New Zealand- Backcountry Summer Paradise
It’s June and you’ve not skied for months. You are hot. You hanker for lamb because you’ve skied South America and have eaten a lot of beef. You desire an exotic locale with mountainous relief and friendly people speaking the Queen’s English. An island with glaciers that drop into temperate rainforest with breakers less than 10 miles away. You have cash to spend on an easy, albeit long, night flight across and down the Pacific Ocean….you can even break the trip and surf in Fiji….
A winter paradise awaits in summer. A mountainous maritime chain of Islands at approximately 40 degrees latitude will not promise the most reliable ski conditions – but there are always options in New Zealand, a country perfectly set up for foreign visitors. Maori mariners first glimpsed the island chain as a long stream of cloud. Aotearoa – Land of the Long White Cloud – was the moniker used to describe their new home.
In 1998 I met my future husband, he was from Utah. He found me in Wanaka – the lakeside outdoor mecca on the South Island. Nearing the end of a ski patrol career, I was looking for change. 1998 was the worst NZ ski season on record. By the end of it, I’d given up in disgust. I followed the man back to the more reliable winters of North America, only returning home for the briefest of winter stints in the ensuing decade. Our family’s return in 2009 turned my bad attitude around. Snow began to fall – heavily – on July 1. I rediscovered old haunts – the rustic club fields in the Craigieburn range near my hometown, Christchurch. Long ‘nutcracker’ rope tows, frequently powered by Ford tractors gave access to wide open backcountry bowls and expansive views to other ranges, braided rivers and mysterious lakes. In 2010 and 11, it was possible to ski all the way from the tops at 2000 metres to our home at 700 metres. I skied the brand new “Hogsback” Mountain bike trail more than I ever rode it in the first two years. We toured between club areas – staying at their lodge accommodation to create a “Kiwi Haute route.” The seemingly ubiquitous Kea – the world’s only alpine parrot – followed us. Endangered goofy bastion of the high country, this is apparently the world’s smartest bird (there are some at Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City – go visit).
We’ve now gone spring to winter to spring to winter for six years – returning to Utah late in the year then heading back to New Zealand in early July.
I rediscovered guiding on the glaciers of Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park and Westland National Park. Thirty kilometres in length, the Tasman glacier (Mt. Cook National Park) is the longest in New Zealand. With easy access by ski plane or helicopter to two well-placed alpine huts at its neve, the Tasman is one of the logical first choices in glacier ski destinations. Don’t try to hike up if you love your feet. At its head, the Tasman communicates to the Murchison glacier via Tasman Saddle and the exciting Murchison headwall. Murchison hut is a small ten-bunk hut, perched 150 metres above the glacier. From it’s diminutive position there are great ski tours to adjoining glaciers and peaks. The Mannering glacier with its southern aspect (think opposite for the Southern Hemisphere) provides shady aspects and often harbours cold, dry snow long after the last storm. A sidle from the Classen saddle provides access to the West Coast and the forested wilderness of the upper Whataroa River. There are ski mountaineering lines for all levels – the easy peaks of Sydney King and Phyllis give way to the loftier slopes of Mounts Mannering and Broderick, there are glacier cruisers, there are steeps. Likewise on the Tasman Glacier, you can ski the wide open friendly Darwin bowls, many variations on the Back Bowls or take on the rarely climbed 3000 metre Mt. Hamilton – a worthy ski mountaineering objective. On the Divide, Mt. Elie de Beaumont is a fantastic ski mountain if the less-than-friendly Anna Glacier will give access to the upper mountain.
Go hard on good days. Weather-bound hut days are usually not far away. Situated in the roaring forties, New Zealand is known for changeable weather – particularly in the spring. The hut day culture is well established. You get up late, brew some coffee, try to warm your hands over the stove and rustle up bacon and eggs. The day will be spent playing 500 or shooting the shit, waiting for the next fine break and some unpredictable kiwi powder.
Across the Main Divide on the West Coast, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers provide a huge range of ski touring and mountaineering options. There are four huts – Centennial hut is owned by the NZ Alpine Club and provides the high base for the Franz Josef Glacier while lower Aylmer Hut, often overlooked, gives access to some remote tours in the Salisbury Snowfields. From Centennial, the Minarets are another accessible 3000 metre ski peak – or just cruise nooks and crannies of the main glacier. Long corn runs are the norm in the spring. There are big views west to the Tasman Ocean and the endless braided rivers and grasslands of the MacKenzie country to the east. On the Fox Glacier side (a fairly straight-forward tour from Centennial Hut), Pioneer Hut is the high base while the historic Chancellor links to the lower Fox Glacier and is a good spot for a heli pick up post tour. Both the Fox and Franz Glaciers have seen massive recession in the past few years. Depending on the year, it can be possible to ski and hike out either glacier but it’s wise to check with local guiding companies at Fox and Franz townships before embarking. The weather and terrain are fiercer than you’d expect.
It’s fabulous but come with a backup plan! The South Island has 20 ski areas of all sizes and bizarreness – so there are always choices. The skiing sucks and it’s raining? Go bungy jumping, party, drink fantastic coffee, surf, hike, soak in hot pools, go rock climbing or sea kayaking (yep, you can do all these things in winter). Head north and hit the volcanoes of the North Island; there are another four ski areas up there. Backcountry New Zealand – it’s bigger than you’d think. And closer.
Information and Guidebooks: www.alpineclub.org.nz