WORDS SAM SMOOTHY | PHOTOS MICKEY ROSS
WORDS SAM SMOOTHY | PHOTOS MICKEY ROSS
News filtered under the door, about a lucky man who made the grade. Nugget the size of your palm, they said. Kicked it off the bottom of the gorge while trying to take a piss. Blown clean off his horse by a landslide on his way to the bank.
A crowd had gathered in the river below, four thousand holes punched into the debris, hunting for a mid-19th century treasure that was now lost.
John H. Smoothy creaked upright, dragged a comb across his head and found his way outside. He had to laugh. It died quickly in the cold, dry air. He had joined in like all the rest, his ruined hands clutching for that fortune that seemed to swirl away in the eddies of the Shotover River. Behind him, light crept through the gaps in the stacked rock walls, a fine dust swirled into tiny dancing flicks of gold, the closest hed come to finding the elusive metal. His one spare shirt, hung from a cross on the wall, was ragged at every seam and white as a harlots virtue. The valley echoed with metal on rock, coarse bellowing men endlessly beating themselves against the hillside. It wasnt just God who had forsaken this land, the Devil had left, too, thrown out by the great crashing violence of these mountains.
And yet, here they were. Scuttling around under these teetering peaks like ratsseeking, searching, wanting, but not finding. He softly thumbed his battered wedding ring. His credit and supplies were gone. It had to be done. Just not today. He eased himself back inside and sank to the dirt floor, crooked back against the largest of the gaps to hold the draft at bay. The hourly explosion shook another round of dust from the tin roof where light spilled through the ceiling holes like bullets through water. It barely registered with John as he stared down blankly at his one curled photograph, his fingers slowly packing his last pipe for the week.
The phone drags me from a face-down living room floor coma. Wed spent the previous days ski touring and sleeping outside at 2,000 meters, and the sweet nothings I whispered to Fraser McDougall under the stars has left my voice saltier than a sea captains sock.
Samuel David Smoothy, Seventh Earl of Wineberry, purveyor of mid-range accouterments, at your service?
I sputter into the phone.
The air raid is on.
Nostrils flaring, the colt stamps across the frozen turf, furiously tracking up and down the line of barbed wire, matted with dirty wool dangling like bleached moss. The Squirrel B3 chopper tears itself loose from the end of the road, blasts the fence clean and shudders through the veil of shifting river fog. Ripping the skids low over ridges, Lieutenant Colonel Erik Scott, Glenorchy Air Cavalry Commander, blindsides the pre-dawn calm of Mt. Aurum, 2,245 meters, with a low, strafing approach straight out of the sun.
Dont you just love the smell of AvGas in the morning? Smells like victory, he says.
Our mechanical Valkyrie screams from the summit, rotor wash scattering the snow into billowing red mist. We, the self-sacrificial lambs, are left in the haze, clutching our skis like good ol boys handling their .270s. Doors pinned back, press secretary Jase Hancox and his three-camera rig have us in their sights as the B3 circles with intent. That ten-second line reconnaissance better have been accurate or this will all go to hell in a hand basket. This descent has been caressed by p-tex before, but then Ive always thought its not who rides her first or last, but who leaves the most lasting impression. And boy, we were planning to go to town.
Seeing as I have barely linked more than four turns since leaving Europe three months ago, I graciously decide its in my best interest to let Fraser ski the massive, mandatory cliff-riddled, sinister beauty below first. Like the square-jawed Disney prince he is, Fraser awakens the face suitably with a series of savage left and right cuts, tearing down the snow, airing out each cliff band while fending off sluff with leather clad fists. The media hounds circle back up to me.
Its quite the act to follow. I decide to point em
The once powerful helicopter is left for dead in my wake, desperately throwing gas on its own internal fire, but it cannot rein me in. Off-line and barely in control I desperately turn back right to avoid a problematic air, barreling a shoulder straight into head high sluff, barely holding my feet as I skitter across the edge of disaster and breathlessly onto the apron.
Back on the ground at a local cafe we immediately run into strife with our sentences, and an inability to adequately form them.
We order beers. Two cheese scones. Three coffees. Two custard tarts. A chocolate brownie.
Welcome, I mean thank you. And please. Its eight in the morning, is it? Yes, yes, yes.
How good is it? So good; Oh-so good. Oh, beers!
Four more, please. Wait, what? Ah money. I suppose you want some.
A brutalist air cavalry assault on Aurum has baffled the locals and left us uncertain of our next step. Where do you go from the end of the road? Back to whence you came? Surely not. Our only option is to return to Aurum.
The last few flakes drift out of the cloud. Weighted tussock grass softly casts off its burden, sprouting honey tufts in its white blanket. Barely below the cloud layer, the trucks roll to a stop at the crest of the saddle, the Skippers Canyon twisting away out of sight below.
Ben Johns, Alpine HeliSki guide, leans laconically out the window.
Hell of a day for a swim boys.
Much obliged for the call the other day, Ben, quite the strike mission. Didnt know what to do with myself afterwards.
Does anyone know what to do with themselves beforehand?
Can goats be trained to carry skis? How many potentially gold-bearing rocks could you carry if you abandoned your skis? Does eating half of your three-day food supply on day one actually decrease pack weight or just redistribute the load site? Does it really matter if its raining on the walk in when the trail is actually a river?
One of the benefits of spending many hours walking up a valley are the peculiar tangential ponderings your mind conjures up to keep you entertained. Also, no one has ever submerged a camera in gold-bearing waters while heli-skiing before. We are definitely on-country. The surprising thing is that it has sat here, in New Zealand, my entire life and not said a thing. What treachery.
