Balfour Glacier and the perfect powder
If you want the best powder, you’re going to have to put in the work to get it. This is no problem for Franz Josef Guides Tai and AJ who did an epic mission to Balfour Glacier and Silverhorn last Winter for some of the best powder around. You’ve got to know what you’re doing when you head into this country and luckily these mountain men know what they’re doing. Read on for Tai’s story with some stunning photos.
Winter Silverhorn Ascent
By Tai Naka
At the end of August 2013 myself and fellow Franz Josef Glacier Guide, AJ booked 7 days off to hike to Pioneer Hut, located at the top of Fox Glacier. With our mutual friend Steve, we packed a 6 seater helicopter with climbing gear, skiing gear, 3 boxes of food and 5 different kinds of drinks ready for a week in snowy mountains in the middle of winter.
The first couple of days we went skiing around the hut and checking conditions of the peaks we wanted to climb or ski. There was only one day that we were stuck inside the hut because of a storm but the next day a cold southerly brought some fresh snow for us, and the conditions were great for skiing.
Skiing on glaciers is a lot different from ski fields. There are no chair lifts so you have to hike for every turn. This may sound tiring but in return there is no waiting in queues and you can ski anywhere you can get to with your own feet.
There are no ski patrols here either. That means no avalanche control work and if you are in trouble no one comes to help you immediately. So you should be out there with someone who you can trust and is able to be of help in any situation.
On the fifth day we set off to visit Balfour Glacier. It’s about 7km south west of Pioneer Hut and it’s famous for its remoteness and difficult access. We crossed two glaciers and arrived at Katies Col, from here we traversed a snow slope which was a perfect angle for avalanches and there is a big ice cliff underneath our feet. Even a small avalanche could sweep us down onto a mix of broken ice blocks and deep crevasses. So the conditions needed to be right before we attempted it.
We spent some time checking the snow stability and decided to keep going. We crossed one at a time so it would be less weight on the snowpack. We did some hairy side slipping on ice and “must-make-it turns” and then made it to Balfour Glacier.
The sun was shining and reflecting off the Tasman Sea behind us. We were surrounded by beautiful snow covered mountain ranges with very steep faces. This area is known as some of the hardest alpine climbing in New Zealand.
We dropped our backpacks and stopped for lunch. I could just spend all day enjoying the views and thinking about where to climb and ski next. It is mind blowing to see how many possibilities are out here. I felt like I just opened the door onto a room full of new toys and I just did not know where to start.
Soon it was 3pm. AJ started to descend back to the hut, but Steve and I had decided to climb Silverhorn (3300m), which is on the south side of the second highest peak Mt Tasman. We didn’t have much sunlight left, so we needed to move fast. There were a few ice cliffs and crevasses above us so we did lots of zigzags to avoid these obstacles.
We reached the peak about 6pm. With the short winter daylight, the sun was just coming down over the sea. The next half hour was just magical. The colour of the sunset was changing constantly from yellow to orange to red to pink to purple, painting the whole Southern Alps with its colours.
We wished we could stay here longer. But we knew the end of this colour spectrum was black so we clipped our skis on and started to head down. Later on we found out that there are no records of anyone skiing this peak and that this was the first ski descent of Silverhorn.
When we got back to Fox Glacier it was dark. The stars were out and we spotted a number of shooting stars. Then we saw a strange flashing light on the horizon. It was AJ’s headlight helping us navigate through the huge snowfield in the dark.
We arrived at the hut at 11pm. What a nice guy AJ was. He had cooked dinner for us and the beer had been kept cold in the snow. Today was AJ’s birthday and we celebrated with a bottle of whisky and a cocktail. After 14 hours of climbing and skiing, it wasn’t long before we were wiped out. That was definitely one of the most memorable trips of 2013 and it has me psyched to do more in 2014!