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.