Words & images: Enda Walsh
Participants: Simon Litchwark, Jeff Ducrot, Enda Walsh
So Ball Pass. It had been on my mind for some time. I’d first heard about it from Alex Warnaar when we did our Basic Alpine Skills course with the Canterbury Mountaineering Club. We were up at Mueller hut and Alex mentioned it as a route from across the Mount Cook Range from the Hooker to the Tasman Valleys, one that was good to do in Winter if you were confident in your snow and ice skills.
An Autumn, Summer and Spring later, Winter had come again and I was looking for some challenging routes for the season, Ball Pass came to mind. I had a look at the Department of Conservation description of the route and decided it could be done in a weekend (albeit a big one). A free weekend finally came around in August. Conditions were prefect, great weather and a low risk of avalanches. We finished work Friday and set out for Mount Cook National Park.
Joining me on this mission were Jeff Ducrot and Simon Litchwark. We’d decided to leave on the Friday evening so we could get an early start on Saturday. We arrived at the CMC’s Wyn Irwin Hut at the Hooker Valley carpark around 11.30 after a long and foggy drive from Christchurch. The plan from there was to get up early the next morning, head up Hooker Valley, climb to Ball Pass, camp just above the pass on the route to Kaitiaki Peak which we’d climb the next morning before descending to the Tasman Valley and walk out. One of us would have to cycle from the Tasman Valley carpark back to my car at Wyn Irwin Hut and then return to pick up the other two. Simon had volunteered his mountain bike for this purpose and the plan was to hide it near the Tasman Valley carpark on Saturday morning. We were saved this hassle by Cameron, the Wyn Irwin hut warden, who did a car shuffle with me on Saturday morning (this ended up saving us at least an hour on Sunday).
So having done the car shuffle, sorted out our gear and left our intentions at the DOC visitor centre we set off up the Hooker Valley at the somewhat later than planned time of sometime around 8. We made good time heading up the Hooker Lake Track in the early morning light, the track is a highway at this point. We turned off just before the second suspension bridge, my newly bought map lead us to believe it continued up the true right of the valley when we wanted to be on the true left. And hour of following, sometimes losing and sometimes bushbashing our way along an old track on the valleys true left we came face to face again with the Hooker Lake Track. Turns out it has been redirected so it returns to the true left of the valley were it now meets the lake. From there you can just hop off onto the track which takes you around the lake. Never mind, it would only have saved us half an hour… and who real cares when you’re on your way to Ball Pass as mighty mountaineers only to be overtaken by an elderly couple who you suspect had left sometime after you…
Nonplussed, we continued walking alongside the Hooker Lake were we quickly encountered the first obstacle we’d been told to expect on this trip, moraine wall collapse. As the Hooker Glacier has retreated in recent decades the moraine wall it left behind has begun to collapse. In three places between the end of the Hooker Lake Track and the start of the climb to Ball pass, streams have cut deep gullies in the side of the moraine wall. There are also smaller sections of collapse along the route. When we came to the first of the three gullies we decided, optimistically, that we could drop in (easy), walk across (easy enough) and climb out (err…). An unpleasant climb up lose gravel and rock to get back out was the result of this decision. When we came to the next two gullies we opted to climb up the valley side and around. Given the size of these gullies this adds a fair bit of time and climbing to your trip up the Hooker Valley before even beginning the climb to Balls Pass. I fear that shortly in the future these gullies will cut off any easy access up the Hooker Valley on foot altogether.
So after passing these gullies and continuing up the lakeside we finally arrived at the large flat area which I believe is unofficially known as the Hooker Valley Campsite. We had lunch sitting in the sun on top of a large bolder looking across the Hooker Glacier at lonely Hooker Hut.
Access to this unfortunate hut appeared to our eyes to be cut off from every direction by gullies and moraine wall collapse (which is worse again on the true right of the Hooker Valley). The only way to get to it might be a long sidle to and then descent through, the bluffs above the hut.
After lunch we donned our crampons, got out our ice axes and began the long climb to Ball Pass. The first half of this climb took us up a long South facing gully below Mount Mabel. The gully was sheltered from the sun on three sides so the ice and snow made for good cramponing.
After an hour or so we emerged onto a large flat shelf known as the Playing Field. We stopped for a break here to take in some excellent views of the Hooker Valley and surrounds. This would make an excellent campsite location for anyone thinking of doing the Ball Pass crossing in three days instead of two.
We continued climbing up and around a ridge which extends down from Mount Rosa. This was one of the trickier bits of the trip as we’d to follow a route which zig-zagged up and around some nasty bluffs. After crossing the ridge we got our first sight of Ball Pass across the large basin which lay in front of us.
After climbing for another few metres heading in the direction of Mount Rosa we dropped down into the basin. I’d read in the DOC route description to avoid climbing too high on Mount Rosa and we could see tracks in the snow in front of us in were a party had dropped down after initially trying to traverse across the basin rim. After dropping down into the basin and beginning to travel across it and up towards ball Pass we could see why. There is a ridge which extends down from Mount Rosa which, while barely noticeable from the side we came from, is a ten metre cliff along the entire length of the side facing Ball Pass. A big thanks to whoever put those footprints in the snow!
