, but between the four of us, we were confident we could manage if the one of us fell. Even though he may have been best to execute a rescue from the rear of the team, Ben led the way in an effort to choose the safest path and avoid the need for a rescue all together.


The path ahead weaved between crevasses. Staying to the right of the crevasses, we would regain the rocks at a point near the upper right corner of the picture.


This is what I imagine when I use the phrase “ends of the Earth”: a barren ice/rock-scape surrounded by endless mountains in a particularly isolated corner of an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

We reached the pass and the high-point of our trek in mid/late afternoon. Although we still had a few hours of daylight, we would be dropping into the shadow of the peak and temperatures dropped quickly. Immediately after crossing the crest, we began to descend on a third glacier. This proved to be the most hair-raising portion of the trek as the glacier was steep and bullet-proof hard. Only the very tips of our crampons gained purchase. It required all of our collective concentration so no pictures were taken during the descent.

At one point Sarah came off her feet. All being roped together, the other three of us were immediately in an anchored position to arrest here fall. She was able to stabilize herself before gaining any momentum and the rope hardly came taunt, although I think we were all glad to have it (even though it introduces more risk to the other party members). It was more excitement than I needed at that time of day.


View on top of the ridge that connects to McPherson Peak looking north.


Rich and Sarah enjoy the last of the sunlight during a brief snack on the gentler rock slopes that lie beneath the final gracier.


Climbing down the rocks at the bottom of the final glacier. Although the grade was much more manageable than other sections of the route, loose rock kept us on our toes while we headed toward the saddle where a second tramping team was camping.


Ben silhouetted against the peaks


A poorly lit image of the team

At the saddle below the final glacier,  another tramping team greeted us with warm Milo and beer, both of which were very appreciated. The final obstacle of the day was down climbing a trail in the dark. We made it back to our camp a little before midnight, clocking us in at a 16 hour day.

This trip was the first time I felt that I had earned some of my stripes in the outdoors.