The heliskiing topic was first broached yesterday when Andrew got off the second T-Bar at Porters and declared “There’s no way I can heliski tomorrow”. 3 late afternoon runs at Porters are the sum total of his skiing since Utah in February and he was pretty adamant that he wanted to warm up more before jumping in the chopper.
Fortunately Corey at Methven Heliskiing was persistent and convinced us that today was going to be the end of a window of clear weather, so we had a look at some forecasts which agreed with this, and given the changeability of NZ weather we decided to jump on the opportunity.
For those who know me well, they will know that I’m not a fan of early mornings. However getting up for skiing has never been an issue, and the prospect of our first ever day’s heliskiing made it a pretty easy process. 6am start, in the car by 7:30 and a beautiful sunrise on the road through Springfield made it all worth it.
We met our guide Laura at a road junction and made our way up the 50km unsealed road that ran alongside the spectacular Rakaia River. Unfortunately the previous owner of the Japanese Grey Imported Subaru ‘Legacy’ that had become our rental car decided it would look fully sik with chopped springs, so we bottomed out on every loose rock on the road.
Fording streams, dodging sheep and marvelling at the views, we made it to the stunning Glenfalloch station where we got changed, went through the safety briefing and finally took off.
The excitement in the chopper was palpable, none of the 4 of us had ever heliskied before, and considering it is considered to be the holy grail of the sport we love so much, we were absolutely thrilled to be strapped into our seats and smiling ear to ear on takeoff.
There was an inversion with a layer of low cloud so the pilot had to fly up through the gloom the wrong valley, pull off a pretty impressive corkscrew manouever upawards into a hole of blue, and we were up above the clouds and on top of the world. Blue skies, mild temps and little wind – we were in for a treat. The Southern Alps of NZ are particularly spectacular, with Aoraki Mt Cook looming above all, standing guard over the region, and the cameras inside the chopper were working overtime capturing the moments.
We flew through a V-shaped notch in a sharp arete, aimed the nose down which got all our stomachs churning (I think this was his party trick) did another big upwards corkcscrew over a stunning glacial cirque to a tiny saddle perched up high which would be our first landing zone of the day.
So we then clicked into our skis and set off following Laura. The snow was variable depending on which aspect we skied, from dry knee deep powder to wind crust and sun affected slop. But that’s life when you’re skiing off-piste. I got the first crash of the trip out of the way when I hit some avalanche debris but got up, dusted myself off and headed down onto the glacier. As always when skiing in crevassed terrain it is vital to follow the guide’s every command and Laura was fantastic at keeping us safe and finding us good snow.
Nicole ripping the Glacier:
The guides job was made pretty difficult by a tricky snowpack, including a rain crust and a faceted layer due to a dry spell for the first part of july – this meant we were restricted in where we could ski, but we always managed to ski fresh snow and seldom had to cross a track.
The stability of the snow was highlighted in what was to be our last run before lunch – we were dropped off on a slightly different spot in the valley as the first group, as that guide didn’t like the look of the snowpack. So we headed down into what was the best snow of the day, velvety silky smooth powder with fun rolling terrain. Laura was looking for a nice spot to park for lunch, I was the last to ski down, and as I did so I remotely triggered a substantial slab avalanche from the ridge above. We were in no danger, the very edge of the debris made it across to my previous tracks, but these events are to be taken seriously. As I was skiing down Nicole was photographing me and caught the avalanche coming down – she yelled out to Laura that it was coming down, just as she was hearing about it on the radio from one of the other guides. So we quickly moved to a safe spot (not before Laura scolding Nicole for taking photos instead of moving), called in the chopper and had lunch overlooking the glacier from our initial runs.
Here’s a sequence of the shots of me skiing, the avalanche starting and the aftermath:
Here it comes:
Me grinning, oblivious to the carnage I’ve caused:
We then perched high on the mountain for lunch, overlooking the blue glacial seracs and the enormous mountains below.
A couple more runs and it was unfortunately time to depart – cloud was building and the inversion fog was lifting. We were lucky to get into the chopper due to the rising fog, and the pilot skilfully flew above the cloud until he found a hole, and dove down to the valley below.
We returned back to the station to get changed, have a drink and chat about our day. It was an amazing day, and amazing experience, and we can’t wait to get up again. Looking at the weather it could be Thursday.
As I type this epic post, the crew is in front of the fire stretching and contemplating the change from the sublime to the ridiculous – tomorrow will be our baptism of fire with nutcrackers at Broken River – we will be going from the most to arguably the least sophisticated mechanical means of getting up a mountain – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.