woensdag 10 december 2014

Into the backcountry

Click here for the Dutch version.

As promised, here a 'little' journal report of the backcountry ski course we did 2 weeks after arriving in New Zealand (that's already a little while ago...but hey, better late then never! ;) ). It was something we'd been looking forward to for ages, and also something we invested quite a lot in, in terms of both money and time.

Mark and I have been skiing since we were very young kids, I exchanged my ski's for a snowboard at age 13 (a decision I still don't regret, even though Mark will never understand :P ). That might sound like a long time, but I have to honestly admit that it was mostly for 1 or 2 weeks a year. The last couple of years we spent longer times in the mountains though (see my blog about the cabin tours), so all in all I think we can still humbly say that we have some experience. On the slópes, that is. Besides hitting the fresh powder next to the slopes and a little sidecountry adventure here and there, our experience has been limited to the groomed, controlled ski area so far. Which is fun (especially when you have 1200 km of prepared slopes like in the Dolomites!) and safe (not unimportant), but we were ready to take the next step.

Mark & me 2 years ago in the Dolomites...probably discussing who to throw
the snowball at ;)





















I'm kinda glad that Mark loves skiing as much as I love snowboarding. It's something I never get enough of. Snowboarding is one of the very few things that make me forget all my worries, slows down my thinking and brings me right into the very moment (and believe me, not many things can do that!). The physical activity, the adventure, the speed, the mountains, the cold...we share a deep passion for these things. So that next step actually came quite natural for both of us; Mark was just as ready to dive into the backcountry as I was. Goodbye long lift queues, goodbye beginner classes zigzagging over the full width of the slope, hello big white powdery wonderland!

Lots of gear necessary for our new quest turned out to be way cheaper in Europe than in New Zealand. Even when you take the extra luggage costs into account, it was still less expensive...so we decided to get most our stuff back at home. You might wonder why we didn't stick with renting all the stuff at first, but we weren't too afraid we would not like backcountry touring after all and end up with lots of useless stuff. Besides, many of the things are kinda 'multi-purpose' when you also like rock climbing, tramping and generally just going on adventures. However, this is not a cheap hobby. We definitely had to make a plan how to divide our saved up funds between the gear, the flight and living in New Zealand. We spent hours and hours online to find the best possibility of each item that would still fit into our budget, track down a Dutch store that had it in stock so we could try it on and find the right size, and then even more hours to find the cheapest online deal for it somewhere in Europe (yeah...not really nice only trying things on in the stores, and then looking up the cheapest place to get it online. But we did buy some stuff in the Dutch stores, so they still made money on us!). Seriously, we got packages from Germany, France, Spain, Austria, the UK..positive thing was, that this took all place during late spring/early summer: best time for big deals, since the winter season is practically over!

Receiving stuff and gear back at home...of course it needed to be tried out.


In the meantime, the winter season was starting in New Zealand, and it was time for us to fly to that other side of the equator with all our stuff. That was quite a challenge, to put it mildly... Just a brief excerpt: taking the stairs with all that luggage quickly proved to be impossible (we had everything stacked on one of those little carts), so the elevator it would be. I have no idea why they make elevators on a big international airport so small, but after we put all our stuff in, we had to tilt the cart on top of it and squeeze ourselves in somewhere...to be literally falling out again (we ánd the cart!) on the next floor. We must have looked like idiots.
Anyway, the luggage got checked through all the way to Queenstown (even though we were flying with different airlines and had several stopovers; thank you for the excellent service Air India!), so for the rest of the trip we didn't have to worry about it anymore.

The first two weeks in New Zealand were spent recovering from a big jetlag. Even though Mark didn't seem to suffer from it as much as I did,  it was still good that we didn't book that backcountry course any day earlier, we needed all energy we regained for it! But more about that later :)
As soon as we arrived in Wanaka (a week after landing in New Zealand), we paid a visit to Adventure Consultant's head office, the company we booked our course with. Here we met Danielle (the office's client liaison) for the first time in real life, after having had lots of email contact with her over the past couple of months. We learned some more details about our course, went over some gear specifics and talked about the weather, which would have a big influence on the way we would spend our course. Being used the European winters and assuming there would be plenty of snow on the glaciers anyway (where the course usually takes place), we thought everything would be alright. Oh, how little did we know yet about the New Zealand weather...

Please ignore the silly face (as usual...).

























In the week before the course I tried to study as much as possible in our WePowder Academy books about avalanche stuff, decision making in the backcountry, weather in the mountains, first aid, etc., so I'd have a sufficient theoretical framework. We got an email from Adventure Consultants telling us who our guide for the course would be: Andy Cole. Some info on him:

Andy started mountaineering while in the Air Force and has worked as Training Officer of SAR in the Air Force. He has worked for the Army Adventure Training Centre running skiing, rock climbing and mountaineering courses in NZ and Survival and Avalanche instruction for Afghanistan deployment training. He has been a Field Trainer for Antartica NZ, a member of the joint US and NZ Antartica SAR team and has assisted with science events in Antartica, one trip as a seal and penguin wrangler!

Now that sounds kinda impressive, doesn't it?! We surely felt safe under the supervision of someone so experienced, but that wasn't all we would need. During the week it slowly dawned on us that the weather might actually really be a problem during our course week; we started checking avalanche.net.nz daily and worried about the stormy, unpredictable forecasts. Our worries turned out to be true, unfortunately.

Van loaded with gear...ready to go!

























Early Monday morning, when we arrived at the AC's head office, totally prepared, heavy packed and ready to go, Andy -after shaking hands and introducing ourselves - told us that going to the glaciers (i.e. Mt Cook National Park or Westland National Park) would not be a good idea. There surely would be a weather window that specific Monday in which we could fly in, but the troubles would start after that: according to the forecasts the weather would be so bad that we would probably spend the rest of the week sheltering in the hut, unable to go out, waiting for another weather window for the helicopter or plane to come pick us up again. Not a very attractive prospect...and we probably should've prepared ourselves better for the chance that this might happen, but we were still quite disappointed. Going to the glaciers would be the very one thing we would never undertake ourselves without first getting some experience under the supervision of a guide. On the other hand, it was also the very one thing we really wanted to learn, because it broadens your backcountry possibilities in New Zealand significantly (especially in a bad winter like this year...regardless of other important circumstances, at least there's almost always enough snow on the glaciers!). Knowing we would still have to pay the full amount for the expensive course, without achieving our most important goal, the main reason we choose to do the course, took quite some effort to come to terms with that Monday morning.

