Backcountry ski touring opens up new terrain and opportunities for those willing to embrace the cold, writes James Broadbent
Backcountry skiing is booming in New Zealand. Increasing numbers of skiers are moving away from groomed slopes looking for adventure and variety. With skills honed in terrain parks, fat skis and with ongoing technological development in bindings, a younger generation of skier has taken backcountry skiing to new heights.
Expert ski mountaineers are now ticking off descents of extreme lines on big summits. Others are doing impressively long trips through the Southern Alps on modern lightweight gear. Facebook groups have sprung up to link backcountry skiers. Winter was once the quiet season for mountain guides, but now many of them are employed year round guiding both climbing and skiing in the mountains, and private groups of skiers are regularly using public and private huts as bases for winter trips.
Skiing the backcountry can open the door to a vast world of opportunity, which can be as adventurous as you want. Many skiers who normally ski at a commercial ski field are using skins and alpine touring bindings for runs through nearby back basins, sometimes termed the ‘side country’. Others add the skills of tramping such as navigation and snow camping and go for multi-day trips through gentle angle terrain. The skills of the mountaineer, including avalanche safety, are required in order to get into the high ice plateaux and steep glaciated terrain of the Southern Alps.
I started life as a Tararua tramper and learned to ski on the often-slick slopes of Mt Ruapehu. By the time I had moved to Auckland for university, I was rock climbing and getting into mountaineering. But it was a chance meeting with the late Hugh Grierson that got me into ski touring. I had never heard of this sport before, but he promptly invited me along on a trip to Tongariro National Park during one of the heavy snow winters of the mid 1990s. It was a trip that introduced me to a bigger world.
We started from Ketetahi Road end and tramped through the bush, got our skis on at the bush edge, skinned up and over Tongariro’s North Crater and skied down to camp in South Crater. The next morning we charged up Ngauruhoe. I had no idea we could actually ski up such a steep slope, but Hugh just led the way and we pointed the skis straight up and got there. The steaming sulphurous crater and the view over the snow-covered Central Plateau was simply amazing. It was followed by a memorable ski down past the Tama Lakes and across the undulating landscape to the Chateau. We took our skis off at the door and walked into the bar in our smelly polypro for a celebratory brandy.
I was hooked on ski touring and so impressed that we could cover this terrain at such speed in winter. All of this was done in a weekend trip from Auckland.
A few years later I moved to Christchurch to be closer to the mountains. With skis on, I explored peaks in Canterbury, Lewis Pass and Nelson Lakes. One trip in spring 2004 had four head to Mt Aspiring National Park where we skied from Bevan Col via Colin Todd Hut across the Therma Glacier on the northern slopes of Mt Aspiring to get to a planned campsite on the Upper Volta Glacier. After skiing off Glacier Dome at the head of the Volta, and another night in camp, we retreated in the face of a developing storm to Colin Todd Hut. After four days stuck in the hut we managed to get out up the Bonar Glacier, over the Quarterdeck, and made an unforgettable 1250 vertical metre ski down French Ridge to the bushline. It was difficult to focus on the skiing due to the stunning views – we could not stop gazing across Gloomy Gorge, or down at Shovel Flat way below us. French Ridge Track is steep at the best of times, but descending the track with skis on the pack adds extra challenge. At times it was just laugh-out-loud ridiculous getting through the snow-covered fallen trees.
During those 10 days we were the only party in the Matukituki region as far as we knew. It was one of those trips where despite the challenging terrain and sometimes average weather (and even a bit of gear failure) we were comfortable in the mountains.
Backcountry ski touring has given me some of my finest mountain experiences, and I was privileged to meet some of the sport’s finest exponents who generously shared their world with me in my early days. It has been gratifying for me to see backcountry skiing develop so comprehensively in the years since.
For anyone who goes skiing at commercial ski fields, and who has looked over the back ridge at the slopes beyond and felt an urge to put tracks down them, backcountry skiing is for you.
– James Broadbent is the author of New Zealand Backcountry Skiing
Getting started in backcountry skiing is about getting the gear and the skills to use it. The bad news is the expense involved in both of these. The good news is that some skills cross over from other mountain sports, the gear can be obtained in stages and may be available second hand.
A solid background in tramping is the best way to develop fitness, camping skills and knowledge of weather lore. Downhill skiing skills are traditionally learned at a commercial ski field, but probably the best (and most cost-effective) way to learn to ski on ungroomed backcountry snow (and with a pack on) is to visit the small club ski fields of Canterbury, which also have backcountry terrain close by and plenty of like-minded folks to go skiing with.
The most important skills are those of snow safety and avalanche avoidance. There are good commercial courses from mountain instruction companies which can teach backcountry skills in a compressed time frame and give a good taste as to the opportunities that exist out there.
Overall, the best way to get in touch with others who share your passion, can pass on their skills and probably sell you their old gear, is to join a club such as the New Zealand Alpine Club, which has technical instruction courses and huts in the high mountains.
Besides the usual mountain clothing, you’ll need:
- Skis (preferably light)
- Skins (which grip snow for uphill travel)
- Touring bindings (or Telemark)
- Boots (Alpine touring or Telemark)
- Poles (preferably adjustable length)
- Ski crampons (which attach to the alpine touring bindings)
- Boot crampons (that can fit to your skiing boots if required)
- Ice axe (carry on the pack just in case)
- Avalanche transceiver (always worn in the backcountry)
- Shovel (preferably aluminium)
- Probe (collapsible)
- Goggles + glasses (having both means having a spare)
- Map, compass, GPS, Locator beacon, first aid kit
Where to go?
