All Great Things Come to An End, But Memories Last Forever

Tadoussac, Québec

Saturday August 26th, 2017

I’ve been sleeping for the last three days.  Not straight – there have been long enough spurts of “awake” time to eat, move from my bed to the couch, and squeeze in the odd round of sub-par (as in mediocre, not under par) golf.  I washed all my clothes the other morning and aired out all my gear. Big day. I couldn’t leave any of it out of eye sight though, as if some of it was going to go missing out of our backyard. I wandered around aimlessly, literally watching my clothes dry on the line. It’s funny how one can go for months on end travelling from place to place, riding the waves of excitement and adrenaline, and then when that last wave crashes, you feel lost and can hardly move.  Lost is a good way to sum up how I’ve felt these last few days.

I got back to Canada on Tuesday morning, August 22nd,  after a long, overnight flight from Santiago to Toronto.  My buddy Neal graciously accompanied (consoled?) me all the way back to YYZ, where we parted ways. I continued east to Montreal and he flew west to Vancouver, and I’ll join him and others there in a few more days.

It’s taken a little while to really realize that this #skiaroundtheworld trip is finished and, to be honest, it probably still hasn’t fully sunken in.  On the cab ride to the Santiago airport on Monday afternoon, there were a few tears, but it mostly just felt like I was packing up and heading off for that next flight to that next far off destination.  And even after an emotional welcome with my mom, who picked me up in Montreal on Tuesday morning, I was still in travel mode, simply moving from an airport into a car, just another leg of a long journey.

For me, that last wave crashed on Tuesday afternoon when I pulled off the ferry in Tadoussac, still my favorite place in the whole world, parked the car in front of Maison Spruce Cliff (our family’s summer home), and saw the last nearly seven months of my life flash before my eyes:  I did it.

Tadoussac has a special way of helping one relax, unwind, and reflect.  It was the perfect place to come to help ease the pain of my re-entry into reality, pretty much completely unplug, and look back on all of amazing experiences and memories from the last few months.  The freshest of those memories were of course the last days of the trip spent in Portillo.

If I had to draw up a grande finale to a trip like this one, I couldn’t have imagined a better one than our week in Portillo. After the awesome week of skiing in Bariloche, I travelled back to Santiago where I met three of my great friends – Neal, Mike, and Will.  Mike and Neal have been around since the early days at McGill (study buddies, roommates, hockey teammates, reffing partners, barmates, you name it), but it took Will and I a few “international” hockey tournaments (the ones with too much beer and not enough hockey), not to mention me crashing his wedding five years ago, to really solidify our friendship. A perfect crew to spend a perfect week.

The transfer from Santiago to the iconic Ski Portillo resort on Saturday August 12th was relatively smooth, except that Will thought it would be best if he showed up fashionably late and so took his own shuttle. It was a scenic two and half hour or so drive from the airport up into the Andes.  From the front seat, Mike kindly provided some co-piloting directions to the driver, while Neal and I sat in the back and enjoyed blind passing on hairpin corners.

One of the great things about Portillo is that there are no crowds.  There are 500 or so beds at the resort and, thanks to a lower than normal snowpack, no day tickets were being sold. That meant we could ski to our hearts content, all week long, without ever having to wait in line.  Despite the advertised low snowpack, the skiing was really great.  We explored the high traverse and put in fresh lines off the interesting Roca Jack platter lift; rocked laps on the red-carpet entry to Garganta above the classic yellow hotel; and on try number two, we were fortunate to ski the incredible Super C couloir – a 5,500 foot beauty of continuous fall line.  With a little bit of work, we were still making fresh tracks after five days of no snow – thanks largely to that no crowds thing.  Mike and Will even got their first ever heli-ski run.

There was plenty to keep us busy off the slopes as well, with the whole place having a bit of a “cruise ship” feel to it.  We were treated to delicious three course meals at dinner and lunch, tea time, mandatory hot tub soaks after a day on the slopes, and a variety of other activities that the resort prepared as part of “Friend’s Week”.  Despite sitting in the corner by ourselves at the bar for most of the week, we still met lots of new friends over a few pisco sours, and chatted with ex-national team ski racers, current pros, and big mountain legends.  It really was the perfect way to spend one very last week of skiing, and on our very last night, the Andes delivered one more gift to send us off.

I am borderline superstitious when it comes to mountain things, believing that anything less than complete humility in the mountains is enough to cause something to go wrong, and that the Snow Gods always deliver the goods when it matters most.  I’m not trying to convince anyone of one thing or another, but it was pretty special when we woke up on our last morning in Portillo, my 73rd day of skiing around the world, and looked out the window:  nearly a foot of fresh Andean powder, and bluebird skies by the time breakfast was over.  We made fresh tracks in boot deep powder until our legs couldn’t handle it, and then on our very last run we pointed it all the way down to the shores of Laguna del Inca, under picture perfect sunshine and blue sky.  Pure magic, as the saying in Portillo goes.

I’m not sure if it was the gift from the Snow Gods to wrap up the week, or the last needless purchase at 2:59AM the night before (we got an itemized printout of the “extras” on our room bill, with purchase times, so guess what that was), but the four of us took no time to fall fast asleep on the shuttle ride back to Santiago. We scheduled ourselves a couple days to explore some of the sights of the Chilean capital before our respective journeys home last Monday night.

