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’s account of this climb first appeared in the Wellinton Section, NZAC’s newsletter ‘Vertigo’ (No.772) and featured in his presentation to the Tararua Tramping Club in June 2014. Lisa introduces Simon’s account.
I had the enormous privilege of sharing with him both of ours first trip to the Balfour, for him another of his 100 peaks that saw him travelling far and wide, and a delightful alpine rock route in an exquisite location, for me a chance to climb again with the consummate climbing partner, we never talked whilst climbing, a smile or look said it all, the perfect companion on an overnight sitting bivy, and great company in the tent, we’d chat for too long and yes Simon could gossip but only benignly of course.
Simon has left a great legacy with those fortunate enough to climb with him, I have no doubt he will be a part of all their future endeavours as he will mine. My thoughts are with you and hope you find strength in Simon’s gentle competent delightful person.
Ever since I started sport climbing, almost a decade ago, I’ve heard people talk about the rock routes on Mts Magellan and Drake in the remote Balfour Glacier of Mount Cook National Park. However, it wasn’t until last year that I personally talked to someone who had actually been rock climbing in the Balfour! It is a much talked about region but ascents of Magellan and Drake are relatively uncommon.
The ‘modern’ rock routes in the Balfour were established in the late 80s and 90s. So what’s the appeal? Where else in New Zealand can you rock climb 8 or more pitches on trad gear, top out on the summit of a 3000m peak while leaving your heavy snow climbing gear at the base of the route, and safely abseil off double-bolt anchors?
A period of settled weather in March arrived and I sent out a last minute email to try and get a climbing partner to come into the Balfour. I was stoked when Lisa agreed, particularly as I had already had one attempt to get into the Balfour this summer (that trip was aborted due to a poor forecast).
Accessing the Balfour (Day 1)
The Balfour Glacier is a no-fly zone. Parties climbing the rock routes on Magellan and Drake most commonly access the Balfour from Katies Col. This route is quite favourable in late season conditions (i.e. when the rock routes aren’t covered in snow) and is more suited to carrying in large amounts of gear. I hesitate to say access is easy, particularly with a large pack, but navigation is straightforward and it beats climbing over Mt Silberhorn, a 3000m peak!
We drove to Fox township and the next day (day 1) at 10 am caught a helicopter to the designated landing strip near Big Mac. From here it took about one hour to reach Katies Col and a further four hours to traverse into the Balfour. The last part of the traverse involves descending a steep and icy snow slope. Fortunately this section is equipped with stainless steel double-bolt anchors at the top and halfway down. We left a 8.1mm rope hanging at the lower bolts (we flew in with 3 ropes). The decision to leave a rope here was based on a recommendation from someone I met at Pioneer Hut last winter. His party had downclimbed the snow slope. While they were busy rock climbing in the Balfour the schrund at the bottom of the slope collapsed. The party had to exit the Balfour via Mt Silberhorn and take the long way around to Katies Col to catch their flight out!
We set up our tent in a flat part of the Balfour Glacier and took a good look at Magellan and Drake. We had come in with some ideas about which route to climb but we soon changed our minds when we saw the mountains up close!
Choice of route
Our initial plan was to climb the Balfour Buttress on Magellan. This is the longest route (15 pitches) but also the easiest (crux 15, mostly 10-12). However, while we noted the condition of the bolts we encountered while abseiling into the Balfour was excellent, we couldn’t be sure about the quality of the bolts on Magellan. The bolts were placed in 1996 and are on a route called ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’. I hadn’t been able to confirm if anyone had actually climbed Magellan since 1996 and used the abseil line.
My concern with climbing Balfour Buttress was that we could get to the summit of Magellan and then find some bolts were deteriorated or had been sheared off with ice movement in winter (I’ve seen this before on Pudding Rock). We then changed our objective to ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’, the logic being we could inspect the bolted anchors while we climbed the route. As a bonus, if we had enough of the climb we could simply abseil off.
Of course, the main problem with this choice of route was the difficulty. This route is a grade 6-! Would I be able to climb the ‘punch in the guts’ first pitch? (a 45m crack which approaches vertical for the last 15 metres, a sustained grade 19). Probably not I thought, but at least the gear is good!
The 35 hour guitar lesson (Days 2 and 3)
Day 2 probably didn’t start as early as it should have. We convinced ourselves that as it wouldn’t take long to access the base of the route (we allowed only 1 hour), and that since it would take a few hours after daylight for the sun to touch and dry the rock, we didn’t need to get up too early. Actually, we were simply tired from the walk in and from our everyday lives and didn’t want to get up too early!
Although March is pretty late season, we had met some guides at Fox who were about to take clients up Lendenfeld Peak, the sort of climb that is normally done in November / December. Snow conditions were great in general, but we still managed to reach a couple of dead-ends (wide crevasses) and getting to the base of the route was somewhat challenging and time consuming.
We found a bolt at the start of the route and it was in excellent condition. This was very reassuring. There was some evidence that it had been hit by stones, but it was only slightly chipped. By the time we had stashed our snow climbing gear and actually started to climb it was 1pm! We each climbed with a bag. I had a small running bag (15L) with a down jacket and some food and water. Lisa had a bigger bag but it was mostly empty. In addition to what I had she carried the PLB and Jetboil stove. Half-way up the route there was a snow patch which would provide us with plenty of water from our stove and single gas canister.
