Eye on the Ball
Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is a climber’s paradise, with 19 peaks that extend higher than 3000m and 40 per cent of it glacial terrain.
The park lacks tracks and huts, and much of it is inaccessible to those who don’t have technical skills and a climbing rack. There are really only two or three huts to easily overnight in with a multitude of visitors potentially nabbing the bunks before you get there.
I visited the area after a storm which quickly swept through, leaving soft snow and five days of clear, cold weather in its wake.
Casting around for a day trip, I struck Mueller Hut off the list. I’d been there a year before in perfect conditions. Then there was Sefton Bivouac, a two-bunker that’s the oldest hut in the park, perched on a ridge beneath the Tewaewae Glacier and the Footstool (2764m). But the layer of fresh snow on a steep track with tussock didn’t seem like a sensible life choice. That left Ball Hut, a three-bunk hut on the edge of the Tasman Glacier. Bingo.
I had ideas about going further, up to Caroline Hut on the Ball Pass route, so I left at 6am so there’d be plenty of time. The temperature was two degrees, enough to make it a chilly start, so I struck out quickly up the old Ball Hut road to warm up. The track is a 4WD road as far as Husky Flat, so it’s easy to follow with a headlamp. By 7am, the sun was rising and starting to cast a warm glow in the far distance over De la Beche and the Minarets. I hadn’t realised that the moraine wall blocked the view of the glacier for much of the way, so my idea of getting a sunrise vista of the Tasman didn’t happen.
The road eventually gave way to a poled route to Ball Hut, easy to follow and at its hardest involving some boulder-hopping for a short stretch.
The road was started after a bridge was built across the Hooker River in 1915. During the Depression, special work gangs finished it off and reached Ball Hut in 1930. It’s always been problematic though, with unstable moraine prompting slips, rockfall and avalanche danger. After a major storm in 1978, the road was left unrepaired. In places, it has fallen onto the glacier, so you need to be careful to follow the track where it’s marked and not get seduced into trying to reach bits of the old road that can be seen from above.
I reached Ball Hut in three hours, not trying to set any speed records and taking it easy as the track was covered in ice and snow. The hut was originally built in 1891 and was the first in the Southern Alps to be built purely for recreational purposes. Alas, it was smashed by an avalanche in 1925, and its replacement was destroyed by fire in 1977. The next version was taken out in 2009 because the moraine wall had eroded to within 10m of the hut. This version sits further back and seems less perilous.
One of the drawcards of the trip is being able to get a spectacular view across the Tasman Glacier, which at 27km is our longest and largest glacier, and up to other glaciers such as the Rudolf and the Hochstetter. The glacier, sadly, has been shrinking since the 1990s (in the early 1980s, there was no glacier lake at all).
Deciding that conditions to climb the ridge to Caroline Hut weren’t in my favour, I struck out again for home.
ALERT: A huge slip at Husky Flat has changed the route to Ball Hut. A diversion requires a 200m climb over a spur and adds at least 1.5hr to the walk.
- Total Ascent
- 3-4hr one way
- Ball Hut ($5, three bunks)
- Parking at the end of Tasman Valley Road
- BX15, BX16