Taking it to the Steeps
By Anna Keeling
Poised at the top of an icy 45 degree, 650 metre slope, I feel both commitment and resolve. Checking my bindings are well locked, ice-axe pole secure, I cautiously enter into my first turn. My skis chatter on the tired, old corn but it's familiar. I'm comfortable in this realm.
Four hours previously Pam Weiss and I stood in a chilly pre-dawn, lashing skis to packs and figuring how to pack our ski boots for the 10 kilometre mountain bike ride to access the Cold Fusion couloir on Utah's 11750 foot (3580 metre) Mt. Timpanogos. We headed off on a ski mountaineering Mother's day treat for old endurance athletes. My ski partner Pam, is a ten year veteran of the US nordic team and co-owner of the New Zealand Kayak School. Now in her late fifties, she is still a force to be reckoned with.
Ski mountaineering is easy enough to decipher: accessing ski runs with equipment customarily used for mountaineering – ice axes, crampons and ropes. Generally the skier climbs the intended descent route. Originating in the European Alps, ski mountaineering in New Zealand is a serious undertaking due to difficult access and intense glaciation. Throw in bush-bashing with skis, a few wind gusts and gnarly moraine hikes and it's just not that inviting. Requiring skills that cross from alpine climbing to exceptional ski ability, there is little margin for error once committed to the descent. Add in the requisite fitness, avalanche knowledge and it's obvious why hitting big lines within ski area boundaries and throwing flips in terrain parks are considerably more attractive.
The big peaks and faces in New Zealand do attract attention – from both local and international ski mountaineers. Aoraki/Mt. Cook was first skied in November 1982 by Wanaka mountain guide, Geoff Wyatt and Stu Blennehasset. Getting accurate facts on ski descents can be fraught with controversy. Depending on snow conditions, riders may be forced to abseil various sections rather than ski. If a peak has been skied previously, skiers or boarders will compete to claim a particular line. One that tempted for years is the fearsome Caroline face on Aoraki. A complex interplay of weather, season and snow conditions came together on 27 October 2018 when this sublime blue-white line eventually succumbed to a ski descent.
Visiting Europeans Ben Briggs, Tom Grant and Enrico Mosetti skied the coveted Caroline face of Aoraki/Mt Cook on the South-east aspect of the mountain. The three mountaineers started off by ascending Aoraki’s East Ridge. According to Mosetti, , the ascent was "a beautiful climb, through very deep snow… really tiring." After ascending for seven and a half hours the trio reached the Porter Col between the Low and Middle peaks from where they dropped down into the Caroline Face. At this point Briggs, Grant and Mosetti experienced what the Italian has described as "The biggest thing I've ever skied, the biggest line I could imagine to ski, and in great powder conditions!"
During the next hour and a half of extreme skiing the three managed to identify a line past the enormous, unstable seracs that characterise the SE Face. Only three rappels were needed and, incredibly, the descent took place in almost perfect snow conditions.
Circa 1800 meters high, the Caroline Face is the most dangerous and difficult face on Mount Aoraki and consequently the last one to have been ascended on 6 and 7 November 1970 by John Glasgow and Peter Gough, after a failed attempt in 1969. Many parties have gazed at the Caroline face, waiting for it to come into condition. Plans have been made and missions aborted. Finally the ski line came together. I’m kind of sad it wasn’t a kiwi crew to make the first descent. Kiwi ski guide and good friend, the late Jonathan Morgan, eyed this line for years. By about age 30 he’d both skied and paraglided off Aoraki but he really wanted to ski the Caroline face.
Personally, I'm okay with less commitment. A Mother's Day jaunt by bike, crampon and ski is plenty.