We thought last summer was amazing but already this year we have been flying further than ever before, and it’s only the first week of January. We’ve had some European visitors (it’s slowly catching on) who have probably wondered what all this talk about the norwester is about (after a scary start to the season), the locals have taken to vol biv as if it’s the next big thing, and it seems like nearly every day is a 100 km day. Until I flew 200 – and then did it again – a first for New Zealand.
Three 100 km days
The first week I hid away up at Mum’s place in Glenorchy, flying only once in a short weather window but mostly helping out around the house. On 16 December my Red Bull X-Alps supporter Louis and I delivered a talk to local pilots in Queenstown. Later the same night I walked through beech forest on a track lit only by glow worms in the overcast, cold, and showery night. I was positioning myself at Sam Summers hut in readiness for an early start on Mt Crichton, on the southwest corner of the Shotover catchment nestled up against the edge of Queenstown airspace. I climbed up the hill for my first ever flight, having scoped out the track a few days earlier. As soon as the clouds caught up with me I took off and thermalled up immediately before tracking along the peaks – clouds were close but everything was going up. Fantastic flying, fast hopping between tussock ridges and I crossed the Shotover in good time before heading up the East Matukituki. I’d flown 85+km in good time and without an airband radio I would have to change course to avoid the Mt Cook MBZ (mandatory broadcast zone). I considered flying over to the west coast since it was clear in the southeasterly, but given the next few days were good flying I thought it made more sense to try an out and return. Things got tricky as I approached Cascade saddle however, and I ended up landing close to Dart hut. Racing up to Rees saddle I reflew before a hasty uninterrupted long walk back home in the evening, arriving after 1am.
Tracklog: 18 Dec Sugarloaf (with Bryan) to Ahuriri
With four hours of sleep I met up with Louis and Bryan, we raced up the gravel road to collect my paraglider which I’d left on the roadside, and headed up to Sugarloaf pass. The weather was a bit iffy, there was a rather strong southwesterly aloft. It was a little scary thermalling from the lee of the mountains into a wind so strong I dared not take my hands off the brakes to turn my phone screen on and check my groundspeed… but in hindsight the shear seemed to be distributed evenly and I appreciated the push for a long crossing of the Dart valley onto Sandy bluff. I continued to have a great flight in the direction of Mount Cook, getting stuck in the Matukituki a while as I wasn’t game to get too deep in the mountains with the wind, as Bryan did (but he also got stuck). Nevertheless we made good time and I landed in the Ahuriri after the high cloud thickened into a sun blocking soup. I spent the night in Hideaway hut, surprised to see my brother featuring in the visitor book. There were a few spots of rain in the evening and the next morning the clouds floated low in the valley.
Tracklog: 19 Jan Ahuriri to Tekapo
Expecting the sun to change things quickly in this arid landscape, I climbed a short way up onto the morning sun facing slopes of the Barrier range. Despite a pronounced southerly crosswind, I soared up early and a few spurs along I was high above the Barrier range. Significantly higher than the clouds on the ranges either side of me I noted to myself that right now I was in the best part of the country for flying. I flew into the Hopkins valley and shouted out loud when I spotted Bryan – but on closer inspection I realised it wasn’t him, it was another green glider! Later two more pilots took off – whoever heard of meeting other paragliders this deep in the backcountry.
I made good time and for the first time I crossed the Tasman valley south of Mt Cook. The ranges beyond are so dry and rocky that any high cloud muting the suns energy is a welcome bonus. But today the problem was the North Canterbury cloud banked up against the Mackenzie basin – I made a right angle turn and flew as close as I could to Tekapo. A little complacent perhaps, as after enduring all the rough air of the day without a collapse, I crashed in shadow of a rocky spur at 8pm. Luckily there was nothing to show for it apart from a few scratches on my harness, and feeling a little sheepish.
