Symphony on Skis
By Axel Reiser, Images by Carla Braun-Elwert
‘A ski traverse is like a well composed piece of music. It flows with harmony, surprises with the unexpected. It engages all your emotions and the melody lingers in your mind afterwards. Good music needs players who are masters of their instruments.’
Gottlieb Braun-Elwert, after completing the first ‘Symphony on Skis’, 1985.
This classic New Zealand ski tour (often referred to as the ‘New Zealand Haute Route’) was pioneered by Alpine Recreation company founder, Gottlieb Braun-Elwert, together with Franz Waibl and Daniel Frey; in a single day on September 14th, 1985. After experiencing all its ups and downs, with pace changes ranging from steady to elegant to energetic, Gottlieb compared it to a musical symphony, and the name stuck.
Their Symphony on Skis 1985 record: 18.5 hours from Rankin Hut in the Godley Valley, to Chancellor Hut, was broken by Grant Guise, Javier Martin (Spain) and Lorenzo Holzknecht (Italy) in just under 13 hours, on September 5th, 2009. This was made possible with ultra-lite ski touring gear and light day packs. The original party carried full packs with sleeping bags, cookers, and food for their last night at Chancellor Hut.
Luckily, the Symphony does not mention anything about speed; about faster, about better. I am competitive; a triathlete, runner and athlete - so of course I have thought about the Symphony as an athletic challenge.
Gottlieb’s original record has already been bettered, but this is not what we decided to do for the 30th birthday of the Symphony. Out of many coincidences, but very fitting to the occasion, we mustered a Kiwi-German team, equipped by a French company, to celebrate the sheer beauty of this Kiwi-Haute-Route version.
Carla remembers: “Early in the morning of September 20th, 2015, exactly thirty years and one week since the original Symphony on Skis was ‘composed’, our bright bunch of five was finally ready to go. Behind us lay weeks of planning, packing, battling with excess baggage, careful gear preparation, food depots, and praying to weather gods (not sure who did that, but they did a great job). Ahead of us was a brown, wide valley with clouds disguising the snow we were keen to have under our feet.”
Route: 42km, 4000m+ altitude gain.
Lake Tekapo – Godley Valley – Liebig Range – Murchison Glacier – Tasman Saddle – Tasman Glacier – Rudolph Glacier – Graham Saddle (crossing the Main Divide) – Franz Josef Glacier – Fox Glacier.
The route guaranteed us an entertaining mix of several different ski modes; ski-free’ crawls and crunches (phew!), ‘skin-ski’ walks up (homm!), and ‘free-ski’ rides down (Yeeeha!). The route’s easily followed with a finger on the large map on the wall of my hallway, slightly harder work onsite!
Take a 4WD - ride it up the Godley Valley until haunted by the Godley Ghost (near the leftovers of Rankin Hut). From the valley floor, turn left up the Rankin Stream and follow to the top (several options, so choose wisely). Drop down into Murchison Valley - hang a right up the Murchison - skip over the headwall onto the Tasman, follow until you run out of snow.
Turn sharp right again at De La Beche Corner and shoot up the Rudolph - scramble to the top of Graham Saddle. Scoot along the Western Neves until finally dropping down the Fox Glacier - stop when running out of snow again. It’s advisable to catch a heli flight from here to get down to the Coast.
Along the way we enjoyed the hospitality of our tents (to start within the Godley), then Murchison Hut, Tasman Saddle Hut and Centennial Hut. The route is shaped and changed on every occasion by the people you travel with, the people you meet in the huts and those who share your tracks.
The mountains have changed since Gottlieb travelled, but they have not lost any of their beauty. Receding glaciers may be a global problem, but when we were immersed within them, they were as majestic as ever.
The highlight of the route is the traverse in itself; the following and zig-zagging over the five biggest glacial systems in Aotearoa - crossing from the dry eastern side, to the jungle of the west.
My personal highlight was the ‘sharing’ of one descent: Elke, Jochen and I - each choosing our own personal line, skied down an ice ramp below Brodrick Peak, directly opposite the Murchison Hut site. We elegantly (at least I think so) curved around a number of spectacular-looking ice cliffs and carved up some good snow, until back on the main flow of the Murchison Glacier. Not a line that could have been enjoyed when hunting records, but one that has a place in my memories forever.
Time: Allow about four days including travelling time, and extra weather contingency days. Our 2015 group took seven days, taking extra time and extra weight (cameras, batteries) to film the expedition.
More information about the ‘Symphony on Skis’ film can be found at: