New Zealand plays host to lots of weird and quirky things that have long since passed the rest of the world by. One of those is the nutcracker ropetow. A basic, cheap ski lift design that places what is traditionally a lift designed for very mellow slopes onto steep slopes, far beyond anyones ability to simply hold on. Users grab frantically at the rope in hopes of securing their metal clips around the fraying rope before reaching the first pulley-wheel and thus be dragged up the mountain by way of a harness or belt.
You may already know all about the above, but did you know that the Ball Glacier in Mount Cook National Park was the site of one of New Zealand’s first ski fields. The access road lead up the moraines beside the Tasman Glacier and through to the original Ball Hut and rope tows. The site even hosted the New Zealand ski championships in 1933. But all that was not to last, glacial erosion and the retreating ball glacier have long since taken the original hut and any remnants of the ski field.
Left behind however, are parts of the road access and a very small (sleeps 3) DOC shelter hut. The Ball Shelter is the start of a classic New Zealand ski tour (and climbing route), crossing the Ball Pass.
The Ball Crossing in summer is usually crossed from the West to the East, but for ski touring a East to West crossing is advised. So, off I set at 5:00pm from the Tasman Lake carpark to make my way, hopefully before dark, to the Ball Shelter.
The start of the track to Ball Shelter is very easy walking, 4wds regularly drive up the road to Husky Flats, about half way to the Ball Shelter, in fact, after doing the walk, you could probably take almost any car in good weather up to about that point. For most of the walk you are trapped between the Tasman Glacier Moraine and the Mount Cook Range mountains which limit the view. But, around Mount Cook, even a limited view is pretty spectacular.
After Husky Flats, the road makes a disappearing act whilst land slips and moraine climbs and descents start to become the norm. After about an hour of hard walking, the grassy flats that the hut is perched on starts to appear and the old road comes back making an easy end to the walk. Having made it just before dark, a quick dinner, movie on the iphone and some shut eye before the big push the next day to get over the pass, was on order.
Awaking on Friday morning to what I had hoped would be a perfectly sunny day, I was surprised to find it was heavily sleeting with low cloud all around. A slow breakfast was eaten whilst the sun rose and the clouds burnt off to reveal a brief overnight storm had deposited about 10cm of fresh snow up above about 1600m. Unfortunately, getting to 1600m involved some slogging up through untracked bushland and getting pretty wet from the damp foliage in the process.
There is an old track that runs from Caroline Hut to the Ball Shelter. Unfortunately, the track has also suffered from land slips and erosion and is not present at all below the bush-line.
Once gaining the ridge, and for the whole rest of the walk, impressive views of the Caroline face of Mount Cook (towards middle peak) are present. Perspective plays weird games as occasionally the 3717m Middle Peak of Mount Cook would look like an imposing giant and other times a somewhat attainable goal. The occasional thud of an icefall avalanche of the caroline face was just a reminder that Mt Cook is a serious mountain.
Upon reaching the upper reaches of the ball ridge, Caroline Hut and Ball Pass come into view. Still a few hours off getting to the pass, but seeing your objective is always a motivator.
Caroline Hut is a commercial hut and the public can’t stay in the hut, so I continued onwards to ball pass.
Just before getting onto the upper reaches of the Ball Glacier proper, I was ridge line walking when I came across this reminder that we’re in crevasse country… The crevasse beside the rock went down at least 12 feet into darkness. Not something you’d want to fall into. I had assumed a level of safety walking along the ridge line and not on the glacier proper. Guess it was a false assumption.
In addition to the above, once on the glacier itself, the new snow was just a surface coating on the deep and still pretty isothermal snowpack sitting on top the glacier. It didn’t install confidence whilst walking and neither did the sags in the slope. About half way out, I got my probe out and kept it out the rest of the walk, probing to reassure myself I was on at least a couple of meters of snow and not walking myself out onto a crevasse.
Arriving at Ball Pass at about 3:15pm there was no time to waste if I wanted to make it back to Mount Cook village before dark. So after most of the day walking, it was finally time to get a few turns. It was nice powder skiing down the face.
Unfortunately, you need to resist the urge to head too far down fall line as to exit from Ball Pass safely, you need to traverse skiers left and regain the ridge below Mt Rosa (which involves a 5 minute bootpack) to reach an access point in the ridge that leads to what is known as the ‘football field’, a flat grassy area above the final couloir down to the valley. Once hitting the end of snow I made the quick transition back to runners and tried to follow the loosely cairn’d pathway along the long walk to White Horse carpark. Arriving just on dark, a very kind DOC officer gave me a ride back to the Tasman Lake carpark. My tired legs and I were very grateful.