In July 2018 we were fortunate enough to catch the St Arnaud Range after a cold NW front, which whipped a mass of moisture laden, cold air from the deep south and coated the hills with a stable puff of fresh cold powder. We joined a throng of keen Nelson skiers in a convoy up the Rainbow Ski Field access road. The road was in great condition, but still a little too bumpy for our street car, so we thumbed a ride. The first car stopped and so we jumped in for a beautifully scenic drive to the car park. The goal of our ski tour was to head south along the St Arnaud Range to get to the Paratitahi Tarns, skiing along gentle benches and small passes. The route out to Mt McRae is well traveled by locals. It appears that a standard ski trip from the ski field is to catch the lift at Rainbow to the top, then ascend Mt McRae from the saddle at pt 1696 via the north ridge, then bomb down the slopes to the road and repeat the circuit. We were looking for more of a ski tour, so we started by traversing out from the car-park on a groomed cat track leading towards the WSW. This cat track traverses from the area boundary, and is the exit route from the West Bowl and the run ‘The Planets’. Outside of the boundary there are gentle rolling slopes which are perfect for beginner tourers and for training. We worked our way up Mt McRae, ending up on its northern ridge. The views are superb, looking west to Lake Rotoiti, and a good view at some really fun looking terrain at Rainbow ski field. Skins off and we skied down a shoulder a hundred meters or so in some lovely dry powder. Then skins back on to traverse along a gentle bench to reach a small pass just to the east of pk 1880. Another common route to the pass is to ski to directly from the summit of Mt McRae.
The next basin starts off with gentle slopes and large hillocks to traverse around, before steepening just before the wee tarns at around 1675m.
From here we easily ascended up to the col just to the west of pk 1915, and then down easy slopes (watch for wind-slab potential at pass) to the Paratitahi Tarns and the headwaters of the Arnst. There are many potential ski lines from this basin to choose from. I hear Mt Peanter is a good ski descent. The main basin is relatively flat, would offer many camp sites, and make some picturesque meandering.
‘We returned via the way we came, as I don’t imagine there is any easy way out via the Arnst River. But on the return journey there is a lovely ski line, descending directly down to the road from east of Mt McRae. This route is reminiscent of Hemi’s at Ohau and drops you about a kilometer from Rainbow Ski Field. It is a common descent route, with skiers often starting from the summit of Mt McRae, descending immediately south of the peak and curving down east toward the road.
There is a cliff band at around 1500m which runs north south parallel to the road. It is important to be on route to catch the right break in the cliff band, which offers a good descent to the road, on easy to moderate slopes. This route would often be tracked as it is popular, but if not, and in inclement weather with no experience of the area, it could prove to be troublesome as route finding is not terribly apparent from above. So choose your weather day if you are new to the area.
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