Kiwiland, or Skiwiland as New Zealand’s Southern Alps quickly became known, is home to big wild mountains, snowy ridges and elegant ice arêtes. It’s no wonder that Edmund Hillary was the right man to ‘conquer’ Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Rapidly changing weather and depressions bring incessant gusty wind. However, once you get to grips with taking advantage of the weather windows, New Zealand has such a unique, spectacular, rugged and colourful landscape that will have you check yourself several times a day and wonder how it was created. Since its an island with the main divide only 50 km or so from the Tasman Sea, the ‘sou’westerer’ storms roll in heavily laden with moisture and drop snow over the high ground. There is nothing but ocean between the South Island and Antarctica and it snows nearly 3 times what the Northern Alps receive which generally stabilises fast in spring.
The mountains are also bad ass with a plethora of faces bigger than 800 m and all the ski features you could want plastered with snow; spines, ridges, faces, hanging glaciers, couloirs, and of course low angled glaciers. The range is split east and west by the main divide formed by a chain of impressive peaks that include Aoraki / Mt Cook and Tasman. The best way to utilise your time is spend the money on a ride in a ski plane or heli to the huts and avoid travelling on miles of unstable moraines at all cost.
Tom Grant and myself spent 3 weeks exploring the Aoraki / Mt Cook range finding out that New Zealand has some incredible adventures to offer and skiing a couple of 1st descents along the way.
The West Face of Elie de Beaumont
A few weeks prior to the trip an Instagram photograph of Elie de Beaumont’s West Face revealed a line that instantly caught my attention. The line is complex, burly yet elegant, isolated and unskied. Local opinion was the line I wanted to ski was a rock slab with several overlaps that wouldn’t go on skis. Although discouraging this didn’t put me off the idea completely. I live with the north face of the Midi in my backyard and spending a lot of time on that type of terrain changes your perspective on what’s possible. That said, the difficulties were not limited to the skiing but also the logistics of getting back from the bottom of the face. Without a convenient hut west of the main divide, the plan was to traverse the mountain, ski the face on sight, and then find a way back over the divide. Our experience of the gusty wind induced too much fear at the thought of basing ourselves over on the west in a tent so that option was quickly dismissed. Altogether there were a number of unknowns that we would have to solve en route. Without the luxury of climbing or even seeing the face, we would just have to deal with what we found. Our second big unknown was the state of the glaciers below the face for re-crossing the divide and whether they would offer an easy passage or leave us stranded in a crevasse maze. On reflection this seemed a far out there plan with low chance of success and every chance of becoming a prolonged epic due to one of the unknown factors baring its teeth. Quite a daunting thought when you are used to planning every last detail but the line in the photo had been enough to motivate us to fly half way round the world.
Once the next rip-roaring sou’wester cleared we took the ski plane back into the Tasman Saddle hut with a forecast for a 48-hour window. Landing about noon we were pleasantly greeted with perfect conditions of cool temps and light wind. The opportunity was too good to miss and besides I was feeling too excited and nervous to sit around waiting in the hut all afternoon. We dumped our gear, ate a snack and downed as much water as possible before racing up Elie to catch corn time on the west face. On the climb we wallowed up the steep east facing slopes onto the summit ridge in hideous crust and deep unconsolidated snow that was still undergoing transformation.
As we arrived on the broad summit ridge the view expanded across the stunning west face and beyond the mountains stretched out to the sub-tropical jungle tucked in under a sea of clouds. The sun beat down onto the slope from the west and the corning snow below the ridge confirmed our timing was right. We transitioned in silence feeling the pressure build in our chests but knowing to take our time to make sure things were done right, boots in ski mode, binding surfaces de-iced and skis locked on. Below the slope rolled over in a vast expanse with no obvious feature to orient us on our photo. Doubts about finding the right line added to my pre-ski nerves as the face has some serious obstacles we needed to avoid. The cloud was bubbling up towards the face from the west and for want of a better strategy we decided to ski back along the summit ridge and simply handrail down the left side of the mountain. There was a still niggling worry in the back of my mind that we would encounter some kind of unskiable overlap that would require down climbing due to NZ’s characteristic ‘Weetabix rock’. Would the route go sweetly or turn into some time consuming mountaineering nightmare landing us in a crevasse maze below?
