The best ski runs from 2020. We started the season down under. New Zealand must be one of my alternative spiritual homes, a place I’ve visited several times and feel completely at home. For skiing it’s like my Super Bowl. You may make all the moves and just be out of luck with high winds making you question the sanity of opening the outside door. But make the finals and on ‘The Day’ NZ will show you her magic and allow you play your A game. With @davejsearle we added a 700 m line to the Caroline Face, skied the 2nd known descent of Bowie Couloir and did another lap on the East Face of Cook. Back in Chamonix just as the season got good lockdown came and we had a wait of 2 months confined to our homes before restarting the season with a run on the Midi North Face to start the high mountain season. Dreaming of skiing during lockdown 2, hopefully it will be over soon.
As I peered over the ridge onto the massive Caroline Face of Aoraki / Mt Cook a barrage of snow and ice particles blasted into my face instantly freezing my nose. I ducked back into the shelter of the ridge and retraced my steps to Dave and Beau. It was obvious that today wasn’t the day for skiing a new line on the Caroline Face. We were stood at the top of a feature we dubbed Kingspine that butted onto the East Ridge. Cold bottomless powder awaited us below on the spine, hardly a consolation prize.
A few days before we had flown into the Plateau hut that is situated under the massive faces of Aoraki and Tasman. We stepped out the heli straight into -20C and a deep winter wonderland of bottomless powder. The hut offered shelter from the ferocious wind but not from the cold. Inside it was just above freezing which slowly crept into your bones during a sedentary storm bound day. As we readied to leave the next morning, I had delayed the inevitable final task of squeezing my feet into cold precision fit ski boots. It’s like plunging your feet into iced water and soon they were complaining about their new uncomfortable situation. Fortunately I had Lenz heat socks and after turning up the heat the pain subsided and I stopped worrying about my toes.
That first turn down the Kingspine was almost indescribable, slathering down its side, ultra cold over head blower drawing me into the white room. Cerebral circuits were going haywire with overload of sensory pleasure input. A series of turns followed flipping the spine from one side to the other as sluff poured down each side before going airborne. Midway I paused to let the sluff clear from my exit on the right face while I watched Dave rip the left face skiing gorgeous big turns.. Now it was my time to committ and run in front of the sluff, racing down the right, accelerating towards a choke, glancing over the shoulder to check the white dragon wasn’t catching up, and soaring out into the open slopes below. What an incredible first run in the zone, we were stoked and psyched for more.
A few days rolled by and the wind continued to blow hard but really it was the bottomless unconsolidated powder was the real issue, unclimbable and denying us the pleasure of getting on the big faces. Even on a 108 mm waist touring skis it was boot deep and you could push your pole in up to your shoulder. Dixon was the smallest, easiest and closest mountain to the hut and we made multiple unsuccessful attempts in the short weather windows that came about. One time I skinned over the bergshrund and levitated across the massive accumulation above only for Beau to fall in. On another day I fell in the bergshrund, climbed out and watched Dave fall in before we called it quits. Frustration mounted as a precious weather window was wasted. On my previous trip to NZ I’d made several attempts on Dixon and our high point remained the col before the wind buffeting made the decision to ski down easy. Sometimes its seems like its not your time to do certain routes.
Now it was time for Beau to leave on one of his soul ski missions and we wished him safe travels as he skied the 1000 m Freshfield Glacier en route to the head of the Tasman Glacier. This left us with less manpower for the bootpacks so we chose to use our previous track up Kingspine and ski off the opposite side into the Caroline Face. They say second time’s a charm and although breezy, it was possible to look down and study the face without the barrage of snow and ice stripping any exposed skin off your face. I cautiously sidestepped in over some neve using my ice axe and despite being on the windward side there was good compact powder on the face, perfect for steep skiing. A gorgeous curtain of snow several hundred metres wide hung below leading to the Caroline Glacier far below. In the background lay Lake Pukaki with its inviting the turquoise waters. I couldn’t imagine anywhere better to be right now.
