The aim was simple: do an avalanche course, and practice what we learned. This was to be my first trip to New Zealand in winter, and as such I didn't really know what to expect in terms of weather or snow conditions. For the previous 6 months I had been working away organising a group of friends to participate in an avalanche course. We didn't want something too expensive/all expenses covered, but rather were keen just to learn as much as we could so we would be enabled to make our own informed choices in the backcountry.
I had a look around at various courses, and found the best candidate visible online was the 4 day Aspiring Guides Backcountry Avalanche Course. I thought back to when I did my TMC with a guide and remembered how valuable it was to be able to talk with them about the trip and what we wanted to get out of it. So I did a bit of searching for smaller guiding companies who run avalanche courses, and Anna Keeling's name hit the top of the list pretty quickly. I'd recognised her name from some outdoors articles I'd read, especially those in the NZAC publications. We exchanged some emails, and it was evident that doing a course with her would be a good idea because we could focus on exactly what we wanted to learn, she would have a good idea about our abilities, and the course could be catered for us. The best part was that it was probably going to cost less than any of the other backcountry avalanche courses considering there were 8 of us interested in participating.
Sam made this fantastic short video from clips taken during our trip!
You can see Sam's website at https://samthompsonfilm.com/
On Friday we all departed from Melbourne on a red-eye flight to arrive out at Christchurch international about 5am the next morning.
Sam, Julian and myself were to be borrowing a friend's car which he keeps on another friend's parent's property in Christchurch. The Dad, who works at Christchurch airport very kindly offered to bring the car to meet us in the morning, which was the same time when he started his shift! So there it was sitting in the carpark at the airport. "I've had a little trouble starting the engine this morning, I think the battery is a bit flat" he said, an omen for interesting times to come!
After a quick round up of shopping and visiting the outdoor stores, we were on the way to Athurs pass. For quite a while I had had my eye on the opening day at Temple Basin, and had convinced everyone that we should book in Athurs pass at the NZAC accomodation in hope that they may be open that weekend. But alas, without enough snow, Porters with their snow makers was the only field in the area likely bo be open, so we pulled in to Athur's pass feeling relaxed on a Saturday evening, and checked out one of the waterfalls nearby.
Avalanche Course in the Cragieburn
After a day at Porters, cruising the slope they had open, and a couple of relaxing nights in Athurs pass, we had made the discovery that our car was in dire need of a new battery. Every time we stopped, we were scoping out a hill to park on to push start, joking that we might have to do this the whole trip!
And so it was, that we parked the car on a slight incline out the front of the comunity centre in Castle Hill village, and headed inside for the first day of the avalanche course.
Anna Keeling was overseas, due back the next day, so we had Kem and Al as our guides and teachers for the first day. The morning started with a brief introduction, then straight out into the field. The weather was due to close in, and it was looking unlikely that we would be able to get out the next day.
We drove to the nearby ski field of Mt Cheeseman. Al had procured a key to the gate to allow us access, as the field had not yet opened for the season. Driving up the track, I couldn't help but admire the feeling that dark green trees on either side gives as the morning sun shines through. It' s a very pretty part of New Zealand. Clearing the tree line, there was one very steep section where we had to get out and push.
Luckily, we didn't have to walk far to get to the snow, the cat track had snow all the way to the carpark, despite the surrounding slopes being completely bare.
As we got higher and onto the steeper slopes, Al outlined the importance of seperation for safe travel while on avalanche terrain in the backcountry, we kept a gap of 15-20m between us any time we were on a slope steep enough to slide.
Reaching the top, it was amazing to see that the North facing slopes had no snow at all! A quick lunch, and we made our way down the ridge to a saddle. I was second last, and looking back I noticed Shree one of our group members, a little hesitant, then, he plunged straight down the ridge towards me, performing what my friend Dale would refer to as "the snow plow of doom". Luckily for us, he pulled it off, and stopped next to the group as though nothing had happened. I was perhaps the only person to notice and I'm not sure yet what to make of that performace!
Anyhow, next was the proper down hill. Al informed us that the slope we were about to descend was 28 degrees at a maximum. Unlikely to slide in most conditions. Someone was positioned to the side halfway down the slope in order that we may have eyes on everybody all the time to be able to respond quickly should there be any accident.
