This is just one of the stories in ‘Simon’s Trips’, a book honouring the life of NZ mountaineer, Simon Bell.
After his disappearance on Pikirakatahi/Mt Earnslaw in Jan 2015, his parents, Colin and Jeni Bell, compiled the book from Simon’s accounts and photos. Lorraine Johns, Rob Hawes, the late Steve Dowall and other friends also contributed stories of tramping or climbing trips they made with Simon.
‘Simon’s Trips’ was originally a gift to his family and friends but was later made available in return for a donation to the FMC Mountain and Forest Trust. These donations paid the majority of the costs of digitizing FMC’s publication ‘Safety in the Mountains’ (available here as the ‘Manual‘) and establishing the Wilderlife website. Simon’s estate contributed the balance.
Simon gave a trip presentation to the Tararua Tramping Club in June 2013. His presentation notes tell the full story.
GTTT stands for ‘Grand Traverse, Tasman Traverse’. The reason the ‘g’ is in lower-case will become clear later on in the presentation. The GTTT was a trip from Mount Cook Village to the Fox Glacier Township. I would consider this adventure climbing. It was an adventure, because, while we did have quite solid plans, we weren’t sure if we would be able to pull it off, due to weather and conditions.
It was also an adventure because we walked in and walked out, and spent 16 days in the mountains –the longest trip I’ve been on. None of the individual climbs we did were overly hard –most were grade 3 / 3+. We didn’t do any new routes. However, by linking together several climbs, and by spending such a long time in the hills, we really felt we’d achieved something with this trip.
Steve, Rob, Lisa and I had all climbed together in Nov 2011. We did a trip to Aspiring with Walk in / Walk out. Then a trip to Plateau Hut with climbs of Cook and Dixon. Then a trip to Pioneer Hut with climbs of Glacier Peak, Douglas, Haidinger, West Peak Haast and Lendenfeld. We failed on Tasman and were keen to return.
Rob and Steve had both climbed Cook a few times via Linda and wanted to do something different. We also wanted to get Tasman. They came up with the idea of getting both on a single trip. Walk in up the Hooker, do a grand traverse of Cook, traverse Tasman and walk out to Fox, climbing some other peaks on the way. On the ferry back to Wellington Rob asked if I was keen – of course! Lisa too.
The logistics for this trip were quite fun to figure out. The map shows just how close Fox is to Mt Cook Village. About 25km. We set aside 2-3 weeks in Nov and the trip ended up taking 16 days. Food was the first and biggest issue. We solved this problem by getting food boxes flown into Plateau and Pioneer Hut. Rob got the boxes to Plateau by buying the chopper pilots a box of beer. I did a similar thing with my flatmate and his friends, who happened to be heading to Pioneer Hut at the right time.
Well before the trip, we all spent some time thinking about what gear to take and not to take. We ended up making a shared spreadsheet in Google Docs and listing what we were thinking of taking. Me and Lisa got really into getting tech, lightweight gear. I got paid my bonus at work in Sept and spent a lot of it on gear. Rob and Steve spent less time looking at our tech gear lists; and Rob later admitted not knowing what half of the items we were writing about actually were. Things like a ‘BD Spinner leash’.
I decided to go as light as possible, and got my gear into a 45L pack, had no spare clothes and no sleeping bag. We all had full bivvy gear to spend a night out and I got some lightweight down-pants should we get caught out high up. With 4 days food, the pack started off around 20 kg. Once we got higher up, ate some food, put on our harnesses and crampons plus got our tools, rope and gear out for the steep climbing, the pack was nearly half that, which was good for climbing.
To top it off, work had me going to Canada for the week prior to the trip. I had to pack all my gear, bring it to Canada and then fly direct to Christchurch (bypassing Wellington) and drive straight to Mt Cook Village to meet the others. I got to the Village and it was a cold southerly, and snowing! I was cold just standing around at Unwin Hut, and was seriously starting to wonder if I would be warm enough up high with the gear I had.
This was the first time I’d walked up the Hooker Valley, except when I visited Hooker Hut last summer. Compared to the Bash up the Tasman, which I’ve done a few times, the Hooker is Luxury. The moraine doesn’t go on as long, the views are better, and it is a no fly-zone, so you don’t have to put up with annoying choppers and planes. You also get to see Turner Peak, Pibrac and Nazomi, all peaks I’d love to climb soon. The Hooker Valley still has some moraine bashing, but it quickly turns to a nice glacier. In November, travel is easy up to Gardiner Hut. This photo (below) also shows La Perouse, another great peak I’d love to climb.
Lisa and Steve at Gardiner Hut.
Gardiner to Empress
At Gardiner Hut you get a great view of the Low Peak of Cook and the West Ridge. The West Ridge would be an awesome way to climb Low Peak, but in November it is pretty mixed – I have some friends who climbed it in February, and did it all on rock with no crampons needed. We were climbing via the NW couloir. Because we had to wait another day for the weather to be suitable, we checked out the base of the NW couloir and walked up to Empress Hut the following day. This allowed us to get another 600m or so of height gain done before the day of the GT. We heard on the radio sched that our food boxes to Plateau Hut had been successfully delivered – yes!
