I think I’m a victim of marketing.
I see these seductive images in advertisements in backcountry skiing magazines and on social media, where ski touring becomes ski mountaineering; where the simple addition of a harness and a bit of rack, and the combination of two tools, two poles, skins and skis, makes for a more adventurous day out. It’s pushing the limits just that little bit more.
Ruapehu, my home mountain, doesn’t really call for technical climbing as a necessity. All the peaks can reasonably be achieved without having to rope up, although two tools can sometimes be handy, and crampons are mandatory.
But I really like the idea of mixing up all these different tools and bits of kit to create a patched-together mountain experience.
I’ve had a few nudges at ski mountaineering this season. Our traverse from Whakapapa to Turoa via Te Ataahua and the Wahianoa was one that demanded two tools and a bit of technique, but didn’t require a rope.
Nudge #1 was Girdlestone/Peretini (2658m). My buddy Tanja was a keen kumara for that one. She’s fairly new to mountaineering and ski touring but is also mega skilled (I put this down to her being Austrian and hence genetically gifted at contorting herself into all manner of interesting positions on snow with minimal complaint but maximum efficiency) and was willing to entertain my idea of pitching the top section, mostly as practice (for me, not her).
We took the first chair up Turoa on a fine day with a cool breeze. Turoa’s highest lift, the High Noon Express, was taken out by an avalanche this season, so we terminated at the top of the Giant chair and began skinning. The good folks at Ruapehu had driven a cat track up to the top of the High Noon, so it was an easy skin. Thereafter, it got icy, and crampons plus an axe were the order of the day.
It’s an easy walk from there, traversing the Skyline Ridge and onto the Mangaehuehu Glacier, where the gradient makes for a one-axe outing until you reach the lowest saddle at around 2560m. There, a lone splitboarder without a helmet quizzed us: did we have transceivers, and did we know what we were doing? Because, “ladies”, there’s a windslab forming. (Not only did we have transceivers, we also had probes and shovels – the other two essential parts of the equation – and have both done multiple courses.) Our new mate said that because we were there, with our transceivers, he would switch his on. (Educated folk will likely draw a swift conclusion from this exchange.)
We roped up, set an anchor, and Tanja led a pitch. The snowpack was punchy, with a hard ice layer about 30cm down, but it was confidence-inspiring and I felt it to be easily solo-able (i.e. no rope). After that sole pitch Tanja coiled the rope and we went free to the summit, downclimbing back to the saddle without using the rope.
From there we skied heavy snow (but fresh tracks!) down the Mangaehuehu Glacier to the bottom of the Nga Wai Heke chair. And after a late lunch, checking in with our intentions people, and posting a few selfies to social media (naturally), we took the easy ride off the mountain.
Nudge #2 was a few weeks later, after my buddy Rob and I had tooled around with a rope and rack near the Manawatu Tramping & Skiing Club lodge at 1600m on Whakapapa. We’d practiced pitching on easy terrain, simply to run through the various steps and make sure our ropework was up to speed.
We’d already had a couple of outings above the Whakapapa ski field, and we had eyed up some extra-for-experts terrain we could pitch to gain the ridge Tukino Peak. Pitching it was completely unnecessary, of course – because you can simply plod up the ridge from Glacier Knob. (But where’s the fun in that!)
After skinning slowly up the Whakapapa Glacier, we bade farewell to the rest of our ski club mates, who were off to do the ski traverse to Turoa. Packs laden with rope, harnesses and rack, we skinned across the summit plateau, eyeing up various routes to the ridge.
We could choose a climb anywhere from 20m to 80m, depending on our energy levels and confidence in our skills. Four routes to our left of Tukino Peak existed, and we could see two leading to the col between Tukino Peak and Te Heu Heu.
At the base of the ridge, we switched to crampons, grabbed two tools, and tried a 40m route, leaving our skis and packs at the bottom. Topping out, it felt steep and grippy. For practice, we made a snow bollard at the top, and I assumed the role of guinea pig to be the first one to abseil down.
Then we shifted further up the bottom part of the ridge, and selected a 60-80m route, this time taking our skis on our packs and everything with us. This route felt longer; we were fatigued and it was stinking hot. Huge chunks of ice were liberating themselves from the rocky outcrops either side of us, but nothing was coming down our route, thankfully wide enough to escape the mountain’s wrath.
It took three short pitches to gain the top, with a small section of bulletproof ice near the head – the snowpack quite firm overall in spite of the day’s baking temperatures. I flopped onto the snow and inserted my face directly into the snowpack to try to cool myself down (this technique works but lacks elegance).
We finished off the day with a mostly enjoyable ski down the gully to the top of the Valley T-bar; the snow, which had been sun affected for the better part of the day, was grabby and sticky in patches, but still quite skiable in spite of the lateness of the season.
Exercises like this – done in the field, but in relatively low-consequence terrain, which was the idea of the day – help to highlight all the things you’re doing wrong, could do better, or which bits of gear you’re missing to make it truly safe. To our friends later, it looked like a mad exercise, but for the most part, it was challenging and boundary-pushing without too much commitment.