It was a long auld plod at the end of a long day from the bottom of that basin to Ball Pass. We stopped I don’t know how many times along the way. The longest was beneath a large rocky outcrop were having run out of water I was forced to live off nature’s bounty, sucking meltwater off the rock. The idea had come to me from an episode of Top Gear were Jeremy Clarkson, while driving a Land Rover Discovery up a Scottish mountain, mocked Joe Simpson efforts to survive by drinking water in a similar manner during the events of Touching the Void. Not that I was in such dire straits but the water was certainly very welcome!
Finally, we emerged out onto the summit of Balls Pass. It was an immensely satisfying achievement standing there looking back were we’d come from down the Hooker Valley while simultaneously being able to look down on the Tasman Valley. All the while we were surrounded by the great peaks of the Southern Alps, none more so than mighty Mount Cook itself standing a further 1500 metres above us. What a truly spectacular spot.
We made camp on a shelf just above Balls Pass on the route to Kaitiaki Peak. Jeff and I dug out a snow shelter and set the tent up as Simon set about melting snow to make water. I was suffering a bit for lack of water so some soup was well received. Also, we’d each made the error of assuming that one of the other two would bring sunscreen. None of us brought sunscreen.
So by dinner we were all truly well cooked ourselves. After dinner we watched the sun go down and the stars come out before getting some much needed shut eye.
We rose late the next morning, not too worried about the snow and ice conditions as today was going to be mainly downhill travel. We had breakfast before making the hour long return trip to Kaitiaki Peak.
This is pretty straightforward for the most part bar a short section were the ridge gets abit narrow and exposed. I thoroughly recommend making the climb to this peak. Although otherwise unremarkable it offers truly breathtaking 360 views of Mount Cook National Park and down into the Mackenzie Basin.
We were even able to look across the Hooker Valley, through Copland Pass on the far side and down onto the West Coast with the Tasman Sea shining in the distance. Truly spectacular, it was hard to leave that view behind.
We descended to our campsite where I did my Ice Bucket Challenge, much to Simon and Jeff’s amusement, before packing up and starting down Ball Ridge.
This made for an easy descent. For the most part the ridge is wide and gently rolling. We dropped off it at two points in order to avoid to small peaks as we weren’t sure that they offered an easy route down their far sides. As it turned out we could have gone up and over those peaks quite easily. The whole time we were able to feast our eyes on the Caroline Face of Mount Cook on our left and the Tasman Valley ahead of us and on our right.
After a couple of hours we arrived at Caroline Hut were we stopped to have lunch. This is a private hut but it has a public shelter attached to it and the toilet facilities are (mercifully) open to the public.
We were able to sit out on the small deck enjoying the food, views and soundtrack provided by the near continuous stream of avalanches coming off the Caroline Face (and this was during in a LOW avalanche forecast period…).
From Caroline Hut we continued along the ridge, making steady progress for another couple of kilometres. Then around the 1700 metre mark, the ridge narrows abruptly. From here we dropped down and traversed along the right hand side of the ridge.
Again, DOC had recommended this in the route description and again we could see the footprints of those that had gone before us heading in that direction. We tried to rejoin the ridge at one point but quickly dropped off again before descending into a bolder field. A this point a cairn marked route materialised, leading us through the bolder field, through the bushline, down a gully and out onto the top of the Tasman Glacier’s moraine shelf a hundred metres North of Ball shelter.
At Ball Shelter we encounter a Canadian tourist who was staying in the shelter for the night having walked up the Tasman Valley Track that day. He assured us the track was pretty easy going bar the remains of a massive avalanche which needed to be crossed. Confident that the hardest part of our trip was behind us we set off down the track aiming to be at the carpark before sundown.
Easy going it was, were possible the track follows the old Tasman Valley Road, where it hasn’t collapsed into the Tasman Glacier anyway…
Crossing the avalanche was a cakewalk after what we’d just done so before long we were on the intact section of the road which runs from Husky Flat back to the Tasman Valley carpark.
The work which went into building this road, which must have been a mighty effort in its day, has to be admired. It was also nice to be able to walk along and admire the scenery without having to worry at all about were one is places ones foot!
We eventually arrived at the carpark around 6 exhausted and even more sunburnt than I’d believed possible. At this point we were extremely grateful to Cameron for having helped us with the car shuffle, even with a bike it’s a long way back to Wyn Irwin Hut… Having picked up some gear at said hut, left our intentions return form at the DOC Visitor Centre and grabbed some much needed chips at Charlie’s we headed for Christchurch fuelled by coffee and the deep satisfaction of having completed a truly epic trip. Ball Pass is not to be underestimated, it requires confidence in ones snow and ice skills and is physically demanding. But nor is it unachievable for anyone with these skills. Above all, it is awesome, truly awesome. Do it.