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July 2015 Issue
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From dawn to dusk

Sunrise on The Remarkables. Photo: Guillaume Charton
Haute Route
From the Remarkables Ski Field
Could a 30km ski touring mission on Queenstown’s back door rival Europe’s famed Haute Route? Guillaume Charton finds out

The 180km Haute Route – or High Route – between Chamonix in France and Zermatt in Switzerland is undoubtedly one of the most famous ski routes in the world. The seven day tour features exceptional skiing, matched by equally outstanding views and is well-serviced with mountain huts. So when some trustworthy friends proposed a similar mission on the Hector Mountains, my curiosity was aroused: could a trip like the Haute Route exist so close to Queenstown and could it be worthy of the same name?

My quest to find out started at 4am at the Remarkables Ski Field. My eager ski touring companions were pumped and ready to charge and soon the rest of the crew’s head torches were bobbing up Single Cone, the first of many peaks on the route.

At 6am, the summit was finally reached. With the way ahead still hidden by the dark of early morning, I was forced to imagine the upcoming terrain that would see us skiing into the headwaters of Doolans Creek Left Branch, dropping hundreds of metres before climbing back to the summit Mt Tūwhakarōria (2307m) followed by an ascent of Ben Nevis (2234m) and finally to the South Branch of Wye Creek. In total there was 3000m of ascent ahead of us.

Perhaps it was just as well the route was hidden from view.

The first slope had got the better of my quads, and I knew there was still time to go back to the car and get the hell out of there, but the desire to discover Queenstown’s Haute Route pushed me on. After transitioning from touring to skiing mode, I left The Remarkables Range behind and tried to catch up with my friends by clumsily skiing into the darkness to Wye Saddle. It was then another climb, this time onto the Hector Mountains, reaching the range crest in time to see Ian, Rupert and Mark in the distance enjoying the long ride down Doolans Creek Left Branch. Soon, I was on an exquisite five kilometres of downhill with not a single track in sight. For most local ski-tourers, these valleys are still terra incognita.

Mt Tūwhakarōria was the halfway point of the day and the 1000m ascent from Doolans Creek was not to be under-estimated, especially skiing down the near 45-degree slope to Lake Te Kohua. Fear served as the driving force to get us out of precarious situations: falling was not an option. As we left Tūwhakarōria behind, the sense of remoteness became overwhelming. I realised, somewhat belatedly, that commitment was no longer a choice – it was a necessity. We had crossed the point of no return and needed to keep moving.

The last of the three major peaks, Ben Nevis, rose before our skis and was reached after another character-building grunt. The views from the top were the highlight of the trip extending from Southland to the Mackenzie Country. Even The Remarkables appeared small from here, reminding us how far we’d travelled. This is when envy of longer legs and lighter gear truly kicked in. Comparing the feather-light skis used by the others with the concrete slabs attached to my feet added to the growing list of feeble excuses to explain my exhaustion. Just as I was arriving at the top of Ben Nevis, Ian and Rupert whooshed back past me towards Wye Creek South Branch. The cup of tea I had been longing for would just have to wait.

I circled the top of Ben Nevis, struggling to leave the beautiful views behind. But the fading light warned night was fast approaching, so I traced a few turns to Wye Creek.

Looking back towards Ben Nevis, we noticed our slender clean tracks cutting through the otherwise blemish-free snow and wondered if another party would cross them this season.

As the snow petered out, we began the difficult task of walking in ski boots for two hours back to the car. With dusk falling, head torches added to the ambiance of the trip: from dawn to dusk.

At 30km and with 3000m of ascent, Queenstown’s Haute Route is no stroll in the park. It requires a high level of fitness matched by solid ski touring knowledge and experience of the alpine environment. With slopes facing different aspects, it’s necessary to have an excellent snow pack to minimise the possibility of avalanches.

Accessed from one of the busiest ski fields in New Zealand, the Kiwi version still sees little traffic compared to the hundreds who attempt Europe’s Haute Route. Without infrastructure like chairlifts, huts or bulldozed slopes, the Hector Mountains are still preserved in their natural state and offer remote skiing accessible only through hard graft, sweat and tears. The result is an authentic backcountry experience.

In contrast to the much longer Franco-Swiss Haute Route, in the Hector Mountains you are on your own with very few quick escape routes. A ‘sense of place’ and of seclusion is something quite precious in this day and age and the personal relationship with the wilderness is still present in this part of New Zealand.

Europe’s Haute Route sees several commercially guided parties linking huts which impinge on the wilderness feeling. But is the Kiwi version worthy of the same name? Perhaps. Its terrain with a huge variety of slopes, passes, long runs and summits to be climbed resemble its counterpart, but it is considerably shorter.      

As I write this, lenticular clouds form above Lake Wakatipu, signalling a front is on its way. Up high on the Hector Mountains, the much-anticipated white gold is probably falling. Butterflies stir in my stomach as the thought of going back grows and takes hold of me like an addiction that will only be satisfied with another Haute Route this year.

Selective amnesia kicks in and all the pain, blisters and steep uphills become irrelevant. What I remember is the shared journey and the thousands of stellar turns with postcard views.