Another long overdue post but maybe not as delayed as some of the others. The story starts at a BBQ in Will’s backyard a few days before the 2019 Squamish 50. It’s an awesome time of year where the town is full of running friends for the race but also climbers for the Arc’teryx Academy that takes place the following weekend. The worlds overlap a bit and it’s a pretty fun time. Mark, Janelle, and baby Saylah Smiley were visiting for the Academy so we invited them along to the party. At one point, the 6-month old was handed to Andrea where she immediately stopped crying and fell asleep (the baby, not Andrea).
Janelle noticed right away and fired off with: “You’re good with babies! Do you want to come babysit in New Zealand while we ski Mt. Cook?”.
Andrea didn’t hesitate to say yes and the trip was born! It was something already in the works between the Smileys, Jeanelle’s brother Owen, and a mutual friend of all of ours, Matt. The plan was to head to NZ for two weeks and make an attempt to ski the East Face of Mount Cook/Aoraki all the while, dealing with the added complication of a newborn along for the ride. The crux was finding someone to babysit while mom and dad ski the face. Andrea was the lynchpin for the whole trip to happen. Lucky for me, I got to come along for the ride!
So, rewind back to August – a few days after the BBQ, Andrea asked me if the Smileys were serious. The next day I was out for a run and followed up with Janelle. Yeah – it’s serious. Let’s do this. Lucky for me, I was defending my PhD four days before the team was planning to depart for NZ. I figured that was probably a reasonable turnaround time and it would be a good way to celebrate after having my head down for the previous months. So ensued a few months of internet research, group chats, gear acquisition and all the assorted planning that accompanies a multi-week trip to a new continent. I had a good excuse with the looming thesis defence so mercifully avoided much of the planning – again, credit to Andrea for her logistical skill (and the rest of the team). Before I knew it, we had bags packed and were driving to the airport!
It turns out that New Zealand is quite a lot like BC, just all compressed into a MUCH smaller piece of land, WAY out in the Pacific Ocean. Like really, really, far out there. Other than driving on the left, I’m pretty used to hearing kiwi accents in Whistler, the jungle there is a lot like here Squamish, the food is similar, and the mountains are rad and glaciated just above the ocean. It’s like BC with different birds. Seriously though – NZ is freaking amazing. I can’t wait to go back. And conveniently, our summer is their winter!
Anyway, did I mention they drive on the left? Nobody told me prior to arrival! The RV rental company was fairly casual about it as well:
“Have you ever driven an RV this size before?”
“Have you ever driven on the left side before?”
“Think you’ll be alright?”
“I hope so…”
“OK – here’s your keys – enjoy the island!”
And so began three uninterrupted weeks of white-knuckle driving. The ‘keep-left’ sticker on the steering wheel did help though.
Andrea and I started the trip with a solo tour down the West Coast before looping back towards Wanaka and Queenstown. We started things off in fairly wintery weather and were pretty content to make short forays into the mountains before retreating back to the comfort of our RV. Van life suited us reasonably well though we admittedly sprung for a rather spacious option. It was nice to get back from a wet run to change in a warm dry space and stretch out on the floor.
We started things off with a trip east to Akaroa, a rather beautiful volcanic landscape. A french village, it had a rather different feel than other places we saw in NZ. After an initial rainy, cold day, we did some penguin viewing and then the sun parted for our second day before we headed for the West Coast. The highlights for me of this portion of the trip were seeing the ski field in Arthur’s Pass – a hike-in alpine ski “resort” and one of the last of its kind, and the beach town of Hokatiki. Again, we were quite early compared to normal tourist season so it was cold, wet, windy, and pretty deserted. We saw the glow worms, gigantic waves off the Pacific, and spotted a hedgehog!
While it was really cool to be seeing this side of the island, I was starting to get a bit antsy about the lack of skiing so far in the trip. It sure seemed like spring (no snow in sight) despite the cold wet weather and it wasn’t until our fifth day that we got a clear view of the mountains, our first sight of Mt. Cook/Aoraki, and some actual snow. We turned east towards Wanaka and met up with the Smileys and then Owen and Matt.
