Over the past six months my 15 year old son Joe has taken a strong interest in mountain climbing. He has been actively researching data and information on the tallest peaks in different countries and looking at opportunities for climbing. Joe soon learnt that he would have to accumulate an assortment of specialist equipment, items and clothing required to undertake this activity and gain relevant skills and experience; all of which would take time and cost money.
As parents we have been supporting Joe as much as possible in his latest endeavours. Joe has also made a big effort himself. Some of his clothing such as base layers, fleece, down and a gortex jacket was discounted by sponsorship from Katmandu outdoor and camping store after he was successful in an application. His earnings from part time work at a local restaurant have helped fund other items.
Many of Joe’s dream mountain climbs, including Mt Cook and Mt Aspiring NZ, were not yet reachable. Australia does not provide real mountaineering opportunities so overseas travel would be necessary.
Therefore at this stage we wanted a basic mountaineering experience that would be realistic and affordable for us at a suitable location in New Zealand. Something that would test and challenge us but not expose us to an unacceptable level of risk.
Joe wanted to do Ball Pass at Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. Ball Pass Crossing is a demanding three-day alpine route, crossing the Mount Cook Range between the Hooker and Tasman Valleys. Between Dec and Feb in the right weather conditions it looked possible.
There are numerous great walks in New Zealand most notably the Routeburn, Milford Track and Kepler Tracks. Ball Pass is less known but considered by many to be the pinnacle of New Zealand walks. Ball Pass provides close up views of the Hillary Ridge and South Face of Aoraki Mount Cook and its ice avalanches, beautiful alpine grasslands, boulder fields and steep scree slopes. The route also provides spectacular views of Mt Sefton, the Copland Pass and the Hooker and Tasman Glaciers. We decided to go for it.
The recommended route is to start at the White Horse Hill camping area and travel up the East Hooker, over Ball Pass (sidling around under Mounts Rosa and Mabel) and down the Ball Ridge to the Tasman Valley and Ball Hut. However we decided to do the walk in reverse, starting at Blue Lakes carpark – Tasman Valley and finishing back at White Horse Hill camping area. This was because we weren’t sure of our ability to tackle the snow/ice conditions at the Pass and if we decided to turn back it would be a less demanding walk back.
We set off at 9:00 AM the Monday morning after flying into Christchurch and driving our hire car to Mt Cook (Monday 8 Dec 2014). The weather report obtained from the Mt Cook information centre was for good weather on the 1st day with rain forecast late on the 2nd day and occasional showers on the 3rd day. This wasn’t ideal but locals also said that because the rain was approaching from the west it may not reach us over the Copland Range. What we didn’t know about was the wind warning for Tuesday! We arrived mostly self sufficient including a Macpac four season tent and locator beacon. The only items we sought in NZ were ice axes and crampons hired from Alpine Guides Mt Cook and Backcountry dehydrated food purchased at Christchurch.
We set off from Blue Lakes carpark – Tasman Valley at 9.00 AM (720m) and walked for 3 hrs to Ball Hut (1030 m) where we filled up our water containers. Shortly afterwards we stopped for a quick lunch and break before the steep climb up Ball Ridge to the south west. We could not find a marked route or much of a worn trail on Ball Ridge. It was a case of negotiating the boulder scree and picking a way through the alpine scrub. We saw a few other walkers meandering up the slope lightly equipped for a day walk. It appeared no one took the same path. The day walkers must have soon turned around as we didn’t see them up ahead on the snow slopes.
At about 2.00PM we bumped into a guide leading two clients from South Australia to Caroline Hut for the night. As there was no defined track Joe and I often took a different path across the boulders and rocks and along the ridgetop but our pace was similar to the other group as we stayed close together for the next three hours of climbing before arriving at Caroline Hut. After 500 m (in elevation) of steep climbing my legs were starting to feel it so I was forced to reduce my speed to a sustainable pace which was quite slow. Joe was obviously fitter and was always up ahead.
Around 3.00PM we met two young women in their twenties who had just crossed the Pass from west to east and were on their way down to Ball Shelter for the second night. They had camped at ‘Playing Fields’ on the west side the previous night and reported that conditions for crossing the Pass was good and commented that we will find it easier walking down the snow slopes below Mt Rosa and Mabel than what they did having to climb up the snow slopes. Similarly they were moving quicker than us as they were going down Ball Ridge! Being one day ahead of us they had a better weather window than us and would be back to the car park well before any rain (and wind). We would not be crossing Ball Pass that day so we hoped for the good conditions to prevail. We were to appreciate them leaving fresh footprints in the snow up ahead as this clearly showed the route to follow.
We reached Caroline Hut (1820m) at just past 5.00 PM. There was another guided group staying at this private hut who was undertaking glacier training. They kindly offered to fill our water containers and remarked how far we had come that day on hearing that we had departed from Blue Lakes carpark. The Caroline Hut commercial operator has a key to the carpark gate and drive their clients about 7 klms up an old rough management track towards Ball Shelter. This saves them about two hours walk.
