Part 6: Winter crossing of Ball Pass
Story and photographs by Johnathan Esper
As my extended travels here in New Zealand are drawing to a close, I think back over my nine months here in New Zealand and realize I have seen and done so much. I have really explored all of New Zealand's national parks, doing a week-long backpacking trip in most of them.
One memorable mountaineering trip was the three-day crossing of the Ball Pass in Mount Cook National Park. Weeks before, I had contacted and made plans to do a climb or two in the national park with Christchurch local Steve, whom I had climbed with on the Canterbury Mountaineering Club climb to Mount Murchison earlier in the year.
The weather forecast was perfect for the next several days at Mount Cook, so Steve and I agreed to a winter crossing of the Ball Pass, a premiere and famous alpine route over the southern ridges of Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand at around 3,800 meters. The Ball Pass route (elevation 2,100 meters) brings you right up close to the awesome Mount Cook and the Caroline Face, starting in the Hooker Valley and ending in the Tasman Valley, and also gives great views of the glaciers of the same names.
We planned to climb over Ball Pass and descend all the way to the Tasman Glacier, where a small hut exists, in one day. This is the normal itinerary in the summer, when only a little snow lingers near the top of the pass. We parked one of our cars at the glacier viewing point for the Tasman Glacier, saving ourselves a two-hour walk along a dirt road down the Tasman Valley back to our starting point near Mount Cook Village.
The first part of the route presented no problems, and provided outstanding views of the Hooker Glacier. We hiked for about three hours on the crumbling upper shelves of the Hooker moraine wall, around the glacier's terminal lake. Then the route involved climbing up a steep gut for a couple thousand vertical feet, to a flat area known as the “Playing Fields,” and then negotiating through a series of ledges to gain a ridge at the side of the upper basin area below Ball Pass itself. Sidling across the slopes and steep slanting ledges of this basin, to its head beneath the pass, was quite challenging in the deep snow.
The valley floors here in New Zealand are usually snow free, but I was glad I made the last-minute decision to bring along my snowshoes despite thinking I would not need them. The last couple hundred vertical meters to the pass were the most difficult, where deep and soft snow would have stopped any climbers without snowshoes. Even wearing snowshoes, the going was extremely slow, as I constantly backslid almost as much as I stepped forward.
We ran out of daylight less than half the distance we had planned on doing that day. As dusk settled, we decided to bivy on a small snow shelf we created around 2,000 meters in elevation, a little under the pass. The sunset against the higher peaks across the Hooker Valley was spectacular, and soon the full moon and stars came out, also lighting up the mountains around, giving us the feeling that we were actually fortunate to be forced to sleep out so high. But I didn't sleep too well, because I was so afraid of rolling off my snow shelf and sliding down the snow slope out of control, stuck inside my slippery bivy sack!
It warmed up considerably the next morning once the sun came up, and within an hour we had made the pass. Words cannot describe the feelings of freedom and awe I had as I crested the pass and looked down onto another huge glaciated valley and endless mountains stretching as far as I could see. With the deep snow slowing our steps, it took a full day to cross the snowfield above the Ball Glacier, and descend a long and gradual ridge down to the level of the Tasman Glacier. But we also stopped often, admiring at the Caroline Face of Mount Cook, which rose up nearly 2,000 meters above us, yet also seemed so close. Rather than hike the last two hours out in the dark, we decided to spend the night in the Ball Shelter.
While most of our time together the first two days was spent in silence as we struggled with the vertical gain and the deep snow, or in awe at the mountains around, our walk out along the top of the Tasman Glacier moraine wall was more leisurely, and we enjoyed good conversations. In addition to talking about jobs, relationships, etc., I also brought up the subject of faith. Steve believes in the power of a God, and has found strength in this to overcome personal problems. He knows about my faith in Christ, which I shared in a sensitive manner. I just pray that I was, and can still be, a witness to Christ. He also knows I am a member of Climbing For Christ, because I always write this Web site address in the log books of all the huts where I stay.
After getting out, we checked out with the Department of Conservation, and learned we were the first people to make the crossing in over a month, and the first this winter. Steve was completely spent, so he headed back to Christchurch, and I headed south to Stewart Island for a week-long tramping trip.
Johnathan Esper, a member of Climbing For Christ from Long Lake, N.Y., has been backpacking through New Zealand for the past nine months. He highly recommends visiting the Ball Pass, if you are blessed with the opportunity to be in New Zealand. The climb enables you to see the two main valleys and glaciers in the park, as well as Mount Cook. "In the summer it is fairly straightforward, and many people do it, but do still bring ice axe and crampons for the lingering snow beneath the pass," Johnathan writes. "You can obtain a route description of the Ball Pass from the Department of Conservation Visitor Center, right in Mount Cook Village, five minutes from the start of the route.