Friday, October 24, 2008

Getting your Steep On, Skiing Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook East Face

After the end of the ski season at Olympus my friend Alwin and I were primed for some skiing and riding on the main divide of the Southern Alps. We weren't really sure where to go though, we wanted to get into some new terrain and something that would be steep. Other than that all we could wish for was a few days of clear weather. Neither of us had ever been skiing or riding around the main divide before but I knew that most of the steep faces with big vertical descended off of the east side of the divide.
I had done a small bit of homework about the skiing potential on Mt. Cook itself a little more than a year back and though that I remembered seeing some ski potential there but was uncertain as to exactly how feasible of a ski it would be. What I gathered from other peoples experiences around the divide was that many of steep lines were some of the greatest climbs in the country which consisted of world class hard snow conditions. Big fat hmmm.
After a day in Christchurch getting supplies we decided to head down to Mt. Cook Village and approach the main divide from the east, hopefully, by ski plane to one of the Alpine Huts. Looking through the Climbing guide for Mt. Cook National Park on the drive we decided foolhardily that we might as well try to ski the biggest steep falline that we could find. We thought that whatever we were to be on just needed to soften with the heat of the day and be without immense exposure to ice fall. About 12hrs later, with a stellar weather forecast, we were in the air bound for the Plateau Hut with ambitions of Climbing Mt. Cook and Skiing the East Face. This was not with out some drama though as we nearly were not allowed to fly in the Cessna with a snowboard as there was some trouble getting it to fit in the plane (skis go on the wings). In the last possible second before a total denial we got it situated and were underway shaking our heads a bit.
On our second day skiing we were up at 2am approaching the East Face, only to bail due to very hard snow. Instead we took the Linda Glacier route. On the ascent we broke trail though 20 to 50 cms of powder to the top of the Linda Shelf at 3250m where we left our ski gear and proceeded up and through the summit rocks, to the summit and back. From the Summit Rocks we were able to look across at the upper East Face and determine that the upper most section would be highly marginal to ski this season. In general the prior year was very dry and warm and many of the routes changed substantially due to a lack of snow. This route has been skied from below the linda shelf before but I'm not sure when it was skied last, it was first skied in the early '80s. Pictures from even 5 years back of the face look immensely different. The Climbing on the upper Linda, the Summit Rocks and the Summit Ridge was in stellar condition, the Summit Rocks was easy mixed snow, ice and rock for three pitches with big exposure. To our surprise the highest section of the mountain, aside from the last 5 meters to the summit of glazed 70 degree ice, was cold powder and entirely skiable if we had had our gear with us still. By the time that we got back to our skis the heat of the day had passed and the beautiful snow that we had trudged through all the way to the top of the Linda Shelf was now supportable and breakable crust, kind of a mixed bag of hate. 15 hours after we left the Plateau Hut we were back, right at nightfall with the first summit of the mountain from the north of the climbing season (one other party approached from the west about a week earlier).
The following day we had a sleep in and about 20 cms of new snow with high winds. Over the next couple days we did some smaller lower elevation objectives on the Freshfield Glacier and Haast Ridge and the Anzac Peaks allowing some time for the big slopes up high to settle. We found some short but sweet steep runs with great corn snow. The slot of off the east Anzac peak was some of the steeper terrain we skied on the trip but very baby like conpared to the faces staring us square it the face on the other side of the Plateau.
The following morning we were set to shoot for the East Face again with hopes of soft snow in the early afternoon. We wanted to try to ski from as high as we could but figured that with the very top of the face in the condition that it was that we would end up skiing from between 3200 and 3400m. We figured that the slope had heated up enough over the past couple days to start a corn cycle and that with the appropriate timing that we would ski corn after a long front point climb.
Approaching the meat of the East Face was defiantly the most puckering part of the day. The route traverses under numerous ice cliffs that shed in uber fashion, normally in the late afternoon from what we had observed from the prior few days. After crossing some huge debris piles with house sized chunks of ice and once past the majority of the ice cliffs we crossed a maze of burgshrunds to gain the face. Fortunately one of the large ice fall avalanches filled up the largest of these shrunds two days ago and allowed us a bit of easier passage to the face. It was around this area where we started to find winter snow and not the firm melt freeze conditions which we were anticipating finding.
Ultimately we were able to climb to and ski from 3460m of the 3754m Mt. Cook and the 3600m East Face line with consistent, chalky winter snow conditions. Rock and grey to green ice put a halt to going much farther. It was a very straight forward climb and a phenomenal descent, 1400 vertical meters with the top 800m between 45 -50 degrees, the steepest sections were skirting through the ice cliffs at the bottom of the sustained face and the highest point that we skied from. Big is the word, wide open with consistent snow and large exposure. Absolutely perfect, i could not have asked for more.
A southerly front was forecast a couple days out so we bailed the next day to ski some more powder at Olympus. Via Cinerama Col we descended to the Tasman Glacier skirting past the Caroline Face. Go figure that we found the best powder of the trip on our descent through the col with extra heavy packs. Eventually we ran out of snow and began the trudge across the moonscape that is the lower Tasman Glacier. Moving through this mess of rock and climbing back off the glacier through the lateral moraine wall was not very fun and wouldnt have been fun even with a light pack. It wasn't outrageous though due to the relative short distance we traveled on the glacier. Descending the Tasman from the upper sections would be phenomenally shitty.
Back in Mt. Cook Village the following morning we lapped up the sun and cafe food before heading back for one last shot at skiing pow in the Craigeburn. This wasn't of course before a jump into the tropical waters of Lake Pukaki which is best described as cold at any time of the year.
Mt Cook postcard shot with Lake Pukaki

Flying into the Grand Plateau

Hello, oooh... we're here!

Tasman at Dawn

Upper Linda Glacier and the Linda Shelf

Top of the Linda Shelf

Summit Rocks

Summit Ridge

Mt. La Perouse from Mt. Cook summit

Mt Sefton

Mt. Cook Summit

The Balfour Face of Mt. Tasman

The big drop off Cooks summit down to Mt. Hicks and the Hooker Glacier

Syme Ridge Mt. Tasman

Mt dixon from Plateau Hut

Mt. Lendenfeld. We were considering skiing here but ran out of time.

Freshfield Glacier

Mt. Malte Brun and the Tasman Glacier

East Face of Cook from Anzac Peaks

Skiing East Anzac Peak


Silberhorn Ridge of Mt. Tasman

Anzacs from Mt Cook East Face

East Face

The Lower Tasman

Update: Corrections as of August 2009:
To the best of my knowledge the East face has NOT yet been skied from above the summit rocks, and has been skied via the entrance point from the Top of the Linda Shelf onto Zurbriggens ridge.

For another write up on this trip see the 2009 New Zealand Alpine Journal.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Skiing tip #1, Get well Back!

Like a light switch winter was turned off at the end of August. Corn skiing became the norm and the days of powder seemed all to distant. Deep snow cover remained in the high elevation areas for several weeks and provided for fast and often unusual antics. Anything for entertainment, right? Spring is the same everywhere really.

Photo by Browne, Skier: John Mletschnig

Photo by Mel Parsons. L to R: Derrick Parsons, Russell Buxton, John Mletschnig, Johnny Curin

Photo By Browne

Photo By Browne, Skier: John Mletschnig

Photo By Browne