The Austral winter is in full swing with both New Zealand and South America having snowfalls this week. Seems like a good time for Leon Butler to go through some New Zealand backcountry travel basics.
I’ve been wanting to write about the New Zealand backcountry for a long time now, in particular how good the hut system is, so as I’m sat in a DOC hut I figured now would be the perfect time.
New Zealand is blessed with some incredible ski areas that have endless amounts of sidecountry within easy reach of the chairlifts but it’s not until you head into the backcountry that you see its true potential. The rugged, raw mountains and the adventurous spirit that is installed in kiwis and their infectious attitude to skiing and snowboarding that makes it such a unique place.
You’re encouraged to strap on your skis or splitboard and explore. Just make sure you know exactly what you are doing in the backcountry as the terrain can be intimidating here and you need to be prepared to experience 4 seasons in a day (bad Crowded House reference, sorry). Due to the insane weather that hits NZ, most kiwis are very knowledgeable when it comes to the weather patterns here so just ask a local if you are unsure.
The hut system in New Zealand is great, there are a lot of huts owned by guiding companies which are incredible and luxurious which is reflected in the daily price, but the Department of Conservation (DOC) have installed their own huts deep in the mountains too. In summer they are accessed via walking tracks, but in winter they become a backcountry tourer’s dream with huts dotted around ridgelines, glaciers and steep faces. It always shocks me on the locations they get these huts into, but they are usually well positioned as a base for multiple day tours.
Do your research before as some huts are very basic with no heating for means of cooking, so be prepared. There is a wealth of knowledge available online about huts and how they are reached. The main website being www.skitouring.co.nz, a public forum where locals have uploaded detailed routes, photos and topo maps to help you on your trip. Use www.topomap.co.nz to get unlimited topographic maps for the whole on NZ.
One thing to be careful of when using these websites is that the routes are written by guides and locals and if there’s one thing you need to know about kiwi backcountry skiers and split boarders it’s that they are tough bastards. If they say it’s a hard 3 hours skin to a hut then they mean it. By the same token if they say it’s easy, then still treat it as hard. Just know your own limits and ability.
Once the sun had set I enjoyed a run back to the hut by moonlight, it was so bright I could see all the undulations in the snow as the moon added definition to the dark background. I was worried it would be a cold night with no heating, but luckily I was pretty comfortable in my sleeping back (probably the heat radiating from my sunburn keeping me warm) and had a really peaceful night’s sleep.
Sunrise filled the hut early and I watched the local animals playing around in the morning glow. There was a lot of snow in the area but I needed to wait for it to soften up which was around 11am. After packing up my gear I set off back to Snow Farm, finding some nice snow in a small couloir along the way.
Getting back to the car, although tired from the day before, I had that feeling of achievement. I hadn’t done anything hard or gnarly but it was satisfying just getting out there and exploring using nothing but your own power.
If you are a keen ski tourer or splitboarder then NZ should be high on your list of places to travel too, you definitely won’t regret it and will provide you with a yarn to tell for a lifetime.
Leon Butler is a big mountain snowboarder from Great Britain. Having competed on the Freeride World Tour Qualifiers and traveled extensively in the past few years, he’s currently enjoying another southern winter in New Zealand.