The new plan was to go to the Pisa Range, a lower mountain range nearby Wanaka, with Mount Pisa (1963m) as its highest point. The weather prospect for this area looked a lot better. We would fly in by helicopter, spend 2 or 3 nights there, skin out via Snowfarm on the other side of the Range, and then - depending on the weather - practice some more things in Cardrona, Treblecone (the commercial ski fields) or down in town (if the weather was really bad). Not exactly what we had had in mind...but there was nothing to be done about it anymore. Being able to make wise (and sometimes disappointing!) decisions is a very important part of backcountry safety, so we'd better get accustomed to that as soon as possible ;) We knew Andy had done his very best to come up with a good alternative to still teach us as much as possible, and nobody can control the weather. And I must admit, the awesome helicopter flight definitely helped us to turn the page and start our week with a renewed positive mindset. We both never flew a helicopter before...and it's definitely different from flying in a plane. There's the noise, the feeling of having less of a 'shell' around you and a greater maneuverability compared to an airplane, bigger windows to enjoy the views...and let's not forget the silly conversations between the pilot and our guide over the headsets.

These are the kind of windows you need in a flying machine...way better
sized than the tiny airplane peepholes!

Sprinkled cake?!


















































Flying in on the east side of the range felt like hovering over delicious brown cakes, sprinkled with white sugar. I wanted to dive into them! The flight, taking only 15 minutes, could have taken much longer if it was up to me...but soon the hills became higher and whiter, and we approached the Kirtle Burn hut. Only a small dot at first (and not that much bigger when we stood near), this would be our accommodation for the next 2 or 3 nights.
Andy jumped out of the helicopter to drop part of our luggage at the hut. After he hopped aboard again, the pilot took us to the top of Mount Pisa (1964 m). This saved us from having to skin up there, ánd from having to drag around all of our baggage (including food, sleeping bags, etc.) for the whole day, yay! The three of us jumped on the snow and knelt down on our knees like Andy had instructed us beforehand. Gear (especially snowboards) have a tendency to start flying around in the wind caused by a helicopter’s rotors, something you absolutely do not want to happen. Waving the pilot goodbye, we were now left to our own devices for the next couple of days.

Kirtle Burn Hut, and its tiny toilet behind it.


















Andy started pointing out some highlights (like several mountains and areas) around us, to help Mark and me orientate ourselves a bit. Knowing where you are in the backcountry (and where North, East, South and West are) is extremely important. It will help you determine which slopes might be safe (or not) and where you are on the map; all things that can be lifesaving in some situations! But Andy took it easy, after all we were pretty much inexperienced when it comes to backcountry skiing ;) He started with showing us how to put skins on our skis/snowboard, and off we went: what a strange feeling to have our heels flipping up, and to go UPwards instead of down! My inexperience was showing off already pretty badly; after complaining about how little grip I had when skinning up, Andy started laughing and pointed out I had put my ‘skis’ (both halves of my split board) on wrong…sigh. When you split a splitboard, you have to switch both halves, so the left half is on your right foot, and the right half on the left foot. Well, little did I know!

With both ‘skis’ on the right foot now, we headed east on relatively flat terrain. The east side of the Pisa Range descends in steeper slopes, where you can have some pretty cool runs. The west side of the range flows down way more gradually towards Cardrona Valley, skiing here is more of the ‘touring’ kind (and not extremely suitable for splitboarders). Before dropping in and getting our first taste of New Zealand powder, Andy first showed us some snowpack evaluation techniques. We both dug our holes, searched for unstable layers and performed a compression test. Everything looked safe and stable (good for the snowboarding experience, maybe less for the teaching experience ;)), so we were good to go! Andy explained some things on how to pick a safe line, gave instructions on how and when to follow him, and off we went. I must honestly admit that this run was the very best of the whole week. The snow was absolutely perfect, the slope steep enough to be challenging and the weather just brilliant. Pure joy is what runs through your veins on such a moment, really! It’s like you’re actually floating over soft waves of snow…and the amount of powder that we had during the last 2 years in the Dolomites must have been paying off, because I don’t think I ever carved down so smoothly before (or is it my new board?!).


Lunchtime!


















Once down far enough (according to Andy that is, because I could’ve gone on forever!), it was time to eat some lunch and gather energy for the climb back up. That’s where the problems started… As soon as we switched to skin-mode again and started our ascent, I began experiencing bowel cramps. Just vaguely at first, but pretty quickly they became so horrible that I could barely keep my head together. Lightheaded and a bit nauseous I struggled my way up behind Mark, slower and slower. Mark kept asking if I was all right, but all I could moan was “yes, just keep going”…because after all, that’s what had to be done anyway. And I knew from earlier times that the cramps would eventually go away again, the timing was just extremely inconvenient. This went on for about an hour, until I could barely move up anymore; the cramps sucking up all energy from my whole body, not leaving one bit for the climb up (and believe me: skinning is tiring). When I finally thought I couldn’t do this any longer, it happened.                                                               
I farted. 
I mean, I farted BIG and LOUD.                                                                         
Mark turned around in full surprise, half expecting an avalanche to start running down, caused by the deep rumbling sound that escaped from my body.                                          
But oh, the relief. Almost instantly! Andy was deeply impressed by my ‘rocket power’ (his words) as well, and reminded me of it for the rest of the week. If you were still imagining me as a ‘cool, adventurous outdoor girl’ after my skinning debacle, it’s probably completely ruined by now ;)


Skinning back to the hut.


















