Late winter and spring is the prime time for ski mountaineering objectives in NZ’s Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. During this time seasonal snow depths are high, crevasses are generally well bridged with supportive snow and avalanche hazards can stabilise quickly. This allows ski and splitboard mountaineers to have fast travel and easy access to the ascents and descents NZ’s classic peaks. Undertaking these mountaineering objectives requires a broad range of technical skills and knowledge of both skiing or splitboard and mountaineering.
Some of the key skills required for staying safe and achieving ski mountaineering ascents and descents include:
Skiing and Snowboarding Skills
You’ll need to be a competent skier or snowboarder, with strong downhill skiing or riding skills. Style isn’t as important as the ability to travel through a variety of terrain and snow conditions efficiently and in control. Furthermore, downhill travel doesn’t always have to be smooth or fast, but reliably strong, steady, and in control. There are no shortcuts to time spent lapping the ski field lifts and traveling on off-piste terrain in all snow types of conditions to prepare yourself for the ski mountaineering season.
You’ll need to have a good understanding of basic mountaineering skills. This includes snowcraft and the use of crampons and ice axe, rope handling, pitching and abseiling, and building timely and reliable anchors. In addition the more nuanced skills of trip planning, terrain analysis, route finding, navigation, and glacier travel.
Movement and ropework skills picked up from rock climbing or summer mountaineering are easily transferable to ski mountaineering.
Avalanche Safety Skills
Avalanche safety is an essential skill for ski mountaineering. You’ll need to know how to recognise and assess avalanche conditions and make good decisions on travel. Additionally, all of your team members will need to be well practised with search and rescue techniques. In the event of a member of your party being involved in an avalanche, the chance of survival depends on the actions of their team members. This includes the use of avalanche transceivers, shovels, and probes.
Learning to manage avalanche risk is a lifelong pursuit. It pays to continually update your knowledge and maintain currency. You can practice with your friends before and during the season or undertake professionally run avalanche skills courses or a refresher course to stay abreast of the latest techniques.
Mountaineering terrain can increase the consequence of even a small avalanche. More information can be found on our article: Avalanche Skills for Mountaineers.
Ski mountaineering requires a moderate to high level of fitness for both uphill and downhill travel. During the season, you can maintain your fitness by both skiing and riding within the ski field and touring in the backcountry. Your gains are made pre-season and a regime of cross-training, such as running and mountain biking, as well as strengthening and injury prevention exercises.
There is a lot of advice out there on formulating a specific training plan for your objectives. This one is up to you.
You’ll need to be able to use uphill touring equipment such as skins, touring bindings, and ski crampons. This includes building up a good awareness of the current and changing conditions. It is especially important to be able to anticipate when and how to transition between different modes of travel.
Touring has a steep learning curve. This is especially the case for those new to touring equipment and dealing with the idiosyncrasies of equipment management and transitions. Picking up tips and tricks from experienced friends or undertaking a one or multi-day ski or splitboard touring course helps accelerate the learning and progression.
For more information on roping up for glacier travel and moving over a glacier on skis or a splitboard, check out: Essential Skills for Glacier Ski Touring.
Emergency and First Aid
All mountain activities include an element of risk. It’s important to have a good understanding of emergency procedures to deal with common issues from equipment failure to avalanche involvement and crevasse fall.
You’ll need to be familiar with everything from equipment repair and maintenance in the field through to avalanche search and rescue and crevasse rescue. You and your team members must be prepared for companion rescue, administer basic first aid, and manage injuries in remote settings. In the high mountains, weather and conditions can mean that outside assistance might not be readily available.
For information on crevasse rescue systems check out our Glacier Ski Touring Crevasse Rescue.
The ski mountaineering skills discussed here can be introduced on a series of local courses throughout the winter. This prepares you for the spring season. Alternatively, Wānaka Mountain Guides’ dedicated Ski Mountaineering Course runs during September and October. This course caters to aspiring ski or splitboard mountaineers.
Ski Mountaineering Courses are based on the high glaciers around Aoraki / Mount Cook. As a result, participants are immersed in the big mountains, dealing with actual conditions and hazards. Get in touch to join a group or private course.