We stopped halfway down the slope to dig snow pits, and observe the snow. Layers of facets on the surface and near the ground were obvious. 10cm of snow on the surface easily slid on one of these beds of facets. Not enough snow to be too worried now, but enough to be concerned for the next snowfall which would introduce a large load on top.
Following the snow pit shenanigans, we traversed the remainder of the the slope to a section where we could boot pack back up and enter the ski area once again. A couple of steep turns, and we were once again near the base of Mt Cockayne ready to do some beacon search practice. We each found a partner and took turns hiding and search for our beacons while the guides watched our progress and made helpful comments to enable our improvement.
The sun was beginning to hide behind the hills, and soon enough, it was time for us to take the easy ride back to the car. Taking our skis off near the car park, Kem, one of the guides realised he had left his tranceiver buried during the demonstrations and had to rush all the way back up the hill again to retrieve it!
That night we were to stay at Flock Hill in their backpacker's accommodation. Tim the manager explained that big snow storm from the South was due to hit that week, and it seemed likely we would be stuck there, possibly without power, and he was happy for us to cancel. Perhaps he was surprised at how excited we all were at the prospects of being stuck in a snow storm. We explained we all had our own stoves and food for snow camping so we would be able to cope just fine.
The next morning we were brought into Anna's house in the Castle Hill village. The hall was being used by another group, and the impending bad weather meant that the decision was made to hold the day's precedings indoors. Kem and Al ran us through most of the theory component of the course that day, with occasional breaks to take a look outside at the changing weather, and conduct some more tranceiver practice.
That evening, we had a great snow fight as big snow flakes covered Flock Hill. A number of travellers pulled in during the night, taking refuge from the storm as the roads became impassable. They obviously didn't read the weather report, or decided to risk it. I'm sure the tourists were on a schedule to get back to Christchurch for their flight, and were very frustrated.
That morning Tim the manager paid us a visit to check how we were doing. We were out on skis exploring the yard. He explained that all the other occupants were unhappy to be there and complaining about being stuck and he would be glad when they all left and it was just us left again! He also informed us that we would be unable to reach Castle Hill for our course that day, but that Anna (fresh arrived from overseas), and Kem would try to drive to us over the snow covered road with Kem's high clearance 4WD.
And so the final day of the course was also completed indoors, by the comfort of a fire in Flock Hill. I honestly feel like we got a lot more benefit out of being able to ask lots of questions, than being distracted outdoors. After the course content they had prepared had been covered, we quizzed Anna and Kem, asking for advice on our trip plans. Sam, Julian and myself were talked out of our plan to ski the glaciers, reason being that it is too early in the season, and not enough snow to make strong snow bridges over the crevasses.
We spent that Wednesday evening, and the following day skiing up around the hill out the back of Flock Hill while we waited for the road to be cleared before we could continue on our adventure down south. Some of the boys on the farm driving tractors in the snow offered us tows up!
Car troubles and Dobson
Friday morning, the roads were clear, and it was time for us to make our getaway! Unfortunately the chances of us making a hill start on the ice in the yard seemed remote, but luckily there were friendly on the property there to help us jump start the car, and tow us out through the snow to the road, where we had to once again push start the car for reasons I can't remember!
The weather was stunning, and the transformation of the surrounding landscape was complete as we headed back over the pass towards Christchurch and down to Lake Tekapo. The discussion about the conditions in the Cragieburn range was such that we were expecting widespread natural avalanches with this big dump on top of the facets which were evident on our trip up to Cheeseman. So we took the opportunity to head on down south to where the conditions were expected to be a bit safer and more conducive to backcountry skiing. We planned to go and do a short tour in the Two Thumb Range near Mt Dobson. The other car group had to make a detour to Christchurch to drop off Shree, who had injured his knee skiing on a tussock in Flock Hill.
My thoughts were that we could camp somewhere just near the trailhead of the route in to Camp Stream hut. Little did we know, this was actually still private property, and not part of the reserve! It was very late by the time we arrived, and the road was firm and a bit icy. We didn't have snow chains for our car (a big mistake, we decided due to lack of time not to procure them during our departure from Christchurch). I was skeptical that we would even be able to start again as we did a u-turn and parked on the side of the road at the top of a little hill leading down to a bridge. But we were too tired to think clearly, and jumped out and put up our tent.