The South Island has more backcountry skiing options than the North Island, but most towns and cities in New Zealand are within reach of some suitable terrain. The key to scoring the goods, as always, is flexibility. Learn to spot approaching weather systems, and know which areas get the most snow from each wind direction. Keep a few options in mind when the conditions are right, and always have a plan B for when things are not so great.
Here are my suggestions for the best backcountry skiing trips.
Rex Simpson Hut, Two Thumb Range, Canterbury
Drive up the Lilybank road from Lake Tekapo, a few kilometres past Round Hill Ski Field, and then a 2-3hr walk uphill, and there sits the magnificent Rex Simpson Hut at 1300m with views across the lake to the surrounding mountains. This private hut was built by Gottleib Braun-Elwert and is still owned and maintained by Alpine Recreation Ltd, but it is available for bookings to the public (see alpinerecreation.com). The hut is well equipped with gas and electric lighting and even has mobile phone coverage.
The area around the hut has gentle slopes suitable for cross country equipment. Longer trips on alpine touring equipment can be taken to Beuzenberg Peak (2070m) and through Stag Saddle, which can lead into the Mesopotamia country if you are keen.
Apart from the comfortable hut and the mostly low angle terrain (thus low avalanche risk), the other advantages of the location are the weather, which is generally more settled in this inland region, and of course the famous starry nights.
Lake Angelus, Nelson Lakes National Park
This is a well-trodden tramp in summer, popular with both Kiwis and foreign backpackers. In winter, the hut is non-serviced, and less frequently visited. When the snow comes (usually from the westerly quarter), a 2-3 day ski tour can be done from St Arnaud village.
This is the backyard of Nelson skiers, but Wellingtonians really should consider it as an option too.
After a strenuous 60-90min walk up the Pinchgut Track, skis can usually be donned at the bush edge, and a 3-4hr ski tour leads along the range (where runs can be taken according to your preference), to overlook Lake Angelus (usually frozen and snow-covered in winter), and the hut. The hut may be heavily snowed in, thus there is a shovel on the roof! It is a 28 bunk barn of a hut, freezing in winter.
A worthwhile side trip is to Sunset Saddle or Angelus Peak on the other side of Hinapouri Tarn. A variation for return to St Arnaud is via the Speargrass Track, especially if the weather is packing in on the tops. Or head onwards over Mt Cedric and down a track to Sabine Hut where a water taxi can be hired for the return journey.
Check out the hut/track conditions and water taxi details at DOC St Arnaud before departure.
Mueller Range, Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
This is true alpine mountain terrain in the Mount Cook region, requiring a good standard of skiing ability and mountaineering sense, including avalanche risk assessment.
A helicopter can be taken from Mt Cook airport to Barron Saddle Hut at reasonable cost, and ski runs done around the hut that afternoon. The next day involves a traverse of the Sealy Range to Mueller Hut.
Ski across the Williams Glacier to cross the ridge that runs off Mt Darby on a small ledge at 2000m elevation. Then skin up the Sladden Glacier to Sladden Saddle at 2344m. The ski down the north-facing slope into the Metelille Glacier is initially steep and can be hazardous in some conditions, so assess your line carefully.
From there it is a cruise past Mts Annette, Kitchener and Ollivier to Mueller Hut. The incredible alpine panorama from here includes Mt Sefton and Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Even in late spring the route down is often skiable to Sealy Tarns. This is ideal for a long weekend trip in spring, and very accessible for those living in the central South Island.
Rangiwahia Hut, Ruahine Forest Park
Rangiwahia Hut is a popular summer tramp in the Ruahine Forest Park. A well maintained bush track begins at the relatively high altitude of 820m at the end of Renfrew Road, about 70km from Palmerston North via Kimbolton. The 13 bunk DOC hut is at 1300m and can be reached in about 2hr, even by parties loaded with ski gear.
The snow is not as heavy or as frequent as it was back in the 1930s when this was a popular ski area with a rope tow and ski club. The terrain around the hut is very gentle and you may have to walk some way beyond the hut to get up to the snow line. However, if you pick your time after heavy snowfalls you can get surprisingly good runs off the ridge line of the Whanahuia Range (up to 1660m elevation at Maungamahue).
The morning views of the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park are really special, as are the sunsets from this west-facing hut.
Mount Ruapehu traverse, Tongariro National Park
Mt Ruapehu is a big mountain, never to be underestimated. The conditions can be icy, navigation can be challenging and cliffs abound. But if approached with the right skills and equipment, it can give you some of the best skiing of your life. Spring is ideal when the surface softens in the afternoons to give glorious corn snow.
From the large Whakapapa Ski Field, access is easy. Leave the crowds behind at the top of the ski field and head up past Restful Rocks to the Dome Equipment Shed (formerly known as Dome Shelter), which overlooks the Crater Lake. On a busy weekend there may be a trail of people trudging up. If conditions are suitable, ski down the eastern side of the mountain for a visit to the ‘wild side’, overlooking Rangipo Desert.
A descent of Whangaehu Glacier and return to the Summit Plateau via the Mangatoetoenui can be done in a day trip. The slopes beyond the Far West T-bar are a personal favourite for the run home, but if the mist has come in you will need to be precise with the map/compass/GPS work to get back to the ski area. Discuss your plans with the ski patrol before departure if you’re unsure of backcountry conditions, and always carry ice axe and crampons for safety when going above the ski area. There are huts to stay in on all sides of the mountain for overnight trips.