And the rest, as they say, is history. And memories. Lots and lots of incredible memories.  My dad likes to say that there are three parts to any great trip:  the planning part, before you even leave; living the actual trip itself; and the memories that you take away from it all when you get home.  Each part sees its own wave of emotions: excitement, anticipation, and nervousness before you go; happiness, enjoyment, awe (I’ve called them “holy sh*t moments”) when you’re out there doing it; and sadness, pride, and disbelief when it’s all over. It’s kind of hard to pick the best part, because each is so unique and so different.  But, when all three are combined, it makes for a life experience that is pretty difficult to put into words.

When I started cooking up this trip, I had a vision of what it was going to look like.  I had drawn things up 100 different ways, and planned and planned and planned, but at the end of the day I just had to get out there, hang on, and enjoy the ride as much as I possibly could.  I’m happy, and proud, to say that the vision I had turned into everything I hoped it would, and then some.  The experiences, the encounters, the new friends, the feelings, and the memories will be cherished forever.

If you’re visiting this blog page for the fifth time, or for the twentieth: thanks.  I hope you enjoyed reading and being part of the ride, albeit virtually. Thanks for your comments and notes, and support along the way.  If you’ve stumbled across this blog page because you are planning some far flung ski trip (like I was about a year ago, and there were blog pages that helped me out), all I can say is: do it. I hope you make it happen –  maybe I can even help point you in the right direction (it’s usually downhill).  And if you’re just clicking around online, looking to turn pipe dreams into reality: I hope this inspires you. I hope you decide to get out there and accomplish something you weren’t sure was even possible – it will be one of the best decisions you ever make.

Thanks for following along, I have to go back to work now. 🙂


Coming Into The Stretch Drive…

Friday August 11th, 2017

Somewhere between Bariloche and the Chilean border

It’s August 11th today. In 10 days I’ll be on a plane back to Canada. In. Sane.  Surprisingly, I’ve done a pretty good job the last couple weeks of just shutting all of that out of my mind and have been enjoying every last minute to the fullest.

The minutes of this last week were awesome, though, at the moment, I’m back on the bus heading west over the Andes, and back into Chile. This last week in Bariloche was one of those weeks where everything kind of comes together in ways that you can’t appreciate enough, and makes for a wonderful experience.

My time in Argentina was made so memorable thanks in large part to my friend Federico, who I met in New Zealand. The two of us were looking for people to ski with down there and we were able to spend some time on the slopes together. As it happens, Federico, and his family, are from Bariloche. Within minutes of meeting for the first time, Federico offered to talk to his mother to see if I could stay at their family home during my travels. His brother, Leonardo, would also be around and could perhaps show me some of the local stashes.  With no expectations, I accepted Fede’s more than generous offer and jumped in without knowing what I was getting myself into. It turned out to be one of the nicest things that has happened to me on this trip.

I showed up on the family doorstep a little sheepishly last Friday, wondering how I was going to introduce myself to Fede’s mother, Nilda, as he had told me she doesn’t speak a word of English. How do you say: “Uh, yeah hi, I’m Andrew, Federico’s friend who met me through Facebook ski touring groups in New Zealand and I’m here to stay for a few days”, in Argentinian Spanish?! Beats me.

Turns out it didn’t really matter, because thanks to a bunch of funny hand gestures and the dozen or so Spanish words that I do understand, the door didn’t get slammed in my face. Nilda greeted me warmly and, despite the fact we had never met before, I immediately felt welcome in their home.

Leonardo (“Cuny”), who speaks English very well, arrived at the house an hour or so after me, and played translator between his mother and I.  He is a super likeable guy and after some short introductions we got into the details of the week ahead: Tomorrow (Saturday), we would head up to Cerro Catedral (the resort outside town) for some laps, and then Sunday or Monday (weather depending) we would head into Refugio Frey for a few days of touring. Amazing. Pretty much exactly what I was hoping to do during my stay.

For the rest of the week Cuny completely took me under his wing, and showed me a side of Bariloche that I never would have experienced on my own. He’s hoping to make it up to Whistler one of these days, and I can’t wait to repay the favor.

After cranking out a few laps at Catedral on Saturday (high winds caused most of the lifts to close early), we went over to Leonardo’s friend Claudio’s place for a BBQ dinner. Argentinians are famous for their grilling skills, so I was excited for the meal. Claudio certainly delivered with a spread of beef steaks, ribs, and a variety of sausages to start. It was delicious.

The whole evening was made even more special because it was totally authentic: just a few friends and family enjoying a nice meal together on a Saturday night. I mostly just sat at the table, smiled, and helped myself to more meat and beer, because I couldn’t understand a single word that was being said. But everyone was laughing (maybe at me?!) and having a good time. It was neat to be a part of, and every so often Cuny and I would chat so I didn’t feel completely invisible!

After a bad weather day on Sunday, we packed up early on Monday morning and headed out to Refugio Frey.  I’m not sure how many of these days I’ve had on this trip, but it was another one of those ones where skis go on the pack, boots go on the pack, and snow line seems like miles away.  Plus we had four days worth of food to carry. And it was raining.  The things we do for skiing…

The hike in to Frey was straightforward, with Cuny having spent tons of time there over the years.  Eventually we crossed the freezing elevation and by the time we arrived to the hut there were a few centimetres of fresh snow on the ground. With snow falling, and more in the forecast for the days ahead,  it was shaping up to be an awesome few days.