Christmas vol biv and a new open distance record
Tracklog: with Louis 23 Dec Sugarloaf to Hunter
The 23 of December was Louis’ day. We again started from Sugarloaf pass by the Routeburn track. I’d been flying a few hours in the stable morning conditions with nothing to show for it but cold hands and a full bladder. Louis took off and joined me just as I was getting high enough to go on glide. I missed the climb and for the next while up the Dart valley Louis gloated several hundred metres above me. I suggested he cross to Sandy bluff, which he did, and was still thermalling when I arrived but I was content to continue at ridge height. We diverged paths as I went for the Rob Roy spur and he flew over Shotover saddle, and I didn’t hear from him again until Makarora. There I was backtracking as I hit a strong northerly, eventually joining Louis and chasing him until I found myself just slightly too low in the lee of the next mountain, sliding off to land by Lake Hawea.
Louis’ last radio transmission mentioned the Huxley and I thought he may have had a chance of flying the open distance record, although it would depend on the northerly. I camped on the shores of the lake and spent the next day walking up the Dingle burn, hut bagging. After 14.5 hours in the hot sun (30km northerly first thing in the morning and forecast high cloud led to a decision not to climb up to fly) I reached Top Dingle hut just before 9pm, thrilled to have been left a can of Speights beer as a Christmas Eve present.
Tracklog: 25 Dec Ahuriri to Arthur’s pass
On Christmas day I arrived nice and early to the best launch around, a north east face beneath towering rocky bluffs. Despite the early hour the gusts were aggressive enough to knock my solar panel off its rock, and fearing it was wind mixing in, I quickly readied myself to launch. In fact it was just strong thermal cycles. A few ridges to the north and I thermalled up to 10,000 feet alongside the glaciers of Mt Barth, with Mt Brewster, Mt Cook, and other landmarks forming an impressive 360 degree view.
Again I had a fantastic run and I was pleased to have gotten away early. Crossing the Tasman valley my first hurdle was the gorilla (Mt Blackburn, the mountain south of Gorilla stream). It felt really windy or just big, somehow, and it took some perseverance to finally climb enough to sneakily float over into the Jollie valley. Here the mountains were just ballistic. There was no trouble finding climbs but it was so active that the sink between glides quickly put you back where you started from.
I reached the edge of the Mackenzie basin, gliding into a rocky peak deep behind The Thumbs with a moderate wind and very little wiggle room, but found no climb. Cautiously combing the ridge I returned to the peak having lost height, and decided to dive through the col while I still could. Expecting a battering on the other side I stopped most but not all of the collapses, and soon enough I got established in the strongest climb of the day. It would have been the most dangerous flying of the day although when you expect it you are a lot more attentive and arguably safer.
A long crossing of the Havelock braided river flats and I approached more sunny rocky mountains marked by pumping clouds. But further down the track two banks of cloud were shading the peaks and there were two route options evident. Initially I followed the peaks to the north of the Lawrence river, super scenic soaring in light and gentle lift. But seeing the head of the Rakaia in almost complete shade, and expecting valley winds to make things difficult, I changed my mind and pushed my way in front of the Arrowsmiths. Here I got to base before a long crossing of the Rakaia.
The following hours were completely different to the high octane hours I’d endured up until then. Clouds were shading the whole area. With probably under 100 feet to spare I cleared a pass and shared buoyant air on the other side with seagulls and a kea. Drifting into the Clyde valley I got flushed behind a spur, only to recover on the next. Soaring the valley wind and hopping from spur to spur was a relaxing end to the flight.
I watched the kilometres as I approached the existing open distance record. My phone battery was nearly flat, and although a solar battery pack lay on top of my pod, the charging cable was in my backpack. I flew fast to get the record logged on my phone, and started logging the remainder of my flight on my GPS watch, as I soared gorgeous scenery in the head of a valley where I’d finally found sun, amongst deep gorges, snowfields, and views of the west coast. It was fitting, with my paper maps inaccessible in my harness, that I later look at the map to see the name of the pass I glided through next – Unknown Col.
