Craig Murray Details His Horse-Powered Journey to Ski the New Zealand Backcountry

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Craig Murray Details His Horse-Powered Journey to Ski the New Zealand Backcountry

Article Author • Craig Murray | Photographer • Matt Cherubino

Introduction • Jordan Grant-Krenz

Skiing untracked lines is never easy. It often requires immense effort, voyaging vast distances with large quantities of gear. Throw in an overnight trip in the dead of winter and you’ve got yourself a bonafide adventure. For Craig Murray, Finlay Woods and crew, this was all part of the plan. Craig is one of the top freeride skiers on the planet, and Fin is a world-class cameraman who can park an arc with the best of them. Along with a team of friends, they crafted a daring plan to ski some of the most remote zones in the New Zealand backcountry and document it in their film, “Terra Incognita,” premiering online on October 23, 2023.

Getting to remote lines such as these can be as complicated as skiing them. To accomplish their lofty goals, the crew needed to utilize multiple modes of transportation. Trucks, ski touring, horseback, and even barefoot river crossings; all were utilized in this incredible journey. The physical and mental strength required to complete such a voyage is frankly remarkable. Judging by the stunning photos taken by Matt Cherubino, the trip, while nothing short of grueling, was worth the toil. A true renaissance man who can write as well as he can ski, Craig Murray penned a detailed story of the first mission the crew embarked on, fittingly titled “Stampede.” This is Part 1 of 3 featured in the full film. Below you’ll find Craig’s written account along with a stunning photo gallery from the expedition into New Zealand’s terra incognita (terrain unknown).

Terra Incognita: Part One –  Stampede

Objective – Remote backcountry zones, by horse. 

Crew – Craig, Derek, Kenji, Fi, Matt, Finlay and Cam.

Location – Selwyn / Canterbury High Country, New Zealand

After a summer riding bikes in Europe, it had been quite some time since I felt so alive and directed every move to a clear purpose. Even if there was a spare moment, we didn’t have the energy to focus on anything other than the effort required to wriggle into our sleeping bags.

I’m still unsure why we pushed so hard during those days. We didn’t necessarily need to climb and ski thousands of meters for the film, especially considering the Kiwi conditions. But there we were, starting our ascent at 5 a.m. beneath the moon and returning at 8 p.m. under the stars. It was mainly the shared passion for being high on peaks and ridges, cherishing the slight warmth brought by the winter sun as it traversed low across the Southern Alps. There was an unspoken motivation in the group, and perhaps we didn’t want to waste the opportunity of using horses to reach our destination; we felt indebted to them and ourselves, wanting to make the most of every minute.

I spent a week preparing for the trip, coordinating countless moving parts and planning for all scenarios. Before the main adventure, Derek, the station manager, and I set out on a reconnaissance trip to explore the possibilities of the terrain. We met a Nor-West and got blown off anything resembling a ridge. Soaked to the bone and somewhat questioning ourselves, we had gained a valuable piece of information—that route wouldn’t work.

Fortune smiled upon us as a southerly wind swept through, blanketing the station with a generous 10 cm of fresh snow. Seizing the opportunity, we gave the green light to our audacious plan. Finlay, who was flying in from Canada, encountered a small hiccup when his three bags went missing. Luckily, his camera was carry-on, so Fi scooped him and they drove through the night to meet us. Meanwhile, Matt, the photographer, concluded his glacier shoot on the West Coast and eagerly joined the team at the high country rendezvous. The momentum had snowballed and there was no stopping us.

No slouch on his days off, Derek had done an outstanding job prior to preparing the horses and equipment for the journey. With hardly any sleep, we launched at 4 a.m. The first ride atop the horses was a simultaneously scary and breathtaking experience as we weaved through picturesque valleys and sparkling lakes. We descended down a braided river, venturing deeper into the untamed wilderness. We would leave our equine companions at the mounds of misery.

The following morning marked another early start as we broke camp, eager to continue our journey. The southerly wind persisted, casting a bone-chilling spell that froze our water solid even at the modest altitude of 800 m. Crossing nippy rivers and carrying burdensome packs, we persevered, gradually ascending a ridge to reach our high camp nestled at 1500 m. Although our tents provided shelter, the temperatures offered no respite once we stopped moving. 

With the dawn of a new day, we ventured forth, exploring the uncharted territory that lay before us. The allure of pristine snow beckoned, and we aimed to climb Mt Turnbull, despite the scarcity of ideal conditions. Accepting that we had to skip the steep wind-stripped lines that towered above camp, we skied a handful of other unique lines, and our spirits soared.

We were more grateful for the short nights to get off our feet as the cold still bit through the tent fabric. Conditions were comparable, and we were just using slightly different muscles. Early on in these trips, you are reminded why not many people camp in winter. You tend to feel quite average and uncomfortable, with slivers of joy and triumph. Luckily, our crew loves type two fun.

Days melded together into a whirlwind of climbing, skiing and exhaustion. From the first rays of sunrise until the vivid hues of sunset, we relentlessly climbed and skied to our hearts’ content. Each day brought new challenges and triumphs. The nights were brutally cold, and crystals formed around our snuggled sleeping bags. The morning routine involved three people wrestling under torchlight to get into each ski boot, flex pattern cranked to 200.

As the adventure neared its end, we retraced our steps. We discovered that two of the horses had run back to the safety of the station while the others contentedly grazed. Gathering our belongings, we mounted the remaining horses and rode back through the night to the staging hut, where two trusty trucks had patiently awaited our return.

We had relied on one another for comfort, survival and the strength to carry on. Each member played a vital role, contributing their unique skills and unwavering spirit. The return journey was a mixture of satisfaction and bittersweet nostalgia. We bid farewell to the remote backcountry zone that had become our temporary home, a place where we had all experienced profound beauty and formidable challenges. I extend special thanks to Derek, who poured his heart and soul into the meticulous preparations and the care of the horses. Without him, this venture would have been an impossible dream. The journey was truly graced by his dedication and expertise.

As we drove away, the memories of our week-long odyssey echoed in our minds. We reminisced about the trials we had overcome, the breathtaking landscapes we had traversed and the unbreakable bond we had created. Terra Incognita is more than a film project; even part one was a transformative experience. In our final conversation, we all hoped to inspire others to seek their own Terra Incognita (Terrain Unknown).

Photo Gallery

Photographer – Matt Cherubino