High up down under
Mountain refuges vary hugely across the Alps, each has its own individual character and foibles. There is the impossibly high Rifugio Regina Margherita at 4554m perched on the southern ridge of the Monta Rosa, the ancient Refuge Napoleon in Vars or the Grand St Bernard Hospice still run by Augustinian monks. You can even have luxury on the mountain, as Martin Chester pointed out in last season’s Fall-Line. But nothing I have experienced in the Alps compares with a mountain hut New Zealand style. Everyone has their own horror stories of grumpy hut guardians, not to mention the noise produced by the other irksome guests. There would be no danger of that at the Black Peak hut, or so I thought.
Operated by Aspiring Guides based in Wanaka, on New Zealand’s South Island, the Black Peak hut is privately owned and offers complete solitude for a small group of skiers. It is very rare to spend a day ski touring in the Alps without human contact; just when you think you are completely off the beaten track, some leather faced old-timer will appear out of nowhere, complete with Gauloise cigarette stuck to his bottom lip. In New Zealand, the snow-line sits half way between summit and valley floor, which means a long hike in and out for ski tourers. Fortunately the Kiwis use helicopters like a Welsh farmer would use a Land Rover Defender, from sheep herding to protecting the vines from frost on chilly spring mornings by stirring the air. So the 10-minute helicopter ride to the hut works out at a relatively inexpensive NZ$160 per head.
If you are worried about your carbon footprint, it is possible to skin over from the top of the Treble Cone lift system in around six or seven hours, but I did not travel to New Zealand by boat, so damage done, we took the helicopter. The main advantage of flying in is that you can pack heavy on the food; with all the unnecessary packaging removed we filled two banana boxes with enough to feed four people for four days, with some contingency in case we were storm bound. Whilst there we would be filming an avalanche awareness series for Epic TV, so were also going in heavy with camera gear, computers, and even a small generator. On the trip was Ski Sunday cameraman Chris Kirkham, local Wanaka cameraman Toby Wilson, avalanche expert Peter Bilious and myself.
Black Peak is a beautiful pyramid-shaped mountain that can be seen from Wanaka town rising up to the western horizon at the end of the stunning lake Wanaka. The hut sits on the south-facing side, guaranteeing the best snow conditions; south equating to north in the southern hemisphere. Normally you would need a guide with you, but Peter had the necessary qualifications and his connections allowed us private usage.
One thing we would need to pick up before we flew in though was the toilet. Stopping off at Aspiring Guides’ head guide Whit Thurlow’s house to pick up the aforementioned, I was expecting some kind of complicated chemical toilet system, not the empty five-litre paint tub that Peter reappeared with. New Zealand gives new meaning to the word rustic.
Likewise when I first caught sight of the hut from the helicopter, I realised that ‘hut’ was too grand a word; our accommodation was no bigger than a garden shed, fastened to the ground with metal cables. We quickly unloaded the helicopter, holding the lighter packs down to stop the down draft blowing them away. Whenever you are dropped off by a helicopter in the mountains, there is always a moment of silent appreciation as you take in your new surroundings and this was no different as we eyed up our home for the next three nights.
At 2m wide and 4m long, the shed can sleep a maximum of six people on two connectable bunk beds. Because we were only four, our stay would have been positively spacious if not for the mountains of camera gear. We stashed the food and sleeping bags, and got a brew on, or at least started the process of melting snow for drinking water. We designated one fresh drift as our water snow and made sure not to walk on it on the way to the outside dunny. I knocked up some sandwiches and we headed out to explore the mountain.
The shed sits on a small hillock to ensure avalanche safety. At an altitude of 1760m you can get about 200m vertical of skiing below depending on the snow line, and 529m vertical to the Black Peak summit at 2289m. The big south-facing bowl looked fresh and inviting with two inches of fresh power covering a stable layer of spring snow. Go light and you could skin to the top in under an hour, but we were filming so went heavy and slow. The view from the top was spectacular with Lake Wanaka sparkling to the right and Mount Aspiring looking vaguely similar to the Matterhorn to the left. We managed a couple of runs, in knee-deep powder, stoked to have the whole mountain to ourselves, and kept going well into the evening; it was mid September and the days were long.
We arrived back to the shed to find we were not the only guests on the mountain after all. A dozen Kea birds had realised the shed was occupied and were in the process of pecking and moving anything they could get their parrot-like beaks into. Chris caught one pecking the rubber handle on the generator so had to construct a mound of stones to protect it. With their constant pecking, squawking, and clattering of claws on the tin roof, our first night in the shed would turn out to be less quiet than expected. As Peter cooked up a butter chicken curry, we tried to tempt the most inquisitive of the Kea into the shed. Fat-Legs, as he became known, was not interested in the rice cake wafers we were using as bait, but was instead hell bent on stealing our washing up bowl.
Day two and we got to explore a little further afield, skinning to the top and dropping down the steeper couloirs of the east-facing side of Black Peak. The snow was excellent but the descent not as long, because the couloirs all run together into one big gully which then cliffs out.
Back at the shed in the late afternoon Toby put his drone camera in the sky, although he needed to keep it away from the Kea, who angrily took exception to the infringement of their air space. Two superb days of skiing and filming in the bag, we cracked open the first of our wine boxes, New Zealand of course.
A warm front hit us on day three and the powder turned very quickly into sticky mush. Worried that a storm was brewing we decided to call the helicopter in a day early. Normal practice is to fly in and skin out, but even if we left the food, we had too much camera gear for that kind of a hike. Our minds were made up when the Kea left us, to head for more sheltered ground. After one final run from the ridge down we assembled our gear, grabbed the bucket from the dunny and jumped back into the helicopter back to town. Very sad to say good bye to our own private mountain shed.
Aspiring Guides (aspiringguides.com) offers a three-day Black Peak Tour between July and October from NZ$1100 per person, including heli transfers in, hut accommodation, all meals and guided ski touring. For more information on skiing in the Wanaka region visit lakewanaka.co.nz.