An Introduction to Snowshoeing in New Zealand

New Zealand has a vast potential for snowshoeing. The initial colonizers of New Zealand were the Maori and, where possible, the Maori names are presented initially to complement the better-known anglicized names, so New Zealand is known as Aotearoa in Maori.

Lying south and east of Australia, New Zealand consists of two main islands – North Island (Te Ika-a-Maui) and South Island (Te Wai Pounamu) – and a number of smaller outlying islands.  The range of terrain available for snowshoeing is immense with alpine mountain ranges on both main islands.  The best known of these mountain ranges is the Southern Alps (Ka Tiritiri o te Moana).  This is the main alpine range on the South Island and rises directly from the sea on the west coast, culminating in the summit of Mt. Cook (Aoraki) at 3,754 meters (12,316 ft).

New Zealand is latterly, perhaps, better known for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy of movies with their stunning scenery; however, there is a long and proud tradition of self-reliant mountaineering here too, with Sir Edmund Hillary and the first ascent of Mount Everest as its epitome.  Accessing the high country in New Zealand can form the biggest difficulty in any trip, such that popular venues for snowshoeing have tended to develop around the access routes provided by the ski resorts, with the use of helicopter access for more remote adventures.

Arguably, the finest accessible snowshoeing terrain is to be found on the Pisa Range in Otago, on the South Island.  There are daily direct international flights into Queenstown’s international airport with a wide range of accommodation available there or in nearby Wanaka.  Queenstown’s reputation as the adrenalin capital of the Southern Hemisphere is well-deserved and the visitor is able to select from a wide range of adventurous activities to complement their snowshoeing trip.

Our exploration of NZ snowshoeing begins at the dedicated Nordic sport facilities of the Waiorau Snow Farm above the Cardrona Valley, between Queenstown and Wanaka. Situated at just over 1,530m, the centre provides very easy access to explore the rolling terrain and high alpine plateaus with their schist tors, as well as information on conditions, rental facilities for snowshoe equipment, accommodation and meals.  A network of backcountry huts allow adventurers the prospect of extended mountain journeys and the highest point of the range, Mt. Pisa at 1,964m (6,444ft), are easily within reach of a fit and capable party.

To meet the increasing popularity of snowshoeing in NZ, a network of snowshoe routes is being developed this season using a European style of signage within the Snow Farm boundaries, offering the option of tours from a couple of hours to overnight expeditions.  Here too, the competitive snowshoe enthusiast can engage in snowshoe biathlon as the sport goes from strength to strength in NZ.

However, it is the attraction of the unpatrolled terrain outside of the Snow Farm, which is the biggest draw for any experienced snowshoe enthusiast.  This rolling terrain holds the key for snowshoeing here, rarely reaching the critical angles for avalanches and with few objectively dangerous terrain features, the possibilities for ascents and descents in snowshoes are limited only by the imagination.

Leaving the environs of the Snow Farm on a journey to reach Mt Pisa, I am always reminded of the arctic tundra of Scandinavia or the Grampian Cairngorm in Scotland.  The schist tor summits on these block mountains, typical of Central Otago, are the remnants of New Zealand’s original peneplain landscape upthrust by tectonic plate collision.  It is a treeless alpine environment in white ermine powder, beneath which alpine plant communities struggle to maintain their existence in the harsh winter conditions.

Yet, they aren’t the only evidence of nature here, as chamois, goats, wild pigs, hare, rabbit, hedgehogs and wild cats roam freely.  Gold miners left their marks here too, somehow managing to retain a toehold in the frozen land while sifting the underlying alluvial deposits for the mother lode.

Our initial descent is into the headwater area of the Roaring Meg stream, itself named after another gold-mining pioneer, before ascending the slopes above the headwaters.  The terrain allows the line to reflect the conditions underfoot, with the freedom to improvise and explore the possibilities.  The defining features are the water courses, acting like handrails to the ridges thrown down from the high plateau.

An overnight stay in a backcountry hut extends the time spent here, with accommodation options to suit all budgets.  An early start rewards the diligent, as the finite winter light holds the prospect of time for photography and an unforced descent.  As with all good ascents, the first view of the summit is denied until it has been earned through commitment to the challenge.  The parade of false summits falls away as the vista unfolds, north to Mt. Cook, west to Mt. Aspiring – the southern Matterhorn, east to the Old Man Range, then finally south to the Remarkables.  There is time to linger and savor the moment before being drawn back down to the rewards of shelter, food and company, perhaps a local appellation vin chaud at the hut or the Nordic center?

The changeable maritime climate, snow conditions ranging from powder to refrozen snow/ice, and the prospect of committing yourself in this environment combine to provide the challenge, while the spectacular 360 degree mountain panoramas of the South Island, the environmental aesthetic and that sense of immense personal satisfaction are the ultimate reward.

Contact Details

The author is a UIMLA International Mountain Leader living in Wanaka, New Zealand – contact actionisthemsg@gmail.com.

Snow Farm NZ http://www.snowfarmnz.com run guided snowshoe tours exploring the ecology, geology and transhumance of the Pisa Range.

Aspiring Guides http://www.aspiringguides.com run guided snowshoe tours to the summits of the Pisa Range and elsewhere in New Zealand.

About the author

Avatar

Jan Bailey