The valley winds helped me along and I recognised Lake Browning, despite never having visited this area myself in person. I knew that I was close to Arthurs pass and that if I could just get up over Mt Rolleston I’d be able to set myself up for a long tailwind final glide into the Taramakau. It was not to be though, I never reached cloud base in the dying sun and west coast air, and after sampling a sunny rocky bowl and finding no lift I decided to land high rather than glide into the jungle, finishing my flight at around 210 kilometres at 1400 metres.
Tracklog: 26 Dec Waimakariri attempted triangle
This would set me up for the next day, where I found a snow melt puddle to rehydrate and climbed a small mountain to survey the scene. I managed a tricky snow patch launch amongst the rocks after a few attempts and proceeded to get flushed down the Waimakariri. There was a brisk wind in the valley that was not evident on launch. I managed to recover and get up high on the dry rocky interior – it really is remarkable how quickly the vegetation changes as you leave the main divide. I flew on to the Craigieburns with a 200 km triangle in mind. Emboldened by another skin of my teeth pass crossing, tricky convergence line negotiation, and flawless crossing of Porter Pass, I got up high on the Torlesse range and tried my luck at a crossing of the Waimakariri gorge.
The ridge that I’d given myself fairly average odds on was full of trees and gorges, and the wind was as strong as ever – I landed in the peak of the day, half way through my triangle, with a long walk to the road. It was a nice touch that after asking at the Flock hill lodge for some water and returning to my pack I’d left outside, someone had left a beer for me on the adjacent fence post. After a wash in the creek I retired for a bed in the pine needles.
The next day I climbed up early to fly but although it appeared to be active super early it was very windy – up to 30km/h – so I wrote the day off and hitch hiked to the West Coast. In Hokatika the clouds looked amazing and the forecast was passable so I’m not sure about that judgement. In any case I gorged myself on two litres of Tip Top boysenberry ice cream, followed by fish and chips, as I enjoyed views of the Southern Alps, Mt Cook and Tasman appearing to be floating on air. Late that night I hitched further south to the Wanganui river and camped at 10pm when it was too dark to continue.
Tracklog: 28 Dec Wanganui to Havelock
I was a little later than I’d like to have been but the day was stable so it didn’t matter – I reached a brilliant viewpoint – Blue Lookout on the Lord Range. My flight was scratchy but stunning. I crossed the divide as soon as I reached cloud base. The two forks of the Rakaia both had moderate down valley wind which converged to give me a rough ride up over Meins knob, where I’d done a vol biv in autumn many years ago.
Later I spent some time just soaking up the amazing scenery, dragging my feet on the snowfields by a high pass. Across the valley some mountain goats kicked up dust to show me the air was rising, and I crossed over to work it patiently before popping through a snowy col with metres to spare. I was really enjoying the late evening light and not having to rush – I had nowhere I had to be. I landed high in a snow basin to kill an hour before returning to land at a camp site by a small tarn, once the thermals had died down.
Tracklog: 29 Dec Havelock to Mt Cook
The next morning I climbed a peak and did a forward launch off the snow to glide to a better launch. The day began slowly but it was another stunner. I flew past the Godley lakes and along the heads of the valleys just south of the Murchison, where I observed first hand the huge actively crumbling slope that was filling the valley with dust. I reached Mt Cook and a more humid and depressed airmass and tried to cross the Ben Ohau range. After having a one second look through a col to the sunny side (with the clouds miles above the peaks) I was never able to regain that altitude, so I landed by the road and hitch hiked back home.