As they don’t like private campers near the private hut we had to keep going. The climb from Caroline Hut up directly along the ridge to gain Fergins Knob was very gruelling. We stuck to the rock as much as possible as the snow slope was steep and disconcerting. From Fergins Knob we identified a possible spot for our tent further ahead. By 7.45 PM after excavating some snow to make a level surface we had our tent erected (1980 m). It had been a tough first day with over 10 hours of walking.
We had mobile reception so was able to receive an updated weather report from home -“Rain coming tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon after a cloudy morning. Westerlies rising to severe gale for a time. Wednesday rain or showers and snow lowering to 1500metres”.
What we hadn’t heard in our earlier report before leaving was ‘Westerlies rising to severe gale’ the following day. Not having experienced winds in the New Zealand Alps before we were a bit naive about what this meant. We were soon to find out how ferocious wind can be in places like this. It was a beautiful evening and the night was calm.
The next morning we were on the move soon after 7.00 AM and made it to the base of Kaitiaki Peak by 9.00. To fulfil another objective we dropped our packs and took half an hour to quickly climb Kaitiaki Pk (2222m). The Peak provided panoramic views of the surrounding Southern Alps. We then crossed Ball Pass at 10.00 AM (2121 m) and spent the next few hours sidling and descending around under Mounts Rosa and Mabel on the Hooker Valley.
The snow was relatively soft and we were able to kick good steps so we didn’t fit our crampons, however the ice axe was extensively used as a third point of security by jabbing the pick into the snow. The degree of slope on the route was often greater than a staircase and it was vital to have an ice axe to maintain balance and support. The axe has a spike on the shaft end and on steep slopes and in the wind we drove it in deep with each step. Self arrest with the spike wasn’t really an issue given the conditions as the snow was soft and we would sink well above our ankles.
On our approach to the “Playing Fields” ,at just before 1.00 PM on our second day, we started experiencing the forecast strong wind. At first we didn’t think much of it but the alpine environment soon unleashed its full fury. I was at the edge of a boulder scree just about to cross a patch of snow at the Playing Fields when without warning a gust of wind threw me over backwards and somersaulted me onto my hands and knees. I was lucky, apart from bruises on my right leg I was okay. Fortunately my pack protected my head as I went over. I now know why many other walkers on this route wear helmets! What amazed me was the lack of warning before each gust of wind. There was no sound of it approaching. Winds of 100 km/hr are frequently recorded in the Southern Alps. Winds associated with a nor’wester, also known as a foehn wind event, regularly exceed 140 km/hr. These winds can easily blow people off their feet. The forecast ‘Westerlies rising to severe gale for a time’ had reached us. I’d say what we experienced was a foehn wind event as the velocity was much more than I had ever experienced. The exposed saddle of this location didn’t help. There was nothing we could do but shelter beside a boulder until the wind had subsided. It wasn’t safe to move at all.
From this point we had about 500m of steep snow filled distinct gully to traverse with a drop of 400 m – ie a 40 degree slope. There was no way we were venturing on that snow face in these conditions. After an hour’s wait the force of the wind seemed to be decreasing so we plucked up enough courage to attempt the gully. There was no viable alternative route. The ice axe was our best friend and was thrust in deep at every move to brace ourselves from the inevitable unpredictable gust. The dissected gully offered some protection from the wind and by 3.30 PM we had arrived at our camp area for the second night – a shingle fan in the East Hooker Valley. It then started to rain but it wasn’t very heavy. That evening several strong gusts shook the tent and stressed the main poles.
The next morning we were shrouded in fog and low cloud with drizzle. We packed up and walked along the top of the Hooker Glacier moraine wall towards White Horse camping area. Several side streams were deeply incised causing us to make detours. We walked for 3 and a half hours on our third and last day.
Ball Pass is the ultimate of New Zealand hiking. It is quite an arduous trek and up there in terms of difficulty. If you’re fit and keen, you can do it. With little or no mountaineering experience it wasn’t a problem, however you do need to have done lots of overnight hiking, be good on your feet and have a high level of fitness. Obviously having the right conditions is also important. Rangers advised that we were one of the first people to cross the Pass this season.
The walk met most of Joe’s expectations. In terms of physical demand and duration it was more or less what he anticipated. Joe was very fit prior to the trip and did not complain once about being tired or needing a rest. He just kept on going. Joe said that he was surprised by the amount of avalanche and rock fall activity across from where we were on the face of Mt Cook and how audible this was. We were not in danger but this brought home the risks of climbing directly on Mt Cook and higher slopes. Joe also said he was astounded by the extreme change of weather pattern and the severe wind on the second day. What was scary was dropping down the last 500m of steep snow slope in the gully from the Playing Fields to our camp near the Hooker terminal lake during the afternoon when there were still severe gusts of wind. Not knowing when the next gust was coming was the biggest issue. Joe concluded in saying that it was an awesome and incredible trip.
We both learnt a lot, especially how quickly the conditions can change in New Zealand.