Low angled turns down the summit ridge help loosen the muscles and sharpen the coordination for what lay ahead. We paused briefly above a band of rime ice at the top of the face and without saying a word checked each other’s body language for psych levels. The brief moment allowed my brain to register the tension rising. Anxiety, doubts, fear all trying to sabotage the day and make you turn back towards the safety of the hut. The driving forces of logic, excitement, desire, inquisitiveness battle to keep you on track. For me the battle line between the two warring camps advances and retreats with my daily biorhythms and energy levels and equates to the overall level of psych. With the seconds passing it was time to focus the mind and become centred as we committed onto the face itself. After skipping the band of rime, sweet corn provided delectable skiing as we descended in sensually fluid turns. The slope continued to roll over finally reaching a maximum sustained pitch of about 45 degrees. To our amazement and relief the line of snow kept coming and led us cleanly off the face onto the Times Glacier with no obstacles to overcome. Skiing is just so much sweeter when the flow isn’t broken.
Now the second major unknown section of our journey lay ahead. As we surveyed the surroundings for a route back over the main divide we decided to forgo the heavily crevassed trad route to the Divers Col via the Stevenson Glacier and instead take the NW couloir on Mt Walter. It was baking hot on the Times Glacier and we soon ran out of water. However, the sun was moving off our couloir and with the cloud level building our anxiety lay around losing visibility and navigating unknown complex terrain east of the main divide.
We made quick progress up onto the watershed but before we could get our skis on the cloud rolled in, and our visibility was reduced to a few metres. I had taken photos of the descent terrain on our way up Elie and these were crucial for us to determine the escape line – a beautiful knife-edge arête that connected our hanging glacier to easy ground on the Tasman below. With the sun low in the sky our anxiety levels rose again since skiing the arête in the dark was not an option. We window-shopped and skied as fast as possible until we had to stop and wait for the next window. Eventually we located the start of the arête. Visibility started to improve, allowing us to relax a little and enjoy intermittent spells of golden evening light. The arête provided some incredibly exposed turns with tails breaking through on the crusty side and icy snow on the other. We stayed on the crusty side as it gave our skis more support and slowly found our way down to the Tasman Glacier. From there it was an easy hour skinning back to the hut and after the fast pace and challenges of the day it was the first opportunity reflect. Fatigue, thirst and hunger quickly made themselves known and slowly a warm glow of satisfaction started to flood through me upon the realisation of an outrageous idea that had been inspired by a photo.
The South Face of Mount Darwin
Our 2nd objective was the beautiful unskied south face of Mt Darwin that I had spied from Plateau Hut 15 km away. It comprises a curtain of snow on the upper hanging glacier with a chaotic icefall over the steep lower buttress. A ridge on the left unlocked the lower face but the question was how to get to the top. We decided to try a north to south traverse of the mountain but rock fall from a disintegrating buttress 2/3 of the way up forced us to rethink. Next choice reverted to the convention of climbing and skiing the same line but enthusiasm wilted at the base once the serac danger had been evaluated close up. Finally Tom spied a climbing line cutting under the summit buttress from the east face that offered a passage with acceptable level of objective danger.
On the headwall we stopped a few metres below the summit ridge where the veneer of snow gave way to ice. To make out precarious stance better we placed 3 mediocre ice screws and equalised them with our dynamic rope. Hanging there in the shade we had to wait over 2 hours for the sun to come round and soften the icy melt crust on the snow. The lower ridge had already been in the sun for hours and we hoped the wet snow would be manageable. We faced our most challenging transition yet that required a larks footed sling around the body of the ski to supplement the marginal support offered by the snow to allow us to step into our skis. The first few turns on the headwall were going to be delicate. After our long wait we both found our cold muscles reluctant to get going again and a scratchy first turn didn’t build confidence but once off the headwall and on the hanging glacier the snow depth improved and our fear of glacial ice receded. A superb sustained wall of chalky snow lead past the upper serac to the glacial bench at mid height that offered fast flowy turns over to the ridge.
As expected the snow was heavy and wet in places here requiring care to cut it but the ridge offered sanctuary and safe passage with atmospheric skiing bordering the impressive lower ice fall. The lower rocky crux succumbed to straight-lining a gap and shutting it down before the terminal cliff. An easy traverse leftwards and some incredible corns turns led down onto the glacier where we stopped to reflect and take a few photographs. As the stress levels dissipated, relaxation and fatigue flooded into our muscles. Avoiding the temptation to fall asleep, we set off swooping down the glacier on beautiful corn marking a perfect end to our trip.