Can you ski? Tim couldn’t! But it didn’t stop him flying to New Zealand to have a crack at cross country skiing on the Pisa Range. They skied out to the isolated Kirtle Burn Hut in the New Zealand backcountry and spent a few days soaking up the frozen wilderness. Here’s how you can do it too.
- Fresh tracks in the backcountry.
- Low key ascents and descents make the range fairly accessible for the less experienced.
- A chill hut with its own dunny.
There’s A First Time For Everything
‘Hey so my sis just called, she’s keen to come visit me in New Zealand too.
‘Rad, what’s she want to do?’
‘She wants to backcountry ski the Pisa Range.’
‘But, I can’t ski.’
‘You’ll be fine!’
Two weeks out from Tom’s uni holidays and I was on the phone, sussing out the possibility of a last-minute trip to New Zealand. Normally I plan international travel months in advance but it’s dead easy for an Aussie to go to NZ and if you’ve met Tom, you’d know it wasn’t going to get planned any earlier.
But now I was considering flying over to spend multiple days cross country skiing in the backcountry – I’d never done it before. What if I hated it?
Neither Tom, Gee (Tom’s sister) or Rick (oh yeah Rick’s coming now, that cool?) were super experienced backcountry skiers either, so I decided this was my best chance to learn without holding everyone up. This video also helped.
The next weeks were a blur of sourcing (borrowing) niche gear like avalanche probes, googling “How To Ski” and asking for time off (sorry Henry), and before we knew it we were stumbling out of Christchurch Airport, looking for the janky red van that would take us to the Pisa Range.
Home On The Range
We soaked up a banger sunrise in Wanaka (8.00am sunrises are a good excuse to sleep in) before piling in the van to drive to the Snow Farm, the cross country ski area where we’d begin our schlep. As we wound up the side of the valley our nerves were cooled by a soothing power-ballad blasting over ‘The Rock FM’ – New Zealand’s version of Triple M. The excitement of two weeks’ hurried preparation had us set to burst.
Before heading off, Tom, who’s been studying mountain safety in New Zealand, ran us through how to use avalanche beacons and carry out a rescue using them with a probe and shovel. If you’re heading into the backcountry in winter these are essential skills, even in Australia. We each carried a beacon, probe and shovel, which had us feeling like proper badasses before we’d even left the carpark.
Hitting the trail I was already down to my t-shirt, which seemed like a rad idea until I took my first tumble into soft snow and damn near froze my forearms off. Not-so-pro-tip for snowy tumbles – get your backpack off asap or getting up is going to be a mission. Cheers for the tip Gee, no thanks for laughing at me floundering in a foot of snow for 5 minutes before suggesting it!
After lunch we completely left the resort boundaries and began our ascent to Kirtle Burn hut. The sun was out as we wound up the valley with the crisp wind on our faces and the Crown Mountain Range completing the view at our backs.
Finally, we crested the rise at the end of the valley and laid eyes upon our hut. Gee hastily whipped off her skins to descend, brutally finding out the hard way that there was a final sharp ascent before the final approach to the hut. Classic. I skied on to the hut without her.
Kirtle Burn Hut
Kirtle Burn Hut is a Department of Conservation hut used by trampers (hikers) and cross-country skiers. Hut passes can be purchased for $5 per person, per night but you can’t book ahead. We took a tent just in case the hut was full (or we got lost) but luckily the 9-bed hut was empty. Shenanigans were on the menu.
We gorged on snacks, drank a bit of mulled wine and barely noticed the lack of heating because we were in our sleeping bags by 8.
Amateur Tip: It’s worth taking some kind of hut shoe as the floor inevitably gets wet and cold and you’ll already never want to see your ski boots again.
Bonus Tip: Want to take your sandals but know they’re useless for the walk to the toilet? Simple! Just pack some snowshoes and strap in. Don’t forget your socks!
Day 2 – Fresh Tracks For The Taking
After an essential late start and a borderline illegal quantity of coffee, we were ready to ski.
Out the window the sun was just peeking over a large rolling hill where a fresh layer of snow was begging for feeble turns from our janky skis.
By the time we got our shit together a bunch of cloud had rolled in, but Professor Tom would not be rushed. We were digging a snow pit and learning about the snowpack, damnit!
