Oct 7, 2008

 Anthony Benson joined the Ball Pass Alpine Trek for a taste of Mt Cook National Park at Christmas

Around 200 people per year summit the highest mountain in New Zealand; the 3754m Mount Cook. Despite many being airlifted to huts part way up, Mount Cook still claims lives every year. The most recent casualty being an extremely experienced (37 summits) and well respected mountain guide who had a reputation for being cautious. Mountaineering is a high risk sport.

For someone with no mountaineering experience the Ball Pass trek is about as close as you can get to Mount Cook without climbing it. I’d been preparing for this trip by marching up and down local mountains with my pack full of potatoes, sugar and yellow pages (as earlier entries will confirm). Despite regularly questioning my own sanity this preparation proved to be extremely useful over the course of the three days.

You don’t have to hire a guide, indeed anyone can climb Ball Pass. Just like anyone can, if they wish, pick a fight with Mike Tyson. However I imagine it’s a much more enjoyable experience fighting Iron Mike if you’ve hired a guide with an ice axe in advance. So if you don’t want to spend you last moments on sweet earth clutching a rocky crag in brown down desperation whilst a helicopter hovers overhead and a rope ladder smacks you in the chops you really should hire an expert.

Our Guide

Our expert on this trip was Martin. A sprightly but incredibly strong man from Germany. He was there to greet us at the base at Lake Tekapo.
The guiding ratio is four to one. That’s four clients to one guide. Not the other way round, unless you’re really fat. And rich. The other “clients” on this trip were Simon, his wife Sandra and sister Lindsey. None of these people were fat.

First job: Equipment check

Plop. I dropped my feeble backpack on the floor where it deflated to emphasise its meagre contents. Once you remove the sugar bowls and potatoes there’s surprisingly little left. 
Thunk, thunk, tinkle, crunch, crash. Simon set down his gear. It was almost bigger than him. I swear I could fit my head in his boots. Not that I would, I found later that in all that gear there wasn’t one Odor Eater. Poor Sandra. Martin quickly handed out ice axes and crampons then slapped his hands together.

“Right,” he said, glancing around “who needs long johns?”
All decined.
“I’ll take some” I said enthusiastically. He gave me long Johns.

“Who needs a ruck sack?”
All declined.
“I’ll take one” I said as boldly as I could.

“Who needs boots?”
All declined.
“Size 9 please” I whispered.

“What about gloves?”
All declined.
“Please sir...” I felt like Oliver Twist.

“Who’s got first aid kits?”
Ah! now then.... A confident smile spread across my face. I had managed to overspend extravagantly on a purpose built, big orange first aid kit. In my mind, Martin could keep his first aid kit because I was, like a boy scout, prepared.

“Yeah, you wont need those guys. I’ve got one, Simon’s got one and there’s one up at the hut. It’s all just extra weight...”

“Oh” I said, to no-one in particular and dropped my first aid kit, which included a booklet entitled “How to stitch up an artery with one hand (if the other gets lopped off or frozen)”, into the keep safe basket with the other valuables (that’s how expensive it was).

The backpack 

The packs weighed in at 12 - 15 Kg. But it felt lighter. I reasoned that this was because I was now carrying essential items, and not “Deano” the Dean Windass Autobiography just to get the weight up (and yes, before you ask, there is a bit of weight in Dean’s Autobiography. It’s hardback).
Simon remarked that his pack was lighter than the 20 - 25 kgs he’d been carrying earlier on his holiday. 20 - 25kgs! That’s like carrying a horse isn’t it? Nevertheless I hid my shock, grunted an affirmative and nearly fell over.

Day 1 - Tasman Glacier 

The first part of the trek ran parallel to the Tasman Glacier. This bleak glacier is covered in grey rock and ends in a grey ice berg ridden terminal pool. The existence of this pool means the glacier will start to recede more rapidly.
If the hugely popular west coast Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are the Posh and Becks of the glacier world, the Tasman would have to be Jason Donovan. Receding. Quickly. 

