Kirtle Burn Hut | An Overnight Backcountry Ski Tour

April 22, 2019

After my first overnight ski touring trip in Queenstown, I was chomping at the bit to get out and sleep in the snow again. But rather than build an igloo again, I started looking for backcountry hut options close to Wanaka. You’ve got to treat yourself to a bit of luxury every now and then, right?

Black Peak Hut out the back of Treble Cone was first on my list seeing as I’d wanted to ski Black Peak for a while. However, a bit of research revealed that it’s actually a private hut owned by one of the local guiding companies. My attention then turned to the Pisa Range on the opposite side of the valley to Cardrona ski field. I knew that Snow Farm – a cross country ski field – was up there but other than that I didn’t know a lot. From looking at the Topo map I could see that there wasn’t much steep terrain to speak of but there was a small hut only a few km from the base of Snow Farm. Without much more research, other than to check it was a DOC hut and open during the winter we began packing.

Skinning out

From the base building at Snow Farm, we skinned along one of the many cross country trails to Meadow Hut where we left the confines of the Snow Farm which, thanks to the Winter Games, was buzzing with activity. From this point on we followed Roaring Meg out into the wilds of the Pisa Conservation Area. Apart from a solo splitboarder travelling in the opposite direction, we didn’t see a single soul on the climb. The splitboarder was, in fact, a guide for the same guiding company that owns the hut on Black peak. After chatting briefly, he warned that the following morning could be a complete whiteout. It’s quite common for the cloud to roll in over the Pisa Range making navigation near impossible so we had GPS with us just in case.

After a couple of hundred metres of climbing, we reached the plateau. From here we enjoyed amazing views over the Cardrona Valley, Lake Wanaka and the big mountains of Aspiring National Park on the horizon. And even though the rugged peaks in the distance looked much more appealing, I was happy to be amongst the rolling hills of the Pisa Range for the first time. The sun had begun to set and the shadows were elongating with every minute that passed.

With light rapidly disappearing, we continued skinning along the plateau for another few kms until we spotted a tiny black speck in the distance contrasted against the stark white backdrop. The little black dot was more than just a hut though; it was warmth in the cold, light in the dark and shelter for the night. We ripped our skins off and enjoyed a few creamy turns down into the basin to find the hut completely empty.

Home in the hills

Kirtle Burn hut is a basic seven-bed hut in the Pisa Range. During the summer it’s used by trampers (hikers) and bikers, and in the winter it is often used by ski tourers. Unfortunately, there’s no fire at Kirtle Burn and the walls are made out of paper so it gets pretty cold, but it’s a shelter.

We quickly started melting snow for water and sat outside the hut drinking tea as the sun set behind the mountains.

The little black dot was more than just a hut though; it was warmth in the cold, light in the dark and shelter for the night

A winters night in a backcountry hut can seem excruciatingly long. Light fades before 5 pm and once you’ve eaten, there’s not much else to do other than play cards, enjoy good conversation and hot drinks by candle light. We melted more snow for cooking and then wrapped up warm as the temperature plummeted.

The morning after

After a cold night in the hut, we woke up to a complete white out. Looking out the window I couldn’t see more than 20m ahead, just as the guide had warned the previous day. Using GPS we managed to find a route marker and then enjoyed a game of spot the orange pole all the way back to the stream where we dropped below the cloud. Without GPS we would have had no chance finding our way out!

Things to take on an overnight ski mission

Going on an overnight ski tour isn’t too different from a camping trip. You’ll need to take the basics, such as;

  • sleeping bag – a winter down sleeping back will keep you warm in the snow
  • food, cooking equipment – dehydrated meals and a Jetboil or equivelant
  • a knife – an essential, try a UK pocket knife
  • warm clothing – down jacket, spare hat and gloves
  • spare base layers and socks – having spare base layers and socks to sleep in is wise
  • headtorch – make sure you’ve got enough battery

On top of the basic camping necessities, you’ll need to take backcountry safety gear- transciever, shovel and probe. It’s also a good idea to carry a GPS and a PLB (personal locator beacon) if you’re going into the backcountry.

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