Inspiring Explorer Emily Wilson, blogs about her time completing the Inspiring Explorers Expedition™ Mahu Whenua Traverse in August 2022. Emily talks about the importance of great teamwork, and the joys of connecting with people and nature.
The Mahu Whenua Ski Traverse! The brainchild of Erik Bradshaw and hotly anticipated by the Inspiring Explorers of 2021! One year postponed, the team of Ana Ross, Sam Davis, Libby Clifton, Zoe Crawford, Isaac Giesen, and I, met up again in Wanaka on 28 August 2022 with hopes of spending the next 4-5 days skiing across the Harris Mountains. It was great to have an initial day to catch up with everyone, meet some new faces and get up Treble Cone for some familiarisation with avalanche protocols.
A northwesterly front was brewing and some were nervous but soon the formalities were done and we were sorted into two groups, one team to leave the next day made up of Ana, Isaac, and Sam, who would be joined by Mountain Turk Club founder Erik Bradshaw, Trust representative Marcus Waters and guide Thomas Vialletet from Peak Experience.
The other team, made up of Zoe, Libby, and myself along with Trust Executive Director Nigel Watson and guide Tim Robertson from Peak Experience, were to leave a day later.
Our group set off on a nice spring Tuesday with the destination being the Polnoon Turk at the end of Tower Ridge off the back of the Treble Cone ski area. We had some fresh tracks and nice powdery conditions off the SE aspects of Tower Ridge but it was fair to say I was skiing like a muppet. My thanks go to Nigel for his ongoing enthusiasm, fuelling the stoke and reminding me to just go for it! I have become more cautious with my skiing through injury, and having done a lot less than most of my teammates it was easy to be hard on myself. However, we all have our strengths in different areas and the uphill still happens to be my favourite. The company felt inclusive and supportive right from the get-go and these are always such great attributes to foster in a team environment.
Teamwork has always fascinated me, especially the team dynamics that are fostered in highly variable and unpredictable environments such as the backcountry we were in. It takes great trust and respect, to get five different people to reach a destination some 55km away under their own steam. We didn’t know each other that well but it was amazing how quickly we found our roles and gelled as a unit. We all shared a few laughs as we got used to the extra weight on that first day and with plenty of good high traversing, we soon left the ski area far behind as we made our way south along Towers. We had plenty of time to perfect our kick turns in spots and I realised that I could relax my transition pace!
The weather, as it so often is in New Zealand, was looking pretty unpredictable for the trip. We knew it was going to deteriorate over the week, so we made the most of the blue skies and the nice corn on the final run down towards the turk. Its lovely to reach your home for the night when you are in the back country, with a superb vista down the Polnoon Burn and Blue Creek, the Polnoon Turk was a welcome retreat for the evening.
Day two started with a 6am alarm and a hearty porridge breakfast, followed closely by a 500m climb up to the Siberia Basin. We walked in our shoes and didn’t transition until half way up the hill. Everyone got to try out their ski crampons and enjoy chats in smaller groups as Libby and Nigel decided to take the true ridge line. Once at the top we looked down to see lots of heli-ski lines and some nice dry powder. Skiing ‘Salt Mines’ and its bumps was fun and it felt good to be out of the building Northwest wind. I remember thinking I would like to ditch my pack and get on some steeper terrain to perfect my turns, which were still questionable at times!
At the creek at the bottom, we had a quick first lunch and soon it was time to navigate our way up and traverse out to a saddle at 1700m. During this time, we redistributed some weight between us so we could improve how we moved together as a team. This was another awesome thing about our team, happy to drop our egos and think about what was best for the whole unit and what would make others more comfortable. At the saddle we could spy the Mt Hyde Turk and the ever-approaching cloud from the west. After a quick ski down, we made the final push to a ridge above the turk and got some cream cheese turns to the door by 3pm. An early arrival but plenty of time for tea, snacks and lots of great story telling by all. I did suggest we venture out for more laps, but with no takers, I succumbed to another cuppa! The weather we thought would be coming, didn’t seem to push over and we had two friendly keas for entertainment that evening.
After leaving a plentiful food supply in the Mt Hyde Turk and rescuing a friend’s blue spork from the utensil kit, we started Day three on foot again, with a few hundred metres to climb around the back of Mt Hyde. We stayed on the ridge and dropped into a bowl with less-than-ideal snow conditions, some roller balls, and we could see where small spots around the rocks had been triggered. It was a lumpy and frumpy process of ski down, or traverse across as far as you could before climbing a little more. The heat had started to build too and it felt very much like late Spring already. We arrived at the Saint Just Turk in the early afternoon and after some more tea and snacks, and a group discussion, we decided to push on to the Vanguard Turk.
