Posted by: EPIC | July 23, 2011

Getting High (and Safe!) in New Zealand!

Post by Richard Salmons

Our New Zealand High Mountain Ski-Touring program went ahead in July, and while I represented ANUMC, I was joined by Melbourne University Mountaineering Club ski officer Helen Dulfer, along with friends Ian and Lucy and professional mountain guides Gary Kuehn and Stuart Hollaway (the latter an  old friend of ours from MUMC).  We joined up in beautiful Wanaka on July 9, just as the previously snowless NZ mountains were being blanketed by a massive storm system, which dropped about 2.5 metres of snow in a few days.  Needless to say, this ruled out plans to fly up to the high glaciers, so instead we stayed at safer low altitudes for uninterrupted skiing in deep powder!

Of course ski-touring in New Zealand is a greater safety challenge than Australia, due to the greater snowfall and much wider snow-covered area than we have here.  You  may have seen in Australia that we have skiing among trees from about 1400-1800m and above the treeline from 1800-2200m (rough figures only), but overall this is a fairly small region.  In New Zealand there are snowy ranges all across the South Island, with three distinct zones: the valleys up to 1000m (to give an impression, we had skiable snow from just 800m elevation); the mid-alpine from 1000-2000m (grassy tussocks in summer,  but thickly covered in snow on our trip); and the high alpine from 2000-3700m, which is purely rock and glacier even in summer.   So we did our skiing in the mid-alpine, which was great deep snow but no risks of crevasses or other dangers.

The safety focus was very much on avalanche safety, and as well as carrying the key equipment (transceiver, shovel & probe) we also practiced scenarios several times in Wanaka before heading out.  Having professional guides in the group is a big help, but basic avalanche safety principles rely  on good sense and we were cautious.

Amid blizzards we headed out on some day trips from Wanaka, skiing just around local ranges at first but finding good snow everywhere.  The terrain immediately around the town is similar to Australia, just with much more snow – knee deep powder at 1400m, for example.  A sturdy 4WD and chains were a must, as we passed vehicles abandoned on the side of the road.

Once the weather cleared, we headed into the Two Thumb Range, not far from Mt Cook, for a three-day snow camping expedition.  A fairly intense first day saw us cover about 10km and rise 1000m, before finally reaching our campsite.  It was instructive to note Gary’s professional approach to snow-camping, which was to bring the outer shell of a large 3-person tent, which when pitched on the snow (and extensively dug out underneath) was big enough for six people to sleep inside.  It was then easy to cook and eat inside the tent, so basically once inside, there was no need to go out again (except for the usual essentials).  Given the freezing conditions outside (probably 5-10 degrees colder than Australian conditions), this was much better than our usual outdoor cooking arrangements.  It may be interesting to try a similar approach with one of the bigger snow tents the club owns.

The location allowed us to ski numerous steep slopes all around, generally with a climb of about 300-500m and a short but satisfying ski.  The ski out was also very scenic, with the challenging part being a descent on skis through a thick field of thorn-bushes.  Some scary sounds could be heard as we tried that one.

In conclusion, this trip did not take us up to the high glaciers, which is a very weather-dependent option, but this remains a future goal.  However, I found this mid-alpine skiing to be great because compared with Australia it simply allows you to do a lot of skiing in very good snow.  Aside from the safety aspects, it was also good to go with mountain guides because it was encouragement to do the maximum amount of skiing – exhausting, but more rewarding of course.

I’m  happy to be contacted if you have any questions about this kind of trip.  If interested, the skill level was to be a confident alpine/telemark skier in a ski resort, but no need to be at an elite level.


Responses

  1. Hi hows it going? A few friends and I are hoping to head to NZ this year either in July or late september/early october. We’re all from Melbourne and are members of MUMC as well so its good to see stu’s name pop up!

    I don’t attend the meetings too regularly so I thought i’d ask some questions here…

    When is it best to tour? Flights are the same for both of the above dates. Is july a bit sketchy given there might not be enough snow, weather could be crap etc?

    How dangerous is NZ? I’ve only done a bit of ski touring in Austria and have never seen an avalanche to appreciate the dangers involved. I understand that NZ has an avalanche report website as well? i guess that would make it a lot safer.

    The tent idea sounds very lightweight as well, using the outer shell as an upper windbreak with a hollowed out snowcave? any pics? sounded spacious as well per kg of weight to carry up the hill!

    Cheers mate,
    Eric
    0438 511 798


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