Text and photos by: Costijn Zwart & Robbert Schippers
But to find good snow in summer...you have to head down across the equator into the southern hemisphere...We were looking for powder in July...here there is more snow and Ice than in all Switzerland …..our destination; the Tasman Glacier, 21 miles long 5000ft thick it moves 18 inches a day on its endless journey to the sea..
We feel like we're in the movie 'Powder in July' from 1961 posted a few weeks earlier by Morris. The pilot lands us at the Tasman Saddle with 10 days worth of supplies and we skin back and forth the few hundred meters to the Kelman Hut (2450m) to bring everything in. We can't stop screaming and shouting how happy we are to have arrived in this winter wonderland before bad weather will set in the next day.
We arrived in Christchurch a few days earlier where we were warmly welcomed by Richard from SPLITN2. Richard showed us around in his workshop and it reminded us a lot about our beloved Steven from BMB. The boards at SPLITN2 are build with a proper bamboo core and show craftsmanship and eye for detail. Richard wanted to make sure our splitgear was ready for the remote areas we planned on going into and replaced the plastic bushings in our Spark bindings with bronze ones and gave our splitgear a thorough overall check, free of charge. Thanks Rich!
Our first turns on the southern hemisphere were made in the smallest commercial ski field of the South Island, Mt Dobson. It was build back in 1979 by Peter Foote and he (in his 70ies now ) is still around on the field. He build the 16km road into the mountains by himself while camping along it with his wife, what an amazing job! Skiing like this has a lot of character and it feels like we are on the ice in Holland getting coffee at the Koek&Zopie.
With a snowline at 1700m and snow transforming fast at this time of year we decided to go high up into the mountains around Mt Cook/Aoraki to find powder and bigger lines. It is very common to fly in by helicopter or plane here since distances are often too big to walk, especially when you want to stay longer and carry a lot of food and gas around. Huts are not serviced as they often are in Europe so you have to be self sufficient, if you're lucky there is gas to cook on.
Out of breath after hauling our gear up to the hut we start digging at the spot where we think the entrance might be...lots of snow! Once we've made the hut snow and ice free we start melting snow and skin a few meters up to the col behind the hut to get a feel for the snow and have look around. The scale of the terrain is very impressive, the Murchison Glacier with its headwall on the right, Tasman glacier on the left and incredible views onto the Ice falls of the Minarets. Truck size ice cubes coming down creating big powder avalanches...we're a bit blown away by it all and hoping we can find some easy lines to get started in. We set ourself up in the hut and by the end of the day we see a tiny dot appearing down on the glacier, its our new friend Irish Chamonix local Brendan who made the long 2 day hike in, good on him!
The next day the weather is still good and we climb Mt Aylmer (2699m), a relatively short climb (2hrs) with a nice airy top ridge and mellow ride down. After that we tried to ride a beautiful couloir on the north side of Mt Darwin. It is iced out however and we're not able to ride it. In the meantime Brendan is trying to get into a couloir on Mt Annan but he finds that too icy too. Then the bad weather sets in...Severe Gale force winds shaking the hut and we're wearing goggles to make the 5m from the hut to the toilets outside. It snows and blows the whole day and night and we're playing monopoly and poker and drink lots of tea while trying not to freeze in the cold southerlies.
A winter wonderland opens up when we free up the entrance and windows the following day, Powder! With the wind of last night in mind and resulting slabs that may have formed we decide to make an easy tour and head up the Hochstetter Dome (2827m). Coming down the ridge in great snow we decide to go up again and this time ride Brendan's more direct line. In the meantime, the word has got out in the valley about great snow up here and good weather for the next few days and the 'Ski the Tasman' (powder 11 for most of you) circus starts. We have company in the hut now, Ozzies, Kiwis and two great Austrians (who else) that brought beer! It's a happy vibe in the hut with everybody excited exchanging stories about the lines they did and making plans for the next. The hut is warming up now with this crowd and the snow on the leaky roof melts, turning some bunks into a swimming pool.
The next days we ride Darwin Bowls and some steeper more difficult climbs/descents on Mt Walter (2905m, SSW face) and Mt Green (2837, E face). Going through the crevasses is serious business and it takes us some time to figure out a safe way up. We exit the ridge from Mt Green through a maze of massive Ice falls...but in great powder!
Mt Green highest peak on the left with its east face in the sun and Mt Walter on the right with the pronounced snow drift from its peak. Good time for a break with tea and chocolate to figure out a safe way up.
Fine weather is coming to an end and we decide to have one more relatively easy day before we have to get out. We climb up towards point 2283m above Starvation Sadle via a very non-logical steep difficult way (but very cool afterwards) and ride 'our competition face' and down the Mannering Glacier again in great powder. Skinning back up the Mannering, Murchison and headwall we get back onto the Tasman Saddle and call it a day. Everybody left already and we have the hut to ourself again. The little breeze drops and silence and tranquillity take over again. Standing on the balcony of the hut while the sun goes down over the west coast we can't believe how good the time is we have up here.
We pack up our super heavy backpacks loaded with garbage and leftover food and start our descent over the Tasman Glacier the next morning. Passing Mt Coronet on which Brendan made a first descent and even made the avalanche bulletin ('steep aesthetic line-snow must be stable-extreme lines on Mt Walter and Green-the crazy Irishmen is still alive!') we follow the ski tracks for about an hour, then cramponed down the ice followed by a 3.5hr walk through the moraines to end up below 'garbage gully' that has to be climbed to get to the Ball shelter and track out the valley. We're happy that it was just Rob's thumb that got hit by a stone...could have ended very badly in that gully! My brand new SparkDeeluxe -supposed to be stiff- snowboard mountaineering boots feel like sneakers after the walk through the moraines. Another 2-3 hr walk to the car-park where we get a lift from a German backpacker back to the highway...we're stuffed!
A day rest and the next day we walk up into the Hooker Valley where we want to get to the Gardiner and Empress hut to check some lines on the western side of Mt Cook. The walk through the moraines is a nasty one where the Hooker Lake has to be passed with stones flying down for about an hour. Once on the glacier, the terrain is even more serious than around the Kelman hut and heavily crevassed. We rope up and carefully pass the snowbridges peeking into massive crevasses and make it into the Gardiner Hut before dark. A broken window makes for nice snowdrift in the hut that we block with some blankets and mattresses. The next day feels like the hut will blow off the ridge and we wait out the storm. The weather forecast predicts it will only get worse so we decide to get out the next day while we still can and make it back to the village.
Our feet, knees and backs are sore, equipment is lost and broken but we couldn't be more happy. Great mountains, great snow, great lines and great people!
Thanks Richard@SPLITN2 for the tune up and giving us directions, Dennis@SnowCountry and Morris@wePowder for some of our split equipment and stoke, Brendan for the never ending chatter, good company and pointing out nice lines.