Are you jonesing to be back on snow? Can’t hold out until ski season? While there are a few backcountry adventures to be had in North America in the late summer, the Southern Hemisphere is arguably the place to earn your turns. It’s winter down there this time of year, after all. And with its natural beauty, abundant peaks and adventurous culture, New Zealand, in particular, should rank high on your list of potential shred zones.
Fact: There’s more high alpine terrain in New Zealand than France, Italy and Switzerland combined. Each summer (winter), roughly 10 percent of the nation is blanketed in glorious pow and only a small portion of this mountainous playground is lift-accessible. Whether you’re skinning saddles in the Canterbury range or hopping from hut to hut in the Westland region, there’s a backcountry expedition suited for you in Middle-earth. Here are five can’t-miss options to explore.
(The jumping-off point for New Zealand’s top backcountry adventures is the resort town of Queenstown. While Queenstown features an international airport, there are no direct flights from the United States so you’ll most-likely have to connect through Auckland. The good news: Once you land in Queenstown, you’re within a couple hours of dozens of backcountry slogs via a 4WD vehicle.)
Queenstown’s best-known resort, The Remarkables, appears to be a massive freestyle park surrounded by beginner and intermediate terrain at first glance. Dig a little deeper, though, and this resort offers some of the best sidecountry and touring options in the country.
One of the most popular excursions there is accessed via a quick climb from the top of the Sugarbowl lift. This area, known as the Doolans, offers relatively steep headwalls and powder-filled bowls. It’s easy to cut back to the resort from the Doolans, too, or you can simply continue descending until you reach a gully down low.
The Remarkables is great for groups with varying levels of off-piste experience. The veteran backcountry skier can spend an entire day exploring the Doolans while his/her less-seasoned pals split time between sidecountry stashes, corduroy cruisers and the park.
The Garvie Mountains provide stellar backcountry touring opportunities in a remote range southeast of Queenstown. Posting up at the Blue Lake Huts for a few days gives you access to numerous steeps, chutes, ridges and more. The blessing and the curse of the Garvie Mountains is the secluded locale. Accessing the Blue Lake Huts requires a road trip (4WD mandatory) and a bunch of skinning or a quick helicopter flight. However, once you’re there, fresh lines are abundant.
As for the skiing, steep and deep terrain is easily accessible from the Blue Lake Huts. Since much of the skiing is in wide-open bowls and nondescript chutes, it’s often best to stay close to the numerous lakes to use as landmarks. Not to mention, they provide a sick backdrop. Storms coming from the southeast can hammer the Garvie range. It’s best to hit it hard right after a storm, though, because conditions can get choppy and sloppy quickly due to strong winds and relatively low elevations that cause melting.
Fox Peak is considered a classic Kiwi ski field with a rope tow and a few lifts accessing a number of moderate runs. However, it also serves as the jumping-off point for some excellent backcountry tours.
Since Fox Peak Ski Field has a lodge maintained by the local ski club, it’s best to sleep there so you can start exploring the nearby bowls and headwalls early the next morning. While the rock-laden headwalls are steep and plentiful, they can also become windblown pretty quickly. On a windy day, you’re better off checking out the large basins to the north and south that hold plenty of pow long after a storm.
One popular tour is the Fox Peak to Roundhill Ski Field traverse because it is moderately technical and features relatively low-angle slopes. Be aware: If you plan to traverse from Fox Peak to Roundhill and back, you could be looking at a 10-hour-plus tour.
Whether you’re seeking a quick day trip or a multi-day excursion in the backcountry, the Eyre Mountains provide relatively easy access from Queenstown. A short 4WD trip and a decent uphill slog unveils steep lines through rock bands and couloirs.
A backcountry favorite in the area is the Symmetry Peaks. Featuring frozen waterfalls and steep couloirs, this region offers great opportunities for touring newbies and seasoned backcountry pros alike. This area is a great starting point if you’re exploring New Zealand’s backcountry for the first time. Stick to the low-angle routes to gain some confidence before exploring the steeper rock bands.
Don’t be surprised to find other skiers, hikers and climbers ascending the Symmetry Peaks. Thanks to relatively easy access and close proximity to Queenstown, this section of the Eyre Mountains can be pretty busy—especially on weekends.
Treble Cone is the South Island’s largest ski area and sidecountry and touring options on Towers Ridge can be accessed from the summit of this resort. This area features south-facing slopes with steep pitches that give way to powder-filled bowls.
To reach Towers Ridge, there is a short bootpack above the Saddle chairlift followed by a long traverse and a quick slog past Wedding Cake Rock. Once you begin your descent, you can easily get back to the base of the Saddle Chairlift or continue cruising until you reach the valley floor.
Unlike much of New Zealand’s backcountry skiing, Towers Ridge can get crowded on a powder day. Between other skiers looking to earn their turns and a couple of heliskiing operations, you’re not necessarily guaranteed fresh tracks when the flakes are flying. That being said, the access to Towers Ridge is as good as any in New Zealand.