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Joined: Tue Apr 14, 2009 9:31 am Posts: 268 Location: a vanagon somewhere in WA
during the early stages of my kiwi winter, i was contacted by an alaskan skier who was planning to spend october enjoying the spring conditions on the mt cook glaciers. since my 4 weeks away from serious touring had somewhat crippled my ability to connect with local folks to plan a big spring trip, i decided (after several emails) to roll the dice and finish off my season taking an extended trip with a total stranger named scott. a few weeks later, he arrived in christchurch with another american skier, steve.
we spent a couple days in chch, attending bbqs, preparing supplies, and planning. we decided to focus on the western side of the great divide--we would start by flying up the franz josef glacier to the centennial hut and spend a few days exploring the peaks in that area before touring south to the pioneer hut, high on the neve of the fox glacier. from there, we figured we could head down the glacier and fly out from the much lower chancellor hut to save a few bucks at the end of the trip. planning to spend half a dozen or so days on each major glacier, and expecting to spend at least as many days waiting for heli rides or confined to huts by the infamous west coast weather, we packed enough food for 3 weeks.
well provisioned, we left for the west coast. our good weather luck started early, as our first day in franz josef dawned clear and only a bit gale-torn. within a few hours (not days!!) there was a break in the wind and our heli pilot gave us the go ahead. by lunchtime, we were flying over the glacier with our massive bags of supplies.
my introduction to the "snow" conditions (and to my new companions!) was not a good one. within moments of unloading the heli, i picked up my heaviest bag and strapped into my board, expecting to ride the short distance down to the hut. however, as i attempted to stand up under my heavy load, i began sliding down the glare ice. at least there were no real hazards near by, because i realized quickly that loaded down as i was, i could neither arrest myself nor stand up. so i sat back and enjoyed the butt-slide as i cruised 100m past the hut to the flats below. at least the pack i had on contained my crampons and poles, so i was able to quickly (albeit sheepishly) return to the hut and begin assisting with the digging and de-icing.
by early evening we had unpacked all our glacier gear and were ready to begin exploring the area. hmm... not sure that my one ice axe is enough to get up elie de beaumont.
that evening, as we prepared the centennial hut for long-term occupation, misfortune returned. i was in the process of fashioning some makeshift plumbing to redirect meltwater from the sunny roof in through the window for kitchen use (melting snow burns tons of fuel, and the hut water tank was frozen), when steve offered to help. no sooner had he grabbed hold of the pipe i was sawing, than my pocket saw sprang from the pipe and into the flesh of his right ring finer.
needless to say, this did nothing to ease tension between myself and the two skier friends that i was tagging along with for this trip. to their credit, things stayed quite civil as we set out again in fine weather the next morning.
over the next few days, we were blessed with atypically pleasant weather--calm winds, clear skies, and sun that slowly melted the ice into a thin layer of corn snow each afternoon. as we explored the many peaks and ridges surrounding the davis, chamberlin, and geikie snowfields, we all came to a sort of understanding. i increased my touring pace (that i'd never really thought of as slow) to keep up with a pair perplexed at why i didn't own a heart rate monitor or understand what "interval training" was. and they obliged me by occasionally slowing their frenetic pace when i insisted on hiking off to the side to hit what i began to refer to as "knuckle dragger features". and they even shot a few photos for me...
we spent a day checking out the minnarets (too icy) and climbing the graham saddle, one of the major crossing points of the main divide.
i got my first look at the tasman valley...
and a close up view of the west face of cook.
as word of the good weather spread, the hut began to fill up. we were joined by a group of cool locals and a guide-client pair from wanaka.
one of the locals, a glacier-hiking and ice climbing guide, joined us for a tour over to mt von bulow where we rode several steep lines down from its penck ridge.
then we spotted tracks down into the scary icefall zone of the franz glacier... we could see the guide and his client on the other side, so we followed their tracks into a descent that looked quite dodgy at best. but sure enough, they had found a way through the icefall that was unknown even to our new local friend.
we typically returned to the hut each day by 5 to catch the broadcast of the weather report, then headed back out for laps in the little playground that surrounded the hut. this little chute was in our front yard!
the corn zone in our side yard was filled with steep sections and strange ice formations.
sometimes we rode down to the hut...
but usually the return home involved the sketchiest climb of the day, and the crux was the very last turn, around the dreaded icy "shithouse corner".
on day 6, the weather forecasts became a bit dire, so we enjoyed one last evening of riding, and prepared to sit out our first storm.
seeing his chance, steve flew out to seek medical attention for his finger. everyone else had already fled the well-documented storm, so it was now just scott and i confined to the hut as the visibility disappeared outside and howling gale force winds piled and replied the large accumulation of new snow.
we spent 3 days confined to the hut, amusing ourselves by reading books from the somewhat questionable "hut library" and inventing new combinations of our limited food supplies (my favorite--peppermint tea with hot chocolate powder!)
on day 8, the wind died down, and we observed the phenomenon (quite rare on the west coast) of snow falling straight down. when the cloud lifted in the evening, we took the rare chance to ride our normal corn snow run in 8 whole inches of powder! but the wind and fog came back with a vengeance as we returned to the hut, and we settled in for the evening mentally preparing for another sedentary day inside.
as day 9 wore on with no sign of the storm abating, we resumed our quest for diversions. scott began rummaging through boxes of long-abandoned food, bravely searching for something new to eat.
meanwhile, i took yet another look outside...
