I headed to the West Coast with Mac & Lubos for a week’s ski-touring on the Franz Josef neve, and an epic trip it was for me, on my first time high on the West Coast glaciers.
While the weather was what you could call pretty spectacular for the West Coast, the bitterly cold southerly wind had an impact on the first half of the week, and blew most of the new snow away, meaning we certainly were not skiing endless billowing mountains of fresh pow.
We’d hoped to get a helo ride straight up to Centennial Hut at 2400m on our first day (Saturday), but the cloud put paid to that idea with the result of the pilot putting us down at Almer Hut (1700m) on the side of the Franz Josef glacier for the night, with the promise to come back and “bump” us up to Centennial Hut when he could.
Historic Almer Hut, built in 1953 and lovingly maintained by DOC, required a fair bit of digging out (as did it’s associated longdrop!), but the three of us had a reasonably snug night there.
With a bit of nagging on the hut radio, and after taking a scenic flight up himself to check the weather conditions, the pilot from Franz Heliservices came back around midday on the Sunday and dropped us up to Centennial about 15 minutes before the cloud descended again and we were hut-bound in high winds and low temperatures for the next 24 hours.
There was plenty of literature at Centennial Hut, and we also kept warm practising crevasse rescue techniques inside the hut and melting snow for water as the hut water tank was well-frozen.
The temperature INSIDE the double-glazed hut was also some degrees below freezing, and a certain amount of spindrift still managed to find its way inside, building up on some of the windowsills.
By Monday afternoon, the weather cleared enough for an exploratory ski across to Newton Saddle giving views across to Pioneer Hut at the top of the Fox Glacier, and the first introduction to the need to leave something in the tank for the final skin back up to Centennial Hut at the end of a day out.
The wind remained strong enough for us to end up having Centennial Hut to ourselves for 3 nights because helicopter flights couldn’t land.
Tuesday saw us explore the other direction, with some nice turns near the hut and across the neve to Newton Rocks and back.
It’s reasonably safe skiing for large parts as the permanent snowfields at the top of the glaciers are not heavily crevassed until they start tumbling down the steeper, narrower Fox & Franz valleys.
Wednesday saw us skin up to an unnamed saddle just south of Mt Jervois on the Main Divide giving us stunning views down to the Tasman Glacier and out towards Mt Cook Village/Airfield.
Had some lovely turns down from the saddle on the nicest snow of the week before a long skin across towards an easy ascent of Mt Von Bulow which also gave great views of Mt Tasman and north along the West Coast for a long way.
Snow quality from this point on was not great with fairly wind-affected crust and sastrugi proving a little tiring.
We were lucky enough to experience two fantastic West Coast sunsets from the perfect vantage point of Centennial Hut and the moonless evenings also meant the stars were stunning.
With twelve in Centennial Hut on Wednesday night and more coming in on Thursday, we decided to ski back down with heavy packs to spend a last night at Almer Hut (where there also ended up being eleven of us), but calmer weather during the second half of the week meant another beautiful West Coast sun setting over Almer Hut, and a short crampon walk down on to the Franz Josef glacier on Friday morning before flying back out in time for a well-earned pub lunch in the sun at Franz Josef Village and the drive back home.