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Getting local information before heading out on month long ski mountaineering trip is always a good idea and even better if you actually pay attention to it. Scott Markewitz tried skiing Mt. Cook in New Zealand’s Southern Alps in 1991 and reported glistening sheets of blue ice. James Broadbent euphemistically mentions “foreign visitors may be used to a more stable or predictable continental climate” in his book “New Zealand Backcountry Skiing.” Although I missed the importance of these two references, it should have been crystal clear when Jon Page from Australia bluntly wrote “Weather in NZ can be an absolute bastard.”
They weren’t kidding. Having grown up in Seattle, I thought I knew what rain was all about. After spending a week anchored to the Southern Patagonia Ice Cap with pitons and ice screws, I thought I had seen wind. Waiting out a five day storm in the Denali National Park made me think I had seen dumps of snow. But I was wrong. The weather in the Southern Alps of New Zealand brings it to a whole new level. Not only that, but atrocious weather is the rule, not the exception. As a foreign visitor this seems dreadfully unfair until you realize that it is just New Zealand’s natural defense mechanism. The country is so stunning, rugged, beautiful and pristine that if weren’t for the weather, it would be completely over run with humanity instead of alpine parrots, geckos, seals and Kiwi birds (although you probably never see the elusive Kiwi in the wild.)
One of my main reasons for wanting to ski in New Zealand was that many great skiers come from there and where there are great skiers, there is usually great skiing. Grant Guise from Riverton, NZ was one of the first live skiing Kiwi specimens I’d met and was keen to hang out for three weeks with Steve Romeo and Chris “Figs” Figenshau from Jackson Hole, Wyoming and myself from Park City, Utah. We picked the last three weeks of October as it is springtime in NZ and it seemed like the snowpack would be at its peak depth.
On landing in Christchurch, there are two shocking discoveries; one, that you have mysteriously lost an entire day while in flight, and two, they drive on the wrong side of the road which is much more disturbing. Food and supplies (beer) are reasonably priced, but any sort of outdoor gear is outrageously expensive. There is some public transportation, but having a car simplifies logistics. After packing all four of us and our gear into Grant’s little red Subbie, it was about a four hour drive to the trailhead town of Mt. Cook village.
Our optimistic original plans was to spend a day here organizing, then take a glacier landing plane up to the Plateau hut on the east flank of Mt. Cook where we would be poised to attempt a ski descent of the country’s highest peak. But hold on - not so fast. First we needed to have a week of bad weather. An appetizer of gusty clouds led to an entrée of rain with a side dish of gale force valley winds which was later capped with a dusting of snow, then some warm weather, a bit more rain and eventual clearing.
Most of the week was spent in or around the New Zealand Alpine Club’s (NZAC)Unwin hut, which has deluxe. We brought a tent, but a few days of NZ weather is enough to cure you of that quaint notion. Huts are the way to go and NZ has lots of them. They are owned predominately by the NZAC or the Department of Conservation (DoC) and have been around for over 100 years. The mountain huts can be a bit chilly and damp, but are far better places to wait out storms than tents.
During our week of waiting, we took a day hike to Ball Ridge to inspect the Caroline face of Cook for skiing potential and in a nanosecond came to the unanimous conclusion that it was out of condition. Aside from being swept by falling blocks of ice, it was rocky, split horizontally in the middle by an overhanging ice fall and the upper steep sections were shiny and blue. We were the second of three parties to consider it that week and then decline. A RedBull group was in line for it next and I hope they have an extra dose of taurine. I could be a victim of global warming or a lean season, but it was looking very sparse and tattered compared to the postcard images from years past.
On a day when it was merely overcast, drizzling and a bit gusty, we decided to give a low hanging couloir a try. The approach was done in “Teton Style” which meant walking the whole thing in our ski boots, a first and last for my now blackened toes. After crossing the swinging bridge, baja’ing over some tundra and stumbling up a loose talus slope, we finally made it to the toe of the snowfield. None to surprisingly, it was wet muck, but being the eternal optimists, we kept booting until we came to a small cliff band. As we were debating the merits of continuing, a refrigerator sized rock flew down the chute, took a wild hop and shot over Chris and Steve’s head. Steve had already decided to abort, but the rock had triggered a wet slide which helped the process along by flushing him and Chris off the cliff band and taking them for a short ride. We made about three turns apiece before Teton Styling it back to Unwin Hut and tearing into a case of Tui’s.
When the weather finally broke, we were camped out at the heli pad ready to go before they opened. We had decided to go to the Tasman Saddle hut as it seemed high and central to the range and offered plenty of skiing opportunities as well as a chance to scoot over to Cook, should conditions improve (which they never did). The heli pilot kept the rotors spinning as we unloaded and shouted some last words about “don’t fall above the shitter” over the din, which I assumed was just Kiwi humor.
I wasn’t laughing a few minutes later. Much of the Southern Alps are covered with moving glaciers, so the only safe spot for a hut in on a rock outcropping. In the case of the Tasman Saddle hut, one side is a 100 meter vertical cliff, the back door is sporty alpine ridge and the shitter is perched above a couloir that steepens, turns, goes over a cliff band and empties into a large crevasse. I spilled a box of food on the way down to the hut and a bag of pasta took the long lonely ride into oblivion. "Don't fall above the shitter” started to make a lot more sense as we down-climbed the icy ridge leading to the front door. Actually, at that point, falling into the shitter was probably your best option if you did slip.
