Selwyn Six: The Best of Selwyn’s Backcountry

Friday, 12 August 2022

Selwyn Six: The Best of Selwyn’s Backcountry

Words by Anna Keeling, Craigieburn Backcountry Ski and Mountain Guide. 

Unique. Rustic. The club ski areas in Selwyn are like nowhere else. While most only have nutcracker rope tows, Cheeseman is perhaps the flashiest with two t-bars and a day lodge with a coffee machine and professional grooming. Mt Olympus, Craigieburn Valley, Broken River and Temple Basin have no, or very rare grooming and rope tow access only. I know of nowhere else in the world with such reluctance to commercialise and I’m proud to be part of this culture.

mountain ridge view of people

I run a backcountry ski and mountain guide service based in the Craigieburn Range and have a relationship with each of these ski areas (including the more commercial Porters with a chair lift, three t-bars and a cafe). I grew up skiing here and it’d be fair to say that this is my Tūrangawaewae - my standing place.

Popular right now is the ability to exit a ski area boundary and ski/ride into the backcountry. This involves a greater level of knowledge and understanding of terrain, snow, weather, and how the complex interplay of these factors create avalanches. Myself, and several of the ski areas offer avalanche education. Having seen a few folks hurt and die in avalanches in my 30 year career, I recommend seeking further education and not merely trusting tracks on a slope as indicators of safety. For more information - check out our world class avalanche information:

A few guidelines to before diving into the backcountry options of each ski area:

  1. Check the avalanche advisory before you go and don’t assume that tracks on a slope outside the ski area display signs of intelligent life. Wear and take and know how to use avalanche safety tools (transceiver, shovel and probe).
  2. Once you leave a ski area, you are on your own in terms of safety (even if the area is still visible). The clubs run on minimal staff so they may not be able to come and help in an emergency. Have a plan. #makeithome.
  3. Respect the ski area patrol (friendly avalanche and first aid pros who take risks to make sure the area is safe for you to ride/ski at). Check in with them. They are worth listening to.
  4. Don’t exit or re-enter closed areas. Particularly at Porters. A slide for life down a closed Bluff Face is not fun for either victim or witnesses.
  5. Some areas offer one-ride tickets, some don’t. It’s a privilege. Please don’t abuse. The clubs offer some of the cheapest tickets anywhere on the planet. Give them a hand and spend some money.

person skiing down snow covered mountain

Ok, let’s go North to South:


Nestled above Arthurs Pass, Temple Basin is perhaps the rarest and most alpine of the Selwyn Six. Downhill tow accesses epic terrain, smack on the Main Divide. Views across to  snowy and rock flanked slopes of Kaimatau (Mt Rolleston) increases the epic mountain feel of the place. A goods lift takes your gear to the base area lodges. You walk for one to two hours to get there. It’s steep but scenic. Once there, you can buy lift tickets and purchase a cooked lunch. Temple has three rope tows. Stay and absorb the old school feel of a ski area established in 1929. Backcountry access is fairly easy as Temple is basically one big backcountry field. Definitely check in with patrol and avoid skiing into the Mingha on the backside of Downhill unless you are geared and clued up. It’s serious terrain. The NZ Snow Safety Institute offers avalanche and alpine skills courses. It's a great venue to stay and learn.

Ski area boundary sign


Ski the Big One. CV was the favourite NZ ski area of ski maestro and mohawk extrovert, Glen Plake. To find out why it was his favourite: walk the beech forest track from the carpark to the ticket office to the access rope tow. As the bush thins just before the tow, the great flanks of Mt Hamilton (1920 metres) rear above you. Big runs, big personalities, strong riders. The Whakamaru Day Lodge (at 1600 metres) is sunny and friendly with views of the whole ski area. One of my favourites is to ski Middle Basin to the Big Bend on the road - or - on a good year, ski the beech forest. Broken River is close-access through Allan’s basin but check with patrol on access as its all avalanche terrain. CV does not offer one ride tickets. They don’t need to. The inbounds terrain is huge. CV ski club has lodges and accommodation right by the car park.

6 people walking up snowy ridge carrying skis


Their tag line: Ski the Friendly one. This is a good place to learn to use rope tows. From the BR carpark, a funicular railway tram helpfully takes you and your gear to the lodges and ticket office. Sometimes it doesn’t run so you need to be prepared to walk about 45 minutes. It’s a lovely bush walk up to the huts nestled on the ridge. Above hike the Stairway to Heaven is another 15 minutes to Rugby rope tow. As you hit the wondrous stairs, the steep forested ridge opens to snowy peaks above.