Back at the hut we stalled our skis and board, wiped the snow off our boots and went in to install ourselves for the night. New Zealand has an impressive hut system (over 900!), maintained by the Department of Conservation. Most of them are just very basic, not much more than a shelter with a toilet outside. There are bunk beds inside with matrasses, often a table and some chairs or a bench, and a steel countertop to cook your food on…but that’s pretty much it. If you’re lucky, there’s a fireplace, but that was not the case in our hut (Kirtle Burn Hut), meaning that it was more or less as cold inside as it was outside. Time to test out our brand new sleeping bags, designed to keep us warm at 0 to minus 15 degrees Celsius. While we changed ourselves into dry clothes and created a comfortable place to sleep, Andy set up his little cooker and made us a hot cup of coffee. What a treat to fold our hands around the steaming cups, curled up in our sleeping bags while our exhaled breaths formed little clouds in front of our mouths.



The interior of the Kirtle Burn Hut. 


































Andy proved that cooking with limited supplies is no excuse to not serve an excellent and nutritious meal. In the meantime he gave us plenty of opportunity to ask questions about the day, evaluate decisions we made and explain more about backcountry skiing in general. It didn’t take long though before we slowly became more and more quiet, completely exhausted of all the physical activity. Making pillows of some dry clothes, we settled down into our sleeping bags, our voices lowering into whispers. We discussed the intriguing question if the advised temperature for a specific sleeping bag is tested with or without clothes (pajama’s) on…even Andy didn’t know the answer. We wouldn’t have to wait long before getting an answer to it though. Mark put on about three layers of clothes before crawling into his sleeping bag, but during the night – slowly, one by one – all clothes were thrown out of the bag with a big sigh and some mumbled complaining about how hot is was (in a zero degrees Celsius hut…can you imagine?!). Yep, you can sleep bare naked in our 0 to -15 bags and still stay warm :)


Orange mummies with burnt faces of a long day in the sun :)


















The next day brought some fresh snow and sun in the morning. Andy decided it would be a good day to skin towards Column Rocks, south of the Kirtle Burn Hut. Before heading off though, we’d need to get some fuel for the day: a high-calorie breakfast made of nuts, honey, sugar, cinnamon, whole oats and yoghurt. A big bowl full of it. I tell you what, my stomach is not AT ALL prepared for this amount of calories early in the morning. I struggled so much to even keep it in, but Andy was very strict and would not take back my bowl before it was empty. My goodness what a disaster (another thing Andy could tease me with), every bite/sip I took my stomach just wanted to throw right out again! It was a difficult start of another long and tough day that we enjoyed nonetheless. I slowly began to find a kind of skinning rhythm. By far not perfect yet, but I realized that if I wanted to keep up with the boys and make it through the whole day, I had to settle into my own, steady pace. Andy also kept emphasizing that today my goal was to ‘transition as fast as possible from skinning to snowboarding mode and back’. Yeah…imagine Andy saying this to me the moment I arrive to a ridge (at last!), just regaining my breath and beyond happy I can stand still for a moment…can you believe I could kick him in the butt on these moments? Haha! But I did my best and indeed became faster and more efficient, earning Andy’s compliments as a result. Hey, how’s that for rocket power?!

The weather near Column Rocks became windy, the sun disappeared and when we sat at the rocks to have lunch Andy commanded us to put on our down jackets immediately. It felt so unnatural, sweating as we were from the long way up…but some lessons are quickly learned. It didn’t take more than 2 minutes to be almost shivering even in our down jackets. These are the little things in the backcountry that can be dangerous, that you constantly have to be aware of. Danger can lurk just around the corner, even if it seems to be something very small or unimportant. You simply don’t have the luxury of permitting yourself to make stupid little mistakes. This might seem exaggerated in a relatively safe terrain like the Pisa Range…but it’s better teach yourself to be careful at all times and at all places, because you never know.


Time to put our down jackets on!

Burning lots of calories means you need a high intake as well :)










































During the day Andy kept explaining things we were seeing in our surroundings, and what they meant for our decision making. Only having been in New Zealand for a couple of weeks, I still really had to get used to the Kiwi accent. But I did the best I could to keep up with him (both in skinning pace as in his explanations) and to remember as much as I could. On our way back from the Column Rocks we practiced some kick turns on a steeper slope. If you’ve ever skied, you might understand what a kick turn is: with both skis pointing forward (horizontally, towards one side of the slope), you rotate your uphill ski outwards, about 120-140 degrees. Out of this awkward position, you now also rotate your downhill ski, to get it next to the other one again. During this last maneuver, you kinda ‘kick’ with your foot to prevent the rear end of the ski from getting stuck in the snow during the movement. The reason for doing kick turns is that sometimes when skinning (which, if uphill, is pretty much always done in a zigzag way), the slope is too steep to be able to ‘skin’ a round (S) turn. Because, during such a turn, there will be a point where you’re going more or less straight uphill, and if the slope is very steep the skins under your skis won’t prevent you from starting to slide backwards. Kickturns are the solution then! They definitely need some practice though…old times were coming back to me, when I was still skiing as a little girl. There was still some vague muscle memory…with the emphasis on vague ;)

Once back in the hut we were not the only ones anymore; another couple (from New Zealand) had made themselves a comfy place to spend the night there with us. While we tiredly crawled into our sleeping bags again, Andy first made coffee and then started cooking dinner (seriously…is that man inexhaustible?). I’m really impressed by the ability of guides to be teaching and guiding all day, constantly having a heightened state of awareness and responsibility, and then to still be able to cook a lovely meal, answer questions (probably the same ones over and over again) and just be pleasant company in general. That last thing couldn’t exactly be said of us :P Completely exhausted again and just barely able to hold our coffee cups and dinner plates, we mainly listened drowsily to the conversations Andy and the other couple had, while slowly drifting off asleep.

Mark doing the dishes like a good boy.


















