My eyebrows tingled with static electricity. Lightning flashed repeatedly outside the windows and the inevitable crash of thunder was muffled by raging wind. My friend Nick and I were trying to sleep in the loft of a giant metal shelter known as the Kelman Hut, perched at 8,000 feet on a ridge in the middle of the Southern Alps of New Zealand. A large and powerful storm was swirling in off the Tasman Sea and colliding with our remote and exposed location. Panicked, we moved to the lower level of the hut and tried to insulate ourselves with foam pads and wool blankets. As we sat there wild-eyed and terrified, I thought to myself, this might be the end.
The next morning, despite my grim prediction, we woke alive. The snow and wind persisted but the violent electrical storm had moved on. We spent three more days stuck, drinking coffee, rereading magazines, pacing, and kicking around our homemade Hacky Sack—couscous, raisins, and a sacrificed sock—to pass the time.
When the skies eventually cleared, we tunneled out of the Kelman Hut to find three feet of fresh snow. Downvalley, New Zealand’s tallest peak, Mount Cook—at 12,218 feet—was caked. I thought about Andreas Fransson and Magnus Kastengren. A week earlier we’d shared a hut in Mount Cook Village and volleyed beta and psych. Andreas and Magnus were hoping to ski The Cloud Piercer itself, Aoraki, or Mount Cook. They invited Nick and me to join them and, although very tempted, we declined. I figured we needed to have a good look at more aspects and elevations before committing to that monumental task.
From the Kelman Hut, Nick and I climbed to the ridgeline before dropping into a sea of boot-top powder. Our run was the 16-mile- long Tasman Glacier, the largest and longest glacier in the country. Locals say you can read an entire newspaper during the descent. I soaked it in, feeling very fortunate to be skiing such an incredible route, on an island in the middle of the South Pacific, with such a good friend.
I’ve done eight extended ski trips to New Zealand, though never because I thought it was going to be easy—the place is filled with challenge. The extreme weather, along with the country’s rugged and diverse topography, makes backcountry skiing in New Zealand formidable but rich. New Zealand is home to over 3,000 glaciers, most of them near the Main Divide of the Southern Alps.
When Nick and I got back to Wanaka, we parted ways and I drove north back to Mount Cook Village to rendezvous with my good friends Gary and Lucy. As we drove toward the highest mountains at sunrise, the water of Lake Pukaki was sheer glass. Pukaki’s water comes from the Tasman Glacier and it’s full of finely ground rock pigments known as “rock flour,” which gives the water its vivid turquoise color. The horizon was cloudless. The wind was like a vacuum. Days like this don’t happen often in New Zealand’s spring; most of the time the weather is on par with the storms we experienced at the Kelman Hut. If ever there were a day to ski a big line, it would have certainly been that day.
Gary and Lucy and I made the classic two-day ski traverse over Ball Pass, just off the flanks of Mount Cook, on phenomenal corn and exited via the Hooker Valley.
Immediately afterward, we caught the news: The day before, Magnus Kastengren had fallen to his death approaching the Caroline Face of Mount Cook with Andreas. (Just 10 months later, Andreas would die in an avalanche while skiing in Patagonia.) I thought about my own close calls skiing in New Zealand, and how Nick and I had been one “yes” away from having a go at Mount Cook with Andreas and Magnus.
I wondered about how New Zealand would fit into my future. Would I continue to make the annual pilgrimage to ski the incredible peaks in the middle of the South Pacific? Or would I focus on archery and cutting cords of firewood back at home in Montana? Only time will tell.