Get up to get down

If you spend any time at all in the Southern Alps, you’re going to want to go touring. From just about any location in the South Island you can see mountains. And New Zealand’s mountains are made for skiing - open bowls, steep faces, tight chutes, and aesthetic peaks.

Also, backcountry touring allows you to go where conditions are good. New Zealand has notoriously fickle weather, but that means it’s usually good somewhere. If you can figure out where to go and how to get there, chances are there are good turns to be had.

The South Island has more mountains than anyone really knows what to do with. As a result, there’s backcountry riding all over the place. The key constraints are weather, snow and access. In general, the snow line is fairly high (around 1500m) and people don’t want to build and maintain road infrastructure to that height without a good reason, so the limiting factor in where you can ski is generally some combination of where you can drive and how far you’re willing to walk.

As a result, this rough guide will necessarily be incomplete. It’s intended to give new visitors a rough idea of what’s out there in some of the most popular and accessible areas so that they can plan a trip. Are there lots of other cool places we haven’t mentioned? You bet. If you want to go somewhere remote or unusual or want specific details (how far you can drive up the Waimakariri to hike into the Crow Valley?) this isn’t going to be much help.

While you’re looking through this information, keep in mind the following disclaimers:

  1. This information is intended for you to use to figure out where you should stay and how your should arrange your trip to New Zealand. Use it to compare the backcountry options near Wanaka or Christchurch (or wherever else you’re thinking of going). Don’t use it to plan your backcountry travel - the information isn’t suitable for that purpose and you’ll need to consult proper maps, locals, guides, and all the other usual stuff.

  2. Use this information at your own risk. Make sure you have the necessary skills, fitness and experience before you travel into the backcountry. These places are dangerous. They’ve been the site of multiple fatalities over the years and plenty of serious accidents. If you don’t know what you’re doing, hire a guide or ski somewhere else.

  3. This is just a general guide about what kinds of backcountry options are available. It’s not supposed to be complete and exhaustive, and we aren’t pretending to be experts in every area in NZ. We’re trying to help you plan your trip so that you don’t end up looking for the chairlift at Mt Cook Village or trying to drive up the access road to Temple Basin.

  4. We haven’t bothered with the North Island. Yes, it does have skiing and yes, on its day it can be good. But it’s usually not good and if you’re coming all the way to NZ to ski you should probably concentrate your efforts on the South Island.

  5. This is just our opinion. If the way we’re dividing the South Island into areas isn’t to your liking, or we missed your favourite thing about Queenstown - sorry. We’re not proposing a new “National Backcountry Strategy” for DOC or something. Sometimes people on the internet disagree about things. It happens.


We’re in the process of updating this section (during bad weather when we can’t heliski) so this is incomplete at the moment and a work in progress. Bear with us.

At the moment, we’ve got information for:

Eventually, we’ll put up information for Queenstown, Wanaka, the north Mackenzie, and Methven.

The Craigieburn Range

State Highway 73 is one of the main arterial routes crossing the Southern Alps and connecting Christchurch to the West Coast. From Christchurch it works its way north and west, roughly following the Waimakariri river through the flat farmland of the Canterbury Plains. At the town of Springfield it diverges from the Waimakariri and to cut west and head up and over Porter’s Pass. From there it turns and runs roughly north-south, with the Craigieburn Range on one side and the Torlesse Range on the other.

The Craigieburn Range has the ideal combination of reliable snowfall, access from highway 73, and proximity to Christchurch. And so, for the last 70-ish years, locals have been heading up to these mountains to ski. In the process they’ve built a range of infrastructure (small ski areas, lodges, huts, and roads) that allow you to get to the snowline quickly.

That’s wonderful news, because the skiing along this range is rad. Super, super rad. It has awesome ski terrain - open faces, tight chutes, big bowls. I teach a bunch of avalanche courses up here and the hardest thing to do is find terrain that isn’t between 30 and 45 degrees. It’s all good skiing. Helpfully, it’s also pretty sheltered from the weather, and it gets decent snow.

