Monday, October 22, 2007

New Zealand Update from AAI Guide Gary Kuehn

Centenial Hut at the Head of the Franz Joseph Glacier.
Tasman Sea in the distance.

AAI guide Gary Kuehn (who guides our Denali Expeditions) just wrote in with an update from New Zealand, where he has spent the winter ski guiding and teaching avalanche courses...

Hi Everyone,

I returned to New Zealand in July for the winter season. My first task was transferring my snowshoe fitness from guiding Denali to ski fitness for my final ski guides exam. I had a week to organize myself and get out on skis a couple of times with my Wanaka housemates.

Heli Landing in Arrowsmiths

The exam was a two-week ski tour along New Zealand’s main divide. We flew from Mt. Cook Village to Centennial Hut west of the divide. There we did day ski tours and some skill assessments (rescue with transceiver searches, crevasse rescue, and formal presentations). We were blessed with good weather and mid-course traveled over Graham Saddle, down the Rudolph Glacier, and spent the night at De la Beche Hut, en route to the head of the Tasman Glacier and Kelman Hut. From Kelman we did more day trips on the Tasman, Murchison, Mannering, and Aida Glaciers and climbed some of the classic ski peaks (Hochsteter, Dome, and Alymer). It was the longest spell of high pressure dominated, cold, clear, settled weather that any of us could remember in New Zealand. It provided great skiing for us on 20-30 cm of faceted snow (weak, sugar-like), but it set us up for one of the scarier ski seasons in terms of avalanche hazard when these facets were buried by the next snowfall. (By the way, I passed the exam!)

Climbing on Alymer.

Late July I moved to Methven to work with Methven Heli Ski. My first two weeks were guiding the Burton Film Crew. They came to ride and “huck” off things in our terrain for a month. Unfortunately, (because of what I described above) we had a snowpack that had a persistent weak layer that was deep and reactive. The only safe areas had already avalanched or were nearly flat and far away from anything above you. Nearly daily we set off remote avalanches - we would be on a ridge or safe flat spot and feel or hear a settlement, then we would see an adjacent slope slide.

Burton snowboarder jumping filmed from a helicopter.

July and August were very dry, so it took over 3 weeks to get enough snow to cause natural avalanches to flush out our weak layers. Finally we could ski all of the runs which had slid and we had great coverage on top. I had some brilliant days with return clients and friends.

Mark, Eric, and Lex on Superbowl.

We get much more snow than the New Zealand ski areas, since we are closer to the main divide and are at higher elevations. We have three large mountain ranges to choose our runs from. Unfortunately, when the ski areas have poor snow we have less people interested in skiing in general, so in late September I returned to Wanaka.

Eric Saggers skiing Little Pito Peak

A three-day fine weather spell gave my household a chance to climb Mt. Douglas at the head of the Fox Glacier. It is a short jaunt from Pioneer Hut. Nick and Anthea went up the left line and Stu and I the right. Both are classic NZ grade 5 alpine routes. Stu and I soloed and then climbed together until the slightly above mid height. Nick and Anthea joined into our line on the upper face. Ski conditions were great for a quick ski down the Fox and a flight out from Chancellor Hut.

Anthea and I skiing Fox Glaicer from Pioneer to Chancellor Hut.

A day later, I was teaching an avalanche course and climbing in Arthurs Pass. It is another amazing New Zealand mountain location. You either want to be fit when you get there or will need to adapt quickly. The shorter climbs are about 1300 m of vertical. On a perfect weather day we did the Phillistine Rolleston traverse - about 13 km and 1600 m of vertical on some spectacular ridges.

Philistine Rolleston Traverse in Arthurs Pass.

As this winter wraps up, New Zealand has entered into a more typical weather pattern of disturbed westerly flow. Over 5 m of snow have fallen around the main divide this week, which is a welcome top-up for our glacier before the summer season.

I am off to Tasmania (where they are forecasting highland snow) and Thailand (no snow!) and will return to New Zealand again in November to continue to play in the hills here until the end of February.

Hope you are having great adventures. All the best,


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