IntroductionBall Pass Crossing is a demanding 2 - 3 day alpine route, crossing the Mount Cook Range between the Hooker and Tasman Valleys.
The route provides spectacular views of Aoraki/Mt Cook, Mt Sefton, the Copland Pass and the Hooker and Tasman Glaciers.
This is an unmarked route, anyone contemplating this trip must have excellent route-finding ability in steep alpine terrain, be experienced in snow travel and the use of crampons and ice axe.
The trip can be started from either valley. But, for safety reasons and in order to gain the best views, the recommended route is to start at the White Horse Hill camping area and travel up the East Hooker. Then over Ball Pass (sidling around under Mount Rosa and Mount Mabel) and down the Ball Ridge to the Tasman Valley and Ball Hut.
A nice alternative, if you are short of time or unsure of your mountaineering experience, is a day trip from Ball Flat up the Ball Ridge to either Caroline Hut or Ball Pass.
Places to stay
It is best to camp at the lower altitudes either side of the crossing to take advantage of both the water and better weather.
There is a camping site at the shingle fan in East Hooker valley. Water is available at a nearby waterfall. The Tasman valley camping site is by Ball Hut and is equipped with water, toilet and park radio.
Whitehorse Hill carpark to East Hooker valley camping site
Time: 3 – 4 hr
From the carpark follow the Hooker Valley Track across three swingbridges to near the end point at the Hooker Lake. Veer right following a discernable ground trail to meet the original Ball Pass route up the East Hooker to the large shingle fan opposite the old Hooker Hut site and Copland Gut (both in the West Hooker valley). There is good camping available at this shingle fan. Water is available at a nearby waterfall.
Note: Washouts have made travels along the East Hooker much more complex and difficult. Allow extra time to negotiate steep and exposed terrain around the crossing streams/gullies.
East Hooker valley camping site to the 'playing fields'
Time: 1 hr 30 min
From the shingle fan, follow the distinct gully to the north-east. This is snow-filled in spring. The gully leads to a large shoulder or flat area below Mount Mabel known as the 'playing field'. This is an ideal camping site. Water or snow melt is often available near the top of the gully. Poo pots are essential for this site.
'Playing field' to Ball Pass
Time: 4 hr
From the 'playing fields' ascend the shingle slopes to the east. These slopes form a large Z between bluffs. Once on top of the Z, follow an exposed ledge to the north, to a small shoulder on the ridge north-west of Mount Mabel. This is one of the few routes through the bluffs and it is important to gain this point sufficiently high enough.
Traverse from this point in a northerly direction across rock slabs and then descend around the spur, west of Mount Rosa. Once past Mount Rosa ascend the shingle slope (this may be a snow field at certain times of the year) in a north-easterly direction to Ball Pass.
Ball Pass to Caroline Hut
Time: 2 hr
After crossing Ball Pass and taking time to enjoy the views, descend Ball Glacier for approximately 60–70 m (200 feet) before turning south to gain Ball Ridge. Descend Ball Ridge to Caroline Hut.
Caroline Hut - privately owned
Caroline Hut is situated part way down the Ball Ridge. Water bottles may be filled and the unlocked toilet may be used, but this is a private hut and cannot be used by the public. There is a shelter on the end of it for emergency use only. Do not camp near the hut - there is a good camping site available 750 m north-east of Caroline Hut at the end of the flat section of Ball Ridge.
Caroline Hut to Ball Flat
Time: 2 hr
From this point descend several rock steps, more or less following the ridge crest. Two difficult sections can be avoided by turning around to the eastern side. Follow the track markers to the level part of the track on the narrow ridge line. Do not follow the historic track further along, as slips have made it impassable.
Descend the boulder scree to the east and pick up the route through alpine scrub. Follow the road and cut track to slips and boulder scree that lead to the old Ball Hut site and over to Ball Flat.
Ball Flat to Blue Lakes carpark
Time: 2 – 3 hr
From Ball Flat head down the Tasman valley following the old Ball Hut road. The road has slumped in several places and climbers need to scramble up and down the moraine to regain the track.
Keep to the track and do not be tempted to go down the moraine wall to the glacier. Loose rock makes this particularly dangerous. Once on flat simply wander down grassy terrace to Ball Flat. Leaving Ball Flat, follow the obvious track to Husky Flat, which changes to a 4WD track down to Blue Lakes carpark. It is an eight-kilometre road drive from the carpark back to Aoraki/Mount Cook village.
Day trip from Ball Flat
Time: 7 hr
A nice alternative if you are short of time or unsure of your mountaineering experience is a day trip from Ball Flat up the Ball Ridge to either Caroline Hut or Ball Pass. This trip provides good views of the Tasman valley and the Caroline Face of Aoraki/Mount Cook.
