We get so many short questions about touring in NZ that are best answered with one long answer!
New Zealand offers some of the most scintillating and interesting skiing in the world! The terrain of the Southern Alps is infinitely varied with multiple aspects and facets. The mountains here offer everything from massive faces with a huge vertical, to narrow couloirs and gullies. Capping this off is some sunny volcano skiing in the north.
The skiing here is remote, and apart from nearby the ski fields, it can be rare to see another touring party. This isolation adds to the appeal of our pristine wilderness, unfettered by crowds. It allows the ski tourer to use their own judgement and skill to reconnoitre the routes. But the remoteness also lends a level of seriousness . Rescue can be a long, long way away, and so self reliance and overall judgement are required. A rescue beacon is a good item to carry.
The Southern Alps run from SSW to NNE direction. They is a massive range of mountains with many sub ranges. I have heard that their size in terms of numbers of peaks is comparable to the entire European Alps. There are good maps available in the 1:250000 scale. Also check out the website www.topomaps.co.nz
Apart from around the ski fields, the level of ski technique and fitness required is quite high. By this I mean the average NZ ski tour is more challenging than the average tour in the US or Europe or Japan. Many ski tours require some level of mountaineering experience. There are some routes on here that are strictly ski mountaineering. And by ski mountaineering I mean you might require two ice axes!
So it can take a little time to master the NZ conditions. But once understood, limitless opportunities beckon. All aspects from North to South faces, East to West are skiable. Steeps, basins, drop offs, cliffs, ridges, buttresses, tongues of snow, huge snaking glaciers…you name it. And all skiing is above the tree line!.
The snow in NZ is varied. No, it’s not powder like Japan or Utah. Most storms come with associated winds, most commonly from the SW. This tends to strip the ridges and deposit snow in the gullies. In a day’s skiing it is usual to ski everything from powder to windslab, corn to sastrugi. Ski tourers in NZ become jacks of all trade. This is not to say that powder can’t be found; it most certainly can if you are in the right place at the right time. And believe me, the views and stunning topography more than make up for the lack of regular ‘light and dry’. A good up to date source of information on snow conditions is www.avalanche.net.nz
Skis – we tend to ski at around 100mm underfoot as they perform well on hardpack. Ski crampons are mandatory on many trips as ridges can be windswept back to firm hard snow. A Black Diamond ‘ Whippet’ or similar can also give a little peace of mind with the long runouts. Pin touring bindings (eg Dynafit, Marker Kingpin etc) seem to be the rigueur de jour; boots are a personal choice. But bear in mind many approaches can be long. Access via some of the large Canterbury rivers and moraines can be quite a bash and so will require additional footwear (tramping shoes etc). The damage caused by hours of tramping on rocks is not worth the damage it causes your expensive touring boots. In fact it can be cheaper to use a helicopter than accept the wear and tear on gear that the approaches can cause. Helicopters are reasonable in cost, and commonly used by ski tourers for access/drop off. Helicopter charge out rate is around $2000 per hour for a 6 seater, and many flights are in the 20 minute range. A heli flight up to the glaciers tend to be more expensive, but if you are after a cheaper flight (around the cost of a lift ticket) then look at the tours that are close by a helicopter base (Glentanner, or Aspiring Helicopters for example).
Temperatures swing wildly in NZ according to which way the eternal wind is blowing. NW half brings warm moisture laden weather. The SW half cooler temperatures. The low pressure systems in NZ circulate in a clockwise direction. A typical weather front may start with NW winds, warm and blustery, with freezing level at 1800m or so, swinging to the S at the end of the cycle with snow to lower levels (1500m or so). Accordingly, when choosing equipment, wind barriers are important for ski tourers, more so than the 8000m down filled jacket. There are excellent weather websites in NZ. Weather is one of our favourite conversations. Check out www.metvuw.com and www.metservice.co.nz . Remember that NZ is a windy place, especially in the East. After a while you will understand the meaning of the common forecast; ‘fine weather, gale about the tops’
The West coast takes the brunt of the stormy weather in terms of the precipitation, up to around 8 meters annually of rain. The west coast neves receive huge amounts of snow, somewhat akin to what can be found around Mt Rainier in the US Pacific NW. On the other side of the main divide the rainfall drops off considerably. Towns such as Wanaka receive around only 1 meter of rain annually. Most ski fields sit on the eastern side of the divide on the edge of where the westerly storms usually push to. This helps balance out the snow fall versus sunny day equation. Given the complex geography of the Southern Alps, and their immense size, there are too many nuances to point out where the best skiing after a storm can be had. So ask a local; they’d be happy to help. The Department of Conservation, or Doc as they are known by, may also be able to help.
The ski fields tend to open on Queens Birthday Weekend (yes, that’s right, Queen of England) and close about the end of September. Ski touring often kicks off by mid June and runs right through late November with spring skiing on the glacial neves, or silky corn skiing on Mt Ruapehu in the North Island!
Helicopters, bikes, 4wds, jetboats, ski lifts or ‘a la pied’ are all options for accessing ski touring spots. Whatever it takes. The West Coast is mostly National Park allowing full public access. Access in the eastern areas is quite restricted due to being farm land with no access rights in NZ. Some organisations are trying to help with these access difficulties in NZ, namely Federated Mountain Clubs, Fish and Game NZ, and Walking Access NZ.
Hope that inspires and informs!