The 23rd October 2011 was a historic night for New Zealand. But while nearly every kiwi throughout the world cheered the All Blacks on to win the Rugby World Cup Championship, eight of us watched lightening crack across the spring sky, reflecting off the surrounding mountaintops between thunderous booms. The patter of precipitation was constant. Three days into a 5-day backcountry splitboard trip in the Southern Alps of NZ, we were camped on a little known glacier called “The Garden of Eden.” John Pascoe, the man who bestowed such a fitting title, first laid eyes on it in the 1930’s, and has since been described as not a hospitable place to weather a storm. Not heeding that advice, we found ourselves pinned down on the Garden of Eden, a place as epic as it sounds, in the midst of one of the larger storms of the year.
The 40 hours we spent zipped snugly under the tent’s bondage gave me a great opportunity to get to know Richard Harcourt, the inspiration behind Splitn2 Backcountry Equipment and this splitboard R&D trip. Designing snowboards had been on Rich’s mind for years. As the back- and side-country market grew within the snowboarding industry, he saw that he could utilize his niche engineering and building skills he had honed as a kid learning carpentry from his father. Prior to pressing his first splitboard, Rich built a pair of skis and gave them to Erik Bradshaw to test. Eric was the first person to complete a solo winter Southern Alp Ski Traverse and said the skis looked great even after weeks of abuse.
Soon after building the skis for Erik, Rich set about building his first splitboard, which is a much more of a challenge than building a single board or a pair of skis because of the precision necessary. This board was tested in September 2011 at the Temple Basin Split-fest coordinated by Shane Orchard, and with some preliminary feedback Rich set into board number two. Simultaneously he pitched a multi-day R&D/Promo trip to Shane who then asked Ruari Macfarlane and myself to join the team as product testers and preparations for the trip were soon underway.
Contingency plans, weather, gear, maps, fuel, food, crew, snow stability, timing, board building and helicopters were just a few of the elements discussed in the 40 plus emails exchanged amongst the crew, which had grown to eight. While the rest of us had to sort out ourselves and the group gear planning, Rich had the extra job of building his second test board during the week and, ultimately, the hours leading up to departure.
Reflecting on the hectic time, Rich said, “the weeks and days leading up to the trip disappeared quickly. I was organising a fairly serious multi-day backcountry trip for 8 people, but most concerning was the fact that I had two splitboards in production that were at risk of a screw up if I rushed. There was no room for error. The trip’s success was to be measured around the testing of these boards, so I had to be patient and careful whilst plodding through the process. In the end, instead of rushing two boards, I finished one, and it was literally hot out of the press hours before heading in.”
With approximately 40 kilos of gear each, we were flying at full capacity; I don’t think trophy pig hunters could have done a better job. The long flight was spectacular and as we approached our new home base, we got our first view of the 2500+m John Pascoe Ridge and the extent of nearly perfectly flat ice 7 km down to the foot of the Glacier. We positioned our campsite on the NE quadrant of the glacier, both for avalanche safety and also accessibility to all the terrain within sight.
Getting into it
After setting up a quick camp we were soon ascending an unnamed peak on the Ridge as we were eager to test the new gear. Ruari and I decided to drop into a steep and tight couloir and hike back up another that held a perfectly shaped 200m spine running at 45 degrees. Although it was more ice than snow, the Splitn2 board proved its ability to rip apart steep consequential terrain. The board felt stiff, but on the spine it was strong, snappy and had serious edge bite. With the light fading, we headed back to jib some of the glacial features closer to base and get a better feel for the boards’ capabilities. We arrived back at camp late in the evening and quickly finished off our tent site, made some dinner and packed lunches in preparation for the next day as it looked like it was going to be a monster.
We slid out of camp at about 7:30 AM. With the top layer of the glacier as hard as the ice below, we easily traveled the 3 km down to the base of Mt Farrar, which we would have to climb to the eastern col prior to dropping off the back to our final destinations Mt Hulka 2348m and eventually Mt Kensington 2444m. By the time we started climbing, the sun was warming the snow, which made setting the boot pack difficult, but we reached the col within about 90 minutes and the second crew aided by our boot pack easily caught up. An early lunch gave us time to double check the view of the new terrain against our plan and we soon began dropping down into the Farrar Glacier basin, committing ourselves to a big day.
We made a bid for Mt Kensington, a monolith of a mountain amongst those that surround it. Due to the steep face, we threw on crampons for the last 400m. The 360 views from the peak opened up doors to untapped backcountry options deeper than most would feel comfortable with. Shane and Ruari were obviously not fazed, and they decided to drop into a couple of couloirs off the backside of Kensington, going off only their maps and a 1980’s climbing magazine photo. The rest of us scored the NE face of Kensington in good light and with a fast push to the top of Hulka we also hit what may have been the nicest line of the trip in perfect light. The knife-edge of Hulka felt like surfing a wave with fatal consequences if curiosity got the best of you. I was impressed by the board’s turning radius; it held on long wide-open turns and also sharp slashes on the sun-affected slope. After a mandatory air at the bottom, the group recollected. The slog home, began with a mellow afternoon skin back up to another col East of Mt Farrar.
