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Aoraki Tai Poutini

Part of

Aoraki Mt Cook National Park and Tai Poutini Westland National Park contain the highest peaks of the Southern Alps.
Ski Touring
This is the alpine heartland of the South Island and the ski mountaineering here is world class. The first recorded use of skis in this region was by Marmaduke Dixon and Tom Fyfe in 1893 during their siege of the then-unclimbed Mount Cook. Inspired by Fridjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland on ski in 1888, the innovative Dixon fashioned his own skis from steam binder sheaves without having ever seen a diagram or heard a technical description of skis. Longer ski traverses using skins for uphill travel started in the 1930s. A party from Christchurch in August 1937 traversed on ski from the Rakaia to the Franz Josef over 10 days, utilizing food drops placed the previous autumn in the Rangitata and the Godley. There was also a party that skied from the Tasman to the Godley in 1931, so ski mountaineering in this region is nothing new.
Skiing these days in the Mount Cook region is usually done as day outings from a base in one of the climbing huts, with a ski plane or helicopter used to access the hut. Ski plane access to these huts is easy to arrange from Mt Cook Airport. Pick-ups for the return flight can be arranged by radio from the hut, although be aware that there are often days when the local weather conditions prevent flying. Ski touring from hut to hut, carrying your equipment with you, gives the marvellous satisfaction of exploring, and of being totally self contained, although it is more demanding as you ski with a full pack on.
This is a glaciated alpine area and a sound knowledge of mountaineering terrain and techniques is mandatory. Most parties carry ice axes, crampons and a rope. The area is also prone at any time of the year to avalanche and falling rock and ice. You must be up to date with your avalanche safety knowledge and equipment, crevasse rescue and your route finding skills. If you are not comfortable travelling independently in this environment, a guide can be hired for the group. Guided ski touring parties are becoming more common in recent years.
Most people wait for the worst of the winter weather to pass, and for the snow to accumulate before embarking on tours. The daylight hours begin to lengthen noticeably in August and September. October and November can be ideal months for corn snow, although as the snow undergoes melt-freeze cycles it can be very icy in the mornings, and the weather can be particularly unsettled in spring. The skiing continues well into December and January on the high glacial nevés, but as the summer progresses beyond January the snow condition deteriorates and crevasses open up, blocking many routes. Despite this it is possible to ski here at almost any time of the year, and there are many who favour the months of June and July for skiing, despite the cold, short days, since the statistics show this is the period of the most settled mountain weather.
For more detailed descriptions of access and climbing routes, and historical and other background information about the region, please consult Alex Palman’s Aoraki/Mount Cook Guidebook, an NZAC publication. The map to buy is the special edition “Aoraki Alpine Area” topographical 1:50 000 map, available from DoC offices at Mt Cook and elsewhere, and map suppliers in cities.
Mount Cook village itself has limited options for accommodation, and even more limited options for entertainment for those stuck there waiting for a weather clearance. For accommodation there is a Youth Hostel and camping ground, and also the NZ Alpine Club lodge Unwin Hut near the airport. The Canterbury Mountaineering Club also have a lodge, located near the campground. Upmarket hotel accommodation is available at the Hermitage. For a pleasant place to hang out while in the village, try Charlie Hobbs’s "The Old Mountaineers Cafe" and bar, near the DoC visitor centre. If the weather is really not on your side, retreat to the McKenzie Basin and Central Otago ranges further east, where at least you’ll get some skiing done.
Alpine Guides at Mount Cook Village are a good source of information about route conditions and also they hire out equipment.

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James Broadbent