What began as a vague idea about doing the Craigieburn Haute Route among a bunch of ragtag members of the Manawatu Tramping & Skiing Club eventually morphed into a creative 10-day trip based out of Castle Hill village, ticking off sections of the Haute Route, checking out hitherto unseen club fields, and skiing backcountry basins along the way.
Anyone can do the Craigieburn Haute Route guided, and it’s an option we first looked at. Anna Keeling guides it in conjunction with the Chill brand, which covers a bunch of Selwyn ski areas. Changeability of conditions and weather, along with various people committing at different stages, made it tricky for our group to sign up, so we eventually opted to rent a house in Castle Hill and base ourselves there, with day trips or perhaps overnights to the club fields. Hilariously, after some back-and-forth on email about the trip with Stu Waddel, the owner of Chill, we actually met Stu one day on top of Mt Cheeseman as he was part of a guided trip. Two degrees of separation and all that.
We were a group nine strong in the end, with three cars brought down from the North Island to make local transport easier. Some of us had ridden nutcracker tows before, some had visited various club fields, whereas others were total strangers to the Craigieburn Range snow experience. After a couple of warm-up days using the t-bars at Cheeseman and the chairs and t-bars at Porters, getting on the nutcrackers at Craigieburn was a baptism by fire. One chap had his pack ripped to shreds (but thankfully a kind local sort helped him out with a loaner for the day), while others struggled physically with the demands of a surface tow. The person who was the most apprehensive about riding nutcrackers (*cough*, that’s me) was actually fine on the day, and having now ridden much cruisier nutcrackers at Tukino and Temple Basin, I’m glad I was thrown in the deep end on day one at Craigieburn and Broken River. (The latter has a couple of steep and fast tows with fast offloads in seemingly perilous places.)
We toured about half the time, with four out of nine of us ticking off nearly all of the Haute Route (Craigieburn to Broken River, Cheeseman to Olympus, but not Broken River to Cheeseman). We also skied the southern basin from point 1962 on Porters with about a 200m drop – highly recommended, above – Tarn Basin off the southern side of Cheeseman, and a cheeky basin on the western side of point 1950 in between Mt Cheeseman and Cheeseman ski area (see below).
We also took a day at Temple Basin, just out of Arthurs Pass, but for some the 500m walk up to the ski field precluded any touring that day. (In fact, one of the guys famously said the only way he’s ever going back to Temple Basin is in a helicopter.) The major bonus of Temple Basin, stunning views aside (see views from Temple Col, below) is that it affords you access to a world of ski touring delights, notably the Mingha valley on the eastern side.
All in all the trip provided us with ample opportunity for challenge and adventure, as well as a recce of the area so when we return, we can maximise our time and know where the best spots are to hit up.
- Most ski fields do a one-shot pass to get you to the top of the tows. We reckon the best one is Cheeseman – for a swift $10 you’ll gain more than 300m on two t-bars to a high point along the ridge from Mt Cockayne. That gives you access to Tarn Basin and Tims Stream, both touring highlights.
- If you’ve got a membership to the New Zealand Alpine Club you’ll be able to access lots of discounts at the various club fields (same goes for Ruapehu season/life pass holders). Typically you get student rates or a percentage discount. You’ll need to show your NZAC membership card. Also remember there’s an NZAC lodge in Arthurs Pass, which costs members a teeny tiny $20 per night.
- The Ryton Basin, on the southern side of Mt Cheeseman, is a stellar highlight for touring. The high parts of the basin have incredibly featured terrain (see below), and the lower part has a 4WD track that links up with the road to Mt Olympus, so if you’ve got a willing driver, you could potentially stay at Olympus but run laps of the basin.
- The beauty of the Haute Route is being able to tour each day with just your day pack and get everything else (food, bedding, accommodation) sorted at the various club field lodges. We didn’t manage to do this, but it’s the ultimate idea for the best experience in the area.
- Black Beech Wine Bar in nearby Oxford also does kick-ass pizzas. Just saying.