Anyone can play guitar
9-13 March 2014
A period of settled weather in March arrived and I sent out a last-minute email to try and get a climbing partner to come into the Balfour glacier (Mount Cook National Park) for some rock climbing. I was stoked when Lisa agreed, particularly as I had already had one attempt to get into the Balfour this summer (that trip was aborted due to a poor forecast).
Accessing the Balfour (day 1) The Balfour glacier is a no-fly zone. Parties climbing the rock routes on Magellan and Drake most commonly access the Balfour from Katies Col. This route is quite favourable in late season conditions (i.e. when the rock routes aren't covered in snow) and is more suited to carrying in large amounts of gear. I hesitate to say access is easy, particularly with a large pack, but navigation is straightforward and it beats climbing over Mt Silberhorn (a 3000m peak!)
I met Lisa in Christchurch. We drove to Fox township and the next day (day 1) at 10 am caught a helicopter to the designated landing strip near Big Mac. From here it took about one hour to reach Katies Col and a further four hours to traverse into the Balfour. We set up our tent in a flat part of the Balfour Glacier and took a good look at Magellan and Drake. We had came in with some ideas about which route to climb but we soon changed our minds when we saw the mountains up close!
Choice of route Our initial plan was to climb the Balfour Buttress on Magellan. This is the longest route (15 pitches) but also the easiest (crux 15, mostly 10-12). However, while we noted the condition of the bolts we encountered while abseiling into the Balfour was excellent, we couldn’t be sure about the quality of the bolts on Magellan. The bolts were placed in 1996 and are on a route called ‘Anyone can play guitar’. I hadn’t been able to confirm if anyone had actually climbed Magellan since 1996 and used the abseil line.
My concern with climbing Balfour Buttress was that we could get to the summit of Magellan and then find some bolts had deteriorated or had been sheared off with ice movement in winter (I’ve seen this before on Pudding Rock). We then changed our objective to ‘Anyone can play guitar’, the logic being we could inspect the bolted anchors while we climbed the route. As a bonus, if we had enough of the climb we could simply abseil
Of course, the main problem with this choice of route was the difficulty. This route is a grade 6-! Would I be able to climb the ‘punch in the guts’ first pitch (a 45m crack which approaches vertical for the last 15 metres, a sustained grade 19)? Probably not I thought, but at least the gear is good!
The 35 hour guitar lesson (days 2 and 3) Day 2 probably didn’t start as early as it should have. Snow conditions were great in general, but we still managed to reach a couple of dead-ends (wide crevasses) and getting to the base of the route was somewhat challenging and time consuming. We found a bolt at the start of the route and it was in excellent condition. This was very reassuring. By the time we had stashed our snow-climbing gear and actually started to climb it was 1pm! We each climbed with a bag. I had a small running bag (15L) with a down jacket and some food and water. Lisa had a bigger bag (30L) but it was mostly empty. In addition to what I had she carried the PLB and Jetboil stove. Half-way up the route there was a snow patch which would provide us with plenty of water from our stove and single gas canister.
I stared up at pitch one (grade 19). It looked every bit as difficult as I had imagined. I normally avoid crack climbing or just try and climb them via a lay-back. This almost works on a 10m crack, but not so well on a 45m one! Of course we didn’t tape our hands up (or even have spare tape available) so I just did my best to keep my skin. This was the hardest pitch I’ve ever climbed in the mountains. When I say pitch, I mean 3. That’s right, once I ran out of gear at 25m I simply built an anchor and brought up Lisa. I repeated this again before finally completing the 50m ‘pitch 1’ and finding the first bolt anchor.
By this stage I was fairly sure that there was no way we would reach the summit before dark. However, we both ignored this fact, finished the last of our water in the hot afternoon sun and continued on with the climb.
Pitch 1 had left me shattered but I carried on leading the remainder of the pitches to the summit. Pitch 2 (16) was really enjoyable, although the fatigue from pitch 1 made it challenging. The last part involved climbing a massive semi-detached block (about 10m high). The block was very solid, but don’t be below it in a major earthquake!
Pitch 3 (15) and 4 (14) were quite easy but I managed to mess up the route finding a bit and had to down-climb almost half of pitch 3. It was starting to get dark by the time we started pitch 4. We were hoping to find the snowy slabby area soon and kept an eye out for a good bivvy ledge. Towards the end of the pitch we found an ‘acceptable’ rock ledge which was a few steps away from snow (our source of water and warmth). We put in an anchor and got ready for a night of star-watching!
The evening started with an amazing sunset over the west coast. Cloud covered the ocean but over land the sky was cloudless. This was followed by several hot drinks to rehydrate and warm us. A moon accompanied us for the first half of the night and psychologically made us warmer. Speaking of warmth, there wasn’t much. The down jackets were great but we had no shoes except our rock shoes. Lisa had the large bag and used this for warmth. I had to make do with some dry thick socks and my climbing pants (no long-johns). There was no wind overnight. Every hour or so we would boil water and put it in our Nalgines. These make excellent hot water bottles and once the water has cooled down a bit, drinking it provides further warmth. As the moon descended over the horizon so did our spirits. Sleeping for more than a few minutes at a time wasn’t possible due to the cold and the fact that whenever I fell asleep I’d lean over from my sitting position, which would wake me up. Everything was secured to the anchor so we couldn’t actually fall off our ledge but we could slide down it a bit, which was quite uncomfortable.
We got going shortly after light on day 3. The sun wouldn’t be on the rock for hours but we were eager to get moving and warm again. The remaining 4 pitches to the summit were quite straightforward (13, 15, 13, 8) and we made good progress to the summit.
We summited at 11:30am and soaked up the excellent views. I scoped out Mt Torres, the Balfour face of Mt Tasman and the North face of Mt Hicks as possible future climbs while we enjoyed another drink and the remains of yesterday’s lunch.
The descent was relatively smooth but took much longer than I thought. We finally arrived back at our tent at 7pm. It was great to finally be back and have a proper meal and a good night’s sleep. We promptly abandoned any plans for climbing Drake the following day and our thoughts turned to home.
Aftermath (days 4 and 5) Day 4 saw us depart the Balfour around 9:30am. Back at Katies Col we set-up the mountain radio to ask for a ride out. Unfortunately, the cloud had already came in from the sea and covered Fox township, making flying impossible. We descended to the landing strip and set up camp once again. The remainder of the afternoon was spent eating, drinking and enjoying the excellent weather and views. On day 5 we were picked up at 8am and returned to Fox for a much deserved shower and hot breakfast.
I really enjoyed our trip into the Balfour. Despite the first pitch of our chosen route being a bit too hard for us, we managed to tick the peak and, more importantly, have a great adventure on the way. I’ll be back for Drake. In the meantime, I'd better take up guitar lessons (aka crack climbing!)
- Party members
- Simon Bell (leader and scribe) and Lisa Wynne