A JOURNEY INTO THE SOUTHERN ALPS Words and photos by Shane Orchard IT’S NOT EVERY DAY THE CHANCE COMES ABOUT to round up eight splitboarders, and take the whole show to a remote backcountry location. But that’s just what happened when Richard Harcourt from Splitn2 called me up. He was interested in breaking new ground in every sense, and aside from product testing his New Zealand made splitboards, we were talking location, location, location. With a radar the size of the South Island we were soon discussing the Gardens of Eden and Allah, in the Adams Wilderness Area; about as remote as it gets, and masses of snow. It’s one of those ‘wouldn’t it be nice to get there one day’, kind of places. The Gardens themselves, or maybe that should be ‘Snow Gardens’, are a couple of big glaciers, each nearly 10k long. They’re joined at one end like two big plateaus loaded with snow and peaks all around. It was perfect terrain for splitboards; big and expansive and apparently quite rideable. With glaciers to be negotiated, steep faces, and no doubt some firm ice, it would certainly be a good test of the board’s abilities. Plus we’d be relying on them to get us in there, and eventually, back out. True to its name, the Wilderness Area has wildness written all over it. John Pascoe is the acknowledged first explorer of these parts and made the first crossing of the Garden of Eden to the Adams River and eventually out to the West Coast. Of that trip he wrote “…all the terrors of a West Coast hell were condensed into the first gorge… it seemed appropriate to name this gorge ‘Eblis’ after a monarch of the spirits of evil!” With that in mind we were definitely in favour of the cushy fly-in option, which was all but essential to avoid days of river bashing to get into these parts. Pascoe’s legacy would be with us though, in the form of the names he left behind with features like Satan’s Col, Beelzebub Icefall and The Great Unknown. The fact that very few people visit the area also adds the mysterious air about it, and the Wilderness status has helped keep things that way. With no huts or tracks in the area that also meant packing in everything we’d need to deal with whatever came our way. Our first job was finding out more about what to expect and work up a game plan for getting around. Old mag articles and blog sites came in handy and we got a bunch of maps and pics together to help check out the potential. Of all the pictures we found, a cover shot on an old FMC mag showed us some real potential in the form of Mt. Kensington, and some trip reports showed up some other nice lines. Even though Kensington was on the far west side of the Garden, it really caught our imagination with its
Beautiful if youâ€™re on the right line... dangerous if youâ€™re not. Colin hits one of the incredible serac fields on Newton Peak.
After 40 hours trapped in a tent, a little sunshine sure goes down well. When we emerged to a perfect rainbow, no wind and fresh snow all around, it was like the gods were smiling again.
steep west face and plenty of skiable lines perched above the bush-clad West Coast. So we penciled that zone for a possible look, along with Newton Peak and a ridge of smaller peaks sitting between the two Gardens, which would be closer to camp. D-day approached and the team had assembled from all over to sort through piles of gear and get packed up. Working out what not to take was the trick and there was also a small glitch to think about in the form of a big front, which we were going to have to weather somewhere up on the ice. It wasn’t going to be a dream run weather-wise but this was the only chance to get the team together so we’d all decided it was game on and we’d be committed to the real deal. At least the weather was clearing again at the end of the trip so we had a good chance of getting out on time, which was a big plus for those with jobs. Getting stuck in there was still a distinct possibility so we had the mountain radio on board to help play cat and mouse with the weather and plan our eventual extraction from one the river valleys out east. We settled for coming in from the east side too, which would give us a chance to sort out the route out and with any luck find a rideable one. It was a grey day that first one and the flight in was tricky with dodgy weather hanging about the valleys and only one landing zone in the area to aim for. The skies were clearing though and the main jobs were simply getting up to the Garden, getting in position, and digging a great big hole. That was the one we were burying the tents in! We knew we weren’t going to get far with our heavy loads so from the get-go opted to set-up a base camp on the edge of the Garden and leave the exploring for another day. Since there was also avalanche hazard to be avoided with a storm on the way, our chosen site was in the middle of some flat ground with zero shelter available. That meant planning a tent setup for a big storm out on the flat not quite knowing where to expect the big winds to come from. So our plan involved digging down and building some walls, which at least helped with the main worry of literally getting blown away! Once the digging was done the sun had fully come out and good weather was upon us. Newton Peak was the closest chunk of mountain around and so it was time to skin up the splitters and take a look around. Having 8 splitters to share the lead made short work of the uphill and soon enough we’d skinned to the ridge. The view off the other side took in the Garden of Allah and out to the West Coast, and right away we started finding some goods. In front of us two big couloirs joined before dropping out of sight to the west and in the middle of one was a crazy spine feature. You couldn’t ask for better proving ground to check if these boards were going to perform downhill as well as up. Colin soon saw the potential and stepped up to give it a go, dropping in with ice axe at the ready. The first test had been passed and the splitboards were on the money. By the time we got back to camp Richard was grinning like Cheshire cat! We were here and it was game on. The next day was our one big chance in the small window of opportunity to go deeper and explore. Our day dawned crisp and clear and first up it was time to ride the Garden, and from there get all the way to Mt. Kensington and back in a day. Aoraki Mt. Cook sat off to the left in the distance and the nearby peaks rolled on by as we navigated around the flat spots, putting 3kms between us and camp in no time. From there we started up Mt. Farrar knowing that we’d be climbing it twice that day, once there and once
“…we were soon turned around and practicing our whiteout navigation to get back to camp. Therein we stayed as the storm grew in intensity…”
Ruari finds a hanging ice shelf and takes on the only sensible exit.
