It was about 12 noon and we’d had an amazing morning already. Getting off the glacier was proving to be quite an adventure and the skiing so far some of the best of the trip. We hit ‘the wall’ not literally, but we were now facing what at first glance, felt like a dead end. But, as I skied to a halt I looked up. Nick informed me that this was where the route out got ‘interesting’ and I could see why. The big footsteps up a 65 degree slope looked intimidating. The snow was soft so crampons weren’t needed for the climb and with the big footholds already stomped into the slope from previous groups, we elected not to rope up. We strapped our skis on our already heavy packs, for this next section, then without hesitating, Nick just said, ‘let’s go’.
Below are a couple of images just after the wall climb, one looking back up the glacier to the narrow section we just skied down and the other looking down towards the top of the wall, with the following group’s guide having just topped out.
Safely at the top and now sitting on a well placed cairn, it was time for another well earned break. This was our ‘lunch’ stop before the final ski down to the Chancellor hut and hopefully our heli ride down to sea level. Given the need the slim down weight to a minimum for the final day, lunch was simpler than normal. We had run out of my ‘cardboard’ GF bread so we opted for a chunk of salami and some trail mix, washed down with water. The other group we had shared the hut with eventually arrived and as they settled in to a rest in the sun, we unpacked our skis and and readied ourselves for the final leg.
Nick wasn’t sure how far we’d be able to ski down from here before we’d have to resort to carrying skis again, hopefully we’d get close to the hut. As it happened with some careful route finding, plenty tight turns, snow ploughing and a couple of minor patches of grass skiing we made it to all but 300m above the hut. Skiing this last section was a real test of staying in control in tight spaces and I was very pleased to have negotiated this without a hitch. I even got a ‘good job Steve’ from Nick. We skied until the snow literally ran out and then with a sense of achievement and relief I walked down the last grassy section, carrying my skis and marveling at another great location for a hut.
There was already another group at the hut. They’d been there for an hour or so waiting for a radio call and confirmation that their heli company was on the way. I didn’t notice the low clouds straight away, I was still on cloud nine, happy to have completed our descent. Then it dawned on me, if the weather stayed like this, we’d be bunking down in this hut for another night. No one wanted the say it, but the odds didn’t look good. Our ride was booked for 4pm, we’d chosen to partner up with the other group from the hut who had a confirmed booking, but that didn’t really mean much when all you can see is cloud.
The other group arrived, we got a drink, something to eat and organized the gear, should the clouds disappear we needed to be ready. Then we just waited and waited and looked down and up and urged the clouds to leave us. Thirty minutes before the scheduled pickup time things started to look more promising. Gaps in the cloud appeared and our odds improved. By 4pm it was reasonably clear, but none of us were sure if the heli would arrive. By this stage we had moved to the tiny, (literally 15ft square) heli pad above the hut, looking and listening for any positive sign.
Then as if by magic, the steady whir of a helicopter could be heard coming up the valley. We were getting out.
In less than 10minutes we were back down in town. It was a surreal feeling to look back up at the mountains in the distance and think about what we’d just done. Back to reality – people, cars, houses, fields – it all felt a bit weird.
Given it was a 3.5hour drive back to Wanaka we made the decision to stay in Fox Glacier, (town with the same name), in another of the New Zealand Alpine Club huts, just out of town. It took us minutes to drive there, then picking a bunk and laying out gear to dry, I took the first shower I’d had in 7 days. It felt pretty damn good (and I smelled a whole lot better). Putting on some semi-clean clothes from the car felt like a luxury. With all the other equipment needed for ski touring, there just isn’t space in a 50L pack for more than one spare top, underwear & long tights. So one set gets used for daytime, the other for sleeping in and spare underwear is kept for emergency use only. (Sorry if that’s TMI).
Feeling like new men, all we could think of was food, so we headed into town for an early dinner, then Nick suggested we head to the beach, (10Kms away to see if we could get a view of the Mount Cook at sunset). Sitting in a car felt very comfortable, I nearly fell asleep en route, but when we arrived the cloud had set in over the mountains and it was raining at the beach. No Mt.Cook view for us tonight. We’d been blessed by the mountain gods who opened a weather window for the heli to come in and we weren’t getting anymore from them today.
I took some time to stand on the beach. Dark clouds were looming overhead but the sea was relatively calm considering somewhere out there were the Roaring Forties. I didn’t think about the sand flies until Nick said, ‘I’m off, I don’t want to get bitten’ and he rushed back to the car. I was determined to take a few moments on the beach so I covered up as best I could. It was amazing to stand there and reflect on the journey we’d had that day. I was physically and mentally pretty tired with so many great moments to think back over and relive in my head.
Spending time in the southern alps of New Zealand had been a truly special time. I’d been challenged, learned a huge amount and had an adventure I’ll always remember. It also underlined for me once again, that we need to celebrate and cherish these special places on our beautiful planet.
Whakawhetai Koe Aotearoa
Thank you New Zealand