The third day started with the same challenge as the previous one: Andy cheerily served me the same ‘breakfast from hell’ and wished me good luck (I have to admit…he put a little bit less in my bowl this time). Combining every bit with a big sip of coffee this time, I managed to get it down a bit faster. I knew now that my body would thank me for it later. The plan for the morning was to return to the east slopes (from the first day) again, to see if we could make another nice run down there. Before actually heading out we first did an extensive beacon test, so we could experience in real life the maximum distance for the device to still pick up a signal. I really, REALLY hope I never have to use the thing…but if I do, I now at least know how to use it (more or less, I could still use a lot more practice!). The other couple had the same plans as we did, they just took off a bit earlier. This meant that we could follow their skin track (which makes skinning a little less tiring) in the eastern direction. The closer we came to the ridge though, the harder the winds began to blow. Once on the ridge (which is actually more of a plateau), we had to scream to hear each other and put on our balaclava’s to protect our face of the piercing blown up snow. With hunched-up shoulders we followed Andy, who inspected different gullies and slopes on possible lines. We saw some big cornices (overhanging snow edges) above the east facing terrain, a sign of possibly heavy wind loaded slopes (= more avalanche risk). We also saw a small avalanche that must have taken place not long before on one of the other slopes; one of the biggest signs that avalanche danger is present. Of course Andy made the final decision, but he guided us through the deciding process and made a very valuable lesson of this situation: no matter how far you’ve skinned up, no matter how much you were looking forward to ride the soft powder…always take signs of avalanche risks serious and act accordingly. In this case, this meant: return back to the hut. The other couple had come to the same conclusion, and about 1,5 hour later we met them again at the hut: in full sun, enjoying a nice lunch outside. Curious, how the weather can be so different over such short distances in the mountains!


Nothing beats hot coffee in the morning!

















Andy cooking his breakfast from hell, early in the morning.


















After having enjoyed our own lunches as well and saying goodbye to the Kiwi couple, it was now time to pack our full bags, this time including sleeping bags, leftover food and cooking gear. The afternoon would be spent skinning west towards Snow Farm (a Nordic Skiing resort), where we would be picked up with a car by one of Andy’s colleagues. This route is relatively flat and a bit boring (although the scenery remained beautiful as ever); a decent run wouldn’t be happening today for us. Skinning terrain without much height gain or loss isn’t particularly the most fun part of backcountry skiing. I was really tired, and having to transition from skinning to snowboarding mode (fast fast fast, don’t keep the boys waiting!) and back again for only very short distances at a time, while struggling with a big heavy backpack, took all the energy I still had left. The last part of the route was our first encounter with the so-called ‘tussock-skiing’. Tussock is a kind of  New Zealand grass that grows on many mountains here. When you near the snow line (where snow disappears and vegetation starts showing), tussock appears everywhere and becomes impossible to evade. Luckily it’s quite smooth and won’t really slow you down…but seriously, I still found tussock pieces in my gear and clothes days later!


Tired but happy!


















I’d never been more happy to see a car waiting for us, but I was also proud I made it (which I seriously doubted at a couple of times for the past days :P). Normally the full 4 nights and 5 days of the course are spent in glacier terrain and the huts in that area before flying out again, but we would sleep at our home in Lake Hawea for the last 2 nights of the course. Not as adventurous probably, but this díd mean that I could take a long hot bath that night! My body didn’t know what was happening, my muscles thankful forever.

Goodbye Pisa Range...


























Andy happened to be living just a couple of streets away from us, so the next morning he picked us up with his car to practice some beacon searching on the beach (I wrote about this in my previous blogpost, remember?). It was raining like crazy though, and only really fun if you were the one sitting in the car with Andy, watching the other person running over the beach with his beacon low to the ground, frantically trying to pick up a signal while becoming wet to the bone :P So after Andy decided we practiced long enough, we drove back to his home to warm up with coffee and dry our clothes at his fireplace.

Mark and I were both jealous of Andy’s awesome place at first sight. He owns a perfectly sized little house with a decent amount of land around it (veggie garden included). A big, separate garage filled with climbing (and other) gear to the rim stands next to the house. The house’s interior definitely shows a woman’s (Andy’s girlfriend’s ;)) touch, nicely decorated in earthly tones with lots of wood, books, maps and artifacts from all over the world. What a wonderful place to live! Admiring all of this and sipping from our hot coffee, Andy showed us a map of the area where the backcountry course usually takes place (in the Mt. Cook/Westlands National Park). He suggested that, if we wanted to, we could still go to the glaciers on a later date, probably in October, when snow conditions are often still very good in that area and Andy had a free timeframe of about 10 days. If we practiced now already as much as possible (‘dry’, but still gaining the knowledge so we would only have to refresh and actually perform the practiced techniques in the glaciers) it would be possible to make a 2- or 3-day course of it, which would still possibly fit into our budget. It was already something Mark and I discussed the days before, and we decided to tell Andy we’d definitely like to go for that. Of course it would depend on the weather and on our own schedules by then (not knowing yet how things would work out with jobs and such), but with Andy’s 10-day timeframe it somehow definitely had to work.

Didn't take much pictures on the fourth day, with its bad weather...but here's
another couple from sunrise at the Pisa Range.













Even though it was still pouring and this week didn’t bring us as much powdery runs as we hoped for, the new prospect of a follow-up course lifted our spirits, and with renewed energy we occupied Andy’s garage for some serious rope work practice. Before long the whole place was a mess of carabiners, slings, several knots and anchors and an awful lot of rope. Andy taught us some self-rescue techniques and we reenacted the situation in which a person falls into a crevasse and has to be pulled out. Crevasses are cracks that have opened up in glacier terrain, caused by the movement of the glacier itself. Some of these cracks can be many meters deep, and you do NOT want to fall into them. Crevasses are what makes glacier backcountry skiing so different from lower terrain; with glacier traveling (for example when you are skinning from one point to another), there’s always a risk of falling into such a crack, which can be hidden under a layer of snow. This means that people who travel over the glacier are often tied up to each other with a rope, and have to have the skills and knowledge to rescue a partner if he or she happens to fall into a crevasse.

