The Fastest Symphony

The Fastest Symphony

By Grant Guise

“A ski traverse is like a well composed piece of music. It flows with harmony, surprises with the unexpected. It engages all your emotions and the melody lingers in your mind afterwards. Good music needs players who are masters of their instruments”- Gottlieb Braun-Elwert, “Symphony on Skis”, NZAC 1986 Alpine Journal

The Symphony on Skis, a 46.7km long, 4000 vertical meter traverse from the upper Godley Valley, to the Fox Glacier, on the South Island of New Zealand has been described as the Kiwi version of the European Haute Route and is normally a 2-4 day trip. The Symphony was pioneered by Tekapo local and mountain guide Gottlieb Braun-Elwert, along with Governor’s Bay’s Franz Waibl and visiting Swiss Daniel Frey in 1985. This original trio did the trip from Rankin’s Hut in the Godley Valley to Chancellor Hut on the Fox Glacier, via Armadillo, Tasman and Graham Saddles and West Hoe Pass in an amazing single push, taking 18.5hrs.

After first reading about the trip in James Broadbent’s “Backcountry Skiing” I was set on equalling the performance of the 1985 pioneering party. Lucky for me I was able to find some willing partners in the form of Spain’s Javier Martin and Italian Lorenzo Holzknecht. Our research into the trip yielded little for the style in which we wanted to do the trip. From what we could gather relatively few have completed a full Symphony. Little info could be found about the Rutherford Stream route in guide books, other than Broadbent’s. The Rudolf Glacier would clearly be the trickiest section up what is now a very different glacier to what Braun-Elwert, Waibl and Frey encountered 24 years earlier.


Rankin’s Hut, Godley Valley

We arrive late afternoon at Rankin’s Hut, via helicopter, with little more that our ski mountaineering skis, boots, a day pack for skiing and some pre cooked pasta for that night’s dinner. Sleeping in all our clothes and between 2 mattresses, we awake at 3.30am and are away just after 4am.

We flew into Rankin’s Hut with nothing more than our day packs for skiing and some pre cooked pasta, hence no sleeping bags…..

What time? GO TIME!

Walking up the Godley Riverbed by moonlight, we turn east and are met by snow covering the Rutherford Stream. After 1 hour we change from running shoes to ski mountaineering boots and not long after start skinning. We cross the Rutherford and fill our water bottles one last time and start a steady pace up the steep climb to Armadillo Saddle. Lorenzo and Javi do the hard yards, breaking trail in fresh, new snow, as I hang off the back. Icy slopes and bluffs greet us for the ski down to the Murchison Glacier. Javi gets personal with one such icy bluff, jumping before he was pushed; we were luck to arrive on the Murchison with a broken pole, minus a few litres of water and Javi in one piece.

Putting our heads down, baking in the morning sun, we make it to Tasman Saddle in 2 hours and are rewarded with amazing views of Mt Cook. With Tasman Glacier being long and relatively flat, we are hopeful of giving our tired legs a rest on the ski down after being on the go for just over 6 hours, but are robbed of this by the wind hammered snow conditions. Skiing down the Tasman is comparable to skiing on corrugated iron, only broken by a rimmed up ice crust. Luckily it is flat and we can still go fast. We turn De La Beche corner and ski onto the Rudolf Glacier. Reapplying skins, taking off a layer and eating on the go, we stop for less than 5 minutes.

Javi, Grant, Lorenzo- Graham Saddle, with Mt Cook behind us

At first the Rudolf is an easy gradient and the snow is soft. We skin fast, but the ice fall off the Rudolf looms and quickly the glacier reveals its true self. We change from skinning to cramponing, as spring snow changes to firm ice. We leave the glacier to climb steep gullies on the right hand side and it’s here we lose our way and some time. Backtracking we rope up and venture back on to the glacier. Some tense moments follow, as small snow bridges fail. We reach Graham Saddle after spending 4 hours on the Rudolf Glacier and are greeted with the most stunning view. The Franz Josef Glacier leads west into the Tasman Sea, “We can see the ocean when skiing in Sierra Nevada, but not like this” Javi sums it up well…..

