altitude training northern beaches

Tackling the Ball Pass Crossing in the New Zealand Alps

“What the hell am I doing up here?” I must have said that to myself hundreds of times over the course of our 3 day trek over the Ball Pass Crossing in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. It’s an exhausting hilarious inner dialogue that goes round and round in my head.
Nikki and I had worked out a window to get into the mountains of New Zealand and do one of their famous Great Walks but we felt that we wanted to push ourselves a little harder than these more well-trodden paths. Our online searches led to a trek we’d never heard of called The Ball Pass Crossing.
Tasman Glacier Valley
“For the guided Ball Pass Crossing you need to have lots of previous trekking, backpacking, tramping or bushwalking experience. This trek is beginner mountaineering and is more demanding than other guided hikes in New Zealand, such as the Milford or Routeburn Tracks, because it is alpine, traverses snow fields and a small glacier and there is no track in parts. Where there is a track it is narrow, uneven and you have to place your feet carefully. Particularly on the third day there are steep rock scree slopes to descend and even on the first day, while walking parallel to the Tasman Glacier, there are unstable moraine slopes to negotiate. If you are planning to walk the Milford and Routeburn Tracks or any of the other Great Walks, then it is best to do these prior to the Ball Pass Crossing, because those hikes are much easier.”
Excellent! Except to do this they say you need the following ‘prerequisites’:
* be very fit (be able to climb up 300 vertical metres within an hour)
* have extensive hiking, tramping or bushwalking experience
* be able to walk nimbly over steep, rugged, untracked and exposed terrain
* be able to hike or climb 9-10 hours in a day without difficulty
* be sure-footed, well-coordinated and have good balance
* have no fear of heights or problems with vertigo
Uh oh… I’ve done a lot of trekking including multi-day, heavy pack journeys and our base level of fitness thanks to training at Joe’s is excellent so the fitness elements weren’t an issue but I am RUBBISH with heights so that last one really got my attention. At Joe’s we talk about getting outside of comfort zones but was I putting myself in a stupid position? I called the team at Alpine Recreation and after a 10 minute chat they’d mellowed my worries just a touch and I’d self-deluded my mountaineering credentials even further. Just by chance, it turned out two other members of Joe’s Basecamp – Emma & Mitch – had just returned from this exact part of the mountain but their’s had been an entry level mountaineering course.
I could write a whole other blog post about the stunning scenery on both sides of the Ball Pass which splits The Tasman Glacier and The Hooker Glacier valleys. It’s a beautiful trek that takes you up steep ridges with the intimidating, cascading ice-falls of the Caroline Face of Mt Cook across the ravine. The privately owned Caroline Hut of the Alpine Recreation team is a fantastic refuge and we had to hunker there for a morning to let a storm blow over. If I could choose one thing to illustrate why this is more than a “hard trek” it would be that I took my trekking poles and had no use for them – you’re too busy climbing and boulder hopping needing hands and feet to tackle the challenge.
It was a great learning experience too. We practiced the climbing route and clipped into ropes on knife-edge ridges; we climbed these ridges again in at 5am the following dark morning to get to the crossing by dawn. We learnt how to use ice-axes and self-arresting techniques on snow and we strapped on crampons to tackle the final icy climb up and over the perilous pass ridge where you really have to pay attention as the guides cut ice steps to minimise falls. Slip over at this point and no matter how experienced you are it’s a very dangerous situation.
Our Joe’s Basecamp motto is ‘Training for life’s adventures” and over those three days in the mountains Nikki and I were reminded why getting out of our comfort zone pays huge dividends. It was a brilliant trek. We achieved things and went to a special place very few people see. Personally each time I push the boundaries of my fear of heights I get a little better at “doing the dance” with the fear when it arrives. Definitely put this short but punchy trek on your to-do list if you get the chance.
Click on this Alpine Recreation Link for full trip details: The Ball Pass Crossing
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