HELL OF A SKI
As the sound of the helicopter diminishes we are left with a deafening silence. The only sound is the occasional squeaking of dry crisp snow under ski or snowboard boots. There’s a mixture of emotion, adrenaline and complete awe which threatens to make us dizzy. Once brave enough, everyone peers down the slope below, with a certain amount of trepidation, quickly followed by a broad smile stretching across everyone’s face as they see the smooth inviting powder snow covered slope, and remember to breathe...
We’re on the top of Triple Peak, at 2200m, in the South Buchanan Mountains, 20 minutes drive from Wanaka, NZ. The day started as any typical ski resort day does, early alarm, a hot breakfast in a locally brewed coffee scented cafe, but instead of driving off towards Cardrona or Treble Cone, we order another coffee and wait for our heli-ski van pickup.
The van arrives about 9:00 and along with other excited skiers and boarders we’re driven up the Matukituki Valley. Where most of the cars turn off at Treble Cone, we keep going, past deer, cows and sheep grazing in the morning sun. Our necks twist skywards at the snow covered peaks almost 2000m above the valley floor. The Buchanan Mountains are on our right, the North Harris Mountains on our left, Mt Aspiring National Park is straight ahead.
The staging area is in a paddock not long vacated of sheep which seem to have left behind the occasional sheep poo which can stick to a badly placed ski boot. We meet our guide and helicopter pilot, both quietly confident and oozing mountain knowledge and spend 10 minutes going over the helicopter brief and all laugh when the guide points out that this airline actually gives you an axe, instead of taking away your nail file. But it’s a serious brief and afterwards we are all afraid to kick the helicopter or to run off after a blown away hat.
Next safety brief is on avalanches. You can’t have good snow without a little avalanche danger. But the guide explains how we’ll move around the mountains safely, and how to rescue each other if the unlikely happens, an avalanche. Apparently he’s in the most danger as they always goes first. After our lesson he sounds confident that’ll we’ll be able to dig him out, should the need arise.
We load into the helicopter, buckle up the seat belts and get the camera ready. You can almost smell the excitement as the pilot starts the jet engine and waits for it to warm up. The pilot and guide nod to each other and we are effortlessly hoisted skywards. What a feeling as we pick up speed and altitude. We can see the mountain top out the front window and the pilot seems to effortlessly land us a few metres down from the top on a narrow snow arete. The mountain drops away alarmingly in front of the helicopter and the back skids are hanging off the other side.
The guide gets out and calmly unloads the skis and boards then opens the door, standing between us and the drop. We climb out and as instructed, slowly walk around behind our gear and crouch down, holding it all in place. He closes the doors and after checking on us, gives the pilot the thumbs up and the helicopter takes off down the valley. That’s when the silence hits us.
We clip into our skis and boards and the guide gives us our third brief for the day. Please always stop above him. Ski carefully ( we’re a long way from medical assistance and hazards are never marked). And most importantly, HAVE FUN…….
The guides are all avalanche professionals so after he looks at the layers of snow and does a quick stability test, he instructs us to let him get 50m ahead, then follow. The slope below is like something out of a Warren Miller ski film. Not a track can be seen. It’s covered in 30-40cms of fresh snow, but it hasn’t snowed in a week. “It dries out and just gets better” he says. We can see animal tracks, which are rabbits and occasional Thar.
To the west Mt Aspiring (3033m) is clearly visible with the blue Tasman Sea not far behind, to the north we can make out Aoraki/Mt Cook behind an endless foreground of hundreds of snow capped mountains. To the south is Treble Cone, looking boney and well skied, below us is the green Matukituki Valley.
As the guide skis off his boots are hidden by fluffy powder snow and we’re sure we hear a little hoot or holler. Everyone follows and are instantly addicted to the soft velvety snow, the effortless turns and the mellow slope
makes us smile and relax as we ski the first pitch of the most amazing powder snow of our lives. We stop after the first pitch and look back to admire our turns, all smiling at each other, puffing lightly in the cool mountain air. We chat about the run ahead and are directed to stay close for the next pitch, getting fresh turns of course, but there’s a gully to avoid as it’s tricky for snowboarders to get out of so we all carefully follow.
Another two stops, more puffing, loads of laughter and legs starting to burn, we pull up to the guide as he’s stomping out the snow. We ask what he’s doing and are told he’s making a landing pad for the helicopter. We get out of our skis and boards and lay them in the instructed position, click off a few photos, have a drink of water and a few minutes later we can hear the helicopter coming. It lands right next to us, the safest position we’re told, we climb in shaking our heads in disbelief at the ease of this heli-skiing.
Within a few minutes we are dropped on the top of Mt Alta at over 2300m and from here we can clearly see Lake Wanaka and Wanaka township at the end of the lake. The guide tells us sometimes he takes people up to the glaciers, landing at 2500m and skiing down past big crevasses and long runs
even further west that we are now. But the wind had effected the snow, so we we’re skiing the Buchanan Mountains with more than two dozen peaks over 2000m high and ten times that number of runs. Another group is skiing the North Harris Mountains and a charter group has flown into the Minarete region to ski and have a five star lunch at a luxury tent camp with fresh crayfish (a good way to spend a lot of money!).
But Mt Alta is the most amazing snow we have every skied and much steeper than the first run. We decide on a second nearby and after the fourth 800m run we stop at the bottom, the guide builds a table from snow, lays out a table cloth and displays a smorgasbord of lunch, hot soup and drinks. It’s amazing how warm it is and we take off our jackets and enjoy the peaceful lunch break in the mountains. It’s so different to resort skiing. No noise, no tracks, no cues and it’s easy to see how you could spend all of the kids inheritance in a few winters.
After lunch, we load back up and fly to Dragonfly Peak (2165m) and ski the aptly named ‘Million Dollar’ run. Then during the sixth run in a run called Chamois Basin we’re offered an extra run, so we head over to Molieffe’s Relief for two amazing runs in boot deep untracked powder, skiing towards the green farmlands of the Matukituki Valley on wearing legs.
After the final run, we have a few minutes to take in the view, snap photos and talk about the peaks we can see. Our guide tells us he’s climbed the nearby Mt Aspiring 26 times, has summited Mt Everest and sailed on a 20m yacht to Antarctica to take clients skiing. Which starts us dreaming of future trips, more helisking and appreciate how lucky we are to have shared an amazing experience in one of the most beautiful places in the world...