Just out of Queenstown lies one of the most striking (and aptly named) mountain ranges out there. The Remarkables are pretty phenomenal, and you can ski them well after the lifts have stopped running.
You don’t have to feel guilty for hitting snooze during a New Zealand winter – the sun’s not even up till 8 so why the heck would you be?
Ok, we’re stretching this logic pretty hard, given that it’s mid-October. But a sleep in’s a sleep in and the sun is well and truly beating down on our bus by the time we’re winding up a bumpy access road to The Remarkables Ski Area.
I’m here with The North Face to test out FUTURELIGHT, the new ultra-breathable waterproof gear that they’ve been working on for over two years. You can read more about how it performed in this article, because I’m going to write about backcountry skiing and forget about the gear. Which incidentally, is exactly what FUTURELIGHT allowed me to do.
Our plan is to ski up beneath the still chairlifts of the resort, gain the ridgeline, then ski some couloirs on the back side of the range. Couloir is a French word that describes a steep gorge on the side of a mountain. They’re hemmed in by steep, rocky walls (in this case they’re made up of sharp New Zealand shist) and they collect snow like buggery. I’ve never skied one.
In my group is James McCormack from Wild Magazine, Paul Karis, the GM of The North Face in Aus and NZ, and Mat Woods, Head of Sales at Cardrona Ski Resort. We’re lead by Callum from Adventure Consultants and pro-photographer Mark Clinton is skiing around in speed dealer sunnies. Aww geez.
We start off from the carpark with skins on. It’s sunny, nearly 10 degrees and the incline is gentle, so we chat and get to know each other on the way up. It strikes me (as it always does) how easy it is to have chats with complete strangers as you share the start of an expedition. Whether it’s backcountry skiing, a long trail run or time out beyond the break on surfboards – conversation flows better out here.
Then reality sets in; with over 400m of vertical ascent on the cards for our warmup we can’t maintain courtesy any longer. Heads go down and zips are cracked, but the new kit is performing well and our outfits remain intact.
I’m fairly fit and have backcountry skied a few times this season, so I’ve kept up so far, but as we take pick through rocky lines down to the first snow-filled gorge it’s clear that these guys are in another league.
Still Gonna Send It
The first couloir is steep, but not insane, and wide enough for me to easily do a turn. But hell, it’s October and while there’s heaps of snow, it’s wet and clumpy. I launch off and dig through a few big turns before pulling up next to Callum for a rest, exhausted by the effort.
Lucky I did too, ’cause The North Face athlete Sam Smoothy has joined our group and is flying down the run. He picks a line off to the right, rockets towards a drop and slows on a wet patch. Airborne, he just clears the rocks below before shooting down the rest of the run. I can count his turns on one hand.
By the time I’ve clawed my way to the bottom it’s time for a feed and I crack in with a fervour. With a seat made of snow I face myself back up the mountain and watch others tackle the slope. Not sure if there’s a better lunch spot out there…
The Secret Couloir
Callum’s decided that it’s time for a real challenge, so we take a lengthy skin back up to the same ridge line. To the north is a fertile valley, followed by the lofty peaks to the west of Wanaka, while to the south more jagged mountains, half snow, half grass with a solid line in between, disappear into the distance.
We’re searching for the ‘secret couloir’, picking our way through boulders and traversing above huge drops until we reach an impassable wall. To the left is a gnarly chute. It’s chunky and half as wide as the last one. ‘You first’ says Callum.
I point downhill and rapidly gain speed. It’s controlled falling as I jump between turns. Left, right, left! I’m really doing this!
Hubris is my literal downfall. Euphoria’s replaced with terror as my ski sticks deep in the molten snow. I desperately try to twist back to the right but my dice have rolled. I’m going down.
Hey, at least I found my limit.
My ego’s ruined but my gear’s survived. In fact, despite the sopping wet snow, I’m completely dry and comfortable in the FUTURELIGHT kit. These other jokers aren’t even taking massive stacks down the hills to really test out the gear. Ha!
Back To Queenstown
By mid-arvo we’re back on the bus to Queenstown. We’ve skied nearly a kilometre of vertical, all without taking our jackets off, and ridden some damn burly terrain. In half an hour we’ll be back in Queenstown sipping a much-deserved cold one.
That’s the beauty of this trip. It’s my fifth time out on backcountry touring skis, but my first day-trip. In fact, it’s my first trip under three days. In Aus it’s usually such an effort to get to the slopes from major cities that the only thing that makes sense is camping out or skiing to a hut. But in New Zealand the mountains are steep and they’re close.
Backcountry lines and a warm bed. A jacket that’s waterproof and really breathable? Maybe you can have it all.
- Avalanche beacon, probe, shovel
- GPS, compass and paper maps
- Backcountry touring skis with skins and boots
- Breathable waterproof layers
- Warm layers
- Heaps of snacks
- Chains if the road has snow or ice
How To Get There
Turn off Frankton Rd down Kawarau Rd (State Highway 6A), this becomes Kingston Rd. Take a left at the big sign to Remarkables Ski Area and wind your way to the carpark.
Advanced – The backcountry here is very accessible, but steep with large drops and potential for avalanches. You’ll want a solid knowledge of terrain and conditions and a decent level of fitness. Qualified guides like Adventure Consultants make this trip accessible to less experienced skiers.
Distance Covered / Duration / Elevation Gain
8.88km / 4 hours 13 minutes / 1030m – how far you go is up to you!