Refugio Frey sits at the eastern edge of Laguna Tonchek, a few kilometres behind the Cerro Catedral ski area, and looks out towards tons of enormous granite spires and towers. Despite the less than favorable weather when we arrived, we could still make out plenty of different couloirs that looked great for skiing.  The hut is well equipped, with a full kitchen, running water, and caretakers there to keep things in order.  There were relatively few people at the hut when we arrived, so it was nice to have some space and make ourselves at home. Cuny took advantage of the kitchen to prepare delicious meals, and so all we had to do was eat, sleep, and ski.

From Monday until yesterday afternoon, we had the place more or less to ourselves and got first pick on fresh tracks for many of the lines outside the hut.  A pair of German guys who I had met earlier in the month at Chillan also arrived on the Monday and so teamed up with us for many of the runs.

The best day of the week was no doubt on Wednesday when, after two days of snow, the sun finally came out to reveal the true extent of the mountain playground we were in. Cuny had pretty keen to throw some “Patagonian backflips” during our stay, so after preparing a nice kicker on our first afternoon, he tested it out and landed some sweet tricks, with  massive granite spires framing the backdrop.  After a few jumps we’d pick a couloir and then go and ski a fun line.

The skiing was great.  Long, narrow lines, with huge granite walls on either side.  Most of the couloirs spilled out onto the frozen lake and so we just had to look up and pick the next one we wanted to climb and ski.  The fresh snow made it even more special.

Yesterday afternoon, after a few more tricks and a couple more runs, we packed up our things and made our way back into town.  We must have drawn just a few looks when we stumbled on to the city bus at 7:00PM last night, drenched, and once again with skis, boots, etc, all strapped to our packs.  The bus dropped us in town and we walked right to the front door of the house.

It was a short evening last night after getting settled back to the house and drying out our gear.  I had a nice dinner with Nilda and Leonardo and then early this morning it was back on the bus at 7:00 am, before the sun was even up.  The rest of the day will be fairly uneventful, with a few more hours on this bus, and then a two hour flight north to Santiago.  But,  the guys – Mike, Will, and Neal – should all be en route now (Mike lands in Santiago at the same time as me), and I can’t wait to see them. In the morning we will make our way up to Portillo for what should be an unbeatable finale to this unforgettable ski adventure.

Mission: Accomplished

Friday August 3rd,  2017

Somewhere between Puerto Montt and the Argentinian border

I’ve just left Puerto Montt, Chile, for a seven hour bus ride over to Bariloche, in Argentina, where I’ll spend the next week skiing. After a few bus rides of similar duration in Asia, one might be reluctant to hop aboard, but I think this one will be a little better: the seats are comfortable, they recline, and there are even little leg rests. I have a window seat on the second deck of the bus, and the views once we get into the national parks east of here are meant to be great. And Carlos, the bus equivalent of a flight attendant,  just handed out small breakfast trays with some sweets, tea, and coffee. Maybe bus travel can be nice!

I arrived in South America a week ago now, first landing in Buenos Aires for a short night, and then a quick hop over the Andes to Santiago. There were great views of Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the world not in the Himalayas) on the way.

The first couple days in Santiago provided perhaps the most stressful moments of this entire trip (including all those moments spent on shit-your-pants terrain in Chamonix): driving in the city. I wanted to have a little flexibility to explore Chile so decided to rent a car for the first few days here.

I’m sure driving in Santiago is no worse than many North American cities, it’s just that all the road signs are in Spanish only, the exit signs are completely un-related to the directions I was given from Google, and street signs are nothing more than a post-it note on a telephone pole. On the drive in from the airport I managed to: miss my exit for the hostel (which caused an hour long detour through the city, in the dark); turn the wrong way onto a one way street (fortunately someone outside yelled at me and I clued in to pull a quick Uey before I drove into an oncoming car); and get stuck in the middle of a large intersection on a red light. When I did finally find the hostel (with only my psyche a little damaged) there was no parking available. So, I had to pay off the night attendant at the gas station down the street to keep an eye on the car while I left it in the 30 minute parking zone for the entire night. The conversation took way longer than it needed to, but I can hardly speak Spanish, and he could hardly speak English.

Things went a little better the following morning (Sunday) for the drive out to El Colorado ski area, about 50 km east of Santiago. It started with finding the rental car still in the parking lot, with windows and tires are still in tact.

The drive to the hill was pretty neat. Santiago sits in the bottom of the north-south running valley between the Andes and the Pacific Cordillera. As you drive east, the Andes look like a giant, snow-capped wall, offering no way out. Once off the highway and onto the ski access road, one must complete 40 hair pin turns (they are numbered on the road) in order to climb up to the base of the hills. At times I wasn’t sure if my dinky little rental car would make it. The approach was somewhat similar to Morocco, as I passed through dry, desert like slopes, with cactuses lining the road shoulder.