In the morning we were woken by a loud diesel tractor engine, and a door slam. "You fellas alive in there?" shouts a friendly voice over the motor. A few mumbles as we wake up serves as an answer. Again the friendly voice: "It was minus 11 last night, you must be cold!", and this time I replied "We have warm sleeping bags, so we're alright!". "I just need you fellas to move your car, it's in the way of the snow plow, oh and by the way you're camped on my land", oh dear what a mistake "Sorry sorry! we got confused!". "That's okay, but I do need you to move your car". We sheepishly crawled out of the tent and made our way over to the car. This was all the more embarassing having a good idea about what was to come when we were to start the car. The key turned and the motor hardly made a sound. The look of incredulity grew on the farmer's face, "I'm sorry we have a flat battery! We'll have to hill start it".
We gave the car a push, but the tires slipped, and the engine wouldn't turn. We ended up getting into position to block the bridge. The single lane road was the only way in or out of the area, a poor place to fail to push start! The man found a rope in his tractor and pulled us backwards to attempt a backwards pull start, but again the tires lacked the traction required. He jumped out, and walked over, the look of incredulity still yet magnified. "You've got jumper leads?" "No sorry". A grumble about pulling tourists out of his property and that his cables were with his car, drove off with his tractor to collect his car.
"So this is all very well, but you've go snow chains don't you?" - Kiwi Farmer
As he sets up for the jump start he asks us some more questions. "So this is all very well, but you've got snow chains don't you?". A couple of grins and head shakes."Ah yeah, and the battery, it's been like that the whole trip" Sam helpfully added. Now he really thought we were goofs (which we were)! He grinned as well and said "Look, you guys look like you should know what you're doing but fucking hell, to come here without snow chains, and with a dead battery, that's crazy!". He couldn't believe how silly we were. We all agreed I think and he sent us on our way.
In Tekapo we quickly found an auto repair shop to deal us a new battery and some snow chains. It was getting close to mid-day and we didn't feel like driving back to Roundhill, so we decided to head on over to Dobson. On the drive up, we put our newly acquired snow chains on, and the road steepened, another spectacular road to another spectacular New Zealand ski field. Under some advice from a staff member who passed us on the drive up, we parked at a large clearing down the road from where the long line of cars began, near where a cat track met the road. It felt so good to be able to turn off the engine and know that it would turn on again without any fuss. We were excited, while we munched on lunch we prepared our gear for the day's ski.
The first run was up to the peak at the south end of the ridge from Dobson Peak, with the weather station on top. We stuck to the low angled slope, picking our way. Out of interest we dug a snow pit, facing west on a small section which reached over 30 degrees inclination. I forgot to record our observations or the avalanche forecast for that day, but from what I can remember, the danger was ranging from moderate to considerable. We were happy with the result from that slope. Turning around before the slope got steeper, we had a great run back to the car before walking up the cat track to the ski field buildings, where all the crowds were located.
The ski patroller we talked to gave us a sideways glance and began to interrogate us. "Why are you here so late?" "ah, long story". "Do you have beacons and probes?" etc etc. He seemed skeptical, but eventually have us some advice about a route up, and on our planned route to make a circuit back to the car. While traversing beneath Dobson Peak on the south side on what is usually a cat track (when there's no snow), I decided to pull out the shovel again. There was a fair bit of new snow here, quite a lot of it collected in drifts. We were considering coming down from the peak at a similar aspect so it was a good opportunity to see what was going on. The results were concerning. If the terrain had been a little more serious, we would have been in a silly position. This put any idea of skiing the south side of Dobson peak out of our minds, and we continued over to the top of the chairlift on the south side.
Here we ran into our skeptical ski patroller again. He seemed a little surprised about our snow report and thanked us, but did not consider the results unexpected, saying that there had been a slide on this same slope before (taking out a cat machine or something if I recall correctly?). Considering how many people were walking across it, perhaps it was stable, but having that many people testing didn't seem like the greatest idea to me! And so we continued on our traverse of the ridge line to end up at the weather station above our car. The wind was picking up, and we sheltered behind an old fridge (what the heck was a fridge doing up here?) while we took our skins off. Julian struck a rock with his skis on the way down, but apart from that, it was an exciting and fun descent.