There is always an element of tension, nerves and anxiety that comes with skiing big faces, especially when using a top down onsight style that yields no knowledge of the snow conditions below. None of these human emotions are conducive to an athlete performing at their best, but after we had skied a few turns and confirmed snow consistency, the tension dissipated, the mind and body centred and pure flow followed. One effortless turn followed another and all too soon were straight-ining out onto the Caroline Glacier. The skiing had gone by so quickly and we savoured the feeling from Anzac Peak’s South Col which offered a grandstand view of our line. As we sat out the wind in the warm sun eating a snack, a glorious wave of relaxation and satisfaction swept over me. A moment that will never be forgotten.
Back at the hut there had been some new arrivals, hovever the forecast was severals day of storm and our moral ebbed away with the thought of more long, cold, hut bound days, eating into our rationed provisions simply to alleviate boredom. Suddenly a girl popped her head round the door and said hi before disappearing off to unpack. A few minutes later she returned, but I was mistaken, this was a second girl. Suddenly there were 3 pretty girls there, things were looking up! Joking aside, we just needed people to speak to after a few intense days on our own. Claire, Erica, Suzie and Nick were part of a NZAC skills meet under the tutelage of the amiable and talented Kiwi guide Nick Craddock. In the evenings we played endless cardgames, swapped tall tales and laughed as noise of the wind forcing air through the window seals resembled the hoohoohooooo of an owl. They even shared their beer and wine with us for which we are eternally grateful. When we did our shopping I mentioned getting some Whiskey but Dave said he could manage without and I went along with it. I guess we had been hitting the beers hard in the village before we flew in and at the time taking a break seemed like a good idea!
We sat in the hut discussing what we could creatively conjure up backcountry cuisine wise from our dwindling supplies for dinner. It had become a pastime of mine and something to look forward as consecutive storms smashed into the Aoraki and Tasman. It sounds stupid now but it was a minor victory when I made a cheese toasting in a drying pan by capturing superheated steam under lid to melt the cheese before the bottom of the toast brunt. Sometimes it’s the little things you have to focus on.
The pitch of the wind outside would alternate as the wind increased from the haunting owl hoot to a roaring jet engine as the whole hut began to vibrate. A poster on the wall detailed all the huts in the region and one story in particular played on our minds. During a storm the Three Johns hut had broken free from its tie downs and carried over a kilometre down the mountain, tragically killing all within. That day we hadn’t even opened the door for fear of not being able to shut it against the wind. For a second I thought I heard something outside but put it down to my ears playing tricks and got on with cooking. But there it was again. That wasn’t ice falling off the roof. Something was outside.
Both of us rushed to open the hallway door and stood there in shock and disbelief. Two mountaineers covered in ice and looking exhausted sat next to the outside door. As we ate our dinner, they sat in their sleeping bags gorging on hot tea and told us their story. They had left the Ball shelter some 16 hours before and made the 1000 m ascent onto the Grand Plateau before taking some time to find the hut in the blizzard. Slowly colour returned to their faces and we went to bed happy they were ok.
At 4 am I woke up, opened my eyes and gazed up out the window to see the east face of Aoraki reaching up to stars. My senses took a second to register the change, silence, the jet engine was off. Quickly I put on all my clothes and packed my rucksac, lit the stove and went to wake Dave. Only in NZ can you have the all time conditions right after the worst storm imaginable and I wondered how Dave was going to get his head around that.
‘hey Buddy, its time to go for the East Face’
“eh? what time is it”
’430, let go dude’
We slipped out into the night moving silently and efficiently under our own torchlight attempting to make up some lost time of our late start due to the unexpected window. I was glad to be outside after days of storm, heading on an adventure. The 1200 m 45 to 50 degree East Face of Aoraki towered above us with a thick coating of powder. Ideally we would be starting skiing as the first rays of sun hit the face at dawn, before the sun started to heat the face. But NZ’s weather is fickle and opportunities scare. We’d just have to see how it went and ski down if it started to get warm.
In less than an hour we were swapping skis and skins for crampons and axes and crossing the bergshrund. As the sun rose above the mountains to our east, the face turned to gold. I pulled out my camera to capture such an incredible moment but the battery instantly failed. It was really cold and I was not relishing submerging my feet in the snow which would be some ten degrees colder than the air. Breaking trail up bottomless snow was going to be the physical crux of the day with only two if us to share the work. I turned my axes to create as big a footprint as possible then pushing down hard with my arms took maybe 30 kilos off my feet meaning they only went in knee deep. We swapped leads every 1/2 hour while the other would eat, drink and draft in the slip-steam.