We unrope and rip skins for our 4th major glacier of the day. “Just one more pass to go, one last effort” I tell myself. It has been over 11 hours now, all at a fast pace as I have struggled to keep pace with Javi and Lorenzo for most of the day. We pass close to some people on the deck of Centennial Hut- “You started from where?”, “Where is that?”, “You started when”, “Huh……”, I don’t blame them, I am as confused as they are by now. I can hardly believe I was sleeping between 2 mattresses in the Godley Valley 12 hours earlier.

The skin track to West Hoe Pass is in, but our progress has slowed; we push on knowing how close we are now. The last of our water is long gone, but we share some food before our final ski, onto the Fox Glacier. We traverse high, put our crampons on for the short icy boot pack and then get the view I have been waiting for almost 13 hours- Chancellor Hut! We hear Yoli, Vio and Fred yell, hoot and hollar as we ski in. Touch the hut, stop the watch, high fives, hugs and hand shakes are followed by a cold beer, pasta and sleep.

Our respect for the Symphony pioneers sinks in as we remember the heavier skis and touring gear of 24 years ago and note that they skied with full packs, containing sleeping bags, stove etc and had no welcoming party with food waiting at the end. The fact that it has taken 24 years to beat their record speaks for itself. Thanks to Gottlieb, Franz and Daniel for the inspiration and laying down the challenge to do this trip!

Skiing down to Chacellor Hut, Fox Glacier

The second one day ski traverse from the Godley Valley, to the Fox Glacier, 5th September 2009. Team Dynafit- Javier Martin, Lorenzo Holzknecht and Grant Guise

4.15am- Rankin Hut, 853m

7.45am- Armadillo Saddle, 2164m

10.20am- Tasman Saddle, 2393m

3.15pm- Graham Saddle, 2670m

4.30pm- West Hoe Pass, 2515

5.13pm- Chancellor Hut, 1250m

Total time- 12hr 58mins

3959m vertical climb

3562m vertical ski descent

46700m distance covered

A special “thank you” to all those who helped Javi, Lorenzo and I complete our Symphony- Dynafit, Yoli, Vio, Fred, Derek, Ben, Brent, Anne, John, Jane

9 thoughts on “The Fastest Symphony

  1. A fantastic performance!! Well done! When you say “The skin track to West Hoe Pass is in” do you mean your support team put it in?

  2. thanks Richard.
    A lot of trips like this are being done in Europe in amazingly fast time’s and often they have a army of support carrying gear and putting skin tracks in. We talked about this, but decided against it. Partly because of the logistics/cost, but mostly because we felt doing in unsupported was a much, much better style. We had some friends meet us at the finish at Chancellor Hut with food and sleeping bags. A few people have criticized us for being “supported” because of this, but we only got food/support after we had reached the hut and our Symphony was done.
    The skin track to West Hoe was already in from the traffic that travels between Centennial Hut and the Fox Glacier. We also come across a skin track in the Murchison Glacier for a short time, but it didn’t last long.
    With support (food and water along the way) and a skin track in I believe that the trip could be done 1-3 hrs faster easy, but then it loses some of the style.
    Not sure were your based Richard, but I am doing 2 talks next month on the SOS as part of the Mountain Safety Council Avalanche Forum.
    Can’t wait to go back to do it again, but this time over a few days and enjoy some skiing along the way!

  3. Hey Grant,

    Very inspiring trip!

    I am planning a similar trip for this October with two big differences:

    1) I want to fly and in and out

    2) I want to take as much time as possible and ski to my heart’s content.

    I’m from Alaska and have never been to NZ before. Do you think the month of October is appropriate for something like this?

    Scott Fennell
    Anchorage, AK

  4. Thanks for your great reply. I’ve only just seen it. I never expected a reply at all. Didn’t even think anybody would read it. We did the trip a few years ago and I am fairly sure we hold the record for the slowest crossing. But we certainly had fun and enjoyed it. I cannot imagine how you were able to do it so quickly. Very impressive. I certainly plan to do it again but I don’t think you need worry we will shave those 3 hours off. Maybe I have the pleasure of meeting you in the mountains sometime. Best wishes and safe skiing, Richard.

  5. Awesome trip report. i always wondered what was going on with the picture of you 3 in front of that hut now i know. Great reading.

  6. Awesome trip report. i always wondered what was going on with the picture of the 3 of you in front of that hut now i know. Great reading.

  7. Pingback: Avalanche Peak « Ski Runner NZ

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