Our plan was to wait for a suitable weather window and then the moment an opportunity in the mountains presented themselves, we’d head up to try the East Face. The first week we spent as a group was relatively unsettled so we got into a rhythm of living as a group in our house on the beach, rock climbing, trail running, and a few short ski tours at Treblecone, a closed ski area. Wanaka time was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. While the mountains were getting pounded by storms, we were sleeping in, enjoying casual sport climbing in idyllic pastures surrounded by baaa’ing sheep, and generally slowly getting ourselves prepared. These are the moments that get missed where every day has an objective. The rhythm of waking up before everyone else for tea with Matt, trying to help Janelle and Andrea with meals, or bugging Mark and Owen for photography advice was really fun.
By the end of the week however, we could see a break in the storms and a perfect window was coming up. Frantic packing and food shopping began again and we moved our home base to be a little bit closer to our jump off point in Mt. Cook Village. The nature of the terrain around Mt. Cook/Aoraki is fairly complex. The end of the road/Mt. Cook Village is essentially the toe of the massive Tasman Glacier which is a true valley glacier. It’s lower portion is rock covered before it snakes up into the mountains and turns to bare ice, then neve. The Tasman is walled in by massive moraines. The trail to the Plateau Hut (the normal bivy hut for Mt. Cook/Aoraki) weaves up through the moraines on the Tasman before taking a spur up to the Plateau.
Horror stories abound of hiking into the Plateau Hut so we opted to take the sure bet of a short helicopter flight in, bypassing all the stress of transitioning from spring to winter and allowing us to indulge on meals.
We waved goodbye to Andrea and baby Saylah on the side of the road outside MCV and hopped into one of the first flights of the day under bluebird skies with a head on view of Cook/Aoraki and it’s spectacular Caroline Face. Swinging around towards the Hut we spotted two skiers dropping into the East Face, our line for the next day. We dropped our gear at the hut and headed out for an exploratory tour.
There’s not much for mellow touring terrain around the Plateau Hut – it’s heavily glaciated and steep. We were a bit on edge for avalanche and serac fall with all the new snow and for being in a new mountain range for the first time, but it was good to shake out the cobwebs and see our line for the next day. Janelle absolutely crushed the hut meals for us so we ate well under the envious looks of our hut mates. The East Face was the objective for the vast majority of those in the hut so it was a topic of discussion and sent most to bed quite early. We settled on a fairly civilized departure time just before dawn with the hopes that a bootpack would be set and we could cruise along in the wake of someone else’s sweat.
Morning came early and hard as usual. I was content to settle into a normal climbing pace, to the quick realization of Mark’s concern around his ability to take photos of the team – sorry Mark! We adjusted and then switched to boot packing at the bergshrund to start up the face. Unfortunately, steady winds had already blown in the tracks of the teams halfway up the face ahead of us so we didn’t benefit from their work and had to invest our own sweat into breaking a new trail. Winds were blowing hard enough that even if our own group got slightly separated, anyone lagging behind would be breaking trail yet again!
Despite all the serious stories of Cook/Aoraki, the face and our ascent was fairly mellow. The seracs appear to have retreated slightly into the face and while the trail breaking was tough, it made for very chill climbing. We topped out on the ridge, a few hundred meters below the summit to high winds and low visibility. A quick discussion took place with the main concern that the cloud would drop down the face and reduce vis for the ski route. Going to the summit was attractive but we were most keen to ski the line in good snow/vis conditions. So we opted to call the ridge crest the top and head down from there. Admittedly, this meant we scooped the rest of the parties on skiing the line as they were all above us on the summit. While it wasn’t an intentional thing, I did feel a bit bad about it. Luckily the face is huge and there was plenty of room to stack tracks. While it wasn’t perfect style, skiing the face in good conditions was more important than tagging the summit and we were all psyched to click into ski mode.
