Craigieburn Haute Route: a return to roots

Wednesday, 10 July 2024

Craigieburn Haute Route: a return to roots

Words by  Anna Keeling

I spent a long time away from Selwyn and my beloved Craigieburn.

In 2009, my family and I returned to the old stomping grounds of my youth and discovered a paradise of community and local skiing.

I started a ski guiding company in 2011, partnering with Stu Waddel and his Chill team. The exact launch details are fuzzy – we developed organically, responding to demand – but more than a decade later we are celebrating our signature trip: the Craigiebenholt Route .

It starts at Craigieburn Valley Ski Area, passes Broken River and Cheeseman Ski Area, and ends at the playground of the gods – Mount Olympus.

I won't lie – conditions can be tricky. To combat this, we only run it a few times a year and we keep our groups small.

The name Haute Route means high route in French, based on the famous European route from Chamonix to Zermatt. Ours was different – ​​for starters, there was no glacier action and it was at a lower altitude. Ours was also empty. We were unencumbered – bedding was provided in the club hut and you could shower at the end of the day. Day packs were the order. Stu brought our shoes, towels and washcloths to Olympus so we could soak in the highest hot tub in New Zealand.

The logistics of the crossing are varied. Stu used to join us, but now he is our driver – dropping us off in his long wheelbase Land Cruiser and picking us up on the trail. If things turn completely upside down, Stu will rescue us and move us between ski resorts – driving if necessary.

I would say that 85% of the time my team of guides and I are able to deliver on this. The New Zealand winter is unpredictable and we have to remain flexible, so my team is carefully selected.

The ski fields aren't far apart. We focus on those bowls you can glimpse from the ski fields or on Highway 73 in the Great Alps: the backside of Mount Hamilton towards Cass Saddle; Alan's Basin (accessible from Craigieburn Valley and Broken River); Yukon; Towering Mountain Wall; Tarn Basin; Tim's Stream; Falls; Ryton's Easement (thanks, Walking Access Committee!), and the off-road trails of Mount Olympus, such as the Ardies and the Back Bowls.

Along the ridge – views of the mystical Canterbury Highlands, rolling golden tussock land rising to beech forests, braided rivers glittering in the winter sun. Peaks of Arthur's Pass – the dwindling Raven Glacier and Mount Kaimatao/Rolleston above, the highest peak Mount Murchison... glimpses of Aoraki/Mount Cook as we head south. It's both luxurious and challenging.

The club ski area and its huts are truly special and rare: the narrow Whakamaru hut in the Craigieburn Valley, where we had lunch on our first day, and then the various huts at Broken River, perched on a slender ridge in beech forest, where the Stairway to Heaven took us to the lifts on the second day.

The day offers surprises and adventures – which areas will offer the best skiing? Do we have the conditions and fitness to send Mt Wall's steep southeast face? Typically we'll arrive at Mt Cheeseman around lift closing time, and if legs get tired, ski a little corduroy to the Snowline Lodge. The bars will be open for some celebration.

Day three offered the most options. Taking the Cheeseman T-bar up the ridge we could see Tarn Basin, a popular and easily accessible bowl right next to the ski field. The next basin, Tim Creek, was more secluded, offering small streams running deep into the grass and then the bush leading to Castle Mountain Basin. The limestone karst didn't seem far away. On the southwest side, Hut Creek offered undulating, fun terrain in the right conditions. The climb to Mt Cheeseman (the mountain – 6km south of the actual ski field) seemed daunting, but we paced ourselves and it only took 20-30 minutes of climbing to get there.

From the summit, more options await you – run along the northeast face of Cheeseman back to Tims, or take in the inviting basin of the waterfall. The waterfall is located above the village of Castle Hill. You'll feel proud when you can peer through your binoculars and see your trail – a winding, ephemeral etching of your passing.

Back at the top of Mt Cheeseman there is a road up Ryton to the Mt Olympus ski area. Ski touring is prohibited so no laps but as long as we stick to the easement route we can track glorious kilometres until the snow runs out and we put our skis on the packs and pedal the last kilometre or so to meet up with Stu and head to the top lodge at Mt Olympus for our final night. A well stocked bar, hot tub and lively lodge scene await.

On day four we continued our hikes and skiing around Mount Olympus. In years with lighter snowpack, a personal favourite is skiing down to the Bottom Hut, which is usually the end of the Corn Run.

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