Back at the car, I knew something was up when the central locking didn't work. "That's strange!?". I turned the key in the ignition, no response. Hands to the headlight control, and indeed the dial was switched to on. Why hadn't the beeper warned me when we turned the car off? Unreliable warning is much worse than no warning at all! So here we were in a pickle once again. I'm sure the others were thinking I was the silliest person in the world, being stuck there with a dead battery once again for the second time today. We tried to flag down passing cars as they left the ski field. Nobody had jumper cables. Even the patroller passed us by, smiling smugly as if to say "Hah! I knew all along you were idiots!". Faced with the prospect of spending yet another cold night out next to our car with an embarassing wake up, we opted to attempt a roll start, we had the entire mountain after all!
As exciting as driving down a mountain with no power steering can be, I was pretty drained by the time we rolled onto the flat, all our restart attempts being unsuccessful. One by one, the cars trickled past us, each shaking their heads in answer to our questions. Finally, the last car stopped next to us. A dark 4WD van. A friendly a crew with accents belonging to many countries, they were on a ski holiday together. The driver said they might have something for us, and pulled out an old looking jumper lead, which fell apart while handling it! "Better than nothing!" we said, overjoyed. A few minutes later, with power streaming into the battery I tried turning the key, but nothing happened! Not a sound, not a light flickered, nothing!
Once again, the van crew came to our aid, they fished around in the back of their vehicle and discovered a rather thin looking nylon strap, and decided they could pull us to Fairlie, the nearest town. The sun by this stage, had well and truely set. Without functioning lights, we stuck our head torches in red mode in the boot, and signalled for the pulling to begin. As we rounded perhaps the third corner, the steering wheel suddenly locked, and the car lurched suddenly into the ditch filled with snow, and began climbing the slope above. We all screamed our heads out the window "STOP STOP!". Eventually someone must have noticed our plight, because we rolled to a stop. I was so thankful that the car had decided to head left, up the hill, rather than right, down the hill!
After some head scratching, and a few times turning the ignition on and off again, the steering appeared appeared to regain function and we were on our way again, with a lot more caution! Our new friends deposited us in Fairlie and continued on their way up to Fox Peak where they were spending the night, even offering to take us there to join them, but we insisted on staying in Fairly to get our car fixed sooner.
Stuck in Fairlie
Major frustration. We had landed ourselves with a weathered, cranky mechanic who didn't have the skills to fix the problem with our car. He was waiting on his auto electrician who was sick, we would be stuck in Fairlie yet another day! He did drop a little hint about it being related to the imobilizer. So I did some searching on the internet and figured out we could probably disable it if we looked for the method in the manual. Sure enough, the incantation instructions required was right there in the glovebox!
Mueller Hut Adventures
On the road again, our next destination was Cook National Park, the segment of the trip I was most looking forward to. Much has been written about the alure of the bigger mountains; they certainly still have their hold on me.
While we were shopping for food I gave Simon, the Unwin Lodge warden a call to check there would be room for us there that night. As you drive up the road to Mt Cook the ranges on either side close in upon you, and they grow taller and taller.
First port of call was the Mt Cook village, to find a guide who would be willing to give us some intel on the conditions up on the glacier. Our fears were confirmed, the crevasses were still gaping and very dangerous. Plan B was a trip up to Muller Hut, the guide didn't sound so enthusiastic about that idea either with regards to the avalanche conditions.
We made ourselves comfortable in the familiar Unwin Lodge. "Hi you're Simon right?" "Yes, give me money" came his blunt reply. As the evening wore on and perhaps because he figured we were there for skiing/climbing, Simon warmed up and gave us some friendly advice for our planned trip up to Muller Hut the next day.
In the morning we checked the avalanche forecast again, and the danger level for our intended route had dropped to moderate. The weather forecast was for today to be cloudy, and for tomorrow to be sunny, the the following day the weather would begin to close in again. Sam and Julian wanted to get some climbing done at Sebastopol Bluffs, so I chilled inside until they returned.
By the time we had parked the car in the village, and unpacked, it was already nearing mid-day, but the weather, while cloudy, was pleasant. There was snow all the way down to the village, and we were able to step into our skis right away!