Two learning flights
Tracklog: 31 Dec Coronet to Glenorchy
Sometimes you have to switch modes between flying as fast and far as you can, just enjoying yourself, or improving your skills and understanding. Logistically I was unable to join friends at Mt Crichton so I flew Coronet peak instead, and my mission was simply to fly home (near Glenorchy). Bryan informed me on the radio that there was a “moderate westerly” but “you’ll be alright”. It was a real skill test to join the seagulls hiding in the lee behind the barrier of the Richardson range, but it was nice to persevere and finally cross. I needed my speed bar to reach the front paddock at home – Dave warned me of the wind on the radio. It was quite amusing that I’d flown under 30 kilometres in what seemed like an extremely technical flight, since it would not even qualify as a cross country worthy of an advanced level pilot under New Zealand’s paragliding association.
Tracklog: 1 Jan Moke lake triangle attempt
The next skill tester was another attempted 200 km triangle. When the northwest made itself evident (it took me three attempts to cross the Richardson range behind Cleft peak by the Rees saddle) I knew it was probably not the day, but it was still a good learning experience. Sometimes you make it through the col, and sometimes you don’t – this time I had to walk 250 metres on flat snow. But it was good to explore the mountains a bit and gather a bit of knowledge for next time.
Another open distance record
Tracklog: 4 Jan local flights (Earnslaw)
It was a three day thing. A small group of us hiked up on the southern flanks of the Humboldt range near Glenorchy. The southerly was white capping on the lake which made things difficult but I made some cheeky crossings before finally landing in the Rees behind Lovers Leap. Climbing through dense young beech forest I relaunched in the afternoon. The southerly made things difficult and I glided below an overhanging rock where we’d taken photos the previous day with my brother and Mum. I was stoked to manage to get up on the Richardson range from there, and spent the rest of the day getting up close and personal with Mt Earnslaw before gliding over to join Dave who had established a magnificent bivouac by Sugarloaf peak.
Tracklog: 5 Jan Sugarloaf to Macaulay open distance record
The next morning I opted to descend to Sugarloaf pass and climb up the other side closer to the rocky spines of Momus. This made all the difference, as Dave who was flushed to “Paradise” below in the valley will attest to. I managed to get up and with the moderate northwest winds we’d experienced all morning I decided to go tailwind and try and repeat the flight I’d been meaning to do for ages, and that my French X-Alps compatriot Nelson had recently done – flying into Southland. But on my second climb I encountered the southwesterly aloft and received a text from Louis simply stating “200 km today?”. Indications were that it was a good day to go far.
Racing around the Rees I got super high on the southeast ridge of Earnslaw and cruised off for the Shotover saddle where I got deep and prolonged sink behind Mt Tyndall. Thinking the saddle was in the bag I had to drop downwind and recover before pushing for the saddle. I didn’t want to waste any time so I had cut it fine yet again, but thankfully I made it into the Matukituki valley, pushing strong headwind over rather flat ground.
The rest of the day was relatively simple – glides were helped by the southwesterly tailwind, and the air was unstable (it was very cold up high) so there was no time wasted looking for climbs. It was just a matter of staying in the air and plodding along. Of course there was plenty of lively air to contend with, radio traffic galore, and the cold. I even removed my helmet on a crossing to adjust my belaclava, shivering most of the time as it was.
It was my longest ever flight, 9 hours and 35 minutes, and I landed at 9pm. I was the lucky one who started further south, but even so I was stopped by the bank of cloud surrounding the Mackenzie basin and again I could not enjoy adding last kilometres with a final glide. Instead I landed in a strategic location for the next day, a small tussock basin perched above 700 metres of east facing scree slopes.
Tracklog: 6 Jan exit flight to Tekapo
My launch worked so well that it seemed even my exceptionally early start of 9:12 am was conservative. I thermalled up and ventured deeper towards the divide, having seen the northwest on the clouds on that side. On a ridge of Mt Sibbald I encountered it, barely penetrating the wind. It was time to turn around and fly as close to Tekapo as I could. So I did, and it was a great way to end things – covering a few days walk in a few hours and having lunch while the wind got stronger and stronger on the lake.
Another great season and again I’ve been spoilt, but soon it will be back to work for me so I’ll have time to digest all these memories, the old dream of exploring New Zealand valley by valley and ridge by ridge.