Hiding in plain sight of Queenstown, Mt. Aurum has been on our radar for years, and weve patiently waited for conditions to present themselves. Despite having spent our entire lives in the area, the difficult access and conditions in New Zealand mean there are countless exciting zones weve yet to ski. We know just how insane the terrain is from our dawn raid and figure it doesnt seem right to leave it at that. We have to walk the walk, take the long road in and really discover what it means to pass through these hills. To earn those ridiculously exposed turns and discover the true temper of the mountain that had given birth to a raging gold rush and through those hard won riches created the community we ve been raised by.
The rain has started coming down, taking a brief swing from north through to south, and now is bouncing back up off the river. I think its as confused as we are. It seems huts up here havent evolved since the 1800s, with the one weve staggered inside of seeming straight out of the Gold Rush. Hessian sacks are slung in tatters from the ceiling, the wind rocks the door in its frame. It does, however, manage to keep most of the rain outside, giving us a night to dry out while we finish the whisky supplies.
Pro climber Conrad Anker once told Fraser and I, If you didnt run out of food you didnt really have an adventure. So far, we havent run out of food. But we have become quite talented at running out of cooking gas. Trail mix, transubstantiationalist dinner it is, yet again.
Is it weird Ive probably spent more time alone with you than any other man? I say.
It wasnt… until just now.
Well, Happy Birthday, Fraser.
The night languidly strolls by, until 4 a.m. when our departure time rudely arrives. I warm my boot shells by the fire in my loins as the stars bashfully close their eyes.
In the dark we skin up, until we cant anymore and switch to bootpackinguntil that also proves utterly pointless. We have run out of mountain. After expecting extended episodes of thrashing and dangling, intermittently spruced with obtusely referenced cursing, we have pleasantly wandered our way onto the summit. Which is immensely unsettling. This has been too easy. Somethings fucked for sure.
My hands have ceased to articulate their feelings and no amount of counseling seems to stave off our imminent divorce. Which leaves me trying to operate the joysticks of our drone with all the accuracy of teenage male fingers on a bra strap.
Into the breech Fraser dives once more, a sole gladiator with a colosseum of three media maniacs all focused intently on digitally capturing the triumph or carnage. Each casually adroit turn peels great sheets of decapitating sluff, less than ideal in such a technical line. Penned in by layered rock bands, shark teeth tear Frasers legs out from under him and the horror begins. Hip checking a cliff edge, rolling, bouncing off rocks like a broken doll, diving, going over again. The endless blitz of loops are indecipherable on my drone screen but the severity of the situation easily breaks through my tundra mind. The pink light eerily echoes the bloodbath. Fraser eventually carts himself off the face, one ski willfully remaining behind to remind him of his retreat. Hes noticeably staggered from multiple blunt force impacts, but the man can take one hell of a hit and keep moving.
The current question is, am I narcissistic enough to request a small delay on Frasers heli evacuation to get in position and film my line?
Does the Pope shit in the woods? Silly question. Ever the gracious triage patient, Fraser says he can wait and I disappear off the top and into the alone. Skirting around whale-sized cornices solo while your ski partners ass is expanding faster than the Kardashians list of plasticized body parts is a peculiar way to prepare for a big line. Gingerly locking out my touring toe pieces, I try to calm my tits as Fraser quickly gets the drone into position. Even injured, hes the superior drone pilot. What a bastard.
Were a days walk from anywhere and theres a diagonal ramp to nowhere below me.
I drop in, my gas pedal is to the floor but the sluff torrent still blasts past me and off a series of cliffs as I belt left through the first narrow choke, clipping shark tags with every drawn out right footer. Flying into a narrow couloir, I run it straight and scream out the exit. Staring back up at the sluff still pouring Im heaving for air and audibly shaking all over. I pole up to an ominously quiet Fraser and give him a huge hug before pulling his pants down to assess the damage to his ass.
A day walking down a river canyon is no place for a pelvis this battered, so we begin the heli evacuation process. Fraser slides down to the snow line while I skin back up to our tent to break down camp and ramshackle my way down to the group, my haphazardly attached gear flapping wildly. Back together its hard to look up at the lines we just skied, just how close to disaster we came is deeply disturbing and leaves us quietly contemplative. Photographer Mickey Ross nervously relates the baleful roar of our sluff, distinct from his camera position a kilometer away. Waiting for our extraction I think it might be time to flee to the coast, this is all starting to feel a little out of hand. The six-minute helicopter slingshot from the snowline back down the canyon makes an absolute mockery of our previous days effort trudging uphill. Those sodden footsteps have already washed away downstream. Landing directly beside the trucks, perched high on a canyon wall, we consider the hours of exposed travel still to come.
The road is barely wide enough for the truck, but any complaints are silenced by the obvious struggles this passage would have held a hundred-odd years ago. We slow to a crawl to pass the remains of the original Mt. Aurum homestead, burnt to the ground just months before. The sadly ironic stone of the fireplace and chimney, heavily blackened and stark against the haunting gray pines, all that is left of the civilization that is no longer.
Rattling back through the canyon, rubber mudder tires placed carefully, we crawl our way back to 2018.
Back home, my father, Ron, breaks the silence as he shuffles to the bookcase and pulls out a faded yellow copy of Let There Be Light, a history of the Bullendale Mine.
I think your grandfathers brother, John, worked that mine.
First Ive heard of him, he find anything worthy?
Buggered if Id know. Your grandfather blew up a boulder in the Queenstown Botanical Gardens to clad the post office in stone though.
Oh. I slept on its balcony once.
What. Were you lost?
Whos to say?