In 1990, I won tickets to Asia in a multisport race. I sat on them, uncertain where to go and who to go with. One windy day at Mt Hutt a friend, Guy Wynn-Williams, invited me to join him and friends on a ski trip in Northern India. The four- month trip changed my life.
Recently Guy reached out again. This time the plan was for a simple work birthday: "Would I guide his entire crew of colleagues on a four-day trip to the upper Tasman glacier?" His shared business – local cycle clothing manufacturer Ground Effect – had reached it’s 20th birthday and Wanaka-based ski guide Anna Cook and I were invited to help the team celebrate by ski touring among the high glaciers.
I have a soft spot for glaciers, particularly the Tasman and Murchison glaciers. Pushing into the golden- tussocked realms of the Mackenzie Country, these vestiges of New Zealand’s ice age reach their glistening (though receding) tongues toward the plains. There’s something magical about glaciers on a maritime island like ours. They are becoming increasingly precious, tucked into high bowls behind unseen ridges. Only the big glaciers – the Tasman, the spectacular calving ice from the east face of Mt. Sefton, the icy high reaches of New Zealand’s tallest peaks and the famous Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are still obvious to those who travel close.
Guy threw himself into preparations. The weather gods were kind and the Ground Effect crew of nine, plus Anna and I, landed by Pilatus Porter and Squirrel helicopter on the Tasman Saddle. Dividing the two main glaciers of the Tasman and Murchison, the Tasman saddle itself is quite flat. After an easy first day taking loads to the hut and skiing nearby, we were poised for a bigger challenge on day two.
The headwall of the Murchison glacier is an intimidating prospect – the slope rolls over to a steep 39 degrees and crevasses split the slope in places. Morning sun fortunately lights up the bowl – somewhat decreasing the fear factor.
The Ground Effect people are (naturally) all cyclists so athleticism was never an issue. However, there was a division. Half were excellent skiers but slower on the skins (uphill climbs). The other half could dash uphill but struggled to ski down.
One man was only 15 months out from a severe brain injury but his workmates fully supported his recovery and it was inconceivable that he’d miss the trip. A strategy developed where we’d journey to a particular spot and take extra ski runs. Those who felt good would climb and ski extra laps. The others would bask (and sometimes sleep) in the sun – admiring blue and white hanging ice falls, rocky outcrops and the immensity of their surroundings.
Guy, with formidable energy, was up for everything. On the Murchison day, after a cautious ski down the headwall, we donned climbing skins and headed to Starvation Saddle and the more remote Mannering Glacier. The Mannering often holds colder and drier snow due to its southern aspect. Avoiding seracs (ice cliffs) and crevasses near the top, we enjoyed swooping turns down the glacier. The view crew parked up for a long lunch, while the energisers headed up for another run. Humouring Guy’s unstoppable zest, he and I skied a steep wind-dappled line in another prime location and rejoined the others from lower down the Mannering.
Not a breath of wind disturbed the ridges and the sky remained blue every day. Snow has been scarce this season but we have been blessed with many spectacularly clear and calm days.
The team remained jolly as we made the long haul back to the hut. It had been amazing. Blisters aside, everyone was up for another adventure. The weather continued to hold (for the next three weeks as it turned out) and the following two days saw us ski further into the Tasman Glacier to ski and explore.
It’s a rare gift to share a ski journey with a Christchurch-conceived and owned company of outdoor aficionados – especially in one of my favourite places.
It really was the best work do ever.