Excitement started to build once I safely arrived to the parking lot and put on my gear. The price tag of a one day lift ticket caused me to flinch a little bit, but I was more than happy to splurge, hop on that first lift, and accomplish what I set out to do when I left Vancouver over six months ago.

After riding up a couple slow double chairs and then a T-bar to get to the top of the mountain, I dropped in for my first run in South America.  It was the best run on garbage snow  that I have ever had. Of course the snow quality in that particular moment was totally irrelevant. Sure it would have been nice to make fresh tracks the whole way down, but the feeling of accomplishment at the bottom was greater than the feelings at the bottom of some of the best powder runs I’ve had elsewhere. With the exception of Antarctica (which is an adventure for another day), I had now skied on every continent in the world. On the t-bar ride up for run #2, I couldn’t hold back tears of joy.  It was one of the coolest moments I’ve experienced, maybe ever.

I continued to ride the lifts and run laps for longer than I would normally do, riding the high of being able to say “mission: accomplished”. By mid afternoon I was literally falling asleep on the slow double chairlift, still being a little jet-lagged from the long flight over from New Zealand. I packed it in for the afternoon, had a nap in the car, and then mentally prepared myself for the drive back into the city.

After Night #2 of paying off gas station attendants, I was eager to get out of Santiago. And because it was Monday morning, I had to have the car gone by 8:00am, otherwise it was going to be “big problemo”. So I packed up and headed south out of the city, without making any wrong turns.

Apparently Chile is home to roughly 10% of the worlds active volcanoes.  Although I’ve technically already skied on volcanoes near home (Baker, Rainier), I thought it would be a cool experience to ski some Chilean ones. The nearest place to do so from Santiago was about 5 hours south at Nevados de Chillan, which is where I decided to head for a couple days of skiing.

I was more than happy with my decision to make the trek south. The ski resort at Nevados de Chillan offers easy backcountry access to the slopes of several volcanoes, one of which was actively smoking.

With absolutely no snow having fallen in the last two weeks, and freezing levels having gone through the roof (which helps consolidate the snowpack), I decided to venture out into the backcountry on my own (not a practice I would recommend). But given the current conditions, and the generally mellow terrain, I figured I was more likely to be buried in volcanic ash than in avalanche debris.

The terrain was really interesting, with rolling slopes and gullies carved out from previous eruptions. In areas of low snowpack, you could see all sorts of volcanic rocks that had been deposited. And on my second afternoon I even skied into one of the small volcano craters, which was a pretty neat experience. All with Volcàn de Chillan Nuevo smoldering in the background (there was actually no snow near the crest of the volcano, presumably having been melted away).  The views north and south were some of the most spectacular of the whole trip, with distinct volcano cones visible as far as the eye could see.  If I had more time, I definitely would have spent a few more days there. It would be a great place to ski with some fresh snow.

Speaking of fresh snow, it looks like Bariloche is going to get a bunch of it in the next few days, so (fingers crossed) it should be a great few days. After a week in Bariloche it’s back to Santiago and out to Portillo for, unbelievably, the very last week of this unbelievable journey.

Standing On My Last Leg

July 28th, 2017

Auckland Airport, International Departures

Both of my legs are fine.  It’s just a figure of speech.

Once again I’m sitting in an airport terminal, on my own, waiting for another flight.  Another month has just blown by and I now find myself with six months down and one month to go in this round the world trip.  I am about to fly across the Pacific Ocean to start the very last leg. There are all sorts of emotions running through me.

Perhaps oddly, I’m not entirely sick of sitting in airport terminals.  The time I’ve spent in so many airports in so many places has offered some of the most memorable moments of this trip.  It’s in those instances where the reality of what I am up to really hits me.  It’s a chance to reflect on how far I’ve come since the beginning of the trip, to be excited about what’s ahead, and to just let everything sink in.  It’s a pretty amazing feeling.

These last few days in New Zealand have been great.  After our little adventure up the Matukituki Valley, we got a couple more days of fun touring around Wanaka at Cardrona Resort and The Remarkables ski areas, to make for an even 10 days of skiing on the South Island.  Overall the skiing was a lot of fun, with some good powder days and some crazy adventures that you wouldn’t otherwise get into in Canada (i.e., crossing rivers in bare feet).  It was tough flying back to Auckland the other morning, as lots of snow was in the forecast and the season really was starting to ramp up (when I arrived at the beginning of the month it was still a little early in the season).

On Wednesday morning I flew back to Auckland and rented a car for a short trip down to Tongariro National Park, with hopes of skiing off Mt. Ruapehu, the highest mountain on the North Island and also an active volcano. Thursday was the only day I had to ski, and though the forecast didn’t look great, I decided to head out anyway. Maybe whatever storm that was forecast would get stalled somewhere and give me that little weather window.  Plus it would be cool to explore a little of the North Island.

I arrived to the park on Wednesday afternoon to a bluebird afternoon with great views of Ruapehu and its two other sister volcanoes, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. Mount Ngauruhoe was the film location of “Mount Doom” in the famous Lord of The Rings movies, and is one of those perfect, symmetrical volcanoes. The whole area looked quite desolate. Things were looking promising weather-wise.

On Thursday morning I awoke a total pea soup whiteout, in classic New Zealand fashion, so the skiing was obviously scrapped. So much for skiing volcanoes in this country.