Empress Hut sits at about 2500m, and has awesome views. I was stoked to get here – it’s an awesome place to chill out. The long-drop probably has the best ‘poo with a view’ in the country!
Hicks was looking pretty lacking in the ice department – the start of the climbs looked pretty much impossible and there were no records of ascents this year.
Low Peak and blue ice
The NW couloir route to Low Peak of Cook is generally straightforward. Our biggest problem was that we got slightly off-route in the dark. That put us onto some slightly steeper and mixed ground for a bit. Rob and I soloed up this section, and passed a rope down to the others. Our other problem was we all simultaneously really needed a toilet stop – we blamed the ‘altitude’, the ‘cold’ and instant porridge. Once we’d ‘made our mark’ on the mountain (sorry)!, we sidled and traversed back into the couloir we should have been, and headed up to the West Ridge. We ended up doing a bit more pitching on some rock as the sun poked its head over Cook.
Once we hit the snow and were pretty close to the Low Peak, we grabbed some food and took in the views.
Unfortunately, one of the views was of the hard ice on the Summit Ridge between Middle and High Peak. We had asked a guide about the conditions a few weeks prior and had been told about the hard, boiler plate ice, created by strong westerly winds.
Rob was obviously pretty stoked to reach Low Peak! I was too, but I couldn’t help looking at how blue the GT looked. I’ve heard stories of people climbing the GT when it is covered in snow. It is quite straight-forward, and only requires the occasional pitch. I’ve also heard stories of people trying to do a GT when it is blue, and getting only 1 or 2 pitches into it and taking a fall. But we also had weather on our side, and I thought we would at least go to ‘Middle Peak Hotel’, and maybe check in there for the night and see how things were going tomorrow.
The ridge from Low Peak to Porter Col is totally different from the ridge from Middle Peak to High Peak. It’s all rock and snow – it’s funny – you turn around 180 degrees and it looks like a completely different mountain. We did a bit of pitching along some of the rock ridge, as the covering in soft snow made the footwork a bit challenging at times.
This next photo shows Middle Peak and the famous Middle Peak Hotel.
Even the parts that don’t look blue, are. There is a tiny amount of snow covering the ice. There was the same ice at the col. In some regards, this was a low point of the trip. We had found exactly what I knew we would find, but we weren’t ready to admit it. I tried hitting my axe into the ice and found it would take 2 or 3 blows in the same spot to get a tool in. The crampons would go in maybe 1mm.
I was initially keen to give it a go and push to Middle Peak Hotel and spend a night there. After all, the Hotel is only a few hundred metres away! I soon changed my mind when I tried putting an ice screw in. I needed two hands to place one – such hard ice. I’m sure some parties have climbed the GT in these winter conditions but we weren’t up for it.
We rapped off Porter Col on a V-thread and took the Empress Shelf back to Empress Hut. After a couple of raps, we downclimbed some frozen snow then walked down the shelf.
We actually made really good time – it only took about 1.5 hours from Porter Col to Empress Hut. We just got there before dark.
A new plan
Interestingly enough – once back at Empress Hut – I took a look at my phone. Not only had it managed to accidentally turn itself on, but I had a text and someone had tried to talk to me on ‘g-chat’. It turns out that there is excellent reception and full internet access at Empress Hut! I told Steve this, who updated his Facebook profile so quickly that by the time I rang my girlfriend Lorraine, she already knew where I was! Lorraine had just been at Pioneer Hut and was able to confirm that our box of hut food had been successfully delivered.
She also had some bad news in that my flatmate and his friends had tried Tasman and turned around 60m from the summit due to hard blue ice! So the next day we had perfect weather, and we sat out on the decking, trying to hatch out a plan. We had to get over to Plateau and to our food boxes. No-one was keen to walk back down the Hooker to the Village. If we were going to do that, we may as well head home.
Our solution was to climb Fyfe’s Gut to Green Saddle. This leads to the North Ridge of Cook and was the first way Cook was climbed. We thought we’d flag climbing the North Ridge part of it as most of us had already been to High Peak, and we weren’t sure if we would hit the same hard blue ice on the top. Instead, we were hoping to be able to drop down the other side of Green Saddle and link up with the Linda Glacier. Hopefully the other side was easy to descend!
We’d never heard of other parties traversing Green Saddle, although I sure they have many times. So, there is where we get a lower case ‘g’ in the gTTT name. We did a Green Saddle traverse instead of a Grand Traverse! Not as cool perhaps, but it ended up being an excellent climb. It’s funny as we knew the height of Green Saddle to be 3348m, which is only 400m lower than High Peak, and still a 850m climb from Empress Hut. But, from this angle, it looks like a piece of cake. We were wrong!
In part 2 we’ll hear the story of climbing Fyfe’s Gut to Green Saddle and the rest of the 16 days in the mountain with success, failure and adventure.