'Searching For Snow' - Holly Harris Reflects on completing one of NZ's most challenging Alpine ski challenges
“NUTTERS” was the most frequent remark we heard from fellow adventurers who crossed our path in the mountains. Nutters we were in some ways, it’s hard to find snow in the New Zealand summer. But if you set a goal you might as well try and reach it, and I had set a goal of skiing all 12 months of the year in New Zealand. The first person I know of to have completed this ridiculous challenge was Ryan Taylor way back when in 2014-2015, and since then there has been a handful of ‘nutters’ per year that put themselves up to the job. I crossed paths with some of them first in 2014 up at Temple Basin and so was well acquainted with the idea when it came to November 2017 and my flatmate Mel and I realised we were still skiing. The only thing for it was to go the full way through.
It was a bit hit and miss for some months. In February we only had one weekend free (alas- the weekend warrior) so decided to head all the way down to Haast Pass on a Friday night from Christchurch. Our aim was to ski Brewster glacier in the wee weather window that was forecast for Saturday afternoon, with one member of the party had never been on an overnight tramp or backcountry skiing before (we didn’t realise at the time). Unfortunately there was less snow than we thought there was going to be and even less sun. We made it up to the glacier after much trial and tribulation plus a lack of soles on shoes, and got a couple of turns in for our trouble just before dark. Then we got lost in the fog on the way down. However it wasn’t all bad: an April ski at sunrise where I’d been picked for a 2.30am start by some absolutely loony friends made it all worth it. Fresh lines, sunrise, clear skies, and a Blue Pub beer on the way home, what more could you ask for?
The best lines were in October when I joined a bunch of fine people on a trip up to Lady Emily hut. As some friends were driving out of Christchurch late on a Friday afternoon they had realised there weren’t any girls on their trip. So they called me, and told us to meet them at the campsite. The result was a hectic scramble to assemble ourselves and get to Tekapo, which we achieved by a sweet 1am only to be woken at 6 by a bunch of boys shaking our car. This was also the birth of what was later to be dubbed the ‘Niss-army knife’ my Nissan that can transform itself into whatever you need, including a 3 man tent, a 4WD and an (Niss)ambulance (don’t worry, no snow related accidents). Once we arrived at the hut we zipped up the valley for an afternoon tour, where it snowed on our way up and cleared for a ski down, followed by the most fun 1km vertical run on Sunday that I’ve ever skied. My first ski peak was over 2000m as well. Thankfully the truck started again to get us home after being half drowned on our trip up the Cass river. October all round was a fantastic month: for anyone looking to earn some fun lines, Kaikoura seaward range could be the place for you! Snow and sea in a day is the ideal way to spend a weekend. The best thing about October is the spring snow – almost just as good as pow.
February up Mt Rolleston saw me end up with an infected snow burn covering half my shin and a week off work (let that be a lesson to all you bare-skinned skiers), and March was a hell of a grind up the Waimakariri to Barker hut where some keas ate my hat. I would not recommend it for a summer ski but I have heard that it’s amazing in the winter (a 3 day trip for what was probably 2 minutes of skiing is no-one's idea of fun). Finishing my 12 months a week before my 21st birthday was the icing on the cake, with some beautiful friends and the best tree skiing I’ve ever had in NZ. Unfortunately, Mel didn’t quite make it for 12 consecutive due to some technical difficulties but in case you haven’t realised though the point isn’t actually finishing 12 months. The point is getting snow lovin’ when you’re in the depths of summer and are suffering from withdrawals (and can’t quite scrummage for the funds for some Japow).
Setting a goal like this forces you into the back-country and makes you get creative with your locations. The requirements being that they have to have snow in December-May and they have to be doable in a three day weekend (unless all you do is ride…). It also makes you realise what a valuable place we live in and how vulnerable it is. 2017/18 was the warmest summer on record, and it was scary to see the amount of snow and the glaciers drastically reduced compared even to the year before when other friends had made the same trips. Brewster glacier (January) and White Glacier (March) for example were so lacking in snow we almost missed out on our turns. This winter is an even more timely reminder that if we don’t look out for our earth we might just miss out on the things we love.
The great thing about this is just about anyone can do it if they want to give it a crack. I had really only had one year of backcountry skiing experience, no money, and a marginal level of fitness. December walking up the Rolleston River with a pair of my sister’s old skis, my brother, and my ex-flatmate who just came along for the walk, is the perfect example of this. If you can be bothered walking for long enough you can do it. And now look at me go, I got to roughly 28 months of skiing in a row (broadened my horizons to the northern hemisphere), have started climbing bigger mountains, and finding backcountry pow all over NZ.
Holly Harris is a passionate adventurer and nature advocate. Holly currently works with the Department of Conservation (DOC), Aotearoa New Zealand's government agency charged with the conservation of New Zealand's natural and historical heritage.