Despite my toddleresque impatience to get up the hill, it was actually pretty rad to dig down into the snow, check out the way different layers had formed and get confident that what we were skiing was going to be stable.
Then it was ski time. And it was surreal. Here we were, kilometres from anyone in New Zealand, turning through virgin snow on the way to our own private hut.
‘It’s crazy that more people don’t do this isn’t it?’ – Gee said as we took in a rare gap in the clouds and gazed out over the sharp peaks of the Cardrona Skifields.
At the time, I brought up our pricey waterproof and warm gear, our borrowed avalanche kit and our somewhat broad interpretation of ‘fun’.
Looking back though, it is kind of crazy. The cost of the entire trip probably slid in under a grand (including flights), the nav and safety skills mostly translated from hiking (though some training in backcountry and avalanche safety is highly recommended, whether it’s through a mate or a course) and our physical fitness wasn’t world-record breaking. If you want to do this trip it’s more than possible – even if you’ve never actually skied before – like me.
Catching Sunset Turns
After an extended lunch and coffee session indoors we decided to head up the hill behind Kirtle Burn Hut before the early sunset of around 4.30pm.
Slogging up the hill through the haze I could just make out the heavy layer of clouds extending to the west above Cardrona. There, above the jaunty peaks, was a gap. If it stayed surely the sun would pass through ever so briefly, and hit me with the juicy golden hour. Hucking a DSLR borrowed from Rach Dimond and inspired by Adrian Mascenon’s snow photography on a recent trip, I schleped up the hill.
At the top, alas, the sun was still obscured, and we settled for vague views deeper into the Pisa Range, punctuated by blasts of cold wind.
Then, gold. The bleak white gave way to a radiant hue so vivid that I had to check that my goggles weren’t on. They weren’t, and every surface was beaming sunlight with gusto.
We pushed off and skied through last light. As we arrived at the hut the sun dipped below the horizon.
Day 3 – White Out
Waking early to give us enough time to make it out to the car, we immediately knew that today was going to be more difficult. The hut could have been floating in that weird white room from Harry Potter (shit did we all die yesterday?), such was the thickness of the cloud.
We’d brought a GPS to help speed up our map and compass work in the event of a whiteout – so we plotted a route and layered up for a chilly day on the range.
There’s not much to be said about traversing in a whiteout. There’s not much to see, it’s usually windy so you can’t really talk and you’re constantly checking that you’re not about to collapse a hidden cornice.
We smashed food behind a rock outcrop before finally descending out of the wind and white, rueing the weight of our packs as we fell into soft snow.
Hitting the groomed trail of the Snow Farm was sweet relief. A blur of left-leg, right-leg and we were at the van, ripping into it for food, fresh clothes and rum. It was time to hit the West Coast.
Kirtle Burn Hut is a fantastic DOC hut and this trip is perfect for entry-level backcountry travel. Everyone I’ve talked to about this trip has gone starry-eyed and mumbled incoherently about how they ‘wished they could do that’. Short answer: you can. So bloody-well get planning.
- Avalanche beacon
- Avalanche probe
- Snow shovels
- 4 season tent
- Skis / splitboard and poles
- Snow goggles
- Waterproof layers
- Warm layers: baselayers, insulated jackets and down.
- Good waterproof gloves
- Head torch
- Stove that can cope with cold conditions
- GPS, physical maps and a compass
- Mulled wine
- Warm sleeping bag & mat
How To Get There
Turn off Cardrona Valley Road onto Tuohys Gully Road, then take a left up Snow Farm Access Road until your reach the carpark. The road is dirt and can be covered in snow and ice, so 4WD and/or snow chains is recommended. There’s a small fee for leaving your car in the carpark and using the access trails, check in with reception when you arrive.
It’s a 45-minute drive from Wanaka and a 1-hour 20-minute drive from Queenstown.
Intermediate – the skiing out to this hut is technically quite easy, but backcountry conditions can be unpredictable. With good planning and fitness this trip is very achievable.
Distance Covered / Elevation Gained
12km and about 350m of elevation gain to the hut at 1800m. The return journey is downhill!
Fly, paddle or bloody-well swim to New Zealand right now