By Helen Liley and Sylvie Admore (January 2015)

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.

We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Simon’s Trips here on Wilderlife. If you would like the complete PDF, Simon’s Trips may be downloaded here, and a donation made here.

Helen’s Account

We met Simon on the second day of a planned 12 day trip to the Gardens of Eden and Allah. We left from Erewhon station, and arrived at Lyell Hut two days later, after a horrible bushbash down from Butler Saddle.

It was a pleasant, and somewhat serendipitous surprise to find the fairly isolated hut occupied on arrival. Simon had spent that day climbing Malcolm Peak — a 15 hour solo effort. This was after his climbing partner Alan had to retire from the trip early after losing his boot on their approach.

After talking to him for a while about our plans, Simon expressed his interest in joining us for the remainder of our trip – I think mostly due to there being a chance to tick Tyndall off his list! I think it is a testament to his character that we unanimously agreed that this would be an awesome idea, despite having only known the guy for a couple of hours. Simon gave a first impression of being really good value, with a wry and brilliant sense of humour. Something that only strengthened the more we got to know him.

Our group had another 9 days of food with us, and Simon only had about 6. He decided to solve this problem by going through some abandoned food drops at the hut from pre-2008. This landed him with a huge bag of alcoholic smelling scroggin, some orange coloured bacon bits and some other unidentified dried things. These were ordered into levels of emergency – with the scroggin being last. We spent the following day relaxing at the hut, before heading up the Lyell the morning after.

I had warned Simon when he was keen to join us, that he was putting himself in for many days of terrible attempts at jokes and awful banter. This didn’t seem to worry him at all, and indeed, I think it was very soon that he joined in on the general piss-taking. At one stage, while talking about the Girdlestone – Tahurangi traverse, Sylvie mentioned that she would “feel like such a huge boss if I did that”, Simon quietly commented, “Oh, I did it… felt like a huge boss.”

It was also on the way up the Lyell that Simon somehow got established as the group photographer. We only had two other cameras in our group, and mine stayed forgotten in my pocket for most of it. He did an outstanding job of this, taking over 650 photos throughout the trip. I think Sylvie sent you (Lorraine) the link to this, and he is indeed very talented – the photos are amazing!

Throughout our trip, we were constantly reminded how lucky we were to have picked up such a knowledgeable, fit and entertaining companion. Whether it was plugging steps up slushy hot snow slopes, discussing camping spots or navigation, or planning summit routes, Simon was an integral and valued part of the group.

Sam, Björn, Sylvie, Stephen and Helen at ‘The Fortress of Allah’. Photo credit: Simon Bell

He was a careful, and obviously highly skilled climber, and although we didn’t come across any difficult terrain on our trip beyond one fairly exposed pitch, we were all suitably awed when he showed us his route up Malcolm Peak on the way past.

We spent a few days on the Gardens, mostly just doing half day trips, and playing a lot of 500. Stephen and I, not being coffee drinkers, had previously banned all coffee breaks as time wasting and annoying. Simon was quick to change this, beating us to every waypoint and whipping out his Jetboil, having the brew prepared by the time we got there. Bjoern, Sam and Sylvie were loving it.

Setting up for a morning brew. Photo credit: Björn Striebing

Eventually we decided to head down, having climbed a good number of peaks, the highlight of which was probably Mt Farrar – which had a brilliant rock scramble to the ridge, and a fun run down a slushy slope, and concluded the trip with a pleasant exit down the Clyde.

Walk out down the Frances River to the Clyde. Photo credit: Simon Bell

From Erewhon, we all jammed into the car somehow, and headed for Twizel, where we said goodbye to Simon, with the promise of meeting up again in a couple of days to do the Single Cone – Double Cone traverse. This turned into climbing at Wye Creek, due to road access problems. It was after this that Simon told us his plans of climbing Earnslaw, and it was the last time we saw him.

It’s funny how some people you can know for years, and they don’t really leave a lasting impact on your life, and some people you only know for such a short while, and they strike you as being really special and unique. Simon was one of those people. I have been following all your (Lorraine’s) posts on facebook, which are so beautifully put, and speak of such an amazing individual. I wish so much we had a chance to know him better.

Sylvie’s Account

The drive back to Helen’s house in Alexandra feels like no time at all because I sleep the entire way. Helen’s border collie welcomes us back with much tail-wagging. We’re knackered but keen to chat about our trip to Helen’s inquisitive parents as well as anyone else over the next few weeks who seems as though they might be remotely interested. The first thing we mention to these people isn’t the spectacular climb up Newton or Farrar, it’s not our self-built fortress on the Garden of Allah or the cascading icefalls below Snowy Peak, it’s not even the amazing days we spent at Adams Col; our first sentences all go something like: “It was incredible and, funny story, we met this awesome dude on day two who decided to come along for the rest of the trip!”

As a general rule the New Zealand backcountry is not a great place to meet new people, in fact I would say that it’s fairly unlikely that you meet anyone at all. Meeting someone who didn’t complain about the layer of our gear spread across the entire hut and who patiently tolerated our barely smirk-inducing jokes would have been enough. The fact that we were lucky enough to meet someone who subsequently contributed to our gear explosions at each campsite and who actively joined in on our often subpar banter is really quite special.

An example of this was his explanation of his unique approach to ‘smart-casual’ dress codes. “These are great,” he explained, indicating his beige zip-off trousers. “If you go on a trip and then come back to the pub you can just flash them up by zipping off the muddy bit.” We’re fairly sure this was a genuine piece of advice, unfortunately the image of a beige-shirted Simon in beige shorts and mountaineering boots with two buffs obscuring most of his face trying to get into a Ponsonby bar was just too funny to be taken seriously. 

Simon also taught us a hell of a lot about moving in the mountains. His calm, careful approach to alpine climbing won him a quiet admiration from all of our party; while his laid-back manner, sense of humour and a common love of being in the mountains ensured him our friendship.

The AUTC team approach the summit of Newton Peak. Photo credit: Simon Bell

We will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Simon’s Trips here on Wilderlife. If you would like the complete PDF, Simon’s Trips may be downloaded here, and a donation made here.