We ate lunch at Ball Hut. A couple were busily, putting their equipment away after obviously spending a night in the hut.
“This hut sits on the moraine” said Martin between bites of his sandwich. Moraine is the build up of broken rock and dust deposited by the glacier.
“They’ve had to move it once because the moraine was so unstable. This hut could fall into the glacier at any time. I wouldn’t stay here. No way.”
Then he proceeded to jump around and shout “It could go now....or now.... it could even go now!”.
The woman paused briefly from her packing and shot her partner a glance. I can’t be certain but I pretty sure it was a “I told you so” sort of a glance. The man packed a little quicker.
Martin was also keen to be off, not because his energetic jumping and gesticulating might have spelt doom for Ball Hut, but because the weather forecast had predicted a front to move in later in the day.

Caroline Hut

The ascent from Ball Hut to Caroline Hut is a challenging yet rewarding trek, possibly my favourite part of the trip. As we ascended Martin asked us to guess the surprise he had in store for us on the ridge. Among the guesses were thermal pools, a boyfriend, the hut and $1 million dollars (US). Our imagination knew no bounds.
In the end it turned out to be the Caroline face of Mount Cook. An incredible view. 

A short while further and we reached the Caroline Hut.
My Granddad used to meet in a hut to play dominos. Sometimes on a school lunch time we would head down there before his pals arrived. I thought that hut was great. It had tables, chairs, soft, slightly off biscuits, tea made with slightly off milk and a heater that smelt faintly of carbon monoxide. Which, when the alternative is standing in the cold, avoiding the fists of Ronny Compton, is luxury of the highest order. Ronny Compton... I wonder what she’s doing now?
When anyone mentions a hut - this is what I imagine. That and $1 million dollars (US).

Based on my hut expertise I would say that Caroline Hut is more of a luxury Alpine Lodge. Perched high on the edge of a cliff it looks out onto Mount Cook. Eight comfortable bunks are slotted into the corners. There are two gas stoves for cooking and a wood burner heats the place so well that even in freezing temperatures you find yourself sweating in your borrowed long johns.
It even has tea and biscuits. These are air lifted in by helicopter along with other non perishables during the winter season. Now I don’t recall that ever happening at Ladyroyd park.

As we settled in the weather changed. Heavy cloud built up, the wind grew stronger and the rain fell. Martin who had been glancing and tapping his rather large watch all day looked relieved. Later we discovered that Martin’s watch could tell the time, pressure, altitude and humidity. It was the size of a dinner plate and could also be used to jack up a truck or administer first aid. Having said all that the designer obviously overspent (as people do) on the first aid facility because the watch isn’t water proof, this means it’ll be ok if you lick it, but will blow up if it’s spitting.

Martin commenced dinner. We set about helping by going out in the rain to get water, going out in the rain to put toilet rolls in the loo etc. Martin obviously couldn’t go out because his watch didn’t have an umbrella attachment.

Each of us unloaded our food parcels onto the bench apart from Lindsey, who slopped hers onto the table. The plastic bag had broken and the fish she’d been carrying had made a dash for freedom within her bag. Ordinarily I’m sure Lindsey is perfectly pleasant smelling. Nevertheless I was happy to be at the other end of the room. With a peg.

I located a bed as far away from Lindsey as possible. She seemed like a genuinely nice person, and looked absolutely clean as a whistle. But boy did that girl hum. Jeez, and i’m not the biggest fan of fish anyway.

Martin is a man of many skills. He is equally comfortable conversing about roping techniques with Simon as he is discussing jam production with Sandra. In a former life he was a Pastry Chef yet I was still suitably amazed when out of three nails, some dirt, three carrots and a peanut he concocted a very tasty lentil curry with chicken breast and green beans.

Not to be undone, Sandra, produced a Christmas wreath from a bit of string and scraps from dinner. I thought about performing my party trick, but I find the old double jointed thumb doesn’t capture the right mood in a post meal environment.

My Mum always wins at cards. As children this would deeply disturb Michael, my brother. I however would admire the cunning she hid behind a confused exterior. 
After dinner we played cards. It appeared to be a slightly more advanced game of snap. I won this card game by some margin. And now I can safely say that Mum’s confused look is indeed genuine.
Now I know I’ve inherited the force, I may stop off at Vegas on the way home and play me a few rounds of the Texas Hold ‘Em. Whatever that is.

Day 2 - Hiking onto the snow slopes

The following day we ventured out onto the snow slopes. Martin carefully showed us how to use the crampons and ice axes and demonstrated how to self arrest (stop) if you find yourself falling down a mountain, backwards and upside down. Apparently my improvised screaming and flailing wildly is not a recognised self arrest method.

After suitable practice runs Martin took us on through several more snow fields to a 2222m peak. Just as we arrived the final clouds disappeared from Mount Cook and all we could do was admire the view.

A bit of fish flavored ruck sack, some dust, a piece of rock and a gerbil. From this Martin made salmon in white wine sauce with fresh fruit trifle for desert. It was a lovely Christmas Eve topped off by a spectacular moon rise.

That night there was very little wind and so we could appreciate just how active the mountain really is. Between the powerful avalanches of crashing snow and rock there are loud cracks and groans. A fault line rips through the centre of New Zealand, the mountains are still taking shape. They can grow up to a cm each year, in 1991 ten million cubic meters of rock and ice fell of the summit of Mount Cook reducing its height by 10m. 

Day 3 - Christmas Day

Christmas day started early for us - 4 am. Again we were racing against the weather, to descend into the Hooker Valley via the Ball Pass before the rain started. The clear previous night had brought with it freezing temperatures hardening the top snow.

We fastened harnesses, strapped on crampons and marched away into the dark. After traversing across a snow field we reached a saddle - Ball Pass. Here the ridge continues up to the summit of Mount Cook. The day was so still it almost looked climbable, just like Mike Tyson doesn’t look all that big on the telly. Fat even.

From the Ball Pass the trek descends down a very steep ice slope. Martin expertly set up a series of ice anchors to which all of us were attached via our harnesses. 
Now I’ve had experiences with harnesses before in New Zealand when performing a bungee jump. On that occasion I rigged my harness so tight that I spoke in a voice only dogs could hear for three days. My two became three. So this time I was careful not to fasten it too tight. However the fact that:

  • I was wearing several borrowed layers
  • I was first on the rope (and therefore first to go should the worst happen)
  • The lentils had reached a critical stage

Meant that I was windy. Lindsey, who was second on the rope, commented several times on this brut. I’m surprised she could smell it over the fish.

And we continued like that, stinking our way across scree slopes, rocks and ice. Martin running up and down making decisions, fixing ropes, cutting ice steps, offering encouragement and advice. The job he did was admirable.

Once in the Hooker Valley the walk leveled out into lush green vegetation alongside the Hooker river. We reached the vehicles just as the rain set in. Tired and happy we returned to Lake Tekapo and bid farewell to Martin, the remarkable Mountaineering Pastry Chef.


In my mind the success of any excursion is defined by three things. The guide, the people, the scenery. If any one of these areas is weak then the whole trip can change from great to decidedly average.

Touring the Himalayas guided by Michael Palin should be great trip, but with Jodie Kidd and Michelle Paris along for the ride no doubt criticising Palin’s choice of chino and my borrowed long johns...well...I’m sure the excursion would be miserable.

In this case though, Mount Cook is a beautiful national park, Martin provided expertise and energy to the group, and Simon, Sandra and Lindsey were the easy going company that allows everyone to enjoy a wonderful trip. I’d do it all again in an instant.

© Anthony Benson, 2008


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