Haute Route Craigieburn Range
By Anna Keeling, Images Stu Waddel
Stu Waddel (Chill Adventures) and I, had long considered a route from Craigieburn to Olympus - or Porters for the fearsomely fit - as a brilliant alpine journey. We’d use dinner, bed and breakfast options provided by club fields and ski the many bowls between areas.
In the late 80’s when I first got into ski touring, I often toured from Craigieburn to Porters. We always ran out of time because we skied too many bowls on the way or stopped to BBQ at Broken River. I’ll never forget the sight of adventure racing legend John Howard, running across the Porters car park on his tele skis to grab the last car as it departed the ski field, while I was still halfway down a crusty Bluff face on my dodgy tele set up, wailing “Wait!” at ski area manager Uli Dinsenbacher.
In 2015 Stu and I launched our inaugural Craigieburn Haute Route - on a more friendly and professional timeframe than my 1980’s exploits. We based our idea on the famous Haute Route (High Route) from Chamonix (France) to Zermatt (Switzerland) - a trans-glacier, international ski tour. Linking ski lifts, high huts and passes, the European Haute Route takes 5-7 days.
Realising we have similar (smaller) potential in Canterbury, Stu made arrangements for our group to stay at the mountain lodges and we began - in possibly the best period of snow and weather of the 2015 season.
I was overjoyed to have a friendly crew of fairly experienced tourers. Three of these fine folks were sporty grandparents who had done the actual European Haute Route. Stu joined the group as tail end Charlie and hospitality manager - it was a real treat to have him on board.
Meeting at Castle Hill Village on day one, we aligned experience and goals over coffee, then Black Diamond Safaris arrived to transport us to Craigieburn. Craigieburn Valley Ski Area really turned it on with fresh snow and blue skies, as we skied Middle Basin and worked on strategies for tricky descents later in the trip ('falling leaf' tactics, side-slipping and kick turns), and ran over avalanche emergency procedures.
After lunch we skied Mt Hamilton East face from the summit. Later we again hiked Mt Hamilton to ski the shady south face to the bottom of Alan’s Basin (more powder), for a smooth arrival at Broken River’s Lyndon Lodge and entertaining conversation with long-time clubby, Paddy.
Broken River provided a little corduroy on day two, as we headed up the lifts, then onto the ridge route via Yukon Bowl and Mt Wall, to Mt Cheeseman Ski Area. Stu, overcome with the beauty and great skiing, sang a ridge top waiata before the last run. And what a run it was - a combo of corn and powder, dropping into the cute and secretive Cockayne creek bowl.
After a steep hike over Mt Cockayne (possibly the uphill crux of the trip), we again enjoyed quiet corduroy down to Snowline Lodge, for night two at Cheeseman. Snowline had a festive atmosphere and very comfortable rooms. After coffee in the day lodge the following morning, we headed up on Cheeseman’s lifts, back to the ridge.
The route from Cheeseman to the Mt Olympus ski area is well travelled. We chose to skip Tarn Basin, in order to make it to Waterfall Basin above Castle Hill Village. This superb basin is much viewed but is actually quite tricky to get to. The day remained cloudless and windless as we entered via the southern peak of Mt Cheeseman. The entry was fairly steep, a tad icy and committing; through rock towers and tight couloirs. After some judicious side-slipping and experimenting, conditions improved and connected nicely, as we skied a 650+ metre run of 10cm powder, to 1300 metres.
The Waterfall Basin run ends naturally on a tussocked shelf above the Hogsback (MTB) Track and native bush of the upper Castle Hill Basin. Skinning back to the ridge, there’s a sneak-through that connects to the Ryton Basin from Waterfall. I never shirk at walking in my ski boots if it means I can ski further, fortunately neither did our hardy crew.
Another 600m+ run - this time corn, and an easy stroll down the Ryton to Mt Olympus’ Lower Hut. Patrollers Doug (BR) and Irene (Porters), had kindly stashed my wagon there for access to the Top Lodge. The upper Olympus road travels through some constrained terrain, so Stu alighted to coordinate a particularly tight passing manoeuvre, only to hop back in with a beer in hand - the guy knows everyone in Canterbury skiing! We arrived at Olympus at 6pm - a long day but worth it for the incredible runs we’d just had.
Outrageously, another perfect day awaited us on day four… We headed to the summit of Mt Olympus via lifts and hiking. With skis on packs, we could see our tracks in the bowls we’d passed through on preceding days. We enjoyed the company of a lively crew (many old Canterbury friends) on top of Mt O, before skiing a mix of corn and powder - depending on aspect - into the Ryton again.
The lower Ryton Valley has a road into it - an artefact from the 1980’s when avalanche guru, Dave McNulty, explored the possibility of placing a ski area in this broad, mostly-south facing bowl. Luckily for us backcountry skiers, this never happened - we get to enjoy a bowl essentially unparalleled for its range of aspect and terrain; rolling upper slopes, steep couloirs off Mt O, wide open 35+ slopes off Mt Cheeseman, half pipes… Right in the backyard of Canterbury skiing.