Alex Gendron and friends explore Breast Hill in winter.
As I am currently cycling under the heat of the Australian outback, I'm trying to remember the feeling of being in a cold environment. One vivid memory I have was winter on Breast Hill. This adventure was filled with excitement to say the least. It started out breathtaking and ended with a dark night at the base of an icy wall. Let me take you back to the beginning… At this time last year, end of September, my friend Leandro, or Leo, was visiting me in Wanaka as he had to renew his Australian visa. Since there were some complications he ended up staying two months in New Zealand, which meant he could join me on my adventures. With us, there was also a couple, Matte Vonnée, Canadian and very talented portrait photographer and his French girlfriend Sonia. Our plan was to reach Breast Hill summit to shoot some amazing photographs of the beautiful views of MT Aspiring over Hawea Lake. Little did we know what that was going to take! Before we could start our journey it was important to find out the conditions and weather. Is it snowy? Icy? What is the forecast for the next couple days? Google is great way to find information but the guide companies and tourism center usually have a better idea of conditions. However, no one knew exactly how it was up there since some said it's snowy and we need ice axes and crampons, while others said it was fine to hike normally. We didn’t have the technical equipment and were on a low budget, so we decided to take the latter advice and go with our hiking shoes, gaiters, all the usual camping equipment and our photography gear. Which for Matte included a huge Rotalux Octogonale softbox and a Broncolor Move 1200 L battery for his flash unit. Once we had everything packed we met downtown Wanaka in the morning and followed each other to Hawea Lake. It already got off to a bumpy start since the first place we arrived at was not the correct spot. We had to hike back down to the cars and drive back until we saw the very discreet sign. Now we could start the hard climb up. The sun was strong and it felt warm in our t-shirts and shorts, even though it was the end of winter. During our hike up we met a mother with her kids who told us that if we were to keep going it might start to get icy in some parts. We were determined so we continued on to the ridge. The view was breathtaking! The first patches of snow started to cover parts of the track and a bit further along the snow started turning to ice. This is when the technical gear would have been useful! The sunset was nearing so we stopped to get some photos at the golden hour. It was a little bit of a challenge to get the big flash set up in the wind. I was able to get some behind the scenes shots of Matte and Sonia
As night was beginning to fall the snow got deeper and more icy. It was important to put all our weight into each step to crush the ice for a good grip. The night became dark. Very dark as there was no moon to light the sky. We followed the trail poles that were rising above the snow but soon arrived at a point where we couldn't find any more. They were either completely buried or too far away to be seen with our headlights. According to the map, the hut was supposed to be on our right, but all we could see was an icy cliff. If one of us would have slipped, it would be nearly impossible to rescue or find them. This realization caused some of us to panic. We had to be so close to the hut but just couldn’t see it! It was time to make a decision to either keep searching for the hut path or hike back to the car in the dark. The fact that we were tired and cold made it hard to make a decision. After being stuck for at least 30 minutes I decided to find a flat spot for everyone to rest while I climbed over a rock face to see if there was anything on the other side. The snow was deep making it hard to make footprints. We were definitely the first to come here after the last snow. Upon reaching the top, I could see a fence in the distance! This was a good clue to help us find the track again. I came back to the others to motivate everyone to keep going before getting too comfortable in our sleeping bags. We started hiking up the rock face and as we reached the fence we saw other poles indicating the track. It motivated all of us! But after walking on the track for 20 minutes we still couldn’t see the hut. Everyone was tired. Making wrong steps and sliding on the ice, we didn’t have enough strength to crush the ice anymore. We needed to stay positive and keep going. A few minutes later we made it back to a crossing where we saw the mistake in our earlier footprints. We had followed the wrong poles and went to Breast Hill instead of to the hut. After 50 more meters downhill we finally saw the hut and everyone felt relieved. We began running and sliding on the ice all the way to the hut. The hut felt like paradise after our challenging hike in the dark. It felt good to organise ourselves, cook a nice warm dinner and soon after everyone fell fast asleep. Except for me, I wasn’t done with the day just yet and wanted to see if I could get some photos of the aurora australis. There were some very weak green and purple lights but not enough for a memorable photo. However, the moon was beginning to rise which made for some great photographs of the hut. Too bad the moon wasn’t out earlier to help us find our way!
After our short night of rest, I got up to hike the ridge for the sunrise. It was unbelievable! The view was astonishing and soon Matte and Sonia joined me in my excitement. It was the perfect location for Matte's portraits! We spent half the morning up here taking photos. After a successful session on our mountain top studio, we went back to Wanaka for a much needed burger. The best meal after a hard hike! We all reminisced about our crazy adventure and we were all glad to make it safely back to town. As a photographer, it’s rewarding to go on adventures with your peers. I see how they work and gain new insights and perspectives. It inspires me to keep taking photos, try new compositions, and explore different settings. When going on hikes like this, where the temperatures can drastically change, I like to wear and pack multi layers. Most important is the base layer. It’s good to have it be Merino wool. Primino is the best... it has all the advantages of Merino wool and it dries fast. Then a mid layer. This could be a fleece or a flannel shirt. Finally, a good jacket. Sometimes I will layer a windproof jacket under a rain jacket if it's raining or really windy. Otherwise a nice Gore Tex will help keep you warm and dry from the elements. I use Montane clothes. They make very lightweight and packable gear. If I had to choose one, I would definitely recommend the Prism jacket, great for all conditions and it packs down to the size of a pillow. You can find it online at www.FurtherFaster.co.nz To follow my biking adventure and photography you can find me on Instagram @agphotofr and on my websites www.ag-photo.fr or www. pixnbike.com I'm also currently working on a photography ebook so stay tuned on instagram for the release date. If you want to know more about Matte Vonne, check out his work and bio here www.vonnee.com
Moon rising over Pakituhi hut and Hawea conservation NP
Portrait of Alex by Matte Vonnée