Eager to get out turning, we unpacked and skinned over towards the Kelman hut area and a tasty looking little couloir. This innocent little chute showed its teeth a third of the way up it as we desperately tried to kick toe holds through a trace of powder with a blue ice base. Steve skied it first and cleared off most of the soft snow. I took sloppy seconds, scraping off most of what was left for Grant, who got terrible thirds and then Figs who was smart enough to crampon back down the whole thing.
We then interrupted the skiing for a few more days of bad weather. The huts are anchored to the rock with beefy cables which tie into steel plates which in turn form the frame of the hut. The structural integrity of this whole thing was foremost in my mind as I lay awake thinking about the NZ hut that was blown down in a wind storm, killing all of its occupants. Luckily, this was a mere gale of 120ish kilometers per hour and the hut trembled, but held strong. When the wind stopped, the snow started. When that stopped, it turned into a whiteout. The evening radio check included an avalanche forecast (“high” the entire time we were there) as well as a weather forecast which included such classics as “tomorrow will be fine, with gales about the tops.” In other words, a sunny hurricane. Days later, well read and overly hydrated on tea, Raro and a two week supply of bourbon that had lasted all of five days, the storm finally broke.
To the Southern Alp’s credit, when the weather is clear, it is stunning. The wind left us with a choice of skiing sustrugi that was like corrugated iron or more ice, but the scenery made up for it. We were able to work our way down to the Darwin glacier, stopping along the way to inspect a weird soft snow avalanche and then making some turns on a nice bowl that was tucked up in the valley.
After a day and a half of this, we had more bad weather. Somewhere along the way, a team of French and German skiers who we had met in Mt. Cook village snuck into the Plateau hut on a helicopter. After waiting a day, the weather cleared and they set out to ski Cook, which we had mostly given up on by now. We had a bittersweet day of skiing on mellow glacier runs, all the while thinking we had blown our one and only chance at skiing Cook. Arrrrg. Still, the corn snow was perfect, the sky was blue, the friends were ideal and the setting was sublime.
After another brief spell of “unsettled weather” we decided to step it up and actually ski something, in this case, the beautiful Ranfurly spur. However, once we arrived, there was unanimous discontent at the sluffing, wind-loaded state of its flanks, so we decided to move up valley to a nice ridgeline on Mt. Green. Crossing over an exposed sun warmed slope above a gaping crevasse, this too seemed like a bad idea. After a quite lunch back at the hut, we decided enough was enough and it was time to start thinking about heading out. But first, we needed to ski a microscopic little line near the Kelman hut. True to form, even making it up this was a challenge as the rock was like crumbling kitty-litter and the snow was a dusting of powder on top of yes, more ice. Getting shut down on this little tiny-bopper of a chute was pathetic, but at the same time it made the decision to leave easier to make. You pay your money and take your chances when it comes to skiing.
After seeing the rugged terrain of New Zealand, it’s easy to understand why helicopters are a way of life there. They are used for everything from mustering sheep to crossing the Southern Alps (an eight hour drive otherwise) and you can even hunt deer from them. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are cheap, but we were, so we decided to save some money by skiing and walking back to Cook village instead of calling for a heli ride. How bad could it be? We had eaten most of our heavy food and it would be downhill all the way, even if it was 20ish kilometers.
As it turned out, it can be pretty bad indeed and halfway through the helicopter wasn’t looking so expensive. The glacier was fun, but when the snow ran out, the moraine began and a brutal moraine it was with endless loose rocks, pressure ridges, icy sidewalls and more than a few face plants with heavy packs. To add terror to misery, the last part was a stumblephuck straight up a talus slope that was shifting and moving with each step. I thought about turning my avalanche beacon on, but on second thought, I didn’t think my odds of surviving a burial under millions of tons of rocks were very good anyway. I left it off and ended up using my Whippets on a few occasions to spear into the dirt to assist with awkward mantels over eroded bulges.
At long, long last, we reached the Ball Shelter at the end of a destroyed road. The misery was over and now it was just old fashion suffering with packs that were getting heavier with each step. Grant, who had somehow found a magic line through the moraine, was over an hour ahead of us and hitched out to the helipad to retrieve the car. I kept expecting him every bend in the road and had given up hope, when….ahhhh! the little red Subbie showed up and the slogging was over!
After an impromptu party in the middle of the road, we carried on into town, then took a shower and headed back to the Chamonix bar where we ended up meeting up with the French/German team. Almost dreading the answer, I asked them how skiing Mt. Cook went… “We just climbed. No skiing because it was too icy.” I know, it’s not nice to take pleasure from other’s misfortune, but we were all pretty psyched to hear it!
Our trip was over, but I had plans to stay on for another ten days and meet up with my wife, Polly who had been up swimming with the dolphins in Kiakura for the last week. Mark from Australia took my place in the overstuffed Subaru for the final ride back to Christchurch and the end of a great chapter of adventure.
Many locals said the weather had been unusually unsettled while we were there, but in the end it didn’t matter all that much. New Zealand is one of those magical places where just being there is good enough and everything else is just icing on the cake, or in the case of Mt. Cook, icing on the face. The slope angles and vertical drops in the Southern Alps are similar to other great ski mountaineering destinations in the world, but the tricky conditions are what set them apart. Knowing when to go, and more importantly, being there ready to pounce when the time is right is what makes all the difference. Like the weather, icy slopes are one of New Zealand’s natural defense mechanisms that ensure that only the truly devoted and deserving get to ski its biggest lines. As it should be.