Today I took most of the day to drive back to the airport here. Shortly after leaving Taupo I stopped to check out the small “Craters of The Moon” park. A large part of new Zealand’s North Island, from Ruapehu in the south all the way to the Bay of Plenty in the north, is one of the most geologically active areas in the world. There are tons of geysers, geothermal pools, craters, and volcanoes to explore. The Craters of The Moon park is just one of those places and included a short walk to see steaming fumaroles, boiling mud pools, and historic craters from previous volcanic activities. Pretty neat.

After a couple more hours of driving north, I arrived in Matamata, the filming location of “Hobbiton”, also from Lord of The Rings/The Hobbit. You can’t actually see any of the movie set without paying the big bucks for a tour (it’s located 3 km off the main road on private property). But, I still made the detour (mostly for Kim’s benefit) out to the setting off point for the tours to take a few pictures. Whoever owns the land on which the film was set must now be a millionaire with the amount of people coming and going to see the set – it was a zoo when I arrived. Understandably so, I suppose, as the whole area was very scenic, with rolling green hills dotted with sheep, small lakes, and forests. Just like in the movies – amazing!

Similarly to the time spent sitting in airports, the hours driving the last few days provided plenty of time for reflection. These last few days have seen a wave of emotions.

When I got to New Zealand I was worried about meeting the right people to go touring with and that not meeting people would prevent me from doing as much touring as I would have liked. But by the end of my time on the South Island I was really happy with the team I’d met, and it was sad to say goodbye to Jamie and Manu the other day.  It would have been easy to spend another month here with them, touring around and enjoying the winter.  It was a good little crew, with others, like my friend Federico (who I connected with through Facebook), joining here and there.

On the flip side of sadness of leaving New Zealand, is the excitement of the next stage of the trip.  Chile and Argentina seem to having a good winter so far, and conditions are looking good. Plus it is the last continent of the trip.  Federico has connected me with some folks in Bariloche, Argentina, and in two weeks three of my best friends will join me for what should be an epic week of skiing at iconic Portillo.  I can’t wait.

And amidst all of that is this overarching feeling that the finish line of this whole thing is in sight.  I wouldn’t say that I am homesick, but I certainly miss the people who are close to me.  I’m starting to picture what it will look like when I land in Montreal in a few weeks. How is it going to feel?  How am I going to react to being home?  Lots of thoughts that, until now, have just seemed so far off in the future.  But thoughts that, in their own way, are also really exciting.  I’ve had to remind myself a little bit the last few days to simply keep enjoying the present, because before I know it, it will all be over.  Right now, the present means getting on an 11 and a half hour flight to Buenos Aires.  Hurray.

Is This Skiing, Or Am I Just Crazy?

July 19, 2017

Wanaka, New Zealand

A German, a Scot, and a Canadian decide to go ski touring for the day.  They drive out of Wanaka, to the end of the paved roadway, and then along a dirt road.  When they get to their “destination”, they pull over to the shoulder, out of the way of traffic that may pass while they are out in the mountains.  They pack up all of their gear for the day and get ready to go.  Instead of clipping their skis onto their feet, they strap them to their backpacks, because there is no snow anywhere near the car.  Instead of putting on their ski boots they clip them into their bindings, on their packs, because the first few hours of the day will be spent hiking. And instead of putting hiking boots on they put on crocs, or don’t bother with any footwear at all, and pull ski pants and long johns up as high as they can go.  That is because the first step of the day is to cross the glacier-fed waters of the Matukituki River.  In the middle of the New Zealand winter. The water isn’t deep (except when the river is crossed in the dark at the end of the day), but it moves quickly and it is freezing.

What a hilarious joke.

Perhaps not all that surprisingly, such is the extent of ski touring in New Zealand that Manu (the German), Jamie (the Scot), and I (the Canadian) have gotten into the last few days.  On this particular day (yesterday as it was), there was actually quite a bit of snow to be skied, some of the best of my time in New Zealand so far.  It’s just that in addition to crossing the freezing cold river, we also had to hop over half a dozen barbed-wire fences, cross a couple tussock (large, mounded clumps of grass) fields that were filled with sheep and cow manure, climb about 700 vertical metres up an old, slippery four wheel drive track (which I did wearing crocs and soaking wet socks) to get to snow line, and then finally put on boots, skis, and skins and climb another 1000 m to the top of some unnamed peak. All the while the helis buzzed overhead, ferrying skiers in minutes to the same powder lines that we were attempting to get to before the sun went down.  If only this trip had a bigger budget.

Not that I am complaining.  It was a beautiful day out, and anytime we looked up from the manure-filled trail, or the eventual skin track, we were rewarded with incredible views of Mount Aspiring and the surrounding National Park.  Plus there is something very satisfying about completing big days out in the mountains, like this particular one.  What exactly that satisfying thing is, I am not sure.  But it’s what keeps us coming back for more.

