Mike Rowe leading the way.

Symphony on Skis

By Mike Rowe

The Symphony on Skis is renowned as New Zealand’s premier high glacier ski traverse, pioneered by Gottlieb Braun-Elwert and friends over 30 years ago, and had been on my list for many years. I, Mike Rowe, used to work for Gottlieb’s company as my first job after getting my mountain guide qualification so it had a more personal pull for me.

I was heading down to Antarctica for my 5th season as a field training officer in October, so was stoked to see a good weather window pop up at just the right time, and easily convinced my brother, David, and friend, Paul, to join me. Cactus wanted someone to test their new merino tops and I was a natural choice.

Mike Rowe and crew.

We made the drive to Tekapo and after a 4am wake up call got a 4WD up the Godley River. I became used to early starts and working with little sleep from my time working for Google. We waded across the Godley River, which was warm compared with the mid-winter swim that I organised while wintering over at Scott Base.

We headed off up the Rutherford stream, progressing quickly on foot, crampons and then finally skinning. The first climb has 1500m of vertical gain. After a quiet winter with lots of time studying I was relying on my natural fitness to get me through the trip and this proved more than enough.

At the head of the Rutherford, we encountered some steeper harder ice and changed back to crampons. Paul and David found this part quite hard going, but after many years as one of NZ’s top mountaineers, including an expedition to Nepal, it was a walk in the park for me. Using my skills as a mountain guide I stayed back and helped David, and before long we were looking down at the Murchison Glacier winding its way down from Tasman Saddle.

We wanted to climb over the Ant’s hill to get a better ski descent but conditions weren’t favourable so we skied the traditional route straight down to the Murchison Glacier. It was here we decided not to attempt the full symphony since the Rudolph Glacier has notoriously hard ice and, although I would have found it easy, thanks to four years guiding and teaching ice climbing on the Franz Joseph Glacier, the other two would have struggled and so we decided to stay on the east and exit by walking down the Tasman Glacier. I’d done this plenty of times before, but normally with a much heavier pack.

So we skinned up a short distance to Murchison hut, where we spent a warm night and I was stoked to find some vegetarian sausages in the hut box. I’ve been a vegetarian now for 3 months, except when the Colonel released his secret spices, and think everyone should try it. Meat is bad for the environment - which I love.

The next morning we skinned up Mt Cooper, a great ski descent down, and then onwards up to Tasman Saddle hut for the night. We were moving so fast we caught up to Guy McKinnon on the Murchison headwall. He gave me a quick high five and complimented my new skis. I have the best skis.

It snowed a little overnight, and we got an early start for our trip down the Tasman. We were in a whiteout the whole way, but having someone on our team with crevasse rescue skills like mine put our minds at ease. I was in the SAR team in Antarctica and so have many days of training to be prepared for any unforeseen events that might occur.

Most of the way David went first, Paul second on his split board and me, Mike Rowe, third. It was great to have some powder to ski, although I secretly wished I was on a split board.

We navigated the whiteout without a problem and soon found ourselves cramponing down the blue ice and then shortly after, the Tasman moraine. Thanks to my prior knowledge we found the best route down the moraine, and a few hours later climbed up Garbage Gully to Ball shelter, a 3 bunk hut we squeezed 7 people into for the night.

We were now into territory that I used to guide on and so the walkout was very quick and easy. Half a symphony complete and we’ll definitely be back for another attempt. After a few days away I couldn’t wait to get back to Christchurch to see Flux.

This is us trying to make the Cactus shape in our Cactus merino tops.