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Odd Bedfellows in New Zealand’s Southern Alps

Words by Nick Pascoe, DPS Product Manager
 
Sometimes referred to as ‘the clown of the mountains’, the kea is a large green and orange parrot that calls the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island home. This endangered species has a very curious nature which is charming for the most part. However, when the half metre-tall bird woke me with a snow shower in the middle of the night as I was comfortably snoozing in my bivy bag, I was not exactly thrilled by its inquisitiveness. The top-notch mountainous surroundings made it worth enduring the avian meddling.  
 
(photo: Hamish McDougall)

Spring skiing in New Zealand brings increased snow stability, longer weather windows, and better mountain access...or that’s the theory at least. After two months of trying to align proper conditions with a weekend during the spring of 2020, I began panicking about missing out on the entire spring season. After politely explaining the desperate situation to my boss (this being the ski industry after all), he understood my predicament and gave me three midweek days off to align with a calm patch of weather. The next step was convincing someone that taking our skis for a big walk was a good idea, as the snow line was a long way from any trailheads that time of year. My friend Hamish McDougall was still feeling the skiing itch, so he jumped on in. 
 
(photo: Hamish McDougall)

Sooner than expected, we were leaving the Raspberry Flat car park, trying to keep our bikes balanced with heavy multi-day packs precariously perched upon our backs. After stashing our bikes, we headed up the rough track to Cascade Saddle. The ascent took us four hours, and we found ourselves at snowline around 5pm. Fortunately, as it was late spring, we had a lot of daylight still to play with. On the other hand, it was scorching hot, we were exhausted, and morale was lower than usual – even for my endlessly optimistic self.
 

(photo:
Hamish McDougall)

Thankfully, after stashing our bivy gear we resumed climbing with a much lighter load, our sights now set on Mt. Tyndall – a classic peak that lay within striking distance. Excitement continued to grow as we crossed the Isobel Glacier, and got a good look at our ski line. We topped out on Mt. Tyndall as the sun began to set and took a minute to enjoy the spectacular panoramic mountain views. With every passing minute the snow was refreezing into perfect corn, and we were stoked with our decision to make the summit push. After plenty of hoots and hollers to accompany our large arcing turns, we arrived back to camp at 8:30pm and dug out a flat platform for our bivy bags with the last of the evening light. Following a well deserved feed, we fell off to sleep.
 
(photo: Nick Pascoe)
 
I rose with the sun as it edged up over the horizon, and rolled over to prepare an exceptionally scenic breakfast in bed. We quickly re-packed and stashed our camp gear before upping the pace to try and reach Mt. Liverpool before the snow became too baked in the direct sun. We reached Plunket Dome, and then traversed across the ridgeline to the head of the Dart Glacier. At this point we paused, the route ahead was relatively benign, however there was crevasse navigation to contend with and the snow was rapidly loosening with the heat, raising the chances of wet avalanches. Hamish and I talked and were both aligned; we changed tacks to a mellow lap of perfect corn onto the glacier before retracing our steps to lunch on Plunket Dome. Periodically we began to hear the thunderous sound of ice and rock falling from the nearby peaks, reassuring us that leaving Mt. Liverpool for another day had been good judgement. The skiing wasn’t wrapped up yet though; we had an amazing descent down the Reid Glacier to our camp.
 
(photo: Nick Pascoe)
 
As we set up for the night, we were happy to find eight kea keeping us company, with their colorful plumage contrasting against the snow. It was awesome to see so many of this endangered alpine parrot thriving, but it quickly turned into a love/hate relationship. Hamish and I had to take turns fending the kea away from our gear as they sought to tear it apart with their sharp beaks. This unplanned bird-keeping kept us occupied as we enjoyed an otherwise relaxing dinner, then we parked up in our bivvy bags, hoping that the kea would also abide by a sunset bedtime. Our hopes were dashed when one of these mischievous little devils ventured down to my bivvy hole to see what I was up to. It became a fitful sleep. Every hour or so I had to roll over and scare off a kea who had become particularly adventurous exploring my sleeping bag. Apparently, I was able to sleep through some of their antics though. 

(photo: Nick Pascoe)
 
I woke up the next morning and found a hole in the top of my pack, which had been placed right alongside my body only a metre from my head. Dealing with our feathered mountain neighbors was an easy price to pay for an amazing trip though, and we had no regrets as we packed up our gear and began the trudge back down the Matukituki valley to the car, and well-earned cold beers...thankfully the kea hadn’t gotten to those.