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2008 | Incantation

There are the big walls you know about. Routes you’ve walked under or looked across at and thought, Yes, I have to climb that. The classics. Some are close to home: Sabre’s blunt grey North Buttress. Others are farther away: the stern exfoliations of the Cassin Route on the Piz Badile. Articles in magazines and journals recall the taste of sweat and fear on first ascents, and then they tell you where to go, what to take, the order of the pitches. You’ve committed the topo to memory.

Then there are the last great problems. Talked up between bursts of winter effort on a plywood wall. Speculated about after untying from a summer’s evening at the crag. The magazines offer these up too: pictures of immaculate stone architecture turning the color of honeyed skin in dusky light.

Next, there are the walls you’ve never seen. But you look at the topographic blur of Google Earth and think, There’s something there. One year, from far down in a valley, you catch a glimpse amid a kaleidoscope of unclimbed faces. The wall heads a north-facing cirque shaped like a giant throne, or a cormorant drying its wings. Then the mist hides everything, leaving a wisp of memory.

Finally, there are the walls you never knew existed: panning across a mighty gash of grass-infested cliff, the eye of imagination takes in a higher sweep of red-streaked iron-hard rock. Its rumpled facets look as if they were shaped with a giant club hammer.

In 2008 Rich Turner, Dave Vass and I hiked in to climb the North Face of Te Wera, the highest peak in the central Darran Mountains. You push up the valley for a day through a forest protected by thorns, rotten logs and wind-throws. Commit your weight to short tussocks on slippery bluffs. Dodge ice shrapnel thrown down wide slabs from rotten seracs. Find refuge from westerly gales in a cave–an aerie–near the top of Karetai.

After a night in that grotto, we shuffled onto the slabs beneath the face as the sky lightened, and we took in the compact seams and the massive blocks that make up Te Wera’s summit pyramid.

“Look over there,” Rich said, and he pointed at rumpled, ruddy facets on the adjacent peak that formed the cirque’s eastern perimeter: Ngaitahu, climbed and named in 1959 by Mike Gill and Phil Houghton. It was the last of the big Darrans peaks to be summited, and like so much else there, it was promptly forgotten. Gill would make the first ascent of Ama Dablam two years later, while Houghton headed down-valley, built a hut in the dense, waterlogged Fiordland bush and wrote a history of Europeans’ failed attempts to settle the area.

Rich was from Britain. It was hard to imagine his intense, restless energy finding a home there. He once told me that everyone who came to live in New Zealand had to make a big, deliberate, life-changing decision. Now the sun lit the top of Ngaitahu’s north wall. Where Te Wera was grey and fissured, Ngaitahu was flushed, smooth, soaring above us. Five hundred meters of unanticipated joy. “Shall we try that?” Like dogs distracted by a pungent new odor, we forgot all our imagination and doubt, our plans and ambitions for Te Wera. There was nothing to decide. We started climbing.

Darrans Diorite has been heated, twisted, squeezed, crystallized, cracked, faulted. You can see the pain. You learn to trace the angles, to lean this way or that, embracing and resisting the tension in the body. Hold too tight and the crystals will slice your fingertips. You must keep on your toes.

Several pitches up, Dave danced sideways off a belay, making complex step-through moves on a holdless hanging slab. He grinned and chuckled above the emptiness. This was the moment he’d come for: forgetting thought; finding dynamic balance. Far below him, the cirque floor ran off into bluffs and grassed montane flats, just before the stream pitched into a dismal chasm and emerged again, sluggish amid the temperate swamp forest, to join the main river.

While Rich and I hung at the belay, the cracks closed in and the gaps between runners grew longer. Higher up, the spaces between the holds and gear placements stretched out even farther as Rich climbed across runnels and ripples of implacable, slabby stone. Despite the scale of the Darrans, you seldom encounter big features–few perfect cracks or unremitting dihedrals. You can spend hours mapping out a route only to find that the wall is nothing like what you expected. Back home looking at the photos, trying to figure out which line you took, you can only shrug. All you remember are those instants of motion, energy and grace, of touching rock and climbing.

On the upper wall, the afternoon mist rose up from the valley to hide us. Dave took pictures of toes dangling over a ledge, framed in cloud. I tried to head toward the great red shield, but the mountain resisted: the only gear I could find tempted me the other way. And it wasn’t much. Pitch followed pitch over a vertical maze of ramps and overlaps, the rock’s secrets decrypted slowly with each grasping hand. As happens so close to the sea, the mist soon parted.

From the summit, the dark towers on Te Wera’s east ridge still rose ahead. Gill and Houghton had climbed that way after their Ngaitahu ascent. We were intimidated, and it was too late to follow in their footsteps. We began rapping from the col to the far side of the mountain. In the deepening blackness, we made a final abseil into the gaping bergschrund and swung wildly to snatch the snowfield. By the time we crossed the neve to Karetai Col, the moon was up and almost full, illuminating the low clouds on the other side as they rose to fill the valley. The two great ice mountains, Tutoko and Madeline, rode the horizon. Before long, we were enveloped in mist again and lost on tussock bluffs until we emerged below the clouds to find the bivy by the lake. I slept until the sun was hot on my face.

Magick, said Aleister Crowley, imbues objects with the power of their owners. A pipe that’s sucked on for half a century; a favorite pair of boots or a knife taken along on every expedition. But do the mountains also own us? As we return to this place, year after year, do we begin to absorb a little of its power? I’d like to think so. Next time on Ngaitahu we’ll go left, we think. We’ll climb the last honeyed pitch to the summit as the sun descends to the sea. Next time. The face has a name now, a picture, and a line. It exists in the imagination. All future action has become premeditated. If anyone remembers.

But no one has been back.