The peak we were attempting to get to on this day of touring – Mount Alta – turned out to be a little too lofty for a simple day trip (I think the river crossing slowed us down).  So instead we aimed for a high point in front of Mount Alta, which still provided some fun skiing in boot deep powder.  By the time we got there, the sun was already on it’s way down.  We spent a bit of time at the top, soaked in the amazing views, and then enjoyed 1000 m vertical metres of skiing back down to the aforementioned, um, “obstacles”.  By the time we got back to the car it had been dark for over two hours, and we were once again drenched, this time having crossed the river in a somewhat deeper spot because we couldn’t figure out exactly where we’d crossed in the morning.  It took Manu all of about 2 minutes to fall asleep in the camper part of the van, on the drive back into town.  What a great day.

Yesterday also marked my last day with my campervan.  It was so much fun having it that I actually extended the rental period by a couple days, despite the crazy cost of gas.  Apparently $2 NZD/litre is a bit of a deal for gas down here – and the Canadian and New Zealand dollars are roughly equivalent. Ouch.

For the last two weeks Jamie and I, and Manu in the last few days, toured around the island to wherever there was snow.  Generally, we didn’t bother carpooling to save on said expensive gas, because each of our vehicles were not simply a ride to the hills, but were also the bedroom, the kitchen, the gear storage locker, and the drying room.  And I don’t think any of us wanted to subject each other to wet boot liners drying on the dashboard.

After our attempted hut trip near Ohau, Jamie and I explored and skied the mountains near Aoraki/Mount Cook for a few days, and spent a night at the Mueller Hut, where we got to enjoy maybe the brightest full moon that I have ever seen.  We skied some fun lines, with the highest point in New Zealand serving as the backdrop.  We got snowed in in Lake Tekapo for a few days (and spent most of it fighting off a nasty cold/flu bug).  Daily trips to the local hot pools and sauna were in order as we waited out the storm and recovered.  When the sun finally came back out when we enjoyed the fresh powder at Roundhill and learned exactly what the “nutcracker” is at the nearby club field, Fox Peak.

Before getting to New Zealand I had rather optimistically set an objective of 20 ski days in a little under a month.  Realizing that I was unlikely to achieve that, thanks to no snow when I got here, snowstorms and lousy weather, and being sick, I decided after we left Lake Tekapo to pack up the skis for a couple days and explore some different parts of the island, while I had the freedom to do so.  I made a bee line towards the south coast, via Queenstown, and drove through farmlands, along rugged coastlines, and dipped my toes into the edges of the incredibly scenic Fiordland at Te Anau.  At Te Waewae Bay, I stared out to the stormy waters and wondered how long it would take to get to Antarctica, the next point of “land” to the south.  Neat experiences.

And now I’m back in Wanaka (I spent a few nights here at the beginning of the month), at the relaxing Mountain View Backpackers hostel.  Jamie and Manu went off on another adventure today, while I returned the van in Queenstown this morning.  We’ll likely get back out there the next few days, weather and conditions permitting, of course.

The touring here has been a bit of an exercise in patience.  Unlike in Canada, or other places I’ve been to, there is very little skiing to be done below tree line.  That means that when it’s storming out, which it has been doing on a fairly regular basis lately, there is nowhere to go and hide and still have a good day skiing.  So you sit around and wait it out.  And the storms have been pretty crazy.  One day it’s blowing a gale from the northwest, and two days later it’s blowing a gale from the southeast.  The high, variable-direction winds, combined with significant snowfalls, have created a pretty touchy snowpack on most of the South Island. Combined with various different weak layers, the fresh snow and winds have created some prime conditions for sizeable avalanches.  Over the next few days the forecasts are predicting a high danger just about everywhere, so we may be stuck indoors for longer than we’d like.  Unless of course the weather changes suddenly, which it often seems to do.  All part of the fun and games.

Take Me Back to The Snow…

July 7, 2017

Twizel, New Zealand

I’ve been in New Zealand for just over a week now, and it was really only yesterday that I started to fully enjoy and embrace being here.  After spending five months travelling with two of the most important people in my life, my brother and my girlfriend – I mean my girlfriend and my brother (Kim is probably reading this) – it was a bit of an adjustment suddenly being on my own, Month 6 into this trip, as far away from home as I will get.  My arrival was made easier by having a place to stay with a fellow Canadian (thanks to my colleague Lindsay’s brother Oscar), and I met plenty of people at the hostel in Wanaka the last few nights, but it isn’t quite the same feeling as traveling with someone.  That, and I’ve been cold since I arrived in Queenstown.  Maybe going from the equator straight to 45 degrees south latitude was a bit of a miscalculation. I imagine it was part of the reason I got sick for two days. Oh well.

All of that changed yesterday though when I picked up my “wicked” camper van in Queenstown.  Despite the wacky paint shop and crude language painted in block letters for tailgaters to read (the rental company has actually been in some trouble down here because of the not so family friendly graffiti), the van will provide me with two weeks of freedom and flexibility to head to wherever the snow looks good.  And even though it was about minus 10 outside last night, I was nice and cozy inside the van with my sleeping bag and extra blankets that were provided.  I’m ready to do some ski touring!

Because backcountry skiing is not an individual sport, and because Matt got sucked back into work, I’ve had to find some touring buddies for my time down here.  So far, it hasn’t been the easiest thing to do.  I put up a post on some of the Facebook groups down here, and our friend Gavin that we met in Nepal connected me with some of his friends in Wanaka.  But people work for a living, and have other things to do, so despite trading a few numbers I haven’t done any touring yet.  Not really the end of the world, because there isn’t a whole lot of snow as it is. That being said, I did have quite a bit of fun night skiing at Coronet Peak the other night with Oscar and a few of his buddies – continent #5 is in the books!

