On July 11, Guy McKinnon was the first to summit Mt. Tutoko’s (2746m) West Face, in the Northern Darran Mountains of New Zealand. Taken out of context, the route might seem unremarkable, following a line of moderate snow and ice climbing to the summit of a peak that’s shorter than 22 other peaks in the country.* But to the New Zealand climbing community the West Face of Tutoko held a position on a short list of “Last Great Projects” heralded in an issue of The Climber magazine several years ago.
“[The West Face] was talked about a lot, but hardly anyone ever tried it. Perhaps because it had such a reputation,” says Kester Brown, editor of both The Climber and the New Zealand Alpine Journal.
Contributing to the face’s notoriety is its remote location in the likewise notorious Darran Mountains. Relaying the first ascent of another Darrans holy grail–the Adelaide Face of Mt. Marian–in Alpinist 42, Peter Haan writes:
In the Southwest corner of New Zealand, the Darran Mountains bunch up to form a dense and peculiar blocky landscape of broken ridgelines and deep saddles. Walls and buttresses protrude above dark-green forests and fjords. Scrubby vegetation clings to chinks in coarse dioritic stone. Remnants of ancient glaciers and grainy snowfields give off a pale, gritty sheen. Everything is lashed by the winds from the cold Southern Ocean. The rock faces are isolated, dirty and wet.
A group of climbers led by local Roland Rodda first ascended Tutoko via the right-hand edge of the West Face in 1951. Twenty years later, Paul Corradine and Harold Jacobs established an indirect route on the extreme left of the face in a single day. A team of three–Dave Bouchier, Butch Hill and Pete Moore–attempted a direttissima in 1974 but instead conducted a complicated retreat. Since then there has been little activity on the face.
McKinnon joined the list of unsuccessful West Face suitors in 2011, drawn to the possibility of “large aesthetically pleasing routes with relatively straightforward technical difficulties,” and returned again in 2012, but failed due to lack of preparation and suitable conditions, he says.
When he arrived at the face early last month, conditions were perfect, so McKinnon started up a snow and ice gully characterized by five tiers of more vertical ice. Over the course of the day, McKinnon climbed the 1900m length of the face to the summit and bivouacked just below the top on the northwest side.
“Guy’s time probably belies the route’s size and difficulty a little. He is extremely fit, proficient and fast on this kind of terrain,” said Brown.
While McKinnon disposed of the infamous unclimbed face with apparent ease, his descent was far from straightforward. He writes:
Being unfamiliar with this side of the hill, I almost got down directly the next day but was bluffed out about 150m above the snow fields leading to easy ground. Forced to re-climb to my bivy, I descended a more complicated route via a high basin into the Donne Glacier and thence to the descent. With darkness falling on me in the famous Grave Couloir I was forced to complete the descent in the dark, struggling through the bush and over verglassed river boulder for many more hours to reach the road near Milford Sound.
McKinnon grades his route, simply named West Face Couloir, VI, 4+ on the Darrans Grading System for technical difficulty that tops out at 6. Most of the route is equivalent to WI2, with WI3 cruxes for the full 1900m.
“While the route itself is not overly challenging, the whole process of climbing the mountain has clearly put people off. The Darran Mountains of Northern Fiordland are known for wild weather, extreme avalanche danger, thick bush and high rainfall,” says McKinnon. “With this route starting at a relatively low altitude and adjacent to the Tasman Ocean it seemed good ice could not be relied upon, but after my experiences on the face I think this route is actually reliable at forming up. It should certainly be climbed regularly as it is in my view an instant classic requiring strong all-round mountain skills, rather than extremes of technical or athletic ability.”
The original Climber article profiled six unclimbed routes in New Zealand. Now that the West Face of Tutoko has been climbed, Kester Brown lists three veritable “big prizes”: winter ascents of the East Face of Pope’s Nose Direct, Southwest Face of Mt. Percy Smith and South Face of Mt. La Perouse Direct. All three are more difficult, technically, than Tutoko but shorter and less committing.
Kester Brown details each objective:
The East Face of Pope’s Nose Direct in Winter
This is a classic “long history of failed attempts” climb. The face has had just one winter ascent, in 1990. The driving force behind this one was Nick Cradock. He tried it lots of times (not sure exactly how many) and had some fairly epic bailouts by all accounts.
Eventually he climbed it with Lionel Clay, Brian Alder and Dave Fearnley (their route is called Fuck the Pope). They flew in to the base, climbed to a bivy at half height then topped out the next afternoon. They really avoided the difficulties of the Direct by skirting to the left of the steep stuff–climbing mostly steep snow/ice ramps connected by shorter steeper ice through rock bands. The face is short-ish, only about 700m, but boy, the first two-thirds of the direct line is steep! It will be sustained, difficult, thin ice and mixed climbing.
Since then the direct has been attempted quite a few times, it’s hard to gauge how many as people haven’t talked openly about their attempts much. I’ve seen photos crop up from at least five attempts. I’m sure there have been many more. You can see the face with binoculars from the top of a short walking track near Wanaka but as it’s east-facing and quite low in altitude, it’s really hard to tell from there if the white stuff is ice or unconsolidated snowy crap.
Unfortunately the Mt. Aspiring National Park management plan was re-written in 2011 to exclude the head of the Kitchener Cirque (the only access to the face) from the allowed helicopter landing zones. So you can’t fly in there anymore. The walk-in options are all desperate so I doubt this route will get climbed anytime soon.
[If I could do just one more climb in my life, it would be this one!]
The Southwest Face of Mt. Percy Smith in Winter
This face is again quite short, somewhere between 500 and 700m. But it is steep, and very remote. It’s way up in the head of the Hopkins Valley, and you’d have to cross the main divide to get to the face. Hard going in winter. The rock in those parts is notoriously bad, so it’s one of those remote, dark, scary, steep, ugly, dangerous faces. This is a rarely attempted, rarely even seen face, in a rarely visited valley in the middle of nowhere. An enigmatic and mythical beast!
The South Face of Mt. La Perouse Direct in Winter
[This is] another “long history of failed attempts” climb. Pat Deavoll has famously walked to the bottom of it eight times and never got off the ground. It’s quite close to Mt. Cook Village but you can’t see the bottom half of the climb until you’re on Baker Saddle, near the start of the route. Similar to Pope’s Nose, Brian Alder and Bill McLeod avoided the main feature on their first winter ascent of the face (a big waterfall [that] will be NZ’s only pitches of genuine WI6 climbing, looks a bit like Nemesis). [T]hey climbed some easier terrain to the right, they had two bivies and a long descent, their route is called Bill and Ted’s excellent Adventure, [and has] 14 pitches.
The description of Bill and Ted’s in the Mt. Cook guidebook reads: ‘Probably the hardest route in the book,’ which may explain the direct version’s popularity and reputation. Loads of people try it but no one ever finds the ice feature touching down. The first section is snowy, slabby rock ramps that are long and continuously awkward. One day someone will walk in and find the entire lower section covered in ice. Then the pressure will be on to get the climb in the bag that day!