During the afternoon, we drove up Cardrona Road (uphill towards the Cardrona Ski Resort) to the snow line and a bit beyond, to practice some more glacier skills that needed a bit of actual snow. We started with building a snow-anchor. When your partner fell into a crevasse and you want to pull him or her out, you won’t be doing that on just brute force (unless you’re Superman or the Hulk of course…but let's imagine for a moment you’re not). You need an anchor, something rock steady to build a leverage system on. One way to do this is to dig a long hole the size of your ski, parallel to the crevasse. By burying your ski in this hole and tying your rope onto it that you guide into the crevasse (square to the ski of course), you can basically build such an anchor point. Clever, huh? Andy continued teaching us some self-arrest techniques with our ice axe. Slipping and gliding on steep glacier terrain can result into life threatening situations, so you want to know how to put your scary slide to a halt, no matter the way you fell. So there we went, sliding down a little hill in every possible way (on our bellies, on our back, feet first, head first, etc.), with Andy instructing us how to roll, in which direction to slam our ice axe in the snow and also to put our butts higher in the air, lol :) All the while it was snowing heavily, so you can imagine that we ended up with snow pretty much everywhere, even in our underwear. Luckily the hot shower and warm bed were waiting for us again that night at home. Sometimes you just have to celebrate the positive sides of a situation ;)

Andy, explaining stuff. 


















The last day of our course seemed to bring some better weather again, so we decided to go to Treble Cone (the other commercial ski resort in the area). We purchased a ‘backcountry ski pass’ (that gives you exactly the right amount of lift rides to get to the highest point of the resort, saving you from having to skin all the way up there or buying a full day’s pass without using 90% of it). The higher we got, the colder and windier it became, and the last lift ride left us freezing to our bones with little sight. Apparently the good weather was only below a certain level, and the weather above that was just plain terrible. We cóuld still exit the boundary and enter the backcountry…but it would mean having to skin through this horrible weather, without being certain if the slope we wanted to make our lines down on was sufficiently free of avalanche risk, especially in this weather. We might have to turn around again…but Andy was fine with whatever we’d choose (that man is indestructible, if I were a guide I would have strongly advised to NOT leave the boundary, just because I wouldn’t really be up to skin through that storm for nothing. I guess he’s used to worse :)). We decided not to do it, and take the slopes down instead. The backcountry pass gave us one more ride, so we made the most of it, staying inside the boundary, but leaving the groomed slopes here and there to still hit some powder. Our first time in Treble Cone, which is at least a bit bigger and steeper than Cardrona (or ‘Flatdrona’, as Andy called it) was fun nonetheless! Having bragged about being speedmonsters on the slopes, Andy felt the heavy pressure of going down as fast as possible (or so he told us ;)), and we all had a little blast. I think I like the combination of the backcountry and groomed slopes best. They both have a lot to offer and complement each other. Being able to make a long run (without having to skin all the way back up again) and go as fast as possible was definitely a delight after the tough week of skinning, transitioning and short runs. BUT, I wouldn’t want to have missed the adventure that comes with backcountry skiing, the scenery, the peace and quietness and the sense of achievement in which it results.


Speed devil...


















Having used up our backcountry pass, we drank some coffee at Treble Cone’s restaurant and said hi to Andy’s girlfriend who enjoyed her own day off. She’s another splitboarder by the way…to Andy’s delight, ahum. The boys certainly enjoyed complaining about the pain of going into the backcountry with a splitboarding girlfriend. They have such a hard life, we should all feel very sorry for them ;) At least Andy knew exactly where Mark had to go ahead in Treble Cone, keep an eye on me and pull me with his pole if I didn’t make it, which was very handy! We left the ski resort just past noon and drove back to Adventure Consultant’s head office. We sat down with more coffee in one of the side rooms, while Andy started up the computer and opened a Powerpoint Presentation on avalanche awareness and backcountry skiing. It was a nice way to end the week, going over everything we learned one more time, asking again the questions on which the answers got lost in the wind (or lost in a Kiwi accent :P ) and letting everything sink in. What a week we had! Quite different from what we hoped and expected…but we still learned só much. It wasn’t at all times easy, and there were moments when I seriously asked myself why the heck I thought this would be fun. But I also think that adventures like these build up your character and stamina. They make you value the little things in life more, like a hot cup of coffee or a warm bath. Andy certainly made the most of the possibilities we had, it was a pleasure to have him as our guide (thank you Andy!). And even though we won’t go to the glaciers on our own just yet, our backcountry opportunities have definitely grown…resulting in our first independent day in the big white wonderland (which you can read about in my previous blogpost, sorry one time again for the confusing order of my blogposts!).

zondag 26 oktober 2014

August in New Zealand

Dear readers...my sincerest apologies that it took me so long to write a new update. I know there are quite some people back home who are really interested in how we're doing here in New Zealand and curious to know what's going on (which I find heartwarming by the way! Thank you all for emails, cards, messages, etc!).

Actually, quite a lot has been going on. Good things, and also some less fortunate things...which often left me in a kind of 'I don't feel like writing a blogpost at all-mood". It would be easy to filter out all the bad stuff now and create a happy-clappy 'look how we're living the dream' post, but I hate it when other people do that, it's something that happens way too much in social media these days anyway. So I'm not gonna jump on that wagon. Instead: here's - finally - an update that includes the good and bad!  (Not thát much bad stuff though...let's not over-dramatize things ;) After all, it still feels like we áre living the dream here, it's just filled with ups and downs like every other life. With the downs making us appreciate the ups even more!)


























Ps 1: Here's the (automatically translated) Dutch version again: Nederlandse versie. 
Ps 2: I think I will divide this update over 2 or 3 posts..otherwise it would become WAY too long and boring ;) This one will cover August, which was a good month of slowly settling in and finding our ways here in New Zealand. The bits of bad luck will come later.
Ps3: The previous diary-blogpost ended at 3/8/2014...this one will pick up at 9/8/2014, which leaves the period in between (our backcountry course) still un-described. I promise I will try to cover the course in a separate blogpost soon.

9/8/2014
It was a so-called 'Bluebird' day today: a total blue sky and a brightly shining sun, while the night before had brought about 30-40 cm's of fresh snow. So this turned out to be our very first independent day of backcountry skiing! All by ourselves, without a guide, we spent a splendid day in the Soho basin (one of the back bowls of the Cardrona skifield) and got some very nice virgin runs. Oh, the powder!
The aqua circle shows the part of the Soho Basis we did...first skinning up 
along the ski field boundary (left of it), then further on to the summit of 
Mt Cardrona, and then down towards the side branches of Soho Creek.



