The weather in the Southern Alps of New Zealand is fickle, to say the least. Together with changing avalanche risk and aligning the crew’s schedules, planning a backcountry mission can be tough. So when a window appeared to spend a few days touring from the Remarkables ski field, I dropped everything and started frantically packing.
The plan for the weekend started out very loose. Changing forecasts eluded to different conditions and an easterly weather system ruled out local touring options around Wanaka. To avoid the cloud which is carried by this flow, Tracey suggested that we should head towards Queenstown. Having not skied from the Remarkables before I was super keen.
The art of packing
I hadn’t been on a multi-day tour before, nor slept in the snow. But I was excited at the thought of a brand new experience, yet also slightly apprehensive at the prospect of being underprepared. Packing for a three-day trip into the backcountry during the winter was all new to me and it turns out that I majorly overpacked. By the time I had packed my sleeping bag; bivvy bag; sleeping mat; stove; water and food; crampons; ski crampons; extra layer; ice axe; first aid kit and other miscellaneous items, my pack weighed a tonne. And I hadn’t even packed my camera bag yet!
After some late night streamlining and culling, I reduced the weight of my pack slightly, although not by much. When we met at the carpark on Friday morning I quickly realised that my over-sized bag was going to be an issue. Two guys from Queenstown that would join us effortlessly slung their 45l day packs on as I struggled to lift everything but the kitchen sink onto my back.
Less than ideal
From the base of the mountain, we could tell that the weather wasn’t going to be as clear as we had first hoped. Low hanging cloud enveloped the ski field and flat light made it hard to distinguish any features. Luckily Leif and Pang (the two dudes from Queenstown) had skied the first part of this tour before. As we stood at the top of the Remarkables peering over the back, we could see nothing, not even 50m ahead. Occasionally the cloud would clear offering a brief glimpse of the line we were about to ski. Assured that the terrain was mellow, we dropped into the white abyss with only each other to use as a reference. Aside from the lack of vis and weighty bag on my back, the skiing was good- creamy turns on mellow terrain is always a nice way to start the day.
Fork in the road
The cloud showed no chance of lifting and the proposed route weaved up a steep face peppered with rocks and ice to a saddle that would appear one moment and then disappear the next. We stopped for lunch in the hope that the cloud would clear enough to give us a window but uncertainty was present in everyone’s minds. The other option was to ski back the way we had come and traverse around the peak, but this route would surely add a couple of hours to the journey. After umming and ahhing for a good half hour, the cloud cleared enough for us to see the saddle clearly so we quickly cut a skin track and made a run for it.
When we eventually reached the saddle, exhausted and relieved, it was clear that the cloud was here to stay. Rather than continue into the unknown without being able to see, we decided to ski down to a small lake and set up camp for the night.
The perfect(ish) camp
Setting up camp in the snow was completely new to me. Fortunately, Adam and Tracey had done so hundreds of times and Leif and Pang were also well versed in snow camping. The others had brought tents to sleep in but I was going to be spending the night in my bivvy bag in the mess tent/igloo. First, we dug out a hollow to create the interior and then began cutting blocks to build the walls up for a tarp to be draped over. The process of cutting blocks and building the walls was really, really satisfying. Adam would cut blocks and then the rest of us would cart them over to the camp and place them on top of each other, using loose snow to bind the blocks together like mortar.
Unfortunately, the shape of the tarp meant that there was a gaping hole at the entrance which meant that my first night sleeping in the snow was pretty breezy. The following morning- after sleeping pretty well thanks to my Nalgene hot water bottle and a few whiskey hot chocolates before bed- I clambered out of my bivvy bag, clutching for my boot liners at the bottom of my sleeping bag. All my clothes were also stuffed inside my bivvy to stop them freezing, everything apart from my gloves which lay on the snow frozen solid.
The weather on the second morning was beautiful and clear meaning we could finally see the peaks which surrounded us. As we sipped our coffee we began to plan our objective for the day and pack our day packs with axes, crampons and enough food for a long day out.
We spent the day scoping lines, skinning to the top and getting some of the best turns of the winter. The next bowl over from our camp was full of steep chutes and interesting features to keep us entertained until the legs said no more. Exhausted and content we skied back to camp to relax in the afternoon sun and make some much-needed mods to the igloo. Although, after an hour or so of relaxing we decided to skin up to ski a line in the warm pink evening light before settling in for the night.
My second night in the igloo was noticeably better than the first. We dug the entrance to below ground level and moved it to the other side of the igloo so as to avoid the prevailing southerly winds which had covered me in spindrift on the first night. Again, I woke at 4 am to the buffeting sound of the wind and quickly made a second Nalgene hot water bottle to get back to sleep. Unlike the first night, I couldn’t poke my head out of the doorway to watch the stars so I lay back in my bivvy and let the wind soothe me back to sleep.
The next morning Leif and Pang packed up began the journey back to the Remarkables. The rest of us were keen to ski another couple of lines before returning the real world so we put on the skins and headed to the top of a line we had scoped the previous morning. We knew we had to be quick though so that the midday sun didn’t bake the spring-line snow. Fortunately, after a sketchy top out on a steep and icy pitch, we were treated with a long steep line through an untouched couloir down to the valley floor. Each turn felt like velvet under the skis and I was pumping full of adrenaline as my sluff chased me down the mountain. To say I was stoked with my decision to stay and ski another line would be an understatement!