The stairs on the track up to Muller Hut, as we had been warned by DOC were filled in with snow and ice, making climbing them a challenge. Progress was slower than we would have liked, reaching Sealy Tarns by about 2-3pm. We were carrying enough mountaineering gear for a protected climb of Mt Sealy if we got the chance, I was definitely regretting it by that stage. Solo it or don't plan to do it next time I think! The snow at the tarns was dense and a little moist, I intended to dig a pit at the slope just above the tarns, representative of what we would spend the rest of the day climbing. Julian protested "We don't have time to dig a pit", I replied, "If we don't have time to dig a pit, maybe we shouldn't be going!", he agreed I think, but retrospectively we were both right! I dug a pit and got some encouraging results, so we continued on our way.
The advice from DOC was that we should be able to find a route on climbers right which avoids most of the avalanche terrain. We attempted to follow this advice, snaking our way up the hill, and for the most part it worked, but as we neared the top, it became evident that it was going to be too rocky to crest the top without pulling out ropes. Daylight was running out, we were getting tired. I was exploring above on a slope where the snow conditions were evidently different to where we dug our pit 300 or so meters below at the tarns. It was not a good feeling in the stomach, so I backed off, and we decided to traverse across to where the summer walking track goes up.
By the time we reached the gulley where the walking track reaches the ridge line it getting on dusk. Squeezed between two layers of cloud, the scene presented to us was certainly an interesting one. We had two choices, accept defeat and attempt to find a place to spend the night comfortably, or continue on up the final slope in the dark. Even though we were really only a short distance to the hut, and it was increadibly tempting, I'm proud of our decision to turn around. We weren't willing to take the time to properly test the snow pack before climbing the steep (and arguably most dangerous) slope above us, we were tired, it was getting dark, all the signs saying we needed to take things conservatively.
Sam and Jules sped down the mellow terrain immediately below us scoping out rocks and wind drifts for shelter opportunities while I fumbled around and took a little tumble while attempting to ski in tour mode (lesson learned: don't attempt this when you're tired and carrying a heavy backpack!!). I cornered a large boulder to find the them excitedly exploring a small cave. A few shovels of snow enabled entry to the area beneath the boulder. The floor was uneven, and the roof only a few feet high, so I opted to dig a snow cave/platform in the drift at the entrance, while the other two made themselves cosy on the rocks.
This is our first unplanned bivy, and it makes me realise how much easier it is to make the decision when you're carrying the gear to make it comfortable. An interesting dichotomy, as the extra gear probably slowed us down, partly contributing to our trouble.
In the morning we dug a couple of snow pits outside our shelter to discover that we had good reason to be concerned, the mixed results of the compresssion tests encouraged us that our decision to turn around before reaching the top and the steepest slopes was a good one. The sun was out, no wind, it was perfect weather. Stepping out from our cave and into skis, the first few turns with a heavy backpack and a steep slope were a shock to the system! We made it down to the tarns in almost no time at all.
While Sam chilled on the bench, Jules and I went up for a couple more runs above the tarns. With a snow covered Aoraki looming in the background, I struggle to think of a more pictureque location for a day of skiing. With the snow beginning to melt, we made the call to complete the walk back down before things got dicey. Back in Unwin Lodge we cooked up a storm of bacon and eggs for a late lunch while we celebrated our failure in style. Over drinks that night, Simon and Pip, the wardens, made some friendly suggestions about where we could head to next. Ohau and the Remarkables were on the agenda!
We arrived in Wanaka after spending the day at Ohau ski field. Ohau has some of the best views of any ski field we visited on the trip, the lake views are next level. A brief excursion into the side country and some encounters with other skiers out the back of the resort brought us to the realisation about how many people have very little idea about what they are getting themselves into when they step over the resort boundary. Slightly concerning to see loaded slopes failing quickly to compression tests so close to the resort itself.
Wanaka, as always, is a great place to relax and debrief after periods in the mountains. We stayed in the Purple Cow this time, had dinner out in the town. Julian and I had a bit of a row over plans for the rest of the trip. I can only put the confrontation down to a mix of cabin fever, stress about our car, and a difference in expectations and preference for activities during the trip.