The forecast was keeping us on our toes and we figured it would be best to get further along the route before the weather came in. A great view toward the Shotover River now greeted us. The cloud threatened to roll in at times and this was an interesting section, trying to find the best snow line between tussocks on a series of benches off the side of the ridge. We kept our traverse on and managed to keep our skis on for most of it, except for the odd tussock patch traverse. We were mostly in great spirits but towards the end when the ridge got narrower and the snow more rotten, we all started to tire and face our own challenges. I could be heard saying on a particularly heavy section that ‘this was not fun’. However, laughing at Nigel trying to remember song lyrics kept us going and we popped over a small rise to view the Vanguard Turk at dusk. A beautiful red rimmed sky and a lovely view of the Shotover Valley was a nice welcome home moment. Now accustomed to the small living space, we were quite efficient at transitioning out of our ski gear, setting up our sleep space and preparing the evening meal so we could enjoy more cups of tea!
Day four wasn’t the best start for me. I am diabetic and I had a low blood sugar episode and was being ambivalent to the food the team was offering me. Lucky Libby is such a star in the cooking department and had whipped up some choc filled damper bites that I managed to get down to bring me back to life. It is another reminder that I need to talk more about my diabetes and educate people about the disease.
Knowledge is power but often I don’t want to burden others so I just try and quietly manage it on my own. This often works well and most people wouldn’t know I am dealing with it, but when I do slip up, as we all do, then it becomes a lot of responsibility to put on others. It’s a case of acknowledging how hard it is to predict, revise and calculate blood sugar levels in relation to what you are doing 24/7, and letting people understand without judgement. I am really thankful for the team for being so intuitive and realising that something was wrong, I wasn’t behaving or responding as I usually do and they made me sit down and eat so I could get my levels up again and get on with the day.
It was lucky we had decided the night before that we would stop for the night at Deep Creek Turk, rather than pushing all the way to the finish in one day, and because of the hard, icy conditions and the short day we did not need to leave super early. Leaving by mid-morning we made our way up to Vanguard Peak. My re-glued skins were working well but Libby and Zoe needed crampons as their skins were not surviving in the wet snow, even with the tape they had applied. We got to the top after post-holing the last few metres onto tussock and then we put our skis on for the longest ski traverse one could hope to do, the legs were burning! In the end it was a tussock party and we gave up on the skis and had a late lunch before starting our descent to Deep Creek. Nigel was a bit sad he didn’t get a few more turns but the snow had well and truly gone from this aspect and it would have been pretty inconsistent from where we stopped. We may have had to stay a bit higher to enjoy some turns higher up the ridge.
We found a spur and descended a good 400m to Deep Creek and found our turk. It was good we brought some supplies with us and had rationed out the last few days because Deep Creek was the only Turk to be skint on food supplies. Another great evening was spent telling stories and being inspired by the great adventurous lives of those around us. I really do have fond memories of those evenings, sitting with a cup of tea or miso, getting to know the team on a deeper level. One of the greatest joys of my life is meeting lots of different people and building a genuine connection with them. I am a very curious person, being interested, asking questions and listening to people’s stories enriches my life because I learn so much about the world and my place in it. The biggest laugh of the trip was hearing expletives from outside the door that evening. We thought Nigel had gone nuts talking to himself but when he returned, he explained that while collecting water from the tank, he had come face to face with a big possum!
We had been expecting the weather to worsen but it had stayed pretty consistently warm and humid with thicker cloud hanging over the mountains to the West. However on Day five it started to rain as we put our skis on our backs for the 900m climb to Coronet Peak. To start we passed the time by playing memory games that involved each one of us reciting an animal eating a food with each letter of the alphabet in order. We got a fair way up the spur before we got tired of it and we reached the ridge. Shortly after a snack break, team one’s guide Thomas appeared to keep us company for the last hour or so. We reached the final ridge before the summit of Coronet Peak and were greeted by the other team, Zoe’s family and Anna Clare from AHT. It was neat to see everyone and to start to exchange stories of the past week. We got to enjoy that final ski down together and I remember the conditions being rather hard work for those last few turns. Just like that it was done and dusted and we could enjoy some superb food at ‘The Fork and Tap’ in Arrowtown.
Reflecting on those 5 days in the mountains it reminds me how lucky we are to have opportunities to go exploring in the backcountry right on our doorstep here in New Zealand. We get to step into the unknown, and in the process we get the opportunity to grow in a way that often wouldn’t happen in our everyday lives. I find it hard to articulate what these experiences mean to me, only to say that I feel a deep visceral connection to our wild places and when I am out there, I feel most alive and free. When I return, I am a better person both for the people in my life and at work. I work with young people and I see the changes that occur when they are out exploring in these wild places, the development of resilience, courage and a greater sense of self. It transforms the way we see and experience the world and our sense of place in it. Often we are overstimulated and overwhelmed in everyday life, but out there, we are in the present moment. We have the capacity to discover what is truly important to us when we embrace the spirit of exploration. We foster a deeper connection with our environment and a greater appreciation for how strongly connected everything is.
I am very thankful to the Antarctic Heritage Trust for creating the Inspiring Explorers ™ programme, recognising that youth benefit hugely from exploration, not just on a personal level but also by gaining a deeper appreciation of our planet and the need to protect its vulnerable regions such as Antarctica. These expeditions connect us with the Trust’s legacy and are the catalysts for positive change, allowing us to start conversations, share our learnings and in doing so, spark others interest, create strong communities and inspire the explorer in all of us.