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Finding your wild place

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July 2019 Issue

After years of searching, Joe Harrison discovered his ‘wild place’ right on his doorstep.

Living in New Zealand, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to wild places. You can live anywhere and still be able to get in a car and be in a forest, beach or river valley within a couple of hours.

My favourite place to enjoy the outdoors has changed as often as a spring weather forecast. As a university student, Nelson Lakes was the perfect learning ground for a tramper and wannabe alpinist. Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park then clinched the top spot as I searched out more challenging trips, through its glaciers and mountain passes. Then I made my first trip into Cameron Hut and fell in love with the jagged peaks and open grassy landscape of the Arrowsmith Range. And there the Arrowsmiths remained, in my top spot, until just last winter when it was knocked off by a place so familiar, so normal, I never expected it.

The Craigieburn Range sits above the rocky boulders of Castle Hill Basin on SH73. Located an hour’s drive from Christchurch and home to one commercial and four club ski fields, the range has been a popular winter playground since the 1930s. During the rest of the year, the area is filled with hunters, climbers, trampers and mountain bikers.

If you are after a full-on wilderness experience, you don’t normally head to the Craigieburn Range, but keep driving down SH73 until reaching the big peaks of Arthur’s Pass or the lush bush and big rivers of the West Coast. However, if all you have is a free day or afternoon then you’re going to struggle to find a more accessible set of mountains to play in than the Craigieburns.

My first ski turns on snow were at Porters Heights (now Porters) when I was six years old. It was a family ski trip and one of the few childhood memories I have from that age. It took another six years before I would return to Porters and master my snowplough. This time with my neighbours who, unlike my family, were keen weekend warriors and allowed me to tag along on skiing weekends. For the next five years, Porters and neighbouring Mt Cheeseman became my home away from home during the winter weekends and school holidays. Regardless of conditions or ski partners, I was there making turns on secondhand gear and a $70 season pass. After high school, friends and I began our club ski field apprenticeships of rope tows and off-piste steep terrain at nearby Broken River, Craigieburn Valley, and Mount Olympus.

One day, one of our ski gang turned up with a new set of touring gear. The rest of us (having experienced the misery of boot packing in deep snow) fizzed with jealousy and soon got touring gear of our own so we could also explore the backcountry.

Perfect powder in Tarn Basin on the eastern side of the Craigieburns. Photo: Joe Harrison

New Zealand has plenty of great ski touring terrain available. Whether the gentle slopes of the Pisa Range in Wanaka or the technical terrain of the West Coast glaciers, skiers of all abilities can find something to fill their touring boots. The problem doesn’t lie in a lack of terrain, but rather the access to this terrain. Unless you have the time to fly, 4WD or walk for hours to the snowline, your options for finding easily-accessible ski touring terrain are limited.

In some ways, the difficulty of even getting to the snowline makes ski touring in New Zealand somewhat unique and adds a sense of adventure that makes even a weekend trip feel like a mini-expedition. However, it’s also nice to keep your skis on your feet rather than on your back, and in order to achieve this, you generally need a ski field access road to get to the snow.

With five ski fields scattered over the length and width of the Craigieburn Range, tourers have plenty of options to access the white stuff the easy way. Many of the ski fields located in the range sell one ride tickets for backcountry users wishing to get out of the ski field area as quickly as possible with minimal effort. Another useful function these ski resorts provide is accommodation: with a little bit of planning it is possible to pull off your own little Kiwi ‘Haute Route’, stopping in the various ski field lodges as you ski your way across the range on a multi-day tour.
When looking at the Craigieburn Range from above in winter, it has the topography of an ice cream tub.

Its large circular basins resemble the scooped-out corners while its ridges and summits rise high and untouched in the middle, safe until the next serving. As the range runs vertically south to north, it has plentiful east and south facing basins to collect and keep snow between storms. Occasionally, a storm will plaster the western aspect of the range, opening up some amazing skiing terrain down to the thick bush of Hamilton Creek, but most of the time the best skiing is found on the other side of the range in the basins above Castle Hill or Ryton River near Mt Olympus.

Although I had spent a good chunk of my adolescence sliding down the ski fields of the Craigieburn Range, up until a few years ago I had hardly ever travelled far from the ski field boundary rope, preferring instead to undertake my backcountry trips away from my local spot and into the bigger and more remote mountain ranges. But, as free time and touring partners become rarer due to careers and kids, I began to wonder if it was time to finally explore what was in my own backyard.

Over the past few winters, I have enjoyed many great ski touring days in the Craigieburn Range. While the terrain hasn’t been the wildest and the views don’t compare with what you see on the Tasman Glacier, the ski touring has been surprisingly satisfying. Even when the snow or weather has been far from excellent, it’s still hard to beat the freedom of moving along snowy ridges and skiing basins you have been eyeing up for years from the car window, ticking them off like a shopping list only to find more skiable terrain the more you explore.

While the more remote peaks, glaciers and alpine huts of the Southern Alps will continue to lure me and my skis for years to come, it’s also nice to have a local spot down the road to escape to for a day tour or an impromptu overnighter with friends, a place with history, a place you think you know like the back of your hand but a place which still surprises you.