It was on this skin up that I began to consider the simplicity and functionality of the board I was riding. Our trip led us kilometers from base camp, but never once did I question the safety or performance capability of the board. The Sparks Bindings were tough and every moving piece was secured. The board never faltered on any of the big lines, and it felt like a perfect NZ backcountry assault weapon.
The last 600m run back to the Garden of Eden was illuminated in the late afternoon sun with the lower wide-open glacial slope in perfect cream cheese form. We obviously took it upon ourselves to throw down the season’s best Euro-carves ending the day’s riding with big high fives. We had about four km of easy skinning home, which was a breeze after ascending two fairly substantial peaks. As we crested the last small ascent in the glacier, the setting sun lit up some amazing features with the alpine glow only seen at altitude.
The forecast had called for the approaching storm to arrive in the morning. In my previous experiences in winter camping through storms, I knew the intricate steps taken before would be essential to comfort during the long wait. Food was stashed in easily accessible locations, a proper cooking area set up, guidelines were tightened, and essential gear went into the tent.
The next morning we awoke to a dense cloud encasing our little village. The visibility seemed to be coming and going as the sun rose, so we divided into two groups, the others went east back towards Perth Col while Ruari and I scrambled up Newton Peak just above camp. As we climbed, the precipitation began to fall as rime, leaving us coated in a wet and icy layer. We bagged the peak, but with barely five meters of visibility, we couldn’t ride the Camp Couloir we had been eyeing the first few days. With ice-axe in hand and only our footsteps to distinguish the steep ice laden slope from the surrounding clouds, we slowly made the nauseas ride down. When we got back to camp, everyone was there preparing for the mega storm heading our way. We finished off any remaining jobs bid our goodbyes and slid into our four two-man units.
Knowing that any step outside of the tent would result in instant saturation, I made a personal decision not to leave the tent unless absolutely necessary. Fortunately my partner Rich was braver than I and went out to cook the first night’s feed and take care of the 20+ cm of extremely saturated snow that had already accumulated. By day two the walls of the tent were encasing us like a snow tomb because the wet sloppy snow found its way into every space around the tent. On the night of the RWC Final, we were treated to a wild thunder and lightening storm that literally used the Garden of Eden as a landing strip. I was concerned with Rich’s utility of the Mountain Radio for score updates due to intensified electric and radio wave signals connecting to the hand held device inside our tent, but the modern convenience was worth the risk.
On the third morning we were released from the bondage of our tents and in typical kiwi fashion, the post storm rainbow arched overhead. With nearly 50+cm of saturated snow on the ground, I was very keen to drop into some of the glacial features we had scouted the first day. I skinned over, scoped a few lines and quickly was on top of the chute-riddled serac field. With blue skies and rising temps, I dropped into what was some of the most interesting terrain I’ve ever ridden. At the bottom, I linked up with the rest of the crew and everyone seemed pretty stoked to get creative with the ice options abound. Ruari and I rode a few more lines through there before testing out the boards’ pop. We both found some wind lips with perfect landings and made quick work; Ruari got a bit more creative with a shark’s fin handplant, while I hit a natural wind lip.
With the pickup time approaching, most of us called it to pack up camp, but Ruari and Shane made a bid for Mt Tyndal 2517m and the wide-open steep slopes with mandatory airs below. In the midst of stuffing the packs full, we watched those two drop into the beautiful, steep, sunny face to wrap up the trip. As our plan was to get picked up further down the Colin Campbell Glacier, Ruari and Shane hustled back and we quickly moved out of camp, which had since become surrounded in fog. The chopper pilots had given us just one hour to get below the cloud layer into a safe pick up zone and we all knew time was pressing, though the dangers were high. The eight of us were loaded up with huge packs and traveling through glacial terrain only spotted by a heli five days before. Recent slides made the navigation difficult and we often had to ride across 100+m fields of avalanche debris deposited by the growing midnight black moraines above. We pushed on and on and with the snow thinning, it didn’t appear that we would ever get below the cloud layer.
At about 1300m and two minutes past our deadline, we set up the mountain radio and called in the chopper with just 150m of cloud clearance. With only the sounds of rock and rain fall, we were stoked to be getting out of this dark, wet and depressing valley as everyone was completely saturated. The first crew departed at 7:30 PM and our load didn’t get into the chopper until 8:00 PM knowing that we had just accomplished something few had done before on boards. The flight out followed the headwaters of the Rangitata River down past Lake Clearwater at about 100-200m off the ground.
The rain and clouds were so thick you could feel the chopper traveling at a slower speed, but fortunately our pilot was experienced enough to know when to call it quits and had no problem putting the bird down in the backyard of a friendly local farmer at 9:00 PM. I am sure we looked a bit silly stepping out of the chopper into the dark night kitted out head to toe in mountaineering and snowboard gear, but as we stood around squeezing water out of our boots and gloves, we just laughed knowing we had just ripped some of NZ’s most remote backcountry terrain.