While we climbed, thin cloud had veiled the sun and keeping the temperature low, but now as we approached the junction of top of the face and the summit light started to go flat due to thicker cloud. Not a problem for climbing but you need to see the surface of the snow to be able to ski fast. We debated whether to tag the summit or ski. I’d climbed Aoraki before and both of us were psyched for a good ski after 5 hours climbing so we cut out a ledge and swapped crampons for skis. Strangely as we climbed higher the snow had become deeper with no wind effect, there was going to be a lot of stuff that would build and build until a full born avalanche tore down the face and we certainly needed to avoid getting caught up in that at all cost. Ideally there would have been less new snow for steep skiing but we were there now.
Dave set off getting that all important first turn out of the way as muscles and coordination adapted from hours of climbing to skiing. Its like a triathlon transition except here high on the mountain a mistake won’t go unpunished. As I waited to ski I couldn’t help but take in the scale and beauty of my surroundings with the Plateau hut 1500 m below, and another 1000 m below that, the gigantic Tasman Glacier stretched for 15 km to the main divide of Elie de Beaumont and Hochstetter Dome. To the east lay the Murcheston and Godley valleys with several lifetime’s worth of ski adventures.
Now it was my turn and I was acutely aware of the stuff tugging my skis which in turn increased the nerves. After a couple of pitches our minds started to relax and in turn our energy levels soared. The light also improved and now we were able to ski luscious big flow turns in a near effortless manner. We dropped hundreds of metres in seconds and soon we were at the bottom, pumping fists, gasping for air, laughing and admiring the face.
That night at the hut we eagerly listened to weather bulletin over the radio. The high pressure was holding but severe gale on the tops. I really wanted to ski another line on the Caroline Face but it needed calm conditions. The obvious choice was to try and make the second descent of the Bowie Couloir which had first been skied in 2012 by Andreas Fransson and Magnus Kastengren. The alarm tore us from deep sleep and at 430 am we stole away into the dark. It’s easy to think about all the bad things about getting up early and going out into the cold dark, but I like to focus on the coming dawn and the sun returning bringing back warmth, light and energy to the world. This would be a dawn that was impossible to forget as the sky turned gold, pink, orange and blue. We watched it unfold in awe unwilling to miss a moment as the colours changed, but we knew time was pressing us to get on with the task at hand. Reluctantly we put our cameras away and continued up the glacier roped together only to find a huge crevasse barring our way. We donned crampons and with Dave belaying me I managed to climb down and span to the other side where I sunk my tools into neve. With my heart in my mouth I shouted ‘watch me’ as I committed to pulling on my axes and climbing up the far wall. I quickly constructed a buried ice anchor and belayed Dave safely across. Only the bergshrund lay between us and the Bowie Couloir and we could see a good snowbridge. It seemed the difficulties were behind us.
The sun was much stronger today and suddenly a large stuff released from high on the mountain and channeled down the choke between the ice and the rock where we needed to go. Dave’s psyche to continue was dwindling unless we found a safe way to proceed and it was difficult to see if there was anything else high on the mountain that could come down. Finally I suggested climbing up on the left using the serac as a shield. At least we could make some turns from there and if nothing else came down we could sprint up the choke to the next safe zone. We made quick progress to the serac and since the mountain had continued to be quiet I kept going through the choke with my heart rate nearly at max. As I caught my breath Dave joined me and we made swift progress to the junction with Zurbriggens Ridge and gazed out across the East Face.
It was such a cool spot to hang out, enjoy some food and savour the surroundings, knowing a gorgeous descent on perfect powder awaited below. This would be the last skiing on our trip and I knew it would be great. This time the honours were mine and I set of skiing fast open turns on sensational snow down to the spur on top of the serac. Dave’s sluff would be channeled away from me down the choke so I was safe to film him skiing. A few controlled turns took me through the choke and out onto the lower apron which was a dream to ski, heading down diagonally left to right away from the stuff and not a care in the World. All too soon we were back on the glacier, stoked to have pulled off the best skiing of the trip despite all the obstacles in our path on the way up. Sam Smoothy said to me ’New Zealand can be a cold mistress sometimes,’ but boy you are in for some ride when she does eventually warm to you.