BR (and Temple) offer night skiing. The best thing is emerging from the dark forest to the mystery of the ski area at night. Palmer Lodge sits about two thirds of the way up the access tow. Music pumps, the beer flows and the verandah is sunny and social. BR terrain is fun and bouncy with three rope tows and a beginner tow right outside, perfect for kids to learn on. BR offers avalanche classes, accommodation and events throughout the season. One ride passes are an option but be really careful with the aptly named Avalanche Bowl that is accessed right beside Main Tow. Not a place to be on the wrong day. Seek advice from patrol. Touring from CV to BR and onward to Cheeseman is possible for experienced tourers. Heading through Allan’s Basin, smashing a lap at CV and heading back is also good fun for the knowledgeable and equipped.

People hiking up snowy rocky ridge with packs and skis


Cheeseman Ski Area is perhaps most family friendly as the road deposits you right at the day lodge. It’s a sunny location with amazing views onto the karst limestone of Kura Tawhiti/Castle Hill basin and across to Torlesse peaks. The beginners lift is right outside the day lodge and ski rental. Two T-bars whip you (sort of - they’re not high speed!) to the top and there’s plenty of groomed, low key terrain. Cockayne Face to A-basin provides more challenging runs. Snowline Lodge accommodation is ski in/ski out. Cheeseman has terrific backcountry access and one-ride tickets. Respect this privilege and the professional, friendly patrol. They look into - and ski the backcountry terrain every day. They know what is going on.

Forest lodge is down in the bush at Texas flat before the road steepens. Owned by Cheeseman Ski Club, but run privately, this backpacker style accommodation is a fantastic location with forest walks and an ice skating pond on its doorstep. Forest Lodge is also a base for mountain biking in the summer.


Porters is not a club field but a commercial operation. It’s closer to Christchurch and is “more chill” than Mt Hutt. The base area has a magic carpet, platter lift and chair lift, which is great for beginners. Above, three t-bars head skyward for 600 metres to deliver you to phenomenal views of Lake Coleridge, Rakaia River and Aoraki/Mt Cook on a clear day - as well as access to classic black diamond runs such as the Southern Hemisphere’s longest run (apparently) - north facing Big Mama (620m long) and shadier, steeper Bluff Face. Porters has a rental fleet, sizable ski/snowboard school and easy access road. Halfway down the access road is Porters Alpine Lodge with a vibrant aprés ski scene and B&B accommodation. A popular, but serious backcountry access point is via Mt Allison into Crystal Valley. On good years, it is possible to ski almost to the Alpine Lodge but this terrain is not to be trifled with. A few years ago I accidentally triggered a large avalanche in Crystal and I have been extremely cautious about it ever since. Check with patrol before you go - even if there are lots of people traipsing up to Mt Allison peak. You can always ascend to Mt Allison for the views, then retrace your steps back to McNulty’s basin for a fun swooping groomer back to base.


Mt Olympus almost has a cult following. With one of NZ’s highest hot tubs, Mt Olympus is at the back of the Craigieburn Range, but is clearly visible from the top of Porters. It sits in a south-facing bowl and collects massive southerly snow in a similar vein to Mt Hutt. The access road above bottom hut can be serious. Radio from the Bottom Hut before proceeding to the car park. An easy access rope tow takes you to Top Hut, ticket office, and Far-Canal bar (excellent coffee and a well-stocked bar). The terrain is “bowl-like - mellowish close to the lifts and steeper as you branch out. There are some excellent hikes inbounds - the Sphinx and the Ardies, which takes you to the summit of Mt Olympus. Backcountry terrain is on private land and the station owner has prohibited backcountry access. For the sake of Mt Olympus’ access, please check in with the ski patrol and area management before hiking and stay inbounds. Bottom Hut is similar to a tramping hut and is fairly basic. Top Hut is large, modern and well-positioned on the ski area. Skis and Snowboards are put on at the door, head across to Main Tow, up to Ridge tow and you are styling with fun terrain and fun people. Psyche is always high at Mt Olympus.

Each area has a slightly different vibe and varied terrain and lifts. I recommend checking out all of them with a Chill multi-mountain pass or join one of my groups on the four-day Craigieburn Haute Route, a tour that starts at Craigieburn and ends at the South end of the Range and stays a night at three club lodges. Or go at your own pace - and take your time to absorb the Craigieburn and Arthurs Pass snow offerings. They are worth it.

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