On top of world on the Garden of Eden, with 3km of glacier riding to kick off the day. Two hours later and we’d be on top of Mt. Farrar, the peak in the distance.
on the way back! There was no better way to Kensington than over the top of that thing and at least it meant we were going to ride both sides of it too. Mt. Kensington didn’t disappoint one bit with the summit peak sitting at the end of a twisted little ridge, dropping into steeps on three sides. It took a while to tear ourselves away from that place, and it would sure be nice to get back there with few spare days in hand. We consoled ourselves with a short 100m chute down the west face onto a hanging snowfield just to say we’d been there before climbing back to summit ridge and heading for home. From that point we still had the north faces of Kensington, Hulka and Farrar to ride, all beautifully lined up in the direction of camp. At the end of that we were dropping Farrar in a golden sunset glowing through purple valley cloud minutes before being shrouded in an eerie half light down on the flats at Angel Col. A couple hours by head torch later the splitboards delivered us back to camp happy and tired in the memory of good day and the knowledge that we’d probably see quite a bit of camp in the days to come. That prediction came oh so true. The wind was up and clouds were amassing by next morning, and despite a brave effort to go ride something, we were soon turned around and practicing our whiteout navigation to get back to camp. Therein we stayed as the storm grew in intensity, though we did manage some adventurous storm cooking that night, before retreating to the tents for a solid 40-hour stint! That’s right, it was two days before we ventured out of those tents again, after witnessing an awesome electrical storm complete with massive hail storm which dumped over foot of pure hail and a little bit of snow. The tents were all but buried and by then somewhat squashed with the weight of the stuff, but when we emerged it was to a fresh glacier complete with a big rainbow that said “one more day to ride”. We were stoked to get this last opportunity to check out Newton Peak and venture along to Mt. Tyndall, which had an exposed blind entry line that we’d looked at every day and couldn’t be left unridden. When the time came to pack up camp and stage our exit, the sun was still with us – though by then we were well aware of the thick valley cloud to contend with not far below. We hoped it would be clear lower down for the grand finale last run, which was holding snow all the way down into the Francis valley. We had the option of known ground in the Wee McGregor Glacier, or a more adventurous line off the end of the Garden down the Colin Campbell glacier, which we’d scoped on the way in. With the top section looking ominous either way, we took the original plan relying on memory to negotiate the Colin Campbell icefall, which was the entrance to a massive valley run below. Picking our way through the whiteout the terrain materialized as expected leading us down to a series of avalanche chutes with improving visibility before finding a field of crazy ice features to weave around, all done in big pack style. It was a fitting end to the day, another great line and best still, it took us where we wanted to go. We came to a halt on the last piece of snow, which was conveniently flat, then it was a matter of hoping our radio line to the outside world would do the rest. Darkness wasn’t far off, but then the faint yet unmistakable sound of chopper was upon us. He rounded the corner into our valley, working his way uphill, and seemed genuinely surprised to spot our ragged ensemble waving him down to our letter ‘H’ now stomped out in the snow. It had been a solid adventure to that point with its fair share of tensions and challenges, and you could see a sense relief washing over the faces of the crew. The threat of pitching tents in the boulderstrewn valley and sleeping in wet gear was over and soon we’d be on our way back to civilization where the Gardens would be but a memory of our past few days. As they said in Art of Flight, “If you want authenticity, you have to experience it.” We are well blessed in New Zealand for opportunities to do just that. If you want something really wild then our wilderness areas are as authentic as they come. Go there and you’ll come home a little more experienced for sure.
“Mt. Kensington didn’t disappoint one bit with the summit peak sitting at the end of a twisted little ridge, dropping into steeps on three sides.”
Even with so many features around, it takes a trained eye to avoid a tangle with glacier ice. Colin scoped this step-down before stepping up to test his theory.
Published on Apr 19, 2013
8 splitboarders head deep into the NZ Southern Alps on Splitboards, to test boards developed by SPLITN2.COM and battle a heck of a storm.