So as New Zealand gets some of the worst snowfalls in the last two decades, the 52 Peaks Challenge must go on. With the rain pouring down in Christchurch, I set out early (accompanied by a few friends) this weekend to try and conquer the snow and another summit.
With cross-country skis (for some) in tow and snow chains packed in the 4×4 our attempt was going to be on Mt Somers (1687m) in central Canterbury.
Avalanche risk looked extreme in the high-country due to the 3m dump that was falling at altitude, so the lower mountain regions were a better option with the majority along wide river valleys next to low angled slopes.
So an early start out of Christchurch we headed towards the Rakaia River and Mt Somers Range. No snow until after Methven (but with so many flooded roads and fields) we eventually hit our target track, Jig Road – where I ran the TEVA Multisport Race way back in 2010. Meeting some other intrepid skiers, we agreed to go first and clear the road of snow (with most of the powder reaching up to the lights on the Hilux!)… Spending a good 30minutes negotiating the road, we’d made it around 3-4km down the track until the snow covered the bonnet and we decided to call that the end for the driving…
So gearing up in knee deep snow and with a faint trickle of snow dropping out of the sky, the mood was of excitement and awe. There really shouldn’t be snow at this altitude, especially at this depth and at this time of year. Truly a Winter wonderland!!
Anyway, we were off along the valley towards the shelter at the end of Jig Road. The skiers got a good start as I was only kitted up with my La Sportiva Boots and waterproof pants compared to touring skis, gliding above the powdery snow.
It took around 25 minutes for me to cover the first km in the snow. It was slow progress to say the least…
There was lots of sweating, swearing and I could feel the group disappearing into the snowy haze ahead of me. At this point I switched from running down the ski tracks before me, to wading in the waist deep powder alongside. Not only was it softer and easier to move in, it was a much more enjoyable experience, as very time I tried to make a move in the ski tracks… it felt like the compacted snow would hold my weight, before a ‘clunk’ sound as my shins disappeared beneath the snow… and back to square one!!
After a good hour or so I reached the shelter and that was where the snow got deeper. Up to 100-120cm in places in what I believe was the ‘car park’ area – now covered in heaps of semi-frozen H2O. I saw two sets of ski tracks diverge… where did they go?
I heard muffled noises in the trees ahead and followed… (bearing in mind we’d climbed around 50m out of my 1200m ascent for the day). Over a bridge, you could see the build up of snow on the handrails – over my head! – and I had finally caught up with the skiers who had hit a wall of tangled trees, trying in vain to poke their skis through the branches to reach the track on the other side. “Back to the shelter” the consensus was… and so I retraced my steps back to a little bit of respite and DEFINITELY a bite to eat!
I was knackered. How much energy you use to walk through this much snow was unfathomable in my mind.
I totally smashed my pasta meal as we messed around with burying and finding transceivers dug into the snow. Thoughts were to carry onto the 4wd track which lead to Woolshed Creek Hut… but no peak was to be had today – it had been nearly 3 hours and we’d not even left the confines of the access track…onwards to the hut!
After a little respite through a few patches of trees the snow wasn’t so deep. Unfortunately I couldn’t have been so wrong… Back into an open area, the snow got to be VERY DEEP and my walking turned slowly into swimming through the snow, my head only just peeping above the surface! It took me about half an hour to wrestle my way through 100m of horizontal distance… in the mean time, the skiers had got worried about me, hit the next set of trees, waited, waited some more, turned around, found me wallowing, and then skied off into again the distance.
The silence was immense. No sound – apart from my struggling and writhing in the powder. It was incredible. A dampened white arena.
After my 100m freestyle, I hit another patch of trees and again, caught up the tourers clambering over trees and weaving their way through bushes. Now that’s what I call ski touring!!
Quarter of an hour passed, we decided to turn around and head back as we were losing light hours… a good decision as everything looks remarkably the same and we didn’t know exactly where we were on the map. Snow has a way of confusing and sucking the time out of the day.
Back at the shelter once again, we built a pathetically small and unstable ski jump, had some food and I decided to be on my way; giving myself a head start on the way back. It was downhill and I could easily use my own foot holes (postholes) to walk slightly faster back to the trucks this time. The majority of the holes had been filled in by the falling snow but it was much easier than wading in up to my neck height.
Dark moments occurred on the trudge back… as I’d been going for an hour, had long been passed by the skiers and couldn’t see the trucks… “keep moving, keep pushing” I said to myself.
You can only do what you can with the conditions.
At last, a glimpse of the forest where we started. Success. I’d even been so far behind the skiers that they’d packed the trucks up and were ready to leave. Amazing. Jumped in the car and JOB DONE.
No peak today, but then, that’s what life is like in the mountains. You can only do what you can with the conditions. What an epic day in the snow, never before had I seen so much powder at this low altitude. Nothing can beat that, can it?