After a couple of days spent rock climbing together and hanging out in Wanaka, our Melbourne friends in the other car caught up with us after they had done a tour in the Two Thumb Range. Julian and Sam decided that they would head off on their own to Queenstown to catch a helicopter into Wye Creek for ice climbing, and suggested that I join the others for some skiing around Wanaka. Mixed feelings here for myself having fully intended to do some ice climbing on the trip, and slightly upset at having not been involved in the plan, but also happy at the opportunity to spend some time with the others in our group who had now joined us.
After a day skiing with the the other group at Cadrona, we were met in Wanaka by the third contingent from Melbourne, having also just finished an Avalanche course with Anna Keeling. Saying goodbye to my Cadrona friends (they left back for Melbourne), and I joined Molis, Tom, Jim and Gina for a tour into the Pisa Range.
The tour into Kirtle Birn Hut had been on my list of tours scecifically for the purpose of having somewhere to go when the avalanche risk was high, as most of the terrain in the area is not steep enough to slide.
We transferred our excess baggage into one car so we could all fit into the other, and drove up to the Snow Farm. This cross-country ski field is also one of the trailheads for the route into Kirtle Birn Hut and the Pisa Range. At the top, we parked our car in the large carpark and began pulling out our gear as we watched with interest all the sled dogs being unloaded from cars around us. After paying the road fee in the Administration building, we followed the markers to the beginning of the trail. Skis on, and a fun ride down to the creek. I tried to keep my momentum up in the shallow gully and didn't stop to look back until at the bottom.
While waiting for the others, I had a chat to a friendly skier who was off to go kite skiing. He pointed out the other wings already on the horizon, it looked to be a good day for the sport.
It turned out the reason for our slow progress over very easy terrain was that one of our group who had hurt their knee earlier, was finding it worse than expected. To add to this, this was also their first time skiing with an overnight backpack. It was a tough call, because we didn't want to leave them behind, or cancel the trip, we ended up deciding to continue, knowing full well that it would now take us the entire day to reach the hut.
The first snow pit for the day was just below the Southern slope I had suggested we climb. The route up should be less than 30 degrees, but it was worthwhile checking out this aspect for future reference.
Column test failed on the first tap from the wrist, 10cm down, facets on a rain crust. Continued tapping yielded a CT M 16 on a thick layer of facets on the tussocks (ground). This confirmed the cautions in the avalanche advisory, I was glad we had picked the Pisa range. On the ascent we were careful to stick to the ridge, and the lower agled slopes.
On the way up, I noted a consistent rain crust, lightly covered by a dusting of snow. I was hoping that higher up this rain from the previous precipitation event would have fallen as snow.
After reaching the hut and leaving our stuff behind, we headed up to Mt Pisa for the sunset, just stunning. Skiing down was a particularly bad crust, the others struggled a lot getting down not having had much practice on that type of snow.
The next day the visibility was terrible. I convinced Tom and Jim to join me on some jaunts on the surrounding hills.
On the third day, we got up and decided to head for Mt Pisa proper, which we had failed to reach thus far. As we climbed the ridge where the road goes, the wind picked up significantly, such that reaching the summit rocks and sheltering behind them we a big relief. The chains covered in ice lining the road were kind of strange in that desolate place, reminding me of illustrations Isengard in JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. Keen to explore further, maybe check out Cliff Burn, but the state of the group was such that I was eventually convinced this was a bad idea, especially considering the conditions. We decided to take the gully down, somehow, this bowl had collected all the recent snow, and we no longer had to deal with the crust, just fantastic fun down to the hut again where lunch awaited us before the hike out.
On the ski out, we finally encountered some northerly slopes with a thin layer of fantastic snow on them. For some reason, maybe everyone was feeling a bit down that day, nobody wanted to stop for a run on the best snow we had encountered all trip! Gina was keen though I could tell, and eventually only my repeated offers to buy a round of drinks if we weren't back in 15 minutes pursuaded the group to stop. What a blast, and the final run back to Snow Farm capped off a great little trip in the Pisa Range.
Parting ways once again, I drove by myself over to Queenstown to be reunited with Sam and Jules after their ice climbing adventures. Next up on the menu was some day touring around the Remarkables ski field, especially the ridge heading North, which Pip from Unwin Lodge had pointed out to me on the map.