From Ball Flat continue along the lateral moraine bench up towards the base of Ball Ridge. Follow the route up through the scrub and steep scree slopes to gain a gentle bench below the ridgeline. Follow the worn trail up and along the bench until you reach a boulder field and scree slope which leads you up to the ridgetop.
Continue along the track/ridge, turning around a difficult rock step on the eastern side. Carry on up to Caroline Hut. You can refill your water bottle from the water tank at the hut, and a toilet is available for public use.
From here climb directly along the ridge to gain Fergins Knob. Traverse along the ridge until you reach the easily accessible Ball Glacier (1 hour). Follow the snow slope around towards Turner Peak and then up to Ball Pass.
Return to Ball Flat via the same route.
Experience and equipment
Ball Pass Crossing is a route only, not a marked track. Anyone contemplating this trip must have excellent route-finding ability in steep alpine terrain, be experienced in snow travel and the use of crampons and ice-axe. You need to be fit and capable of tramping for up to 9 hours, carrying a pack in difficult conditions.
Parties should carry rope and be familiar with its use, as a fixed belay may be necessary. Climbers need to wear sturdy boots, carry camping gear and clothing for all weathers and be prepared to camp out in all weathers.
Difficult snow conditions can be encountered at any time of the year. There is a danger of rock fall and avalanche as well as several bluff regions needing careful negotiation.
In summer water should be carried.
Alpine scree wetas are found at altitudes of more than 1200 metres in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
If you doubt your ability to complete this crossing, you should consider hiring a guide. Most companies licensed to guide in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park will guide parties over the pass. Alpine Recreation Ltd own Caroline Hut and run guided trips over the summer season (November–May). Climbing equipment and accommodation at Caroline Hut are provided.
Ball Pass is best attempted between the months of December to March. Snow cover limits travel outside this season, and avalanches can occur at any time of the year.
All parties should sign in at the Aoraki/Mt Cook Visitor Centre before departing. If you intend staying at Ball Hut, you will be required to pay for this before setting out. Please make sure you sign out at the end of the trip so that park staff know you are safely back. This will avoid unnecessary searches.
The vegetation on the Ball Pass Crossing is typical of that found in the alpine and valley-floor areas of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The East Hooker Valley offers some of the most spectacular displays of giant buttercup, Ranunculus lyalii, seen in the park. This plant (commonly known as the Mount Cook lily) flowers from late October through to mid-November. Other plants to look out for include the snow totara – identifiable by its red edible fruit – and after the buttercups have stopped flowering, the large white daisies, Celmisia semicordata, start to appear.
On the way up to the pass climbers travel through beautiful alpine grasslands such as the 'Playing Fields', which features Poa species interspersed with various alpine herbs. In late summer the white gentians flower high up on the slopes. Keep an eye out for the true alpine butterfly, the black mountain ringlet, on the scree fields.
In January high-alpine plant species, populating the austere rocks near and above the snowline, are in bloom. Look out for the yellow and black map lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum, one of about 14 lichen species growing on the summit rocks of Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Ball Pass has a long history of use. Guided trips were established over this pass well before they were undertaken over the Copland.
The first track for crossing Ball Pass was built by the early Hermitage guides, and remnants of this historic track are still visible in the East Hooker Valley.
In 1882, Ball Glacier was named by the Reverend W. Green after John Ball, the first president of the London Alpine Club. Green also named the Linda Glacier after his wife and the Caroline, Sheila and Noeline Glaciers after his three daughters.
Green and his party were the first recorded group on Ball Pass when they completed a reconnaissance trip to find a route up Aoraki/Mt Cook. The first crossing was completed by Guy Mannering and A. P. Harper in January 1890.
The most recent shelter was removed in 2009 as the moraine wall had eroded to within 10 metres of the hut. Today Ball Flat camping area is located on the edge of the Tasman Glacier moraine, where Ball Glacier meets the Tasman Glacier.
The original Ball Hut was built in 1891 in the same area and was the first purely recreational hut to be built in the Southern Alps. This was the site of the Reverend Green’s famous ‘fifth camp’ from Hooker Corner. Today only the floor-slab remains against the hill, a little above the campsite. Many Hermitage guides spent nights there and, until demolished by an avalanche during the winter of 1925, it also provided a base for many first ascents.
The second Ball Hut stood for 50 years until destroyed by fire in 1977. A bridge was built across the Hooker River in 1915 and the road was slowly constructed to Ball Hut. The last sections were completed by special work gangs during the Depression, finally reaching Ball Hut in 1930.
The road was built on unstable moraine, subject to frequent slips, washouts, rockfalls and avalanches, and was left unrepaired after a storm in May 1978 caused major damage. It is now a walking track. Chunks of road have fallen onto the glacier, and slumping has dropped some sections metres below their original level.
The rapid slumping of the glaciers has meant popular trips from Ball Hut out onto the ice of the Tasman Glacier are no longer possible. Access to and from the glacier is hazardous, as the moraine walls are steep and very unstable.