Early Season Adventure – Awakino, New Zealand

 

Each year as we wait for the first winter snow to fall, all hopes are for an early storm to kick things off with a bang. As it happened, the 2016 New Zealand winter started with exactly that, blanketing much of the South Island in deep snow to low levels. An opportunity like this is always welcome and provided just the motivation needed to get out and explore some new terrain. With some local insight and a crew of keen Kiwi riders in tow, we departed Methven towards the club field of Awakino, roughly 3 hours away. Planning on an overnight trip, we were eager to dig deeper into stories of great backcountry touring available here.

On approach to Awakino Ski Field

Situated in the St Marys Range near Kurow in the Waitaki Valley, Awakino is a club run ski field which prides itself on maintaining the Kiwi spirit of adventure. Somewhat of a hidden gem amongst the various South Island club fields, Awakino is a low key retreat with some great terrain on offer. As we were heading there on June 1st, the field was not yet open for the winter season. A quick call ensured we would be met by one of the dedicated club members and be staying warm in their 40 bed bunkhouse for our stay.

The main lodge sits at 1100m and has all the comforts of home – except mobile reception, a good thing!

As with most club fields in New Zealand, Awakino provides rope tows to access their terrain. Due to our pre season arrival however, we would rely on snowmobile and split boards to get up and explore the ridge lines, as the tows were still buried from the recent storm. As it turned out, we’d be using both earlier than we thought. With snow to low levels, the last half of the access road quickly became impassible by 4WD. A great reminder to always travel light, as we now needed to carry most of our gear to the lodge! The fact we would be able to ride more terrain than is normally on offer kept spirits high as we made our way upwards, equipment in tow.

This old workhorse captures the vibe of Awakino well, and is still used to cart supplies between the main lodge and day hut further up.

With our impromptu hike eating into daylight hours, the rest of the afternoon was spent scouting the top bowls via snowmobile to pick out some good lines for the following morning. While Awakino has some great inbounds intermediate and advanced terrain on offer, rumours of great backcountry touring had us curious to what we would find out the back.

Snowmobiles are a great way to cover a lot of terrain quickly, but there’s a lot to be said for slowly ascending a mountain in peace and quiet….

Once up on the summit ridge, we were greeted with some beautiful vistas beyond the field, and great touring options as promised. To the south west, a selection of chutes flowing down into mellow, undulating terrain. Further south, wide open faces punctuated by bowls and gullies. With both areas offering fairly easy access in and out, there are definitely a lot of great lines to be had. It was agreed we’d need more than a few trips back here to enjoy everything on offer in the backcountry.

More than a few chutes on offer and great snow coverage.

Wide open faces on the north west aspect.

With natural light running out for the day, we headed back to the main lodge for the night. A great fireplace kept us warm, and a selection of homemade pizzas had us well fed while we made plans for further explorations in the morning. We shared a few laughs at an old copy of ‘People’ magazine from the 80’s found on a bookshelf too… this place really is from a different era.

It’s hard to beat a sunrise in the mountains.

The next day began with a split ascent to 1700m, where we rode some good inbound lines back towards the top hut. While there was great snow coverage in all directions, strong winds following the recent storm had packed some sections to a firm surface. Anyone who has ridden in NZ will no doubt be familiar with these conditions, and as usual we hunted out the best wind blown stashes to score as many face shots as possible.

It’s always easy to spot your line when there are no crowds – a staple at Awakino.

With our legs feeling the early season burn, we ascended back to the ridge and headed towards a huge rock feature to the south west, spotted earlier on our way up the access road. There were a few bowls on offer on the way, but we were keen to see this monolithic rock up close and personal.

With snow as far as the eye can see, the early season storm put smiles on faces across NZ.

Even though we had scoped some great terrain the previous day, time constraints meant we would have to return to Awakino again to score runs in those areas. However, taking advantage of the current snow to low levels meant we would be able to ride down ‘Castle Rock’ bowl all the way to the main lodge – something not usually on the cards with normal snow levels.

We were pulled to this great rock feature like a magnet.

With our last run of the trip including wide open faces, fast turns around rocks big and small, skirting a waterfall, slashes through a natural halfpipe and the odd tussock jump, we’d had a great early season session in true NZ style. Awakino once again reminded us that it’s always worth travelling somewhere new to experience the stoke that only exploring new terrain can give you.

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Greg Young