After climbing the cat track under the lift on the Western edge of the field, we skipped North until a small saddle where Jules and I continued to traverse around on the thin snow cover while Sam stopped to take photos, and take it easy. I was surprised how much less snow there was here than what we had seen so far up north!
A non-planar, broken fracture on a layer 15cm down after 15 hits of the shovel on the column test, and no result from the extended column test. The new snow appeared to be pretty well bonded and not super slabby. The snow pack in our start location was so deep we weren't able to dig to the bottom. We didn't discover any reactive weak layers, but perhaps they could have been deeper, and retrospectively another snow pit in a shallower location would probably have been a good idea.
As we weren't in the danger zone according to the advisory, it looked like a green light, so we plunged down towards the road. Skiing between the tussocks poking up near the bottom was entertaining for sure! An attempted hitch hike, and a short walk up the road back to the resort. Definetely keen to check out some of the runs further North on that route!
It was a nostalgic couple of days driving up the West coast, and a good night at NZAC Porter Lodge, the place all to ourselves in Fox Glacier. Temple Basin had recieved a fair amount of snow in the storms during the month, enough to be opening the final weekend of our trip, just in time before we were due to leave.
I was super excited, Temple Basin, it has a bit of a reputation, and we had managed to catch it on it's opening day with brilliant snow. Clear skies and a brisk morning walk up, admiring all the epic Athurs Pass scenery we had missed during our stay at the beginning of the month.
Temple basin isn't like a regular ski field. It's operated by a club, with a few full time staff during the season, and many volunteers helping to maintain throughout the year. In place of ski lifts, are rope tows. To use a rope tow, you use a clamping device called a nutcracker, to grip onto the rope and pull you up. There is so much terrain in the area, and many runs require you to boot pack a little. Even getting between the lower and upper tows requires you to talk around on a platform chopped out of the snow.
Temple had the goods, starting off on the lower tow, we were among the first tracks for the day. Very amusing trying to figure out how to attach to the nutcracker. I managed to bump my knee on one of the posts. My first proper experience skiing in powder snow!
Eventually the track between the lower and upper tows was excavated by a small army of keen volunteers with snow shovels, and we walked around and joined the group of 30 or so people waiting for the patrollers to start the upper tow.
"So as you probably heard this morning, we've set off a few charges, and cleared the bigger avalanche paths, but we still expect some parts to slide, so you need to be on your game, keep an eye out for each other. Who here has avalanche beacons?" Everyone stick their hands up! This is awesome I thought to myself, everyone here is super keen, and has the same mindset.
"Who here has avalanche beacons?" - Temple Basin Ski Patrol
Kicking back down in Athurs Pass after what was one of the most satistying days I can remember, we discussed plans for the next day. Jules and Sam had had enough of skiing, and wanted to go climbing at Castle Hill, so we decided to split again for the next day, I would head on back up to Temple Basin by myself.
It was Saturday morning and there was a lot more traffic on the track walking up, people staying for the weekend. Snow not quite as good as the day before, a fair bit more tracked out, and getting a little gluggy. On the West side of Temple Col, I decided to dig a snow pit to investigate the conditions which had led to the instabilities triggered by the patrollers the day before. Back at the lift I had a chat to the patroller about it, and he introduced me to a friendly group heading up to check out the Mingha Basin which is on the East side of Temple Basin. They were happy to have me join them.
At the top of the Col, we chatted while we waited for a steady stream of people to climb out from the basin we were about to ski. Because there were six of us we decided to split into two groups.
While we were waiting I decided to dig a pit and investigate. The results weren't super encouraging, a layer about 50cm down seemed reactive. But 30 or so people had just skied the line we were about to take, so the risk seemed acceptable (hopefully they would have triggered it if there was something there), the danger for the day was considerable. One young lady in the other group asked what the danger was. I was a little surprised she hadn't checked before heading up with the intention of skiing out of bounds. She decided, upon hearing it was considerable, to turn around. In the end, it was just the group of 3 in the group I was with who did the run together. A great day out.
I walked down in the sunset by myself to meet the others after their day of climbing. The next day we drove back to Christchurch and flew home to Melbourne. Can't wait to get back!