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.
By Steve Dowall (12th to 15th December 2014)
It had been a flight of contemplation as I landed in Christchurch to meet Simon again. The weather was clearing and the much anticipated weather window was said to be on its way. We were both determined to tackle our long planned Torres – Tasman traverse. We had looked over at Torres Peak West Ridge from La Perouse summit a week earlier, anticipating the route, the rock steps on the ridge, the col beyond Torres Peak (3160m), and the options for the bivvy that would be required.
I had been in Wellington for a few days seeing my wife, Sovann, and a couple of days prior had agreed with Simon that a weather window was on the way and that we would meet in Christchurch on the 11th of December before driving to the West Coast and Fox Glacier. Simon hadn’t needed to drive to Christchurch. He could more easily have gone over the Haast Pass from Wanaka where he was staying, a much shorter way round for him. In his typically obliging way he had proposed that he drive via Christchurch so we could meet up there, prepare and drive together to Fox. “You pay the petrol for the extra miles and I’m happy to drive,” Simon said. There was also Lisa and Peter to meet, the other two in our party.
The next day we launched into our long drive to Fox with lots of good reminiscing to do from our La Perouse climb, along with reflections each of us had done at different times on fun climbs in the Arthur’s Pass region, as we climbed to the pass and headed for the coast. We weren’t too concerned if a flight into Katie’s Col wasn’t possible that evening, but we would make sure we were at Fox in time to do so if the weather allowed.
We met Lisa and Peter in Hokitika getting some last minute supplies, and of course had a final latte and hot scone. Simon loved his pit stops when on the road. Invariably it meant a roadside cafe for coffee and something sweet.
We pulled into Fox about 3:00pm and sure enough the chopper would fly. It was going to be a quick sort and pack of our gear to make the proposed 4.00pm take off. As usual Simon beat me to the line with all his gear on board and me still messing around with my boots and putties. We had changed on the roadside at the helipad with not a concern in the world for passing traffic! With all four of us aboard, we were soon hovering above the glacier and rising to our intended bivvy that night at Katie’s Col. The chopper would set us down on the Fox Neve at the base of the col.
We had a party of four but we roped in two pairs. Lisa and Peter had laid plans to head directly for Pioneer Hut after the traverse and so had arranged for an extra box of food to be flown in.
Simon and I on the other hand had made best use of the drive over and came up with quite a different scheme. Our packs were ready with two supermarket bags of food supplies that we planned to dig into the snow at the base of the col. After the traverse we would circle back and across the neve to Katie’s Col again. Simon, with a bit of cajoling, and faith in the weather, had proposed that we then make a ‘quick’ side trip into the Balfour and give the Balfour Face of Tasman a go. He’d been there earlier in the year when he’d nailed a classic and rarely climbed route with Lisa Wynne called ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ on Mt Magellan. (Chapter 21).
So Simon was familiar with the route into the Balfour and convinced that if we had a weather window of three days after coming off the traverse that it would work. Not without a hint of anxiety, I had agreed, thinking who better to do it with than Simon. If necessary we could always bail out right off the face and onto the Silberhorn -Tasman ridge. The Balfour Face would be a challenge for me, but with a bit of “You’ll be good,” encouragement from Simon we agreed to give it a go – if the weather allowed and we still had the energy after coming off the Torres – Tasman traverse.
After burying our food stash and marking the GPS coordinates we began our plod up to the col, about 350m elevation gain. Lisa and Peter were already well up but with a good pace we closed the gap and after cautiously crossing two or three slots reached the col. “Great! We’re here. Plenty of room for a good bivvy site so choose your spot,” I said. The views were fantastic, back across the Fox Neve behind us, down the glacier to the coast and, most of all, over into the Balfour and across to the North Face of Mt Hicks.
Simon and the others had great pleasure in laughing at my renaming of ‘Big Mac’ up to our right beyond Receveur Peak off the col. Being away in very different environments overseas for long stretches on work assignments means that I often get names round the wrong way. My first reference to Big Mac was to call it ‘Hamburger Hill’! “Oh that’s right,” I said, “That’s in Viet Nam. What do you call this one?”
We busied ourselves digging out a bivvy platform big enough for the four of us and our gear. Getting a flat area good enough for a comfortable sleep meant shifting the snow dug out at the top and packing it on the bottom area for our feet. This made for a natural wall at one end but we had to cut ourselves lumps of snow to build up a wall around the windward side of the platform. This took a while but after a couple of hours we had our bivvy site sorted, bivvy bags out and dinner on.
Simon and I were sharing a Jetboil cooker, as were Peter and Lisa, so it was a one by one process to get a meal. I had brought three backcountry meals with me, two dinners and one breakfast. I figured that would provide for the easiest cooking; the second breakfast would just have to be the same old same old Uncle Toby’s porridge, if I could force it down in the icy cold at 3.00am in the morning.
The Jetboil was Simon’s. This was a very well used Jetboil. It came on all our trips, and the many that Simon did in between with others. It was always in his pack on summit day and religiously came out for a hot drink when we stopped for a breather. I never bothered with hot drinks during the day when with other climbing partners but I had to admit I was getting used to the ease with which the Jetboil could get a brew ready, even when perched precariously at a belay station! Simon’s advice was good. A hot drink goes a long way to restoring your energy and warming you up.