There’s heaps of good backcountry to do here. With five small ski areas scattered along the range there are a bunch of places where you can easily get to the snow line. From there you can tour along the range to find untracked bowls, ride your lines, and tour back to your car. It’s also well set up for traverses (the Craigieburn Haute Route is a classic trip where you traverse from ski area to ski area, staying in their on mountain accommodation - it’s run by our friends at Chill/Anna Keeling Guiding and is ABSOLUTELY worth a look - tell them we sent you).

As usual in NZ, conditions are variable. But there’s usually good skiing somewhere and a powder day up here can be sublime. I’ve had days where there were so few people in the hills we ended up teaming up to track things out. At its best it’s better than heli-skiing.

To ski in the range you’ll be using ski area roads for access. Have a look at the descriptions of those areas for more information.

The good news is:

  1. There’s awesome terrain. Steep open faces, chutes, big alpine faces. Outrageous skiing and boarding.

  2. Access is good. You can drive to the snowline at a bunch of places along the range.

  3. It’s generally pretty quiet. There are a few people poking around, especially right next to the ski areas, but it’s very easy to leave the crowds behind and you won’t see much competition for tracks.

  4. The ski areas along the range are great. Good skiing, but also great communities with welcoming lodges. Most of them have on-mountain accommodation which makes a really convenient base for touring.

  5. The range has a good spread north-south. The weather tends to come from the northwest or southeast so you can usually move around the range to escape bad weather or find good snow.

The bad news is:

  1. It’s low. Most of the range is below 1800m. That’s good when it’s windy, but with the climate generally warming it means the snow arrives later and leaves earlier each season. Plan to be here in August or September. Even July is unreliable now.

  2. Like everywhere in NZ, the snow can sometimes be diabolically bad. Add to that the general difficulty of the terrain and you can end up with some pretty ugly riding at times.

  3. Most of the lifts at the club fields are nutcracker rope tows. If you’re planning to use the lifts to get a quick boost of vertical to start you day, you’ll need to be able to ride tows.

  4. The infrastructure is quirky. This is New Zealand. They have a unique approach to building things. Like roads. All of the little ski areas are idiosyncratic. Most of the time that’s charming, but occasionally it’s a pain in the butt. If a big storm comes in it can take a while for some places to clear their roads. The roads themselves can be quite bad. Probably worse than you’re thinking. You might not be able to drive up them in a 2wd (or your 4wd will need chains), and most places don’t want you driving up in a campervan or similar. In some places the ticket offices close during the middle of the day. Lifts don’t always run reliably. Sometimes you have to walk for 20 minutes just to get to the ski area. It takes a bit of local knowledge to make everything work smoothly here. If you don’t have that just relax and accept that you might deal with a few unexpected inefficiencies.

If I could only ski one range in NZ, this would probably be it. Great mountains, good access, pretty reliable snow, fun communities, good people, and exceptional terrain.

The Craigieburn Range is accessible from:

  • On mountain accommodation at the small ski areas.

  • Castle Hill Village is a great base. It’s right at the foot of the mountains so it’s quick to head u[ to most of them.

  • Mt Olympus is accessed from the opposite side of the range to all the other ski areas (which come off State Highway 73). It’s doable as a day trip from Castle Hill Village but it’s also quite close to Methven if you’re staying there.

  • Arthur’s Pass is within reasonable day trip range of all these areas except maybe Mt Olympus.

  • The Craigieburn Range is also a reasonable day trip from Christchurch (90 minutes to 2 hours each way).

You really need a car to make the most of a trip here, and you want a 4wd with chains. There are a couple of public transport options (Black Diamond Safaris will drive you around) but they’re not cheap.

What do we offer in the Craigieburn Range?

We guide here in partnership with Anna Keeling Guiding. It’s one of our favourite places to ski.

We come here on:

  • Base camp trips out of Castle Hill Village.

  • As a bad weather option for hut trips to the big mountains in the Mt Cook region.

The Aoraki-Mount Cook area

Aoraki-Mt Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand, At its foot is Mt Cook Village, and from there you can access a huge amount of backcountry skiing. This is the area with New Zealand’s highest peaks and largest glaciers. It’s a mecca for mountaineers, ski mountaineers and ski tourers.

