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 January 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.
“Imagine,” I said to my climbing partner, “if we just keep cruising up the ridge. It looks sweet, aye. Hang on, I’ll just run over to the last rock buttress before ‘the gap’ and check it out.”
This was in March 2011 and we had just walked up the Coral Track and along the first part of Rome Ridge to the ridge which joins with Avalanche Peak. Having set off from the carpark at the leisurely time of 11am, and having no technical gear, the continuation of the climb up Rome Ridge was unfortunately at the time, just a dream.
Fast forward to July 2011 and I’m standing at the base of the last rock buttress before ‘the gap’, same place and still imagining climbing the rest of Rome Ridge. This time it becomes a reality.
Rome Ridge was my first trip with the TTC since becoming a member in May. My climbing companions were Stu, who had climbed Rome Ridge before but was back with the lure of High Peak, Dan and Rob. The schedule for the Rome Ridge trip was something like this:
12:30am Finally get to bed in NZAC hut (Arthur’s Pass) after working, flying, shopping, driving and packing.
2:47am My alarm goes off – a loud “Cock a doodle do.”
3:40am We start walking up the Coral Track.
6:00am After charging up the hill we come to the first major rock buttress on the ridge. We decide to traverse left and drop to avoid it. After traversing some of it and seeing some alarmingly large cracks appearing in the snow above us as we load a snow slope we decide to head up to the gendarme instead. This makes for interesting mixed climbing with just enough snow and ice to make it difficult. Half way up and it’s starting to get light.
7:30am At the top of the rock buttress there is debate whether to stay high on the ridge as I did in March or drop down and avoid the last rock buttress as Stu did last time. We decide to drop but after a while it becomes apparent that this will involve a lot of height loss and we decide to go back up again!
8:00am The climb up to the final rock buttress before ‘the gap’ looks much worse than last time when I climbed it on rock. We get a rope out and I offer to lead the pitch. It’s maybe 15m high with no protection except almost at the top where I place a sling before climbing out of a cave via some nice under-clings. Climbing mixed is pretty new to me. It’s pretty fun in a focused, run-out kind of way. I belay the others up. This pitch ended up being the crux of the ridge.
9:30am We are all on top of the last rock buttress and walk along, then start downclimbing it most of the way towards ‘the gap’ and rap off a sling and piton for the last 15m or so.
10:30am After rapping down to ‘the gap’ we drop 20m towards the Goldney Glacier on an easy snow slope and then traverse and regain the ridge. We find a piton here and I use it to belay up Dan.
11:30am Lunch time. We all feel we are making kind of slow progress due to the mixed conditions but Stu reassures us that we have got the hard stuff out of the way.
3:30pm Having spent the last few hours cruising up the ridge in poor snow conditions and loose rock we are finally getting close to the low peak. The weather has been excellent but alas winter days are short. We have to traverse from one ridge to another via a snow gully. We decide to pitch. It turns out the snow is well frozen here but given the poorly bonded snow we had encountered below this was a good call.
4:30pm We all arrive at Low Peak! Sweet, Rome Ridge done. Nice. A quick look west shows the usual access route to High Peak via the Crow Glacier is out of condition with large crevasses. According to softrock.co.nz there is only 10% of the snow in Arthur’s Pass for this time of year. High Peak via Middle Peak is theoretically an option but we are all keen to get off the mountain ASAP. Descent is down Goldney Ridge for a few hundred metres and then down ‘the slide’. We set off at a frantic pace with the aim of getting to the top of ‘the slide’ before dark. We end up doing one abseil just above the Goldney Glacier. I head off around the corner and then climb back up to the col which is at the top of ‘the slide’. Poor Rob later admitted to being somewhat dismayed when he saw me climbing up again so soon after an abseil. He thought we had dropped into the wrong place. But have faith Rob. It all works out. I see the top of ‘the slide’ just before dark.
6:00pm We downclimb the col and arrive at ‘the slide’. The snow is waist high in a few places but generally OK.
7:00pm It’s about this time that I start telling the others “It’s only about 30 minutes to the top of the Otira Valley,” and then one hour or so later, “It’s only about 30 minutes to the track.” The Otira Valley is slow going. The snow covered rock goes on and on and my claims are believed less and less as time wears us down. At 9:15pm we finally hit the track.
10:00pm We finally hit the road. Just a nice 3km walk along the highway back to the car to finish things off.
10:40pm We are back at the car and no one has broken in. Nice.
10:50pm The pub is closed so we head back to the lodge and cook dinner. It’s been a 19 hour day on two hours sleep. Totally worth it though. It’s been another great day in the hills!
Sunday was spent recovering and a few hours at Castle Hill doing some easy climbs and boulder problems with no boulder mat and no energy! Monday proved to be another excellent day weather wise. Rob and Dan made light work of Mt Philistine while I got on a bus to Hokitika and Stu took it easy. Thanks guys for making me feel welcome on my first trip. Plenty more to come!
I wanted to share a brief story from one trip I did with Simon back in July 2011 which I think demonstrates the kind of person he was.
I was 20 years old at the time and had been climbing for a few years. The objective was to climb Mt Rolleston via Rome Ridge, with Rob Hawes and Stu Hutson as well. We arrived at Arthur’s Pass at 12.30am after flying down from Wellington in the evening and driving a rental car to Arthur’s Pass. After sleeping for 2 hours, we were up again and leaving the lodge to get to the start of the track.
The climb took much longer than expected. By 4:30pm we had reached Low Peak, but since it was so late we had to abandon our objective of getting to the top of High Peak. I found the climb along Rome Ridge quite terrifying. There was significant exposure and the conditions were pretty bad – new soft snow on top of loose rock. It was the hardest climb I had done so far. At one point, I knocked a rock about the size of a microwave loose, and I lost my nerve and called out to Simon to ask if he could lower a rope for me. He did, very quickly, and for the rest of the climb he reassured me in his steady, encouraging voice, that I would get through the climb OK. It made a world of difference to know that he had my back. We finished the climb late but I was so stoked to have finished it!
Simon was a much better climber than me, but I think this demonstrates that for him the whole experience was about making sure the team enjoyed the climb, which I am grateful for.