Message to self: Don’t freak out.
July is still early season.

By Anna Keeling

This is my 21st season in a row and still I have to admit that last night was a time of intense anticipation as we awaited the southerly storm. After the highly disappointing SE system of July 20-21 where it rained to high levels and loose wet avalanches tried to decimate mid elevations with their vile debris piles, we could be forgiven for our angst. Before turning in, I told my son Obie and his cousin Nya (here for the season to sample NZ clubby life) that I’d be severely pissed off if upon waking, there was not snow on the ground. Obie (12) woke first with a great cheer. Snow on the ground at Castle Hill, Porters Pass closed, no driving to the school bus….

Right now we are waiting to see if Broken River will open for an afternoon ski and look around. Craigieburn has been open all day, the only local field to do so. Maybe we’ll go there for a couple of late laps.

Tomorrow is August 1. It’s early days. An update from my so far limited roaming:

I tend to run avalanche courses early season to get a feel for the snow and to get the education in early. This provides perspective on how the avalanche situation, skiing and riding are setting up. The unusually wet SE system put plenty of snow in above 1400-1500m but it rained lower than this. I usually expect a SE to deliver copious snow to Canterbury but it all depends on how far north it pushes before swinging back onto the province. In this case, the combination of warmer sea temperatures along with a nasty swing north in the system meant wildly fluctuating freezing levels. And rain. I often consult the master of easterly predictions, Uli from Porters, for his opinion on the pending storm but this time I was too nervous to ask.

June’s early snow (“snow in May goes away, snow in June, still too soon”) is now a rock hard layer sitting on the ground on high, shady aspects. The damp SE system popped another 30 or so on top of that then froze and locked up. Groomers and steep slopes directly facing the sun have been the flavour for the past two weeks. The absence of wind in the SE system meant that the usual stripping of the Craigies’ ridges hasn’t happened. Ridge travel is great right now, with plenty of snow to travel on.

I can’t count how many times I heard people say “better than expected” last week. It is though - there’s plenty of coverage above 1500m. The lower elevations and access tows have suffered rain but are open. Then last night - POW - express delivery of a mostly southerly storm. The season is on.

Cut to Craigieburn valley, 2.30pm July 31. After a morning in the office, I cautiously drove the Suzuki in low 4WD to the car park with my two bunkers in tow. Middle looked good up high but tussock and speargrass still poked out in the lower section. Running into a few frothers, rumours flew - 4 laps through Middle from Whakamaru lodge. We joined a small throng of work and university escapees. The usual suspects - Silverbacks like Swampy Marsh, Phil the club president, Simon Hewitt, Mike Inder - were present. A viciously non-edgeable rime crust, evidence of SW winds overnight, made for some sketchy initial turns before dropping into 30cm of excellent kiwi pow, fast and creamy. The skies continued to clear. Tonight the stars are out, meaning the snow surface will dry and improve the skiing. Avalanche hazard will remain somewhat elevated as long as it’s stormy but once it clears and the wind abates for 24 hours or so, new snow instabilities should iron out and we will be set for the season.

This coming weekend looks stormy with SW winds and bursts of intermittent snow as fronts pass by. It won’t be perfect but it hardly ever is. We are OK with that. We’ve got a season.

Anna Keeling. Powder Day Cragieburn Valley 31 July 2019.

Anna Keeling is a regular contributor for Chill and offers backcountry ski guiding and recreational avalanche education in the Craigieburn Range plus ski touring and ski mountaineering in Arthur’s Pass National Park.  Chill Guided Tours are run with Anna Keeling Guiding, more information below.