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.
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.
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!
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