Three of the group had gone ahead early, which left six of us arriving on the 8:15 pm flight to grab the two remaining cars and drive to Mt Cook. The weather on the way down was gloomy, very windy and threatening to rain. Our main hope rested with a promised weather window between two fronts—one Friday/ Saturday morning and the second rolling in Sunday evening—and I didn’t feel overly confident at this point.
We arrived at Unwin Hut well after midnight and found the other three fast asleep. Tony said we would take our time in the morning and wait for the weather to clear so I was surprised then to see him up before 7:00 am. We all rose at our leisure over the next hour or so to see Mount Cook covered in cloud but the patches of blue sky were increasing and the wind was dropping. After a bit of discussion we opted for a cooked breakfast to start the day so we wandered up to the Hermitage. We had a very long and substantial breakfast at the buffet there, going back for seconds—and thirds in many cases—a fabulous way to start the day. Finishing up we dropped off two of the cars at the Tasman Valley road end and then ferried the crew up to the Hooker car park.
This was a new experience for me—we had an 8 to9 hour day ahead of us and we were turning up to the start of the track at 11:30 am! But Tony said ‘don’t worry, we still have 10 hours of light left in the day’. Crossing over the Hooker River bridge there was a bus load of tourists queuing on the other side to cross and for the first half an hour we passed a constant stream of people out sightseeing. But soon enough we passed through the little swing gate on the other side of the bridge to Stocking Stream and the tourists promptly stopped. In fact we saw no-one else again until we descended past Caroline Hut where there were two people below us who had apparently turned back from trying to cross the pass.
We wandered up the valley gaining height slowly until we were a few hundred metres above the Hooker Glacier terminal lake and sidling high to bypass eroded slips falling into the lake. The Hooker Hut across the valley looked very sad and lonely, completely cut off by eroded slopes all around. The access to the Copeland Ridge looks almost as isolated now as well.
We reached the access gully that would take us to the Playing Fields and started up that at about 3:00 pm. It was filled with snow for about two thirds of its height so the ice axe and crampons were quickly unleashed. We continued up the slope which got progressively steeper towards the top.
Just a short distance below the crest there was a rocky step with a small steeper snow slope to the left. This proved a little daunting for some of us so most of us took our crampons off to scramble up the rock, putting them back on a couple of minutes later to complete the final snow slope.
Popping out up onto the Playing Fields the view was just fantastic—from Mt Sefton to La Perouse, and of course Mt Cook dominating all. But it was now about 4:45 pm and we still had a way to go so Sharron and Mike headed off to investigate the route. My route guide showed a zig zag up to the final sidle out across a ledge above bluffs on the ridge off Mt Rosa. However, we decided to go straight up a snow slope to avoid the zigzag. Jackie had said that we should follow the recommended route but was overruled—and in hindsight she was correct as the slope got a bit too steep and we ended up crossing back across the snow to a point we could have reached probably more easily by following the longer zig zag route.
In the meantime Mike and Sharron had found the required cairns and we hopped off the snow and followed good rock ledges around the corner where the final approaches to Ball Pass were revealed for the first time.
We stopped here for a while with everyone taking, or getting in, photos with blue skies above, Ball Pass close at hand and Mt Cook towering above – so this was the place to linger. Unfortunately it was getting late so too soon we had to push on. We dropped down the side of the face to get below a bluff and then continued our ascent to the pass, finally topping out about 7:50 pm. The full splendour of the Tasman peaks then opened up ahead with a clear blue sky above. This was just fantastic.
After the obligatory photo stop we dropped into the basin below. We had a bit of a scout around for campsites but eventually opted to erect the tents in the snow basin directly below the pass. This is a fantastic area to camp with the low and middle peaks of Cook towering above you and the Malte Brun Range and Tasman Glacier stretching out for miles in front of you. I could have stayed for an extra day here just lying in the sun and enjoying the view. By now though it was starting to get really late and after digging out flat spots and building snow walls 9:00 pm had arrived and we hadn’t started dinner yet.
No chance either to get out the Frisbee unfortunately. It would have been a Frisbee height record for me and I had been looking forward to it. After a few hitches with the cooker we eventually ate around 11:00 pm before finally collapsing in the pit.
We were looking forward to a good night’s sleep but Mother Nature had other ideas. The wind now got up and buffeted the tents throughout the night. I found it very difficult to get to sleep with the constant flapping and later when getting up to answer the call of nature about 4:00 am it seemed as though I hadn’t been to sleep at all.
Eventually morning did arrive and we rose to find the clear sky had disappeared and instead we had light rain falling and low cloud covering the mountains above us. But as we packed up and headed off the weather progressively improved. While we continued to get the odd spit of rain for the next hour or two the weather was actually ok and got better and better as the day progressed.
We dropped down onto the glacier and then climbed up on to the Ball Ridge. Here the snow disappeared, so the crampons came off and stayed off. There were ongoing patches of snow but nothing requiring crampons again. Soon we arrived at Caroline Hut where we had brunch and admired the views for some time. Eventually though it was time to move on and we had fun route-finding down the remainder of the ridge. Some of it was straightforward enough while some was a bit obscure although easy enough in the weather we had as we could see where to go—but in a whiteout this would be interesting in places. Arriving at Ball Shelter we didn’t want this to end so we boiled the billy here and lay in the sun eating and drinking and enjoying the surroundings. But finally we could put it off no longer and we shouldered packs and headed off down the valley and back to the cars.
This was such a brilliant trip, and anyone who is comfortable with ice axe and crampons should seriously consider adding this to their ‘Bucket List’ of trips.
Driving back to Christchurch that evening we decided to stop at a pub in Geraldine where one of the options was a large ‘All Day Breakfast’. This proved impossible to resist for many of us so for the second time in two days we piled into mushrooms, sausages, bacon, hash browns, eggs, tomatoes, etc—fantastic.
Thanks heaps to Jackie and Tony for organising the trip for us, and to Ant, Kevin, Mike, Pete, Sharron, and Spencer for the company.