Switching from 'skinning-mode' to 'snowboarding-
mode...I'm slowly getting faster at it :P

























Fresh virgin tracks...we weren't the only ones enjoying the Bluebird day 
outside of the crowded ski field though.



















Mark showing how it's done :P













































Since today I know how to put on snow chains, while we also found out that we need to have jumping leads in the van (don't ask...). 
On the way back home I exchanged a bar of chocolate for a bag of yarn (all arranged on the Facebook 'trading post' of the Wanaka area). Location: a relocated house in Hawea Flat. I don't think I've ever seen a relocated house before, and it surely looked very weird (like it was literally lifted of the ground somewhere, and then smashed down again somewhere else). But hey...you gotta do something if you really love your house but have to move...I guess...?!

10-13/8/2014
After the Bluebird-day yesterday we took a good rest from all the skiing, snowboarding and skinning up (man, that's tough...it still leaves me completely exhausted!). I cut Mark's hair (it took me 1,5 hour, but I think it turned out pretty neat :P) and we watched a documentary again; Blackfish this time...there's really no better way to spend a lazy morning than with an interesting documentary and some coffee in bed.

Mark has been working on the van again; he's trying to make some kind of coffee-cup holder between the front seats to limit the constant forming of coffee-rivers inside. 


This is the kitchen so far, with a countertop that folds out.

























Mark's also been working on the bed-frame...we scored a free mattress that 
has the perfect width for it! (Yup, on that Facebook Trading Post again.)






















We've also been climbing at Basecamp (the indoor climbing hall) again, but those belay-devices being connected to the floor are really driving me nuts. It means the belayer can't really walk around while you are climbing...so when you fall, you practically fall against the tight rope, which caused a nasty rope burn on my shoulder today. OUCH! I guess we have to stick with lead climbing from now on. There's a nice traverse through the roof in Basecamp, which is a fun challenge for both of us. Cool fact is that, when you're hanging upside down on the roof, you can look right into the upstairs restaurant that shares the same building, only separated by big glass windows.

We've become the proud owners of 2 proper mountain bikes (another 'score' on the online Trading Post), so we can start exploring all the tracks in the area. And... DRUM ROLL... Mark found a job! How exciting is that?! He can start working as a builder/hammerhand, helping with the building of a big villa in quite a chic neighborhood of Wanaka (on a hill, views on the lake). He will be part of the whole process (from foundation to roof and everything in between), because here in New Zealand many people who build a house do it all by themselves. It was basically the first job advertisement (found in the local newspaper) Mark responded to. An hour later he could come by for a chat, and 10 minutes after that he was hired. So far for job-hunting, wow!

14-15/8/2014
I completely forgot to write about it yesterday, but we've been mountainbiking around Timaru River. No living soul in the area, but só beautiful... The track we wanted to ride ran right through a fast flowing river (the water levels are high at the moment), so that didn't turn out to be a good idea. We turned around instead and cycled towards the shore, where the river pours into Lake Hawea. We enjoyed ourselves wandering around, taking pictures and gazing over the beautiful scenery. Mark had the best time building bridges and dams and carrying big sticks around (really, if we had brought a shovel, we'd still be there...).


The river we were supposed to cross...not such a good idea :P

Where the river pours into Lake Hawea...

Mark carrying around big sticks, just because he can. 

My mountainbike parked against one of the many gumtrees. 

Back to the van again! We saw literally nobody during the 2 hours we 
spent there. 

Mark has been working yesterday and today, for the first times. It's going very well; he has some nice colleagues and enjoys the work. In the meantime I'm spending my time on crafting, householding chores and preparing the craft classes for the craft store. Besides that, I've been in a real shearing shed today! (See previous blogpost). That was super interesting!

16/8/2014
Today we've been mountainbiking again. I think this must've been the prettiest track I ever did in my live, for real. We went to Glendhu Bay, an area at the south-west coast of Lake Wanaka. The track followed the coastline, it felt like cycling through paradise.  Deserted little beaches and coves, a new stunning view around every corner and over every hill...it was breathtaking (as are the current muscle aches :P ).


Just a small breeze and full sun, perfect weather 
for a mountainbiking trip. 

Mark taking in the breathtaking scenery.

Couldn't resist some rock-hopping in the water :)

Lots of driftwood...

















































































Skull (probably from a cow or similar animal).




























17/8/2014
We went backcountry skiing at Treble Cone today. It wasn't particularly a Bluebird day (although the sun was shining brightly!), it's been a while since fresh snow fell...but we still had some nice runs. Mark made the most spectacular fall/handstand move ever by the way, I wish I had it on video.


Snowboarding with poles looks quite weird, I must admit. I'm just
too lazy to put them on my backpack for every short run ;)

This was our lunch spot for today. Good piece of rock to sit on, so our butts 
stayed dry.











































Unfortunately, we seem to have come to New Zealand in what appears to be the worst skiing season since years (while it's probably the hottest, least wet summer in the Netherlands since forever...sigh). We were lucky with that fresh powder last week, but overall relatively little snow has fallen (compared to other years) and the cheaper backcountry possibilities are quite limited, due to the high snow levels. This means that you can't make very long runs or trips, because at some point the snow just disappears, while with lower snow levels you can ski further down into the valleys. (You can actually see the high snow level in the picture above: right behind me in the distance!)
Lots of short and long backcountry trips are impossible this year due to the lack of snow. It's still possible to do some decent backcountry skiing in higher (glacier) terrain, but you kinda need a helicopter to fly you in and out for that kind of touring, something we don't really have the funds for.  I guess you can't have it all, maybe we will have more luck next year and can get some skiing done early season before we have to leave New Zealand!