I stared up at pitch one. It looked every bit as difficult as I had imagined. I normally avoid crack climbing or just try and climb them via a lay-back. This almost works on a 10m crack, but not so well on a 45m one! Of course we didn’t tape our hands up (or even have spare tape available) so I just did my best to keep my skin. I think it is fair to say this is the hardest pitch I’ve ever climbed in the mountains. When I say pitch, I mean 3. That’s right, once I ran out of gear at 25m I simply built an anchor and bought up Lisa. I repeated this again before finally completing ‘pitch 1’ and finding the first bolt anchor.
On this climb I had 13 cams and managed to use about 10. On a 50m pitch that would give about a 5m spacing between gear. I’m happy with that on climbs where I’m very unlikely to fall but not when I’m climbing at my limit and beyond. After several hours, many rests, quite a bit of pulling on cams, some loss of skin and one lead fall just as I was topping out, we finally arrived at the top of pitch one! If only I had taken guitar lessons! By this stage I was fairly sure that there was no way we would reach the summit before dark. However, we both ignored this fact, finished the last of our water in the hot afternoon sun and continued on with the climb.
Pitch 1 had left me shattered but I carried on leading the remainder of the pitches to the summit. Pitch 2 (16) was really enjoyable, although the fatigue from pitch 1 made it challenging. The last part involved climbing a massive semi-detached block about 10m high. The block was very solid, but don’t be below it in a major earthquake!
Interestingly, the Shogun route on Drake now has a new start as the bottom 20m or so of the buttress has fallen off. Pitches 3 (15) and 4 (14) were quite easy but I managed to mess up the route finding a bit and had to downclimb almost half of pitch 3.
It was starting to get dark by the time we started pitch 4. We were hoping to find the snowy slabby area soon and kept an eye out for a good bivvy ledge. Towards the end of the pitch we found an ‘acceptable’ rock ledge which was a few steps away from snow (our source of water and warmth). We put in an anchor and got ready for a night of star-watching!
This is the second open bivvy that Lisa and I have shared, the first being on Malte Brun. I simply won’t do the kind of route where an open bivvy is a possibility without an excellent forecast. In this case, we could have descended in the dark and got back to our tent. But that would have spelt the end of our climbing trip. Neither of us would have been keen to get up the next day and repeat pitch 1! Fixing a rope was an option but it seemed easier to spend the night on route.
The evening started with an amazing sunset over the West Coast. Cloud covered the ocean but over land the sky was cloudless. This was followed by several hot drinks to rehydrate and warm us. A moon accompanied us for the first half of the night and psychologically made us warmer. Speaking of warmth, there wasn’t much. The down jackets were great but we had no shoes except our rock shoes. Lisa had the large (30L) bag and used this for warmth. I had to make do with some dry thick socks and my climbing pants (no long-johns). There was no wind overnight.
Every hour or so we would boil water and put it in our Nalgines. These make excellent hot water bottles and once the water has cooled down a bit, drinking it provides further warmth. As the moon descended over the horizon so did our spirits. Sleeping for more than a few minutes at a time wasn’t possible due to the cold and the fact that whenever I fell asleep I’d lean over from my sitting position which would wake me up. Everything was secured to the anchor so we couldn’t actually fall off our ledge but we could slide down it a bit which was quite uncomfortable.
We got going shortly after light on day 3. The sun wouldn’t be on the rock for hours but we were eager to get moving and warm again. The remaining 4 pitches to the summit were quite straightforward (13, 15, 13, 8) and we made good progress to the summit. We summited at 11:30am and soaked up the excellent views. I scoped out Mt Torres, the Balfour Face of Mt Tasman and the North Face of Mt Hicks as possible future climbs while we enjoyed another drink and the remains of yesterday’s lunch.
The abseil descent was relatively smooth, although I had managed to drop my belay device on the ascent (a habit of mine) so I had to abseil on a double Munter hitch. The resulting rope twist may have contributed to us getting the rope stuck once. Getting this free required me to ascend some of pitch 2 again which was quite unappealing, particularly in our tired states.
Once off the rock pitches we still had quite a bit of work to get back to our tent. The afternoon snow was very soft and we did some further abseils off rock bands where possible. Our last major obstacle was a schrund type feature near a rock band. We had sidled this on ascent but abseiling this way would be problematic. Fortunately we found a novel solution, which was to abseil through a narrow gap between the rock and the snow. We finally arrived back at our tent at 7pm. It was great to finally be back and have a proper meal and a good night’s sleep. We promptly abandoned any plans for climbing Drake the following day and our thoughts turned to home.
Aftermath (Days 4 and 5)
Day 4 saw us depart the Balfour around 9:30am. Three hours later we were at Katies Col and set up the mountain radio to ask for a ride out. Unfortunately, the cloud had already came in from the sea and covered Fox township making flying impossible. Helicopters were flying earlier in the day and we wished we had gotten up earlier. We descended to the landing strip and set up camp once again. The remainder of the afternoon was spent eating, drinking and enjoying the excellent weather and views. Actually, it was actually neat to spend one more day in the hills before returning to civilisation!
On day 5 we were picked up at 8am and returned to Fox for a much deserved shower and hot breakfast. Later that day in Christchurch we met Peter Dickson who put up many of the routes in the ’80s and ’90s and told him about the climb we had done. We managed to do about the only climb on Drake and Magellan that he hadn’t done!
I really enjoyed our trip into the Balfour. Despite the first pitch of our chosen route being a bit too hard for us, we managed to tick the peak and, more importantly, have a great adventure on the way. I’ll be back for Drake. In the meantime, I’d better take up guitar lessons – aka crack climbing!