Sunday, September 30, 2018

A tour to The Invincibles

I was driving my car when I got the call. My friend Sue was having lunch with her daughter when a friend of her daughter's, a heliski and backcountry guide, told them she was looking for a couple of women to make up a group heading out on a five day backcountry ski trip. Sue thought of me and immediately rang me.

I'd just got back from Australia, from seeing my mother struggle back from the precipice, and was in the middle of sitting my Level 2 ski instructor exams, so I wasn't quite ready to commit, especially  as mum wasn't quite out of the woods yet. But the temptation was there...

I'd heard of The Invincibles a few years ago, when I did a scenic flight and cruise to Milford Sound and we flew over it on our way back to Wanaka. It's a tiny private spot up the Rees Valley above Glenorchy, with a sole rope tow. It's only accessible by helicopter and there's a small hut for groups to stay in. Two staff run the rope tow and cater for the select few who are lucky enough to charter a trip there. Our guide, Anna Cook, runs a ski touring trip there once a year at the end of the season, and there had been a couple of late cancellations opening up the opportunity for me to join.

The following day I had successfully passed my exam. Yay me!! Once I knew mum was continuing to improve, I decided it was time to treat myself. I'd never been ski touring before, but had all the gear (except for ski crampons which I managed to source fairly quickly) even if my gear wasn't the lightest equipment out there. When I had purchased my Soul 7s for skiing in Japan, they had come fitted with Atomic bindings which have a heel release for touring. I'd purchased skins earlier this year so all I needed to do was cut them to size. My older ski boots had a walk mode, and I already had an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel. So I was all set....

We met the evening before at the Aspiring Guides office for a pretrip gear inspection and discussion. There were five of us women, plus our guide Anna. Two women were from Christchurch, a third from Kurow, and the fourth was a lass I'd met a few years ago, from Alaska. Not in Alaska, but in Wanaka! Bad weather had delayed the start for the group charter in the week before us, which meant we couldn't arrive for another day. Instead, we planned to have a whole day ski touring in the Pisa Range near Wanaka, drive to Glenorchy that evening, then take an early helicopter ride the next morning. Because of the delay we would be dropped off further up the ridge from the hut, and would make our way progressively back down. That meant we started with a free downhill run before the first skin up!

Day 1 was warm and sunny. We headed up to Snow Farm and skied through to a spot where we left the cross country track to cross a river and begin skinning up a ridge. But first we did a little refresher finding our beacons.

I had to learn to use my touring gear, so it was a good trial day for me before heading to a more remote location. My touring gear is much heavier than dedicated ski touring boots and bindings, but I didn't find it too much of a hindrance. I was slow, but mostly it was because I still needed to get used to the technique of gliding when skinning. Unless I was to do lots of touring, I can't see the benefit in purchasing dedicated touring gear.

We drove to Queenstown, then on to Kinloch Lodge, where we ate dinner and hit the sack. After an early morning soak in the hot tub and a quick breakfast, we made up our lunches and drove up the Rees Valley to our rendezvous with the helicopter. We loaded the chopper with the gear for the hut and waited for its return to take us and our ski and day packs up higher. We landed on a ridge into a pristine environment.

Johnny, who runs the Invincibles skifield, doesn't encourage touring due to safety concerns, so most people stick to skiing within the boundaries of the rope tow. But Anna is a very experienced guide, and somewhat of a guru when it comes to avalanche terrain and picking the best lines to ski. So Johnny lets her take tours out here. Needless to say, the terrain was untouched...

We did a couple of runs before stopping for lunch, then a few more runs on our way down to the hut. The weather was bluebird. The skiing was excellent, until we got back on to the skifield terrain, by which time the snow had turned heavy and was very sticky to ski in.

The hut is tiny, but warm and comfy for a small group. There's a table and benches, with a couple of couches and a pot belly stove downstairs, and a bunch of mattresses upstairs for sleeping. There's a long drop toilet a short walk away, but no plumbing. Basic, yet warm and comfortable.

Day 3 we clipped on the ski crampons, and made our way back up the ridge the way we had come down yesterday. We climbed up for some views back to Mount Aspiring, which is quite close as the crow flies, then took a big long line down before popping the skins on and walking back up again. Again Anna found good lines for us to ski and my skinning skills slowly improved. Learning to do kick turns on steep slopes takes some practice....

Day 4 we headed out below the hut, but bad weather was coming in so we skinned back to the tow rope and skied in bounds until lunch time. Then it really began to puke down. Only a few braved the zero visibility conditions to ski the fresh pow. I wasn't one of them.

Our final day we got up super early, packed and breakfasted and got out to ski the knee deep powder before our helicopter pickup. With more bad weather forecast we had only a small window to get off the mountain, so we lapped that tow line doing fresh tracks every single run until it was time to stomp down the helipad and head off down the mountain.

It was an amazing experience, and has certainly whet my appetite for more ski touring. Not that I need to go to all the expense of helicopter accessed terrain, there's plenty of good touring just out the back of the Southern Lakes ski fields. The main thing is I now have the basic skills for touring, just got to find some touring buddies to go with...

Once I got back to Wanaka I had a couple more weeks of spring skiing at Cardrona ( I missed TC closing day whilst out ski touring) before it too closed for the season. So that's it for 2018, it's now time to pack up the skis and go tramping.

That's next....

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