18-19/8/2014
Whoops...we used up 80 GB internet in 8 days time (80 gigabytes is the amount per month we signed up for :P ). I guess we have to upgrade to unlimited, whaha!  Mark has mainly been working these days, he really likes his new job...something I'm very thankful for! Since today he's carpooling to work together with John (the main 'builder'), who lives a couple of streets away from us. Which means that Carrie and I can go out together, whoot whoot! We get along better every day. She makes a hell of a noise and is totally different to drive than the 'smooth' cars I've been used to, but at least I don't really get carsick, and it really feels like you're driving an actual car with a real engine (instead of steering around some kind of half-spaceship-ish vehicle). 
This afternoon Carrie and I went grocery shopping, I also found the most awesome vintage suitcase at Salvation Army to showcase my yarns in. After shopping, I dared to do some running (that's been a while!) along the shore of Lake Wanaka. I really have to get used to all the hills here (that's só different from running in the Netherlands), but still I did 5 km in quite a nice time. Let's see if the skinning will go better if I build up some endurance again...


The awesome suitcase I found at Salvies...show-
casing everything I made here so far: 5 hand dyed 
skeins of sock yarn, 2 hand spun art yarns, a crocheted 
ball garland and a little crocheted doggie :)





























20/8/2014
I had a job interview today. Man, I was nervous...but the work in the craft store alone won't get us much money (and living here is expensive, believe me), so I applied for a job as a massage therapist at one of the day spa's in town (it's part of the Oakridge Resort). I think I'm hired! It all went pretty fast, and the job is on-call (yeah, perfect for a structure-freak like me...ahum), but we'll see how it goes. And how long I can survive between the aromatic candles and pan flute music (oh my goodness). 


My new workplace: the Sanctuary Day Spa (só neat and chic...not 
exactly me, haha!).



























It would've been great if I could have worked as a physiotherapist in New Zealand...work experience in an overseas environment with different working methods is always interesting and valuable! Unfortunately, like some of you know, the application process to get a valid New Zealand license (that allows you to practice as a physio here) turned out to be extremely difficult and expensive. It would've costed me several months and a lot of money to get all the paperwork collected, officially translated and legally signed (and I'm not even talking about the complementary assignments I had to complete, and the application fee that's non-refundable whether you pass or not..my goodness!). I was super motivated to get that license, but after finding out how difficult it would be, I decided it would not be worth the costs and time (after all: we only have a working-holiday visa for 1 year!). I have no idea why they make it so difficult though, I thought physiotherapy was on the shortlist here!

However, I'm still glad I found some work that's at least a little bit related to my original work field. I guess I'm not the only one in this situation; one of the other girls working at the spa is a Spanish physiotherapist, who gave up on the application process just like I did, for the same reasons... And just like me (only a couple of months earlier), she ended up at the same nerve wrecking job interview, haha! We had to do a kind of test-massage on the boss of the Spa. The qualified beauty therapists working there can do an easy relaxation massage, but not really the firmer ones, with more specific work on muscles and knots. That's why she (the boss) hires girls like us.
I had really no idea what kind of massage she'd be expecting during the job interview, so I decided to just do what I always have been doing as a physio, letting my hands feel her muscles, working on whatever tension I came across. You can't imagine how relieved I was when she finally told me I'd done enough, and that she thought it was very good. Oh, my nerves!

Of course I also got my period this day. Sorry if that's too much information for you..(hey, we're all humans, right? You're either a man or a woman, so you either know what Mark's going through at these days, or you know what Í'm going through ;)). It's just that being in a different environment, undertaking so many new things, applying for a new job, having to be flexible for it because it's on-call, being together with your boyfriend 24/7 and having to deal with all new things together...it's a challenge. And while I suffered from PMS back home quite a bit, it's way worse here. And while I thought I had my high sensitive personality traits under control quite well in the Netherlands...they're suddenly all over the place again here in New Zealand. My emotions go from one extreme to another, while Mark's dealing with all the new stuff in his own ways...not necessarily always compatible with my ways. It's hard work. It really is...finding a good balance in this chaos of feelings, hormones and challenges. Ideally a balance that works for both of us! But, I think it also draws us together. I love that boy so much, I have faith we can make this work and think we form a good team. (You can all sigh ''aaahw..'' now, and I'll stop the cheesy talk ;))

21/8/2014
Today I haven't been called to work yet, so it enjoyed a quiet day while I still can. I dyed some sock yarns to sell in the craft store in Wanaka. I'm so happy my dyeing powders arrived safely in the mail (thank you mom)! Dyeing makes me ridiculously euphoric (ask Mark), I just love to play with colors and come up with new and interesting color schemes. 
Mark was done early today with work, so we also chilled out a bit together. There's one small problem though: we're out of firewood (that's quite a big problem actually). 


Mark looking out over Lake Hawea. (He and his new beanie have become
inseperable...)






















22/8/2014
We've learned some new lessons: firewood will not be delivered the same day, or the next. Our housemate promised to bring new firewood from his work, but that never happened neither (we should probably start trusting people less easily...). So Mark went collecting driftwood at the side of the river, and is working his ass off to cut that into smaller pieces so it will fit in the wood burner. It keeps him quite busy.
This afternoon we went grocery shopping (don't we sound like a nice middle-class couple?), we're getting better at it every time. I just loose Mark about 1-2 times now (which is a huge improvement). When this happens we're both talking to the air: I because I think Mark is still standing behind me, Mark because he thinks I followed him. Mark hates grocery shopping, you won't believe the pace in which he races through the super market, I just can't keep up with him. I'm still checking out sales and meal-ideas when he's already checking out!
At the end of the afternoon we went climbing at Basecamp. We ordered our own climbing rope online, we're anxiously waiting for it to arrive...so we can go climb outside! Tonight we ate pizza (I'll never grow tired of pizza) and watched Calvary. It was a good friday :)

23/8/2014
Today I worked for the very first time at the spa! I think it went quite alright. I had to do one 60 minute massage and one 30 minute massage. In the time in between Mark and I drank coffee at the other side of the road from the spa, at a lovely little place called 'Florence's' (organic food & coffee). The sun was shining brightly, so we could sit outside...it was so nice! I think spring is already in the air.