Simon was very protective of his Jetboil though. My efforts at sharing the work always got a “No worries,” reply from Simon. “Gotta be careful when boiling snow without any water in the bottom,” he frequently reminded me. He had it down to a fine art – drop a small handful of snow in, light up, swish it round, and only add more snow once the first snow is melted and a good cover of water is in the bottom.
With dinner over and another layer of clothing on we sorted our gear, agreeing who would carry what. Torres West Ridge is a good mixed climb with a fair amount of snow and ice, and rock. We had brought four ice screws and two snow stakes each, two of Simon’s double action cams for the rock, a set of nuts, and a piton or two along with all the usual slings and quick draws. The idea was to keep our packs as light as possible, especially given we were carrying the bivvy gear as well.
By the time we were ready to climb into our bags the sky was growing dark. It was going to be a perfect starlit night. As for all such bivvies the stars became a subject of conversation. At least this time we could see them. Our bivvies up the Hooker on the La Perouse trip the week before had been dim, dark, wet, windy and cold affairs. This time the bivvy site was a picture of organisation. We each had our sharp gear; crampons, ice tools, snow stakes and shovel lined up at the head of the bivvy. Packs were at the ready beside our heads, and the essentials needed when first rising in the morning; head torch, gloves, jacket, and full bottle of water, all inside our bags to avoid them freezing. Head torches off we all settled back in anticipation of the big climb ahead. This was one of New Zealand’s classics.
I was the only one of the four of us that had been on the West Ridge before. Tom Wilson and I had given the ridge a go in 2008. The day had been perfect, but we decided to climb Torres from Pioneer Hut. That added another two and a half hours to each end of the day. Although we got high on the ridge we realised that the most time consuming part of the climb was the last 200m of elevation and that was still ahead of us. We had turned back and finally stumbled into the hut about an hour after dark. It had always bugged me that we had not made the summit that time.
Setting our alarm for 2.30am, we planned to be away from the bivvy by 4.00am. We wanted to make the Torres summit early enough for us to carry on and make our second bivvy high on the shoulder of Tasman. We broke camp with Lisa and Peter leading out followed by Simon and me. The snow was firm and the going good. Simon was striding it out in front but for some reason I was making hard work of it. Clearly my muscles were still stiff from the La Perouse climb and were going to take a bit of work to warm up. It’s a long grunt on front points up to the West Ridge and so the muscles were well warm by the time we topped out.
Problem was that we topped out into a howling gale. The wind was a good 60km/h or more up high. As I stood up on the ridge or rather tried to stand up, Peter looked at me and said, “No way I’m going on in this.” Simon on my other side just looked at me. We exchanged looks both thinking the same. Peter’s right. We would be stupid to go on in this wind. Parts of the ridge are well exposed and we didn’t want anyone blown off.
All four of us turned tail and started front pointing down again. We made a beeline for the bivvy site. Arriving an hour later, the sun was well up; it was flat calm and fast warming up. “Second breakfast it is then,” said Simon, and we all set about reorganising the bivvy site.
It was exceptionally hot as we waited the day out. We spent much of the time stripped down and hiding under our jackets. A conference discussion on what to do became an on again off again affair. The wind needed to abate up high, but with the temperature rising so much during the day and the freezing level well above 3000m, the snow conditions on the summit ridge of Tasman didn’t bode well for doing the traverse. We eventually dropped those plans and decided we’d be satisfied if we could score at least the West Ridge and Torres summit.
The next morning saw us away again well before dawn, this time with our bivvy gear left behind and much lighter packs. We moved fast and topped out on the lower West Ridge early at about 7.00am. Today it was flat calm so we basked in the sun and the contemplation of a great climb ahead. The views across the Fox Neve were just as I remembered them – dramatic. We looked up the Balfour and across to Aoraki/Cook’s ice cap. Peter had us all study the North Face of Mt Hicks as he pointed out some of the climbs he had done in his heyday. Simon studied Mt Drake, picking out the route he hoped to do later in January.
Away again, we agreed to climb solo, roping up only where the exposure was too much for comfort. Fortunately all four of us had similar tolerance levels and so the decision to rope up was usually mutual. We made good time on the lower section of the ridge. The snow was firm and front pointing was fast. It’s easy to understand why it’s labelled a classic. The ridge rises through a series of steep ice arêtes and rock steps. As we topped each, more would be revealed beyond, providing for a zig zag climb as if a stairway to heaven. The views off both sides are majestic and the drop to the glaciers below dramatic, Abel Janszoon on the Fox side and Balfour on the south side. The vistas steadily grew as we rose towards the summit.
The crux of the climb had us all perched at the base of a rock step about 50-60m high. I recalled that this was probably the rock step where Tom and I had turned back seven years earlier. Peter was on for a lead so agreed to work his way round on the Balfour side. The first 20 metres was snow and ice and with Lisa belaying and Simon and I watching he inched his way up to the rock. Not liking the step onto the rock he dropped back and searched for a route further round on the ice. Feeling increasingly exposed and unhappy to be only on a single rope he retreated to our perch.
