Dispatch #1: BD athlete Steve Romeo reports on his ski mountaineering trip to New Zealand
Black Diamond athlete Steve Romeo decided to fly down to New Zealand in late September to feed his skiing need on the island's steep peaks. Below is his first report from the peaks of New Zealand, along with some stellar photos from Scott Fennell.
Two days after booking my airline ticket from Jackson Hole, WY to Christchurch, New Zealand, to explore the Southern Alps on skis, a giant 7.5 magnitude earthquake rocked the city and left hundreds of buildings in ruins, as well as opening sinkholes which swallowed houses in one big gulp. A couple of days later, a small plane at the Fox Glacier airstrip crashed on takeoff, killing all five passengers on board. Over the weekend leading up to my departure, the west coast of New Zealand received over 13 feet of new snow in a 10-day storm, spiking the avalanche danger to high and adding to my uncertainty as I organized for my trip to the southwest corner of the Pacific Ocean.
New Zealand is an exciting country, full of adverse weather, extremely glaciated terrain and steep mountains, which make summiting peaks and finding good quality snow for skiing far from a guarantee. One traveling to New Zealand to ski should anticipate multiple weather days and have a patience level equal to that of the Dali Lama. Luckily, the country maintains numerous backcountry huts, which are typically perched on rocky outcroppings away from slowly moving glaciers and offer a safe haven from the relentless wind and precipitation for those venturing into the alpine. Add to that, the fact that helicopters are an integral part of the kiwi travel plan and you soon see that the country holds amazing opportunity for one looking for heaps of fantastic ski touring.
In early October, I traveled to New Zealand and met up with Scott Fennell, from Anchorage, AK and Ben Starkey, from the San Francisco area. Ben had been in country for a few months already, and his Mitsubishi Delica was key to allowing us to make a quick transition from airport, to grocery store, to gear shop, and finally out to the west coast and the town of Franz Josef, where one can be skiing on a glacier in the morning and then surfing in the Tasman Sea in the afternoon. Our timing couldn’t have been better: we arrived on the front end of a four-day high pressure system and we waited only a few hours the following morning before being heli-lifted to 2300 meters and the Centennial Hut, perched smack dab in the middle of the Franz Josef Glacier.
A few shakedown runs right off the bat got me pumped for skiing, but when my finger nearly got sliced off while McGyver-ing a fix for the hut’s roof water-tank collection system, and then Scott loosing an integral part of his AT boot, never mind the fact that everything big and steep was extremely icy and sketchy, we decided to ease our way into the mountain environment.
Finding terrain to ski is easy in a place like this, however, and we hit many of the peaks around the Davis Snowfield on the Agassiz Glacier, the Geikie and Chamberlin Snowfields on the Franz Josef Glacier and also some lines Melchior and Salisbury Glaciers. One particular run on the Melchior Glacier brought us down through the heart of an icefall… that was rather exciting and a little unnerving as giant blocks of ice fell down around us as the sun began to heat things up. One day we tried to ski the Minarets, a 3000-meter peak that sits on the divide between Westlands and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, but the bergschrunds were too big to pass and the steeper pitches too icy to give her a real go.
Right now, I’m resting my wounded finger in the town of Franz Josef, it’s socked in up high, so I’m not missing much, but plan on heading up to the Pioneer Hut and the Fox Glacier area when the next high pressure system rolls in, which looks to be a few days out. Wish me luck!
— Steve Romeo
[All photos by Scott Fennell]