Spring slopes in Aoraki

Tom Grant and Ross Hewitt set off to explore New Zealand’s Southern Alps and find gems in oblique lines. In the footsteps of Abel Tasman and Captain Cook and in the heart of spectacular surroundings, the two British partners in crime discovered remote, wild mountain ranges where the magnitude flirts with Himalayan proportions.

Mont Aoraki / Cook

For the restless and hungry northern hemisphere ski mountaineer, New Zealand should be an obvious target for an autumn ski trip. However, it seems that very few foreign ski mountaineers ever make the journey. Ross Hewitt had been twice before to climb in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, while I had never skied in the southern hemisphere. After one of Ross’s trips over a decade ago, during which he found himself wallowing down the Linda glacier in thigh deep powder on Mt. Cook’s normal route, he decided taking skis was the only rational option for a return to the Aoraki/Cook National Park.

Shortly after I confirmed to Ross I was committed to the trip, he proceeded to explain at length how it was one of the windiest and wettest ranges he had ever been to, that the approach routes to and from the huts involved overhanging moraine walls of death, that our gear would get destroyed battling our way through dense jungle and skyscraper high mounds of moraine rubble, that the snow conditions change as fast as the west coast of Scotland and that we would be lucky if we skied 6000m of vertical over three weeks. In light of his dower prediction, our trip was an emphatic success.

Leaving our homes in Chamonix, it was a gruelling 36 hours of travelling with a 12 hour time difference to reach New Zealand. My ski gear remained somewhere in Dubai for a couple days. The engine of our budget camper van exploded after it hit close to half a million kilometres. Eventually we made it to beneath the behemoth Mt. Aoraki/Cook. Rising 3000m above the surrounding valleys, it is a mountain of truly Himalayan proportions and it made an immediate impression upon me. Filled with lust and ambition, I gazed at its fortress like flanks and wondered how the snow was.

Ross and I quickly linked up with a strong American team of Noah Howell, Beau Fredland, Billy Haas and Adam Fabrikant, realizing they had similar ideas and spirit to us. Sharing two heli flights into Plateau Hut, the six of us soon found ourselves strapped on Mt. Cook’s colossal East Face. The 1,500m East Face is one of the biggest and most beautiful ski faces I have ever been on, yet it has seen merely a handful of descents. We started up the face pre-dawn, the familiar potent mix of a little fear and much trepidation in my gut. I had been captivated by this face while staring at pictures of it months before, and I badly wanted to experience what it could give us.
After summiting Mt. Cook, we were forced to down climb 150m of bare ice and unskiable ice-crust before starting our descent down the seemingly endless 45-50 degree face. Mt. Cook’s East Face is comparable to two NE faces of Les Courtes stacked on top of each other. To make the first turns on this pristine face in sublime conditions was an experience that will always stay with me. The privilege to ski such a pure and clean ski line on an iconic peak is worth traveling to the other side of the world for. Finding consistent and smooth snow, we were able to relax into bigger turns.

Mont Ellie de Beaumont

We parted ways with the Americans who evacuated from Plateau Hut in wild weather and laden with supplies for a week. Hungry for more adventure and lured by the possibility of big un-skied faces, we flew by ski plane to the Tasmin Saddle Hut. Weeks before, we had seen an Instagram photo of the wild and beautiful west face of the classic peak of Ellie de Beaumont. Asking around, we found that one line on the face had recently been snowboarded, but that the snow plastered rock face to looker’s right had not seen a descent to anyone’s knowledge.

Dropping into the face onsight after ascending the east side, we found perfect spring corn snow. All Ross and I had to go off was an old online photo of the face, but we gambled the snow would be well plastered onto the underlying rock slab, and we were right. To ski a steep first descent onsight following our noses was deeply rewarding.

After descending the west face of Ellie de Beaumont, we ended up in the remote western side of the divide. Thick cloud enveloped the mountains and wet slides began to rumble around us. The stress of negotiating serious and unknown terrain began to build. Searching for a way down through the clouds and back to the eastern side, we found ourselves on a long and aesthetic knife edge arête. After safely returning to the sanctuary of the Tasmin Saddle Hut, we rested and planned for the next objective.

Mont Darwin

During one of our flights above the Tasmin Glacier in a ski plane, we spotted a large, complex and apparently unskied face that we decided to inspect further. This face turned out to be the 800m South Face of Mt. Darwin, situated directly opposite one of the area’s most popular ski tours. Sharing the excitement together of spotting a big new line, then planning and executing the descent, is why we came to NZ.

At first we attempted the face by climbing up from the north side planning to drop into the south side, but we aborted this after encountering dangerous rock fall and skied half of the north face back down the same way instead. Conditions in New Zealand were at times frustrating and difficult to read, and it demanded a patient approach from us.

Ross and I went for round two with Mt. Darwin, this time climbing up the looker’s right side of the south face to avoid exposure to the seracs we would briefly be underneath on the descent. 20m below the col just looker’s left of the summit we hit unskiable 50+ degree neve. Unable to stamp out a ledge to put our skis on due to the firm and shallow 50-55 degree snow, we hung from equalized ice screws and attached slings around our skis in order to step into them. It was perhaps the most delicate transition either of us had done. The snow soon improved and we made fast progress down the face, following our noses through the very exposed lower arête and out onto the Darwin Glacier. Finding the safest way to ski big faces onsight epitomises all that is best about ski mountaineering. Truly a badass face, we lingered on the glacier below admiring our handiwork and glowing with satisfaction.
The Southern Alps of New Zealand are changing fast, and it is evident their popularity for alpine climbing and ski mountaineering is in decline. Many of the approaches to huts traditionally done on foot are now so dangerous and unpleasant that flying in and out with helicopters or ski planes are the only viable options. New Zealand was refreshingly un-European and offered a combination of some sublime skiing and relentless and painful slogs across moraine that tested our mettle. But we found what we were looking for. Big lines and adventure.

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