Simon with a simple smile and reassuring look volunteered to give it a go, and so with me belaying him on a double rope he moved out onto the slope and confidently up to the base of the rock.
Here his double action cams came in handy and with protection placed, he manoeuvred his long legs with typical agility onto the rock. Metre by metre he moved up the crux placing protection every few metres until he topped out, almost out of sight, onto a large rock high on the ridge. “What a lead!” we all agreed.
I followed and with Simon belaying from above had no trouble topping out beside him at his comfortable stance against his anchor rock perched on the knife edge ridge. With Lisa and Peter following below on the same rope, I unclipped and moved on up the ridge. There was no room for all of us there.
With the crux behind us and only a few more scrambles ahead we soon arrived at the summit arête. So often I had studied this knife edge line on the horizon from across the Fox neve, wondering just what it was like on top. Finally we were here, on a nice rounded arête leading to the high point where Lisa and Peter had already perched themselves for a late lunch, with legs hanging down the Balfour side. Simon brought up the rear with his head popping up above the snow arête just 20m below us. “Stop!” I called out. “That’s a great photo.” Simon duly stopped and waited with a big grin as I caught the moment along with a vista to end all vistas stretching out behind him to the West Coast and Tasman Sea beyond.
Lunches were usually cracker affairs. A few crackers that is, cheese and salami or a tin of tuna. Simon always had a great array of snack food, usually in three or four snaplock bags from which he picked and poked until he got his fill. I, with trusty gerber in hand, fiddled with half broken crackers and pre-cut slices of cheese and salami. Simon, always with a seemingly endless supply of ‘One Square Meal’ bars, always finished with a chocolate OSM!
The sun was strong and it was comfortable on our perch studying the many lines and routes on Drake, Magellan and Haast in the distance, with the long and cut up Balfour Glacier winding away below us to the coast. We had no trouble passing half an hour on the summit. As nice as it was though, no summit is climbed until all are down and back at camp. We agreed that the quickest way down was to retrace our steps but this time with a series of rappels on our two 60m ropes.
Rope length by rope length we quickly dropped altitude, covering ground with our rappels that had taken much caution and effort on the way up. While rapping is fast, with four of us it still took time to get all of us down each rap, gather the rope, re-set the anchor and toss the rope for the next drop. Needless to say we had a few tangles and found ourselves perching in precarious spots untangling the rope. By the time we reached the bottom of our last rap the setting sun was giving us a beautiful golden light, the light that pro photographers dream about. For us the backdrop on the lower West Ridge was dramatic, with the snow appearing a fiery orange and the sky darkening out across the Tasman.
The drop back down to Katie’s Col and our bivvy site was uneventful. As we stood up off our front points to turn and walk down the last slope, I noted that getting off the West Ridge seemed to go on for ever this time. Neither Simon nor I were losing any time as we moved fast with long backwards strides off our front points, but we both agreed that it was further than it looked, and that was probably exaggerated by it being late in the day with our minds firmly fixed on the bivvy and dinner.
Back at the bivvy we once again had a perfect starlit evening. Having all agreed that we were satisfied with our achievement and that we would call for a chopper in the morning, we set about packing and organising for clearing camp. Our earlier thoughts of doing a side trip into the Balfour faded. We agreed there was good prospect of getting caught at the head of the Balfour as the weather window closed.
We had done well to steal two good climbs from a season with such poor weather. It had taken us six bivvy nights to do it. As I settled down in my bag I drifted off into a satisfied sleep to the sound of Simon sorting his gear and getting everything into its right bag and properly stowed for the morning. Simon – always perfectly organised I thought.
I always feel as if I’m cheating when lifting off in a chopper, this time with the flight off the neve covering the otherwise long and full day’s trek out in a mere ten minutes. In fact in the time we could have trekked back to Fox Township, Simon and I were already back in Wanaka. After landing, changing, calling family, and having the compulsory latte and scone, we parted ways, with Peter and Lisa heading north for Christchurch, and Simon and I south for Wanaka.
The drive to Wanaka is always a treat from Fox Glacier. The last time I had done it was also with Simon and after a satisfying alpine traverse from Mt Cook Village to Fox Village. Today it was perfect and as we made our way south along the coast to Haast we drifted in and out of conversation, reflecting on climbs and new routes for the future.
We arrived back in Wanaka in nice time for me to catch the Budget shuttle back to Fairlie where I would meet up with family. I had said to Simon after agreeing how we would square up, that I reckoned I still had a debt to pay. One last coffee before we go our separate ways. “Sounds good,” said Simon, “but how about we do an ice cream instead? Wanaka’s Night ‘n Day Store does the country’s best ice cream.”
So we sat together there and enjoyed ice cream as we watched the Budget shuttle pull in across the road. Little did I know that would be the last time I would see Simon. Those last reflections on our La Perouse and Torres climbs, along with my words of gratitude as I remembered how much I appreciated Simon’s skill and company, were God given. The news that Simon did not return from his Mt Earnslaw climb just one month later came very hard.