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.