There are three rough zones for skiing in the region. The highest zone is the peaks and neves around the major glaciers. This area is glaciated and touring up here means managing the risk of crevasses. There’s plenty of options for touring up here - you can achievably ski up and down a number of the less intimidating peaks, there are plenty of big bowls and faces to ski, and lots of glaciers to link into traverses and loops.

In the lower ranges to the south and east of the major glaciers there are nearly endless options for touring. This terrain is generally not glaciated (with a handful of retreating patches of glacial ice here and there) but gets plenty of snow each winter and has wide open faces, steeps and chutes in abundance. These areas are popular with the local heli-ski operators but there are also really good opportunities for touring here. A number of private huts have been built in some of these ranges which offer awesome access for backcountry skiers.

Finally, there are the fringes of the mountains ranges which extend towards the Mackenzie high country towards Twizel, south and east of Mount Cook Village. These lower mountains have no glaciers and rely on seasonal snow, but they tend to be more sheltered from some of the weather than smashes the higher mountain areas and are easier to access on foot or by car. This includes Ohau ski area (confusingly not in the Ohau range) which has some fun inbounds skiing and provides really good access for backcountry touring.

To get into the glaciated areas and the lower ranges it’s best to use a helicopter or a ski-plane. You can drive and walk (you need a capable 4wd and it will take a while) to get to the private huts in the lower ranges but for most people on a ski holiday that’s not a productive use of time. You can also walk to some of the skiing immediately around Mt Cook Village but the terrain there is pretty limited and it generally gets blasted by the wind. That area works best for corn skiing in spring. To get into the fringes you can usually drive (e.g. to Ohau ski area) or drive and walk a bit.

There’s an enormous amount of skiing in this region. For the stuff in the fringes the easiest option is day trips. For everything else the most cost effective way to do it is to fly in and stay in a hut for a few days. Flights can be chartered from the various airlines that operate out of Mt Cook Airport and Glentanner Airport. You can literally walk in off the street and charter a helicopter, but it does help to have a bit of experience to pack your gear properly, make sure your group and gear are the correct weights, and so on.

The huts are generally pretty simple. Almost all have bunk beds (just mattresses - you’ll need a sleeping bag). A few have gas cookers, otherwise you’ll need your own stove. Most have pots and pans. The private huts have heating, the rest are quite cold. Check with the Department of Conservation office in Mount Cook before you fly in to find out about the facilities at each hut and how many people are staying there. You’ll need to contact the landowner directly to book the private huts, and they usually book out well in advance.

All of the touring in the glaciated areas and the lower ranges is pretty committing. You need to know what you’re doing. If something goes wrong you’ll be very much on your own. In the glaciated areas you’ll need crevasse rescue skills and plenty of experience to travel independently. The whole area gets frequent, huge avalanches. This is a good area for experienced groups, otherwise hire a guide.

The good news is:

  1. There’s a huge amount of backcountry riding around Mt Cook Village

  2. There is the option of skiing up high (2400m-ish), so this is a good place to find snow even in a warm season.

  3. There aren’t many people and a huge amount of terrain. Crowding isn’t an issue.

  4. It’s stunningly beautiful and wild.

The bad news is:

  1. Access to everything except the stuff around Ohau ski area is a mission. Flights make things very simple and convenient but they’re not cheap (ball park $1000 for a load of 4-5 people one way).

  2. The higher you go the worse the weather gets. You need good weather to move around up there, so there can be some waiting around. The snow up high is often pretty wind-affected.

  3. Touring up high requires a high level of experience and self-reliance.

  4. Options for convenient riding (day trips, short approaches, etc.) are limited.

The Mount Cook Area is a great place for an adventure. It’s not really a good ski holiday destination in the usual sense. You won’t get to cut laps all day and then sit in a hot tub at night. But if you’re willing to put the effort in it (and you have time to wait for good weather) it can be an amazing place to ski/board.

The Mount Cook area is accessible from:

  • Mount Cook Village. It’s a fair drive to and from Ohau (90 minutes each way) but you’re right near everything else so you can get moving as soon as the weather clears.

  • Twizel (the main town nearby) is 45 minutes away.