In the last couple days I’ve connected with Jamie, an avid backcountry skier from Scotland, of all places. Jamie, like me, has better things to do than work five days a week.  So he and I met up yesterday, here in Twizel, and hatched out a plan for the next few days. Despite the more than a dozen-year age difference between the two of us (me being the elder), we both have only one common objective for the next few weeks:  to ski until our legs fall off. Or at least come close.

We got off to a great start towards that objective today when we drove up to the Ohau ski field and loaded up our packs with three days worth of food and overnight gear.  Jamie has been in New Zealand since last October, on a working holiday, so knows his way around the South Island pretty well.  Our plan was to tour up the ski field and drop off the back side of the hill and down into the next valley to stay at the Snowy Gorge Hut.  We checked in with the ski patrol at the top of the hill, gave them the car keys and filled them in on our proposed itinerary for the next few days.

Skinning up the ski field’s cat track was a little slow, given the big pack I was carrying, as well as the fact I hadn’t been out touring for over two months. But it felt great to be touring again.  And when we did finally make it to the top ridge of the ski field, we were rewarded with great views of the Southern Alps, including Mount Cook/Aoraki (New Zealand’s highest peak), and Lake Ohau to the east.  We toured along the ridge towards Mount Sutton to look for a place to drop into the valley.

As we had a break and enjoyed some lunch, looking down into the valley we planned to ski, it started to dawn upon us that Snowy Gorge wasn’t really that snowy.  In fact we probably wouldn’t even be able to ski all the way to the hut.  The snowline looked like it was 300 – 400 m below the ridge where we were sitting, and the hut was another few hundred metres below that! With time and flexibility on our side, we decided to simply turn around and ski back down to the parking lot.  Somewhat sheepishly, with our big overnight packs. The ski patrol was a little surprised to see us so soon, but we got to enjoy some nice turns down the ski field, with Lake Ohau framing the backdrop.

And now we are back at the Wild Buck Pub in Twizel.  Funny little place. Last night when we were in here there was a raffle/bingo game in which you could win household cleaning products and/or canned soup (among other foodstuffs).  We’ve poured through the latest weather and outlooks to come up with a new plan.  It seems like there is lots of snow up near Mt. Cook, as well as a nice hut that we could base ourselves in for a night or two, so we’ll head there in the morning.  Then later in the week it looks like a fresh storm will pass through, further north at Lake Tekapo area, so we’ll probably try to chase that.  In the meantime, we’ll head out to one of the free campgrounds nearby and park the car for the evening.  I can definitely get in to this routine.

Happy Birthday To Me…Oh, and Dragons

June 24th, 2017

Somewhere on the Flores Sea, Indonesia

It was my birthday a couple days ago.  A tough one this year – 33 years old, yikes.  I insisted to Kim that she not tell a single other person that it was my birthday, mostly because the thought of 25 strangers – many of whom are likely 10 years or more younger than me – singing me happy birthday would be enough to make me want to jump overboard.  And by overboard, I mean overboard of the 60 foot “yacht” that we are currently sitting on, motoring towards Labuan Bajo.

Today is the last of a four day boat cruise we signed up for, from Lombok to Komodo National Park.  Kim and I had always intended to visit Komodo National Park as part of our travels in Indonesia, but we’d initially planned to fly from Kuta, Bali, to Labuan Bajo and sign up for a trip from there.  But while hanging out on Gili Meno, we discovered these 3 night/4 day boat cruises leaving directly from Lombok.  It seemed like a much more relaxing way to get to Komodo, and avoided more than one trip into Kuta, so we signed up.  It’s been perhaps the best part of our time in Indonesia.

Our little cruise got started three days ago at the port town of Labuan Lombok, on the east coast of the island. Years ago I read Carl Hoffman’s book “The Lunatic Express“, in which he describes his travels on the statistically most dangerous modes of transportation in the world.  I distinctly remember reading the chapter about the slow, overcrowded ferry boats in Indonesia, which apparently sink not quite as frequently as the tide goes out.  So we did our homework and read some reviews before deciding on anything. (Seriously, one TripAdvisor review we read said “don’t do the 4 day Lombok to Komodo tours, because when I did my trip last year our boat sank and we spent four days on a life raft”.) The tour group we finally landed on is celebrating it’s 23rd anniversary this year, so we figured they must be doing something right.  And we’re still afloat with the end of the trip in sight – bonus!

The specs and photos of the boat on the company website described a 20 to 25 metre long vessel, with multiple decks, windows and open space to sit under the sun.  It looked quite comfortable and not unlike some of the private yachts we sometimes see moored in the bay in Tadoussac.  When we arrived at the pier in Labuan Lombok, we were greeted by the run down, shabby-looking Mona Lisa 3. The crew enthusiastically welcomed us aboard, while Kim wondered aloud what happened to Mona Lisa 1 and 2.  I chuckled to myself, realizing that we should have known better than to take the website photos at face value.  But on the bright side, Mona Lisa 3 was in much better shape than the ship behind her which, with the exception of the wheelhouse, was completely underwater. As we headed out of the harbour Kim asked if we had reached our top speed. I suspected we hadn’t, given that most boats go quite slowly when heading out to sea. It was only an hour later, when we were well into open waters and still puttering along at the same speed, that I realized we really were on the slow boat to Komodo.