...and set out on my most daring adventure yet.
it took me the better part of an hour to clear a path to the outhouse, excavate the door, and shovel the accumulated snow off the floor and seat. but what else was i gonna do??
the storm kept me awake for much of that night. maybe the wind was stronger, or maybe i was just growing weary of it, but every time a gust slammed into the building, shaking it to its foundation, i spent minutes that should have been peaceful sleep trying to remind myself that this was not the first big storm that old building had survived.
when the next morning dawned clear and bright, scott was even more anxious to leave than i, despite that the wind was still as ferocious as ever. in retrospect, it was somewhat foolish to set out to carry all of our gear to a new hut in conditions that we would not have gone out riding in. but motivated as we were by boredom, the wind seemed like a small obstacle to surmount on our way to a change of scenery.
crossing the franz glacier neve, climbing newton pass, descending to and crossing the fox glacier, and then climbing pioneer ridge. the whole tour was less than 5km, with only 400m of total climbing. it could have been done in under 2 hours in optimal conditions. instead, it took me about 3.5 hours, all of which were comprised of the most miserable unpleasant minutes i've ever spent on a board. the wind ate away at any exposed flesh, stole air from my lungs, stripped all the snow from the places i wanted it and moved it to the places i didn't, covered my skin glue in ice and then tore the skins from my hands.... all in all we still made it to the pioneer hut before 3pm, but as i sat there listening to the wind howl outside, the thought of another night at centennial didn't seem so bad next to what i had just endured.
still, we had made it. we were at the pioneer hut at last, and our weather luck returned the next morning along with steve, who flew up with a large crew from town, all come to enjoy the good weather.
we started out with the nearby spots. this line on pioneer ridge was begging to be ridden, and who was i to decline?
the forecast gave us 4 days of fine weather to enjoy the fox glacier, but looking around, it was hard not to want more time!
we next headed west, to check out la receveur peak and big mac. the snow was good and this run made me want to stay for another lap, but we had much ground to cover.
finishing the day in style, with a run down the glacier, watching the sun set over the tasman sea... i let steve get the first track because he had some photo obligations to fulfill, but scott graciously snapped a photo of my second track.
once again, we had a veritable playground of fun lines right next to the hut. scott pointed this line out to me as we were eating dinner one night. so we put our boots back on and went after it while steve shot pictures from the porch.
thanks to the great weather, quite a group was assembling at the hut. fortunately, this is NZ so everyone is friendly and good natured.
we joined up with a couple of kiwi mountaineers keen to climb and ski lendenfeld peak (next to mt tasman). we departed early, planning to climb the marcel col before it warmed up.
the climbing was easy at first, but got steeper and icier as we progressed.
i had always known that snowboard boots had a lot of limitations for technical climbing, but this was the first time i had experienced it firsthand.
with every step, my fear grew, until at last it manifested... i had tightened the straps on my crampons until my boots deformed, but it wasn't enough. as i front-pointed my way up the ice, my left boot flexed enough that the crampon slipped off, leaving me hanging from my axe and a single foot. i sank an ice screw, clipped into it, and was eventually able to get the crampon back on. but that was enough to shake all my confidence. we topped out on marcel col and started the ascent of lendenfeld, but on the 2nd stretch of steep blue ice, i gave up. i couldn't take a step without experiencing a panicky fear that i was losing a crampon, so i turned back.
on the way back down, i passed scott anchoring himself in preparation for getting out his slr and shooting some photos. i was just glad to be back on my board where i felt safe and in control!
that evening, i dug deep into my food stash for the one thing i'd been hoarding.... i'd been out of whiskey for days, and hadn't brought a single beer, but there was one refreshing beverage that i knew i could not survive without. (side note: mt tasman is directly above my head, lendenfeld is the smaller peak just to the left)
during my stay on cook, i saw lots of AT skiers, a couple of telemark skiers, and a few mountaineers, but not a single other snowboard ever made an appearance.
as the second amazing week drew to a close, the forecast for the approaching storm grew stronger and our desire to wait it out with our dwindling food supply grew correspondingly weaker. so we decided to spend the last sunny day descending the fox glacier and fly out from the bottom.
each night's sunset seemed more amazing than the last, so since i had but one battery for each camera, i waited until the last night to shoot the sunset.... and just couldn't resist leaving the outhouse in the frame.
after 2 weeks in the mountains, scott looks for a route down to the fox glacier.
i was a little smarter the this time around and strapped my 2 packs together and wore them both on my back. it was quite hard to balance, but way less awkward than having my touring pack on my chest as i had done when we crossed to pioneer. either way, i was quite relieved to reach the chancellor hut and radio for that chopper.
13 days in the same shirt and finally i was back to civilization and sea level. time for a beer!!
(ps credit to scott and steve for their photos and for patience in tolerating a knuckle dragging snowboarder on their ski tour)
Joined: Fri Jul 11, 2008 2:49 am Posts: 107 Location: mt ruapehu new zealand
awesome trip ben , now i really do have to get back down south...good to meet up and hope you get some deep snow back home, our season did finish ok ,open right until last sunday and we had 6 cm of fresh to finish on our last day...and la nina means a good tropical cyclone season so the surf beckons...
Amazing! I read in one of the skiers blogs they were touring with a splitboarder, and since you vanished i assumed that was you. Super sick trip bro, hopefully NZ was everything you expected. Defiantly on my wish list