Into the Ping Pong Ball

Porters Ski Field Winter 2012 — “Shiddaduduh” Hayden Gemmell points out to a skier as they are getting on the tow line.  The skier turns around and gives Hayden a confused look.  Hayden and his mate crack up laughing as the skier launches of up the hill with the nut cracker and a perplexed expression.

Christchurch Late November or early December — Mark Jordan, the branch director, answers the phone at the NOLS New Zealand office: “hello, NOLS New Zealand.”

“Hi” the voice on the other end of the line says.  “I am from the Department of Conservation in Franz Joseph.  I was wondering if you had a group up on the Fox Glacier.  There were reports of a group yelling for directions up there the other day.”

“Hmm” Mark replies, a bit taken aback.  “Well, we do have a group of twelve up there and we do teach our students to yell to each other when communicating in the mountains…”

“Huh OK, do you know if they are lost or needed help in the last couple of days?” the DoC caller asks.

“Well, I have been on the emergency phone all week and if they had a problem I would have been the first to hear about it and I haven’t gotten any calls” Mark answers.  “You  know sometimes weather or wind or terrain can make communication difficult so our students will often be yelling in order to be safe” Mark adds, playing up the safety element of our apparent transgression of yelling in the mountains.

“Well, that makes sense” says the voice from Franz Joseph.  “We just wanted to check in with you about it.”

“Well, thanks for looking out for us” Mark replies, wrapping up the conversation with the usual pleasantries.

30 November 2012 — Christian Martin rings up the Westland National Park Department of Conservation (DoC) to check the weather.  “G’day” Christian says into the satellite phone.  “I was wondering if I could get a mountain forecast  for the next several days.”  He sits in the doorway of the tent, his feet in the vestibule.  Outside our colorful tent is a world of white, clouds filling all our field of vision.

“Oh, you all just visiting the area?” I hear over the phone from the other side of the Hilleberg, where I sit quietly trying to catch the details.

“Naw” Christian answers “we are up on the Fox Glacier now, we just wanted a weather forecast to aide in our planning.”

“Well… “  the DoC voice on the other end of our Iridium satellite phone launches into a litany of free air freezing levels, rising gales, falling precipitation, cardinal directions and dates.  When the DoC employee concludes his report some four or five days out Christian responds with  a thanks and tells them that it was very helpful.  “So where are you up on the Fox?” the DoC phone jockey interjects before Christian can say  goodbye and hang up.

“Ah,  we are camped below Chancellor Dome.”

“What group are you with?” the eager DoC employee asks.

“We are with a… we  are a NOLS group” Christian responds with hesitancy and a hint of impatience in his voice.

“Were you guys up there yelling for directions yesterday?”

“Uhh, no” Christian responds, his voice revealing a slight trace of offense and incredulousness.

“Hmm, yesterday there was a group  of folks in the vicinity of Pioneer Hut, yelling for directions in a whiteout”

“Well” Christian offers, “we were up there hootin’ and hollerin’.  Just having a good time making our way through the whiteout.”

“Yeah, we had a person call in from Pioneer Hut and tell us that there was a group out on the Fox Neve that was lost in the whiteout and yelling for directions.  Yeah, just trying to figure it out.  We told them there wasn’t much we could do about it…”  the DoC employee trails off.

“Yeah that was probably us… but we definitely were not yelling for directions” Christian affirms and clarifies.

“Ahh, we thought it might be you.”

“Well,” Christian cuts in “thanks for the weather update that will be helpful in planning our way out”

“Your welcome”

“Cheers” Christian replies, disconnecting from the call with a push of the button and then turns off the satellite phone.  He turns around toward me and shakes his head with a smile on face.

“Shiddaduhduh” I respond while returning the smile and the shaking head.  “Shiddaduhduh.”


Thirty hours earlier the wind scours up the Melchoir Glacier and whips through the pass between Mounts Von Bulow and Halcombe.  It drives fiercely up and across the hard, white, snowy crust and pushes gray-white whisps of clouds around the dark, cold rock protrusions of Christie and Halcombe.  The pass we are aiming for is in and out of the clouds as the blue skies above flirt with the rising moisture that whips out of the valley.  To the south a heavy bank of grey clouds bode ominously for the day to come.  The indiscriminate pushing from all directions give us reason to pause and brace as we crampon up the hard, icy surface.  We crest out of the lee side of the pass and into the teeth of the gale and I don’t even think about stopping, instead I drive further downward over the pass and into the windward side.  We drop in elevation and before long the wind begins to abate.  Our rope team drops packs, hydrates, layers up and waits for the others behind.  Below us the bank of clouds inches higher and soon the ping pong ball envelopes us.

“Shiddaduhduh” rope teams yell back and forth as they wander downward keeping in communication with each other as the clouds dropped visibility to just over a rope length.  The terrain levels out and we parallel park and pause for a break.  Hayden’s meaningless mumbo jumbo has become a de rigeur space and time filler for NZSF 3 since they had Hayden on their last section.  Somewhere off in the distance I hear some shouts.  I cock my head and pull back my hat to ascertain where it came from, but I hear no more.  We get up and meander westward and mostly downhill making occasional end runs around crevasses that could eat a freight train.  The ubiquitous white burns the unprotected eyes.  The up blends into the down and the ground into the sky.  There is no direction, no shadow, just white.  The white moves through the air, driving icy pellets into our faces, giving us a small hint of direction.  We blindly amble downward towards camp, the ping pong ball offering no cracks of relief.

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A little bit less of a nomad now, Jared still likes to refer to himself in the third person.