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