Not that there is anything wrong with a slow boat.  It’s actually been very relaxing.  Each day the crew prepares our meals, and there has been plenty of food for the 26 backpackers on board.  Every so often we stop in a bay, the crew throws out the anchor, and we all jump in the water with snorkeling gear to explore the beautiful coral and numerous types of fish. And beyond that all we have to do is sit on deck, enjoy the sunshine, read, snooze, and set the timer for when we can open our next Bintang (sadly we ran out of Bintang yesterday evening, despite bringing way more than any of the other passengers).

Given the sweat box that is the sleeping quarters onboard, Kim and I decided after Night 1 that we’d spend the remaining nights sleeping under the stars. Surprisingly we were the only ones who opted to. So after the last stragglers crawled into the oven, we pulled out our mats and blankets onto the open upper deck, curled into our meat sacks (the literal translation of the French word for sleeping bag liner that I’ve been using since Matt and I bought them in Chamonix), and fell asleep watching shooting stars and trying to identify Southern Hemisphere constellations. A novel way to get some rest.

Despite the lack of happy birthday songs and candles to blow out, my birthday was actually a really great day, and likely one of the more unique birthdays that I’ll remember.  It was nice to spend it with just Kim.  After waking up to watch the sunrise, and scarfing down a quick breakfast, we swam ashore to Moyo Island, and wandered into the forest to a series of waterfalls and pools to swim and splash around in. Later we moored again at Satonda Island where we spent time snorkeling and walking on shore to visit a salt water lake.  At Satonda we saw a little group of clown fish (the Nemo ones) darting in and out of an anemone.  So neat and colorful.

Two nights ago, we motored through the night and yesterday morning woke up to flat calm waters inside the boundaries of the incredible Komodo National Park.  After a pit stop at Gili Laba to stretch out the sea legs, we carried on to Manta Point, where we got to “swim with giant manta rays”.  Being in the water in the vicinity of manta rays is probably a more fitting description than swimming with them.

The whole scene was quite comical, and reminded me somewhat of the chaos that often ensues while whale watching on the St. Lawrence.  As we approached the observation zone, where a half a dozen boats were already milling about, the crew started shouting to the other boats to see if any mantas had been spotted.  Shortly after, our guide spotted one and yelled “Go!”, and then 25 of us literally jumped overboard and swam after the manta. Not wanting to get kicked in the face, or have our snorkels ripped off by an overzealous swimmer, Kim and I decided to hang back and swim the other way.  We were rewarded for our decision and for about 30 seconds we were able to swim behind a single, beautiful manta.  I even got Kim in the GoPro frame!  Without flippers we were unable to keep up to the animal and soon it was out of sight.  We swam back to the boat and repeated the whole jumping overboard exercise two or three more times before motoring off for lunch and some swimming at Pink Beach.

Last night we moored in a beautiful bay just off shore of an island (I think it was Komodo Island, but I’d have to look at a map). Someone thought they saw a tiger shark swimming around, so there was no going in the water – even though a couple miles around the corner it was just fine!

Today was the “big” day of the trip – walking through to the forest to hunt Komodo dragons (with our cameras, as the tour brochure states).  The morning included two stops – one on Komodo Island, and a second on Rinca Island.  The islands are two of four islands in the world that the dragons call home.  Beforehand we were cautioned that it is currently mating season, and so actually seeing a dragon might not be all that likely.

Fortunately luck was on our side, and before even walking under the “Welcome to Komodo National Park” sign on Komodo Island, we spotted a dragon along the beach.  The thing could have been mistaken for an oddly-shaped piece of driftwood, because it was lying there doing nothing, but it was close enough to the walkway that it was obviously a dragon.  As the crowd started to grow the dragon rose from its slumber and wandered off into the woods.  Pretty strange looking animal, that moved rather slowly, but can apparently run up to 20 km/h if it wants to.

After an hour-long walk through the forest and savannah, which yielded nothing but a few nice views of the island, we arrived back at the ranger station to see a second dragon snacking next to the ranger shacks.  The second one was a little more active, and the rangers warned us all to stay behind them in case they needed to fend off the dragon with their wooden poles.  What is it with wooden poles to fend off dangerous animals?

Our experience on Rinca Island was similar to Komodo:  a few dragons spotted within 100 feet of the ranger cabins, but none on the jungle walk.  Interestingly, I guess, we witnessed a couple dragons engaging in the early stages of dragon-mating.  According to our guide the whole episode can last up to several hours.  Our boat was leaving soon, and so we didn’t get to witness the whole deed.  What a drag…

After one last swimming stop a little earlier, we are now within sight of Labuan Bajo, the harbour town on Flores Island and the end of our four day trip.  We’re spending a couple nights in Labuan Bajo and then will fly back to Kuta, on Bali.  Hard to believe that our time together is winding down.  In a few sleeps Kim will head home and back to work, and I will fly south, back to winter, to ski the slopes of the Southern Alps in New Zealand.