From everyone I’ve talked to, we won the lottery with ski conditions on the face. Every story I’ve heard is of stiff/firm/icy conditions. I down-climbed a short glacier ice bulge off the ridge crest and then we switched to skis in deep, stable pow. Some friends that had tagged the summit started skiing with us, leapfrogging down the face. I won’t rave about the epic snow conditions but do watch the short video below!
The atmosphere at the bottom of the face and back at the hut was exceptionally celebratory. Fourteen people skied the face that day, nearly doubling the total historical number of descents. A group of Kiwi skiers ticked the first ever full ski descent from the summit without a rappel or down-climb. It was a good evening!
We had high hopes of one more day of good weather and big objectives but a hot wind came in and the mountains started shedding winter snow immediately. The next day, we went for a short tour with the priority of finding Owen a serac booter to do a backflip off while watching avalanches on the big peaks. After a few hours, we were back at the hut packing up. The heli swooped in, scooped us up and, after a quick scenic flight of the mountain, we were back in MCV changing from ski pants to shorts and flip flops! Spring skiing is the best…
Andrea and Saylah were pretty psyched to see us, and Mark and Janelle felt the same. They had me as collateral if anything went wrong with the baby but I think they were relieved we didn’t have to go there. A big part of the trip was seeing how the Smiley’s would handle being away from Saylah while out in the mountains. While they both kept a fairly even exterior, I suspect it was a challenge being together in relatively serious terrain with the baby at home always on their minds. The entire trip was an interesting experience for me to see how Mark handled being a guy who really charges in the mountains becoming a dad who wants to continue to do rad things, while being more “responsible”. I definitely didn’t get the impression that Saylah reduced either of their ability to enjoy the mountains. Changed it for sure, but maybe for the better? It was a reassuring thing to see!
With the skiing out of the way, we pointed our caravan even further south to see the Fjordlands. We had a few days left of the trip and found ourselves a sweet AirBnB where we could relax, look at our bajillion photos, and access the Milford Sound area. Rainy weather kept us from getting too far into the mountains but we got in a nice hiking day to a high alpine lake and a couple short runs on the big trampling tracks. Before we knew it, we were back in Christchurch having dinner on our last night as a group before we all flew our various directions.
The rest of the crew had early flights but Andrea and I had the day to kill in Christchurch. We left our bags at the hotel and took a long walk into town for some shopping, cafe time, and buzzing around on rental scooters before finally getting back to the airport. So ended one of our first trips that was more “vacation” than “objective” oriented. While I’ll always go on ski and climbing trips (I hope), doing the occasional less focused trip is certainly something I could get the hang of!
- Camper vans are cold in winter/spring. They come with heaters but you need to be plugged into electricity at an RV park to run them. We thought we’d be able to “freedom camp” like many do in the summer but we ended up spending a bit more to stay at RV parks so we could stay warm, use bathrooms, and take hot showers. If you’re going this time of year, budget that in or plan to shiver.
- Investigate insurance for the RV ahead of time. We couldn’t tell if our credit card insurance covered an RV so we went with the company’s option which doubled the price of the rental.
- Wanaka is a sweet home base. Bring sport climbing gear to pass the time. There’s also good running nearby. If you’re just going direct to Mt. Cook Village and then back to the airport, fly into Christchurch. If you’re planning on touring around a bit, including the souther part like Milford Sound, fly into Queenstown. Having to get back to Christchurch at the end was kind of a hassle!
- Plateau Hut is pretty well equipped. There’s gas stoves and lots of dishes/cutlery. We brought our own because the parks service website said it was unequipped. This was wrong. Don’t bring dishes!
- We pretty much had one 3-day weather window the entire 2.5 week trip. Give yourself extra time. Our “wait and strike” plan worked pretty well for nailing one day of weather. Another party had spent 10 days at the hut and did get in a few more skis on some marginal weather days but also looked pretty haggard.
- Glacier gear was definitely worth having.
- Walking into the hut is an adventure. Fly in if you value your time.
- Partners and the group are a pretty critical part of this kind of trip. We had an awesome group and that made it an awesome time. Everyone brought something cool to the group and disagreements were minor and rare.