An 'Americano' and a 'Long black' (both just regular black coffee :P )


























After work we went mountainbiking at Sticky Forest, close to Mark's work. It's a little forest where lots of mountainbike tracks have been 'built', some of which (or actually most of them) FAR above our skill levels. Really, 'Carrot Cake' might sound like a nice little scenic route, but it was so steep and curvy that we had to walk half of the time. It was pretty cool though. Oh, and Mark arranged firewood in town..it should be delivered soon!


Up the hill @ Sticky Forest. 


























Taken on our way back from Sticky Forest. See that green 'fence-thingy' in 
the distance, on the right? That's where Mark's working!


























24/8/2014
Lazy Sunday :) We slept in, watched Breaking Bad and I dyed some more wool. Mark is busy finishing the kitchen in the van, it's turning out so nice! I'm really amazed by his skills. The weather is stunning, you can almost sit in the garden (yep, spring's definitely in the air). At the beach at Lake Hawea (about 1km from our house) we practiced avalanche beacon search (2:10 is the current record!) and I went to the Lighthouse Church for the second time since we're here, which is a real cool and friendly community. Well rested and recharged for a new week!

For those who are interested how to do a beacon-search practice: put one of your beacons on 'send' and put it in a little plastic container. While one person (the searcher) closes his eyes, the other person buries the container somewhere on the beach (quite far away, preferably...an avalanche can be huge!). The searcher can open his eyes then, and the burier tells in which direction the 'avalanche' took place and where the 'victim' was last seen. Time starts running, and the searcher can practice the zigzag search and the more detailed slow search to find the victim (plastic container). It really helps to get more familiar with how the beacon works, and how to use it properly. The beach here is covered in gravel, I have no idea if a sandy beach would also work...best way is of course to practice this in actual snow!

The road from our house towards Lake Hawea, with the
meadow full of alpaca's alongside it (they are só cool...).


























25-26/8/2014
We've both really become busy with our jobs now (who's saying we're having holidays here?!). It's nice to earn some extra money now we've got the chance, so we will have some savings for when we want to start traveling around in summer. 
Our firewood got delivered while I was at home today, I was so surprised when the guy suddenly started talking Dutch to me! Wanaka is really filled up with emigrants from all over the world.
Mark managed to come back home from work with a blue eye today. At first he would absolutely not tell me how that happened (of course I was imagining some kind of horrible fight by then). After I promised I would not laugh, he finally told...he stepped on a rack, very classical. Of course I broke my promise :P


Yup...that's literally what happened. 


























27/8/2014
Mark had a day off today (and yes, his eye has the most beautiful shades of blue and purple), so after we slept in we went climbing at Hospital Flat with our brand new climbing rope. There are quite some good climbing routes around Wanaka within a 1-hour driving distance (more than 700, to be more precise), Hospital Flat is one of the sub-areas that's very well climbable in winter. It has full sun whole day, so it would be way too hot to climb there in summer actually! 
It was SO good...I really like the rock type ('schist'), the routes were nice and well protected/bolted, the view and scenery were as always breathtaking, and it was so hot that you could climb in a top (while in the background you could see Treble Cone still full of skiing activity...). I really hope we can spend many more climbing hours here!


Check our nice (and still very clean) new blue climbing rope!


























Tonight we stopped by at John's (Mark's colleague and carpooler) place, to borrow an axe. John and his wife Amy are very friendly people. We've been invited to come by for dinner one day, to meet their 2 kids (which could possibly result in some babysitting hours for me).

28-29/8/2014
Work, work and more work...I'm really exhausted. Thursday I had four 60 minute massages, friday I had four of them again, today luckily 'just' one 90 minute massage. I learned four new treatments (hot stone massage, Body Blitz (massage + facial), Muscle Relief (massage + foot mask) and pregnancy massage), I'm really trying my best to remember every little detail. And my hands! I never knew you could have so much muscle aching in your hands! Of course I've done hundreds of massages as a physiotherapist back home, but every treatment was just 30 minutes, and most times the massage was only a small part of it (15 minutes max, combined with 15 minutes of exercises or advice), sometimes even not at all! So doing a 60 or 90 minute firm pressure massage is really quite something different. I hope I'll get used to it, I probably will. Right? Please tell me I will!


A little map of our area.
Red: Treble Cone skifield. Green: Hospital Flat climbing area. Yellow:
Glendhu Bay (mountainbike track). Orange: my work (day spa). Dark
brown: Mark's work. Purple: our house. Pink: Timaru river. Blue: towards
Cardrona ski field. 























John wasn't working this week, so I had to bring Mark to work every day early in the morning as well, and then pick him up again around 5 (often the time when people book massages..so it was a bit hectic sometimes). I think I kinda behaved like a speed devil, racing through Wanaka with Carrie (it's a good thing she can't really go faster than 110km/h anyway). 


The only good thing about being up so early is that you get to see 
misty sunrises...




























Mark screwed the broom at his work to his finger somehow. He had to use the drill backwards to get it off again. Really, I have no idea if it's him, or that new workplace, or something else...but I'm already wondering what will happen tomorrow.


I massaged 4 possum hunters, the youngest of them just 17 years old. He kept talking during the massage ("I'm pretty talkative"...oh, really?) and asking weird questions ("Are the Netherlands friends with Sweden?"...eehm, I have no idea?!). At the end he asked: "Do most clients talk during their massage?" Eh, well...we're actually not really allowed to talk with our clients, because they should be relaxing. Lol :P He was really cute though! The poor boy, so nervous for his first massage ever. "Do more men book massages?". "Oh yeah, definitely! I think it's about 50/50 men/women. Some even book things like facials!" He: "NO! That's just WRONG!" Whahaha!


31/8/2014
Weekend! We both had the day off, which we celebrated by going climbing again at Hospital Flat. Hayden (Mark's American work mate, of our age) went along, the 3 of us we visited the part called 'Sunnyside' today. Some very nice routes there! Hayden is from Utah and also does some trad climbing there. So, on our next holiday/climbing trip we already have a guide to show us Indian Creek and such :)

At the rare moments without wind, the lake is like a mirror...




















That's it for August, I promise I'll try to be back soon with more! Big 'kiwi' hugs for all of you :)

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