Elie and Ellen

Professional skier and ski mountaineer Sam Smoothy reflects on a ski descent of Elie de Beaumont with his mum, Ellen.

My mother skied the day she gave birth to me. She prefers the backcountry, but thanks to me, ten pounds of destabilising ballast on her slim 5’3” frame, Ellen Smoothy was relegated to the easier piste at Cardrona Alpine Resort. But at midnight the bell tolled, and after a laborious three-hour drive through the mid-winter’s night to the nearest hospital, I arrived.

Just weeks later, she was skiing again. I was still ballast, but now removed to a colder, less secure backpack. Sudden ejections, which found me stuffed squalling into a snowbank, were common. By the age of two, I had thankfully graduated to the safety of my own skis, free to roam as far as my growing abilities would allow. We spent weekdays in Cromwell and every weekend in Wānaka; there was skiing in winter, while biking, climbing, tramping and kayaking filled the rest of the seasons. The outdoors were a constant and integral part of our family’s fabric, as influential to my early identity as my parents. Our adventures broke from the norm in traditional, blue-collar Cromwell, as did my lurid purple Lycra bike shorts, which drew schoolboy derision. I already knew I was on a wild and unconventional path.

I shunted open the split-level door of the Tasman Saddle hut and heaved a duffel inside. The dark green paint was fractured, the thick wood dented and chipped from the years of abusive weather. It echoed my mother’s face, one refined by the passing years, finely etched by storms and many a story.

Dropping my kit on a bunk, I peered through the window, across Tasman Glacier to Aoraki. Perched high on a rock buttress that cleaves a frozen sea in half, the hut is unlined, and heated only by huddled down-clad bodies, as well as an aged hand-cut yellow sun mounted on the ceiling, a hopeful piece of décor for the frequently hut-bound residents. The glacial cracks and groans sounded like icebergs grinding against the steel plates of an Arctic vessel.

When I had first mentioned the idea of skiing Elie de Beaumont together, Ellen’s eyes lit up. We set a vague date of “spring ‘23” and Ellen, a tenacious and spry seventy-year-old, immediately got to work. In addition to her standard excessive laps of Treble Cone, she built up her stamina with lengthy hikes and ski tours during the mankiest of New Zealand winters.

It was a winter I had big plans for. I was on an ambitious quest to climb and ski all twenty-four of New Zealand’s 3000-metre peaks while making a film. As the project progressed, with 15 out of 24 peaks skied, and doubts swirling, the film was becoming an examination of my shifting motivations as an ageing professional skier, and my burgeoning desire to develop more creative forms of self-expression outside of the mountains.

Ellen met my father Ron skiing at Ōhau Snow Fields. She was 22 and he was 28. Ellen was working as a physio in Timaru and Ron was at the National Bank in Ōamaru. Both had only been skiing for about a year, but they soon spent every weekend together climbing and skiing, no matter the conditions. It was a relationship forged and nurtured by a mutual love of life in the mountains.

With next to no information, they puddle-hopped across the Pacific, New Zealand to Fiji and on to Easter Island, before finally landing in Santiago to tackle the high-altitude peaks of the Andes. Though humble and conservative alpinists, they climbed many of Aotearoa’s great peaks: Tititea / Mount Aspiring, Te Horokōau / Mount Tasman and Malte Brun, plus a Grand Traverse of the mile-long summit ridge of Aoraki / Mount Cook. But Ellen had missed out Ron’s ascent of the 3109-metre Elie de Beaumont, a sprawling, heavily glaciated peak at the head of the Tasman Glacier that straddles the divide between east and west.

October 30, 2023. Scene: Tasman Saddle Hut. A wooden, dimly lit dining table strewn with half empty mugs and assorted snacks. Steam rises from a bubbling stove and a bent French press glumly awaits an imminent scalding.

Sam: Ellen, pass the cream would you … thank you kindly. Growing up in Dunedin, what was it that first attracted you to the mountains?

Ellen: About the age of 10, I went on a family holiday to Mount Cook [with her parents Hazel and Ormsby Bryce Smith]. We were doing little day walks, and I just went wow, this is amazing! I was hooked.

Sam: Funny that it’s a casual holiday decision by Hazel that becomes such a pivotal causal event. They take you to Mount Cook, which opens the portal door for you to step through, taking your unborn children with you.

Ellen: Hazel and OB always liked the aesthetics of mountains, but to observe it from a safe distance. Or as art framed on the wall. Hazel’s always lamented that trip. ‘If we’d actually known what would happen to you, we’d never have taken you to Mount Cook.’ (Laughs.)

Sam: And they were horrified by what you were doing?

Ellen: I got into lots of trouble for that!

