Going on my first overnight ski-touring mission was a daunting prospect. I’d never camped in the snow before and I’d only done a handful of day tours in the local backcountry surrounding Wanaka, New Zealand. But when the call came, I dropped all commitments and quickly assembled the gear I would need for three days ski touring in the Southern Alps.
We left the base of the Remarkables ski field and skinned up the side of the piste as passing punters looked on inquisitively as to why we weren’t using the lifts. As we reached the top of the chairlift, the cloud that had closed in around the mountain earlier that morning showed no sign of lifting. We knew that there was a chance of cloud due to the easterly flow that had developed, but we didn’t think it would be this bad.
Despite the total whiteout we dropped out the back of the ski boundary into the great white unknown.
"All worries about future plans, finances, and other life anxieties disappear when you put yourself in an extreme situation."
A mellow line through creamy New Zealand powder (15cm freshies) into the basin revealed that the cloud wasn’t going anywhere. So we skinned to the saddle above and skied down to a sheltered lake where we would set up base.
I’m no stranger to setting up camp, but building an igloo to sleep in was an entirely new experience for me. The process itself was so satisfying—digging a hollow and then cutting blocks from snow nearby to pile on top of each other until the walls were high enough to stand in, and finally stringing a tarp over the top as a roof.
Igloo Mark 1 had some issues, namely the gaping hole in the door which let spindrift blow straight through and into my face during the night. Combined with waking up shivering at 4am, I didn’t enjoy the best night’s rest on my first experience sleeping in the snow.
As day broke, I peered out of the open door to see clear blue skies and, from the warmth of my sleeping bag, made coffee and lay there for a while. I had my boot liners stuffed in the bottom of my sleeping bag and all my clothes somewhere deep inside my bivvy and the thought of fishing everything out into the cold morning air wasn’t appealing. When I eventually did so, I noticed that I’d forgotten to put my gloves in my sleeping bag and they lay on the snow frozen stiff. Fail.
The rest of the day went much better, however. Fine weather and good snow conditions allowed us to ski a load of amazing lines in the surrounding bowls; from long, mellow powder runs to steep, spicy couloirs.
As we skinned along a ridge with Single Cone standing proud and the Southern Alps all around, I finally realised why New Zealand is such an amazing ski destination. The amount of terrain that this small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has to offer, if you make the effort, is incredible.
"I lay in my bivvy, shivering, yet truly grateful to be living in New Zealand and to have the opportunity to explore some of the wilder, lesser known landscapes."
By mid afternoon we were ready to hang at camp and make some much needed mods to the Igloo. Rather than have an open door through which wind could howl, we sealed the walls and dug a tunnel into the igloo from the back. Clever in theory, awkward to enter and exit in practice. However it did keep the heat in much better than Igloo Mark 1, and provide moderate entertainment when anyone wanted to enter or leave.
Down time at camp gave me a lot of time to reflect. I lay in my bivvy before going to sleep that night clutching my Nalgene hot water bottle, shivering, yet truly grateful to be living in New Zealand and to have the opportunity to explore some of the wilder, lesser known landscapes. All worries about future plans, finances and other life anxieties disappear when you put yourself in an extreme situation. Instead, I spent time in the present, thinking about staying warm and when to make my next fireball hot chocolate (unreal by the way).
For my first experience of snow camping, it was a huge success. Despite nearly setting myself and my sleeping bag on fire on day one, nothing went wrong and I returned home in one piece.
Did I learn anything? I learned that less is more and that you actually need far less than you think—keeping weight to a minimum is key. Secondly, leaving anything outside during the night will mean that it freezes, gloves and camera batteries included. And finally, my little point a shoot is the only camera I need on trips like this, proving that film can stand up to the harshest conditions and still tell the story I want to tell.