  • Lake Tekapo is close enough for a day trip if you want to come to Mt Cook to heli-ski or whatever,

  • It’s roughly 4:30 from Christchurch and few hours from Wanaka.

You can get here on public transport but you’ll struggle to do much more. It’s best to have your own car, but (apart from the Ohau ski area road) it’s all sealed so any car will be fine.

What do we offer in the Mount Cook region?

We guide here in partnership with Alpine Guides.

We come here on:

  • Hut trips to the big mountains in the area.

Arthur’s Pass

The main road and rail route from Christchurch to the West Coast crosses the Main Divide of the Southern Alps at Arthur’s Pass. There’s a town (also called Arthur’s Pass) just by the pass which is in turn surrounded by a National Park (imaginatively named “Arthur’s Pass National Park”).

The main drawcard for skiers and boarders is Temple Basin ski area, a club field on the northern side of the pass. It’s a strange and inconvenient place. There’s no access road (you have to walk to the field, it takes about 50 minutes). The lifts don’t really connect up (you have to walk from one lift to the other). And the inbounds terrain is fun but pretty small.

But no one really cares about any of that because the terrain is outrageous. Absolutely nuts. The beauty of Temple Basin is that it has accommodation lodges (with good catered meals) in the middle of some of the best backcountry terrain anywhere.

Most of the backcountry stuff around here is fairly burly. There’s some terrain for intermediate/advanced skiers but to get proper value from a trip here you want to be comfortable on steep terrain and riding technical lines. There’s quite a bit of steep bootpacking and the locals have a very open-minded approach to exposure.

Outside of Temple Basin there’s a heap of good ski touring, but it often involves a dose of ski mountaineering. There are a few places where you can get around on skins but most of the travel in this area will require ice axes and crampons. That’s great for expert skiers and mountaineers, but for the average garden variety ski tourer the options are more limited.

The area is right on the Main Divide, so it gets hammered in a northwesterly and is exposed to the prevailing winds. That can make for a lot of snow in the right conditions, but it can also mean long dry spells if the weather is coming from the south-east.

Any skiing or boarding here is going to require an approach. That can range from an hour or so of walking through to a day of 4WD-ing and then a long tramp. The area has plenty to reward strong, motivated groups who want to push themselves. For everyone else it’s great on its day (especially around Temple Basin) but the ratio of effort to reward is probably going to be more favourable in the nearby Craigieburn Range.

There are good things:

  1. Epic terrain.

  2. No crowds.

  3. Options for adventures ranging from the very committed (touring at the head of the Waimakariri) through to the comfortably sized (skiing rad stuff around Temple Basin).

  4. Temple is awesome in good snow.

The bad news is:

  1. Super variable conditions. Exposed to the northwesterly wind, gets pounded in a major storm (but those storms can also bring rain) and doesn’t tend to get much/any snow from a southerly (which usually bring good dry powder to other areas).

  2. All access requires walking roughly an hour or more.

  3. Better suited for strong groups. There’s some mellow terrain at/around Temple but most of the riding is pretty difficult.

Arthur’s Pass is a good place for strong groups. Wait for a decent northwesterly storm to blow through and then get into it.

Arthur’s Pass is accessible from:

  • Arthur’s Pass township has a couple of hostels and climbers’ lodges.

  • There’s catered accommodation at Temple Basin.

  • It’s 40-ish minutes from Castle Hill Village.

  • It’s a long but achievable day trip from Christchurch (a bit over 2 hours to drive, plus your walk-in).

There are buses and trains to Arthur’s Pass Township, so you could conceivably ski here using public transport but it would be a big hassle. Bring your own car. Be aware that break-ins around Arthur’s Pass are not unheard of, so secure your valuables.

What do we offer in the Arthur’s Pass region?

We guide here in partnership with Anna Keeling Guiding. We mostly guide around Temple Basin and some of the ski touring objectives on the other side of the highway. We hope to do ski mountaineering guiding in the future, but for now if you’re looking for ski mountaineering guiding you’ll want to talk to the boss: Anna Keeling Guiding.

We come here on:

  • Base camp trips out of Castle Hill Village.

  • As a bad weather option for hut trips to the big mountains in the Mt Cook region.