Remarkable Fun Snowshoeing in Queenstown
“Is that by any chance a chairlift above us,” I muttered to our guide Shaun as we sweated our way up a steep slope on the Remarkables near Queenstown.
“Yes, but that’s for wussy types and there are none of those in our team, are there Justine?” replied Shaun as he snowshoed purposefully up the mountain, making light work of the hefty pack on his back containing our lunch, refreshments and mountain safety gear.
“Indeed not, Shaun. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating due to the altitude,” I lied unconvincingly.
When I first heard about the newly-launched snowshoeing expeditions on the Remarkables, I naively assumed we would be catching one of three perfectly good chairlifts up the mountain and then doing a sort of token snowshoe hike a few hundred metres down to Lake Alta in time for lunch followed by a few snaps of us frolicking in the snow with the iconic sawtooth pinnacles as a backdrop.
But just to err on the safe side, I emailed NZ Snowshoe to inquire how far we would be hiking and was here up any uphill stuff?
“We usually hike about 6-8km with about a 300m-400m climb,” Shaun promptly replied.
Righto, off to the gym then for the next three weeks for some intensive lunging and leg-press sessions.
He didn’t mention the word chairlift in his email but having skied at the Remarkables, I managed to convince myself we would catch the lift up to gain altitude and then start the hike.
A leg powered expedition
However, our day snow shoeing on the Remarkables did not involve any bodily contact with chairlifts. It was a serious leg-powered expedition requiring a respectable level of fitness and a taste for the Great Outdoors.
We covered about 6km with a climb of 300m or so but Shaun tailors the degree of difficulty to suit the fitness of the group with some overseas visitors opting for a short hike, a play in the snow and a photo opportunity and others climbing as far as the South Wye Saddle at 1950m. We reached an elevation of 1900m at the Grand Couloir, a gully between Double and Single Cone, the latter being the highest point on the Remarkables Range at 2319m.
The gym work certainly paid off and once I got into the exhilarating rhythm of hiking uphill on snowshoes, I soon forgot all about chairlifts. The high-tech, lightweight snowshoes were easy to master and 100 percent slip-proof thanks to rows of metal spikes on the soles. They had a series of rubber straps which accommodated any sized boots and with the addition of two height-adjustable hiking poles, I felt entirely secure. A clever cleat device clicked into place under the foot to raise the heel on steeper slopes, saving much calf-muscle agony.
As we climbed far beyond the ski field, the contours of the Wakatipu Valley and the row upon row of mountains unfolded with every step, making the effort supremely rewarding. I once again fell under the spell of the Remarkables in whose shadow I grew up as child on holiday. I had always regarded the mountain range as mystical and unattainable, and recall being seriously miffed when the road was built and ski field developed in the basin below Double Cone, opening it up to all and sundry.
Communing with the Mountain Gods
With the cones towering above us like a pair of mountain gods, I understood the Maori concept of maunga tapu – this was my sacred mountain, and I was quietly proud to call this place my spiritual home. I felt a strong sense of ownership, possibly because I had climbed the mountain and camped up there with a friend as a dewy-eyed teenager. The mist had come swirling in with cold, damp fingers at about 3am which was eerie and far from romantic, but the sunrise was magical.
I felt like an intrepid Antarctic explorer traversing frozen Lake Alta and climbing high above the flat white expanse of the teardrop tarn.
When we reached our highest point at the Grand Couloir and I saw the impact of the spectacular panorama in the moist eyes of a young Aussie couple in our group, I was noisily proud, prattling on about how I once lived in Arrowtown and went to high school in Queenstown. They seemed suitably impressed.
I found myself reluctant to return to the hubbub of the skifield with its snowcats, ski-mobiles, chairlifts, and skiers and snowboarders shouting to each other.(Justine Tyerman pictured above in a snow cave on the Remarkables.)
Despite being a skier of many years, this sustainable, self-propelled activity appealed to the greenie in me. I loved the silence and solitude of the snowshoeing experience, and the lack of dependence on man-made forms of propulsion. Snowshoes are not the most elegant of footwear but they are practical, safe and stable, and unlike skis, the technique does not require years of lessons, practice and bruises to perfect. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. It’s easy and accessible. And the sense of achievement at having made it up to the Grand Couloir, sans chairlift, was delicious. Shaun caught my eye and nodded. He may have even winked but he had goggles on so I couldn't be sure. No wussy-types on our team, to be sure Shaun,” I said.
* Snowshoeing has long been popular in the European Alps but until now, it hasn't featured strongly in New Zealand. This is about to change now that Ngai Tahu Tourism has taken NZ Snowshoe under its broad wing adding the activity to its stellar line-up of Shotover Jet, Dart River Jet, the Hollyford Track Guided Walk, Unique Nature Experience, Franz Josef Glacier Guides, Glacier Hot Pools, Huka Falls Jet, Rainbow Springs and the Agrodome.
By Justine Tyerman who was a guest of Ngai Tahu Tourism who own NZ Snowshoe. www.ngaitahutourism.co.nz; www.snowshoeing.co.nz