Kyle Miller has been making us proud, working his way around the rugged peaks and vast wilderness of New Zealand for more than a month on a dirtbag budget in a somewhat reliable Delica van. But in a country of rugged peaks, more than 900 huts, and at least 300 glaciers, the high country called to Kyle Miller. So he linked up with a few Kiwis and toured into the Cameron Hut in the Arrowsmith Range. This is Kyle’s trip report on long approaches, massive ranges, and brutal island weather. —LYA Editor
Words and Images by Kyle Miller
When I first heard about New Zealand, I heard about a place with big mountains, brutal approaches, foul weather and a long-standing mountaineering background. I felt this place must be just like home and it will be an easy transition… well, sometimes a thought doesn’t work out the way you’d expect.
One thing that stands out in New Zealand is their love for the outdoors, and they have a lot of outdoors. With only about three major cities separated by some of the most rugged terrain in the world, you could walk out your front door and be surrounded by mountains. This country can be compared in size to Oregon, but holds well over 900 huts within its mountainous regions. I would scale the maps and notice that while there were a few huts high in the alpine, they seemed to be few and far between. I wondered why. There was one hut that caught my attention, though: it was the Cameron Hut situated deep in the Arrowsmith Range, built for up to 12 people, and with enough terrain to keep anyone busy for weeks at a time. With a few emails, I was fortunate to head into the hut with a few like-minded ski tourers and get a taste of Kiwi touring culture.
It was early spring and temperatures had been at an all-time high, so much of the seasonal snowpack was gone, but when we arrived at the trailhead, there were a few inches of new snow, with more than three feet at our final destination–Cameron Hut. Unlike Washington state, where all fronts come in from the west, here in New Zealand they can come from almost any direction. For the most part, fronts have been slamming the island from the northwest, coming in warm and wet, but a freak southerly came in bringing cold air with it. The trailhead sign stated the hut was 15 km and 5 hours away, but after numerous creek crossings and the occasional sheep blocking our way, we made it to the hut at 11 p.m., in twice the time stated on the sign. The hut was amazing, with shelter and mattresses provided, and when we arrived after dark, the stars of the southern sky were lighting up the terrain around us. Immediately I felt small and insignificant. I asked the other members of our crew, who had arrived a day prior, what they did that day, and they responded, “Not much, as we were surrounded by clouds.”
The treeline here is much lower than in the States, yet there is an abundance of water, and the reason for that is the weather. Storms here are brutal and not to be taken lightly. The next land mass to the west is South Africa, and there is nothing in between. A few weeks prior, a storm had come through with 270km winds, uprooting trees as well as destroying numerous objects. A few years back, a storm came in so strong that it blew a hut off a mountain—tragically with three people in it. That’s why alpine huts are somewhat rare. For climbers, it becomes apparent why Sir Edmund Hillary was in the first team to summit Everest: both the mountains and the weather here, in his homeland, are legendary.
Our second day in clouds smashed into what is referred to as the Main Divide, which is basically the high crest that created the South Island, and we were right on the edge of it. With no trees and clouds surrounding us, we made the decision to wait it out and hope weather would clear in the afternoon, but it didn’t, so we put in a skin track through the flats that would provide easy access to the high country. Some of the huts are equipped with radios that give a weather report at exactly 7:30 every night, so we sat around, ate and waited. The forecast was a breakdown of every major area in the Southern Alps, and it mentioned a brief clearing in the morning before clouds starting building up later in the afternoon, so we packed our bags for an early-morning departure and set the alarm for 5 A.M.
We awoke to clear skies and got onto the skin track around dawn. Before long, we were basking in alpenglow and heading up a huge glacier surrounded by steep mountains. With over 3,000 glaciers in this country, I wasn’t surprised by how big and thick it was. Once arriving at the main headwall, we put on our crampons and starting making our way up. Crampons are necessary, as well as ice axes, to do any mountaineering, and we were happy to have them once the new snow turned to solid ice and we were front pointing. We transitioned climbing to the side of the mountain and found blower pow the whole way back down. Once at the bottom, we noticed a few high clouds, but thought nothing of it as we started climbing another route. Within an hour the weather had changed dramatically, with winds heading southwest up the valley yet east in higher areas, only to reverse directions a few seconds later. It was predictably unpredictable, and it became obvious that we needed to make it back to shelter before things got really bad.
While we didn’t ride much, what we did ride was amazing, and we reveled in what turned out to be far better conditions than expected before turning on the radio at 7:30. The report stated that a huge front was going to slam into the South Island from the northwest in two days, and it was going to be of similar strength to the one that reported 270km winds. Knowing the river would swell and potentially trap us, we made the call to leave a day earlier than hoped. The next morning we packed our bags, said goodbye to the Cameron Hut, and made it back down the 15km to the parking lot. This time it was much easier, with little to no snow on the trail, which reduced the time back down to five hours. The final section had a weird vibe to it, as I would call out to my climbing partner only to hear animals respond. It was sheep and they were watching us from above. I had heard of sheep being everywhere, but it felt really weird being watched.
This was my first big Kiwi ski touring mission and it taught me that, in New Zealand, you must expect the unexpected. Good gear and patience between storms can be the difference between life and death, but that’s what makes this such a stunning and unique place. The contrasts of terrain and colors are everything I love about Washington state—but here they are smashed together. With rainforests on the Olympic Peninsula, mountains like the North Cascades and lakes like Lake Chelan, it is a total honor to test myself here and I look forward to many more adventures.
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