Sam: And you’re horrified by what I’m doing. The circle repeats. I’ve often had you in the back of my mind, thinking, ‘Oh God, what would mother think of this situation we’ve got ourselves into.’

Ellen: I envy some of the other parents, who don’t really understand the mountains. ‘Oh isn’t it marvellous, they’re so clever and they’ve got everything under control.’ And I just think, ‘Really? That’s nice you think that.’

Sam: It can be wonderful just being here, without pushing yourself hard. It’s such a different experience when you’re dealing with risks that you just cannot mitigate. Will said he’d ski the Caroline Face again. [In October of 2021, Will Rowntree, Joe Collinson, and I made the second ever ski descent of the 2000-metre Caroline Face of Aoraki / Mt Cook.]

Ellen: Did he? I don’t know about that young man. He’s got a problem. (Laughs.)

Sam: And his mum’s like, ‘That’s lovely dear.’

Ellen: Oh, so she’s one of those? Oh, I wish.

In 1999, a family ski touring trip around the Tasman Glacier area introduced me to glacial life. Astride a borrowed pair of my mother’s rare, and claptrap, Spalding skis, I cursed my way up the Murchison headwall, frustrated by a lack of strength or ability. I was also likely unappreciative of the immense parental effort it took to corral walking liabilities like me and my sister through such a hostile environment. I was thirteen years old. My sunburnt nose the consistency of peanut butter, my dreams littered with visions of alpine glory.

Once I was of decision-making age, my parents never pressured me or pushed me hard. The opportunity to learn was always there, but the motivation had to come from me. But Ellen and Ron were always there in the background. Their understanding of what I was discovering in the mountains was, for a long time, deeper than my own. A rope in hand and quietly ready should a tug from the abyss be required.

I made it through my teens relatively unscathed, becoming a sponsored freeskier by 17, with a few broken bones and concussions, but nothing major. The big hits began once I became a paid professional at 26. Sitting second for the overall title, while training I crashed through rocks at the 2014 Freeride World Tour Final in Verbier, Switzerland and damaged my back. The doctor diagnosed it as not broken, but cheerfully said it looked like the degenerated vertebra of a 60-year-old. I tore my pectoral muscle off, had a still-unexplained tonic-clonic seizure on an Italian beach, and while filming in Austria with Teton Gravity Research, I fell off another cliff onto rocks, hit my head, had another seizure and stopped breathing. Competing in Tignes, France, in 2007, I picked my line with a teenage Swiss competitor. I crashed and recovered myself, from the same position where he fell to his death. My hands shake at the memory of these near misses, and of the number of friends and colleagues who have tragically died in the field. 

As a physiotherapist, Ellen is fascinated by the physiology of endurance sport, of developing and understanding the biomechanics of efficient movement; she also has a strong belief in the value of overcoming inevitable challenges, which fuels a person’s resilience, a life skill I rely on regularly. She helped me as I rehabbed through these many injuries. I think my files at her physio practice were big enough to warrant their own filing cabinet.

Ellen and I trod out the door and onto the predawn moonscape, skis quietly shuffling as we slid under the rolling bulk of Hochstetter Dome. The descending full moon lightly caressed the south ridge of Mt Green, its lunar craters mirrored in the pockmarked snow that drifted under our feet. We skinned on to the Anna Glacier, then set a zig zagging track toward Elie de Beaumont. 

Moon down and sun up, our shadows stalked ahead of us now, gangly caricatures distorted by the first rays of golden light. With eight hundred metres of vert remaining, I kept the pace social, leaving us free to discuss the handsome surroundings and trade anecdotes. We skinned over a bridge above an open crevasse and I recalled a creative technique from my parents’ storied past. Ellen, being shorter of stride, would be left tied in on one side as Ron jumped across the slot with the other end of the rope. Once set, Ellen would leap as best she could while Ron gave the rope a hopefully well-timed yank, assisting her flight across the void.

Above us a short gully led through a band of ice seracs, so, crampons and axes out, I started kicking steps. I pulled over a short ice bulge, and waited, pulling in the rope as Ellen wrestled her way higher. The route wandered between ice features, before breaking up a mellow slope to the summit ridge. We paused and I pointed out the route of my previous descent on the West Peak of Elie de Beaumont, a few winters before with Gavin Lang. A steep, planar line snaking between seracs that vanished into a sea of jungle clouds, a pulsing blanket that obscured all but the highest western peaks.

The effect of my penchant for steep lines has on Ellen was palpable, her fears compounded by her intimate knowledge of the risks and variables involved.

Ellen: It’s very much a conflicted, double emotion. I have a deep respect for the required skillset and appreciate that love of movement through a stunning environment. But that you survive any of these lines is a pleasant surprise.

Sam: Yeah that’s real tiger country alright. What benefits do you think risk brings?

Ellen: I think it puts a different lens on everyday activity and changes your perspective of being alive in a beautiful environment. It also heightens your appreciation of everyday life.

From our vantage, the ridge rose in two steps, intricately detailed in rime ice, and unskiable. Dumping skis off the packs, we went over our options. It had already been an amazing outing and I didn’t want to push Ellen too hard. But as we chatted, her determination shone through; she wanted that summit. Amused by the role reversal, we pushed on up the ridge, my hand clutching a short rope leash to negate any septuagenarian slips. But Ellen, surefooted as ever in her crampons, kicked on towards the broad summit.

Crested out on the high point, we followed the horizon full circle, surrounded by the glorious stage of some of our greatest stories. It was a perfect day made especially poignant by being able to share it with the woman who first led me into the mountains. We were joined by so much more than just rope and blood. But only halfway home.

We meandered carefully down to our stashed kit, clicked into our skis, and dropped in. The wind-affected snow was like breakable sheets of gib that soon transformed into frozen, wrinkled bedsheets. But Ellen kept her skiing tidy and bounced along, obviously enjoying our picturesque position. An improved second pitch of dust on crust snow led to an awkward, belayed rope-lower between seracs. Rolling down the Anna Glacier we found sheltered cold powder, which Ellen danced down, deftly weaving her own way between the slots and down into the flats, before setting a slow skin back to the hut. 

Sam: Do you ever wish I’d been a schoolteacher or?

Ellen: A librarian! You could be a bit radical, being a librarian.

Sam: Would you put the lid back on Pandora’s Box if you could?

Ellen: My emotional self would like to, to keep you safe. But my adult self must step back and let you make your own decisions, with a slight tinge of guilt for setting it in motion. But I do think you were always destined to find that yourself.

Sam: I’m not sure I had much choice, climbing and skiing mountains was just something we always did, as normal to me as walking. It has seemed natural to build upon that inherited knowledge and take it further.

Recently, Ellen told me that initially she and Ron tried to not overexpose us to mountaineering stories, to allow my sister and I space to develop our own interests. While I admire the sentiment, I believe the mountain-centric manner of my upbringing pointed me in one direction. When they were covert about their past, it merely added an alluring layer of the illicit, enticing my younger self to follow in their steps. I looked forward to visits from their old climbing buddies, impressed by their boisterous camaraderie. These glimpses of my parents’ previous selves helped me better understand the wild creatures hidden beneath the parental veil.

The day after Elie de Beaumont, we cruised over to Canyonlands, a surrealist alpine cityscape of teetering blocks, collapsing tusks and lagoon-blue lined arches. A burnt orange line cut horizontally through them all  ̶  Australian bushfire ash, a marker in these stacks of compressed time. Roped up with axes in hand, I set a line up a serac wall, as Ellen paid out the rope. In the past, Ellen knew the climbing was getting sketchy when Ron called down, “it’s your turn on the sharp end.” They were equally talented, and the large weight difference between the two meant it was safer to have the lighter Ellen out front, to negate a lead fall ripping them both off the mountain. I opted instead for a solid anchor and, once back on the ground floor, handed over the axes. Ellen, all smiles, sunk her first blow into the ice and cranked up, enjoying the steep, but comparatively safe, ice bouldering.

Near the top of the serac, Ellen’s crampon slipped. She swung into the air with a squawk, but the short fall was easily held and, unperturbed, Ellen giggled as I lowered her back down.  

Our mission accomplished, it was time to trade the crisp alpine blues for the greens of lowland spring. I hadn’t found all the answers, but I had made strides towards a deeper understanding of Ellen, both in her role as my mother, and outside of it.

To share in Ellen’s return to her mountaineering roots was incredibly special, to move together, to rely on each other in an environment so tightly woven throughout our family history. I am grateful to have a mother who continues to lead by example and stay true to herself, and to continue to answer the still-present call to adventure. She quietly refuses to bow to age or societal norms and I’m proud of the similar values she has instilled in me.

I am unsure which direction I will now take, or how much I am truly free to choose. Are my responses my own or governed by my accumulated experiences stretching back into the past?  But I feel more accepting of that uncertainty, and of the ongoing tussle between ambition and a keenly felt duty to return home safe to my loved ones. To create an intentional life of exploration, of myself and of the mountains, the evolving yet stable bedrock of my existence. 

Ellen: You have to understand there are things beyond your control, to decide if you can mitigate the issues or accept that you may have to retreat. I think our motivation for taking you outdoors, was to take you back to places we had been that had been magic. I think that’s incredible, to have a beautiful day together in the mountains.

Words: Sam Smoothy

Photos: Sarah Vossler