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The Craigieburn Haute Route - a guided ski trip exploring New Zealand's rugged Southern Alps

10 May 2018

The Craigieburn Haute Route is a guided ski tour for the adventurous at heart. We speak to adventure tourism operator Stu Waddel about the four-day trip, which traverses several peaks and ski areas from Craigieburn to Mount Olympus, with evenings spent snuggled up in rustic ski lodges.

How did the route come about?

The Craigieburn Haute Route is a shared venture between Chill and Anna Keeling Guiding. I set up Chill in 1997 to promote the smaller ski areas in Canterbury and offer access through the Chill Season Pass and Anna is an internationally-certified mountain guide. The product came about when Anna returned to her roots in the Craigieburn Valley in 2009 after years of living overseas and we realised a common vision of creating a high route linking four ski areas.

What ski areas and peaks does the Craigieburn Haute Route traverse?

Most of our trips begin at Craigieburn Valley Ski Area. On day one we go over Mt Hamilton and down into Broken River Ski Area. On day two we travel up the Broken River lifts then south into the Yukon Valley. From the Yukon Valley, we cross a pass near Mt Wall and onward to Mt Cheeseman Ski Area. If conditions are right, we’ll ski the awesome Mt Wall Basin. On day three we head up the Cheeseman lifts, through neighbouring Tarn Basin and onward to the actual Mt Cheeseman which is four kilometres south. On this day there are endless basins to be explored: Tarn Basin, Tim’s Stream, Waterfall Valley and the outrageous Ryton Basin. On most trips we exit down the Ryton to the Mt Olympus Ski Area access road. On day four we usually ascend Mt Olympus or the Sphinx to ski the west side of the Ryton Basin and return to Mt Olympus via the Sphinx or Ryton. 

What are the differences between the ski areas?

Craigieburn is a field of hardcore skiers who take their sport seriously. Broken River has its own beer, a friendly day lodge on the ski field and an exciting ski run down from Mt Hamilton into Allan’s Basin. Cheeseman's Snowline Lodge is extremely comfortable – and you get to hang with the Cheeseman staff. Mt Olympus has rowdy terrain, a rowdy crowd and New Zealand’s highest hot tub to finish the trip.

What skills, experience and fitness are needed for the trip?

You need to be a strong intermediate skier who can handle variable conditions and ungroomed snow and you need to be able to climb 500 to 1000 metres each day on ski touring gear or a split board. You don’t have to be a super athlete but the fitter you are, the more you’ll enjoy it and the more turns you’ll get. A strong skier with good fitness can be introduced to ski touring at the beginning of the Craigieburn Haute Route but we recommend taking one of our one-day Introduction to Ski Touring classes or two-day Snow Safety courses.

Can you tell us a little bit about the guides?

Anna has a diverse background guiding backcountry skiing, mountaineering, rock and ice climbing in various international destinations. She guides most of the trips but sometimes hires New Zealand Mountain Guide-certified ski and mountain guides to step in when she is busy. I join each trip as ‘tail-end Charlie’ to help any folk that need additional encouragement and I ensure hospitality logistics are taken care of. If someone decides to sit a day out, I’ll drive them around so that the rest of the group is not affected. Anna’s husband, Scott, is a behind-the-scenes supporter as our emergency contact and occasional driver if we need to change plans. We also hire drivers from local company Black Diamond Safaris for all transfers on ski field roads.

What sort of feedback have you had on the Craigieburn Haute Route so far?

People love it as it’s a pretty simple thing – no helicopters are required for access and our guests carry small packs. We spend all day in these amazing mountains and then arrive at a different ski field each day. Our guests often comment how fun it is to experience the vibe of each ski area we pass through. They also enjoy being able to shower every night. 

What’s so special about the Canterbury ‘club’ ski fields?

There’s nothing else like the Canterbury club fields in the world – at least that we can tell. Each has its own character and remains true to 50-plus year traditions. They haven’t traded up to chairlifts and only Cheeseman has T-bars and groomed trails – although occasionally Broken River will groom its Main Basin. On our inaugural Craigieburn Haute Route trip we met Paddy, a long term Broken River ‘clubbie’ (club member), who shared some great yarns and cheese and crackers with us. After that I started carrying cheese and crackers on every trip. The clubbies still provide the yarns.

Can you describe the accommodation arrangements?

Each club field has its own accommodation. We don’t stay at Craigieburn but we ski several laps there and we enjoy a cooked lunch at the onsite Whakamaru Lodge which has amazing views. Broken River’s lodges are perched in the bush on a ridge and they feel remote and tucked away. Snowline Lodge at Cheeseman is ski in, ski out and Cheeseman has great coffee at its day lodge. We always schedule in a coffee before leaving there in the morning. The Forest Lodge at Cheeseman is lower on the access road – we don’t always stay there but it’s a really nice spot on the edge of the bush, overlooking the tussocked Castle Hill Basin. Olympus’ Top Hut is flash and new with excellent bunkrooms and a dress-up box. We stay at the Bottom Hut sometimes which is more like an alpine hut and makes for a shorter day for when we exit out of the Ryton Valley. Every hut and lodge has outrageous views.

What do people seem to enjoy about the trip most?

The light packs, the food (each ski club has a chef), the variety of terrain and the hot tub at Olympus. They’ve also mentioned the skills of the guides – Anna’s ability to sniff out the good snow and keep everyone safe and my attention to detail ensuring everyone is comfortable and taken care of in the lodges. The other thing our guests like is that linen and all meals are provided so they only have to carry small day packs with their avalanche safety gear, a change of delicates, a toothbrush and a silk sleeping bag liner. We even throw in a pair of home-made slippers knitted by my mum.

Where do most of your clients come from?

Most of our guests so far have been New Zealanders and the majority are Cantabrians even if they live outside of Canterbury now. We’ve had one chap from Switzerland and a few Australians as well.

What dates are available for the 2018 season?

They’re filling up fast. Our start day slides depending on the best weather, so we always say, “best four out of five days”. We’ll run four trips this season: August 1-5, August 8-12, August 22-26 and August 30 to September 3.

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