An Upside-Down Ski trip
It's like day and night. Like the sun and the moon. Like black and white. You're in another hemisphere.
Another part of a single world, another season, another winter.
That is how my story about my thrilling expedition in New Zealand begins. I'll tell you a tale rich in nuances, about a journey I'll never forget.
I'm leaving a hot Italian summer behind me, filled with climbs on the Dolomites and dips in the Mediterranean. The direction is Christchurch, New Zealand, well known as the realm of rugby, yet also famous for its endless, imposing glaciers that regularly slide from the highest peaks down to the beaches that are lapped by the ocean.
Despite arriving in one of the countries that is probably the furthest from Italy, I am greeted with open arms by good people, by Kiwis, and given a warm welcome.
There's no point in describing my reunion with Alex!
Let AA Travel New Zealand begin!
It only takes a few day trips on Mount Rolleston, Craigieburn and Mount Cheeseman to get myself used to a winter that is now far removed from our own. These are perfect outings for preparing myself physically and mentally for the main goal: the crossing of South Island, from the East Coast to the West Coast, better known as the Symphony on Skis Traverse. It was one of the most beautiful, amazing, real and intense experiences that I have ever had.
We gather the team, made up of a Kiwi: Latham, two Aussies: Croc and Split, and two Italians: Pit and Alex, on the shores of Lake Tekapo, an iconic symbol of South Island, and we cross the majority of Godley Valley in a 4x4, saving us from a ride in a helicopter, which from now on we'll call a "chopper".
After taking the Hilux as far as we could, we abandon our faithful mode of transport on the banks of the river bed and we finally begin our journey, on foot, along an endless, flat valley that is cut off and topped by majestic peaks dusted with white.
The dawn on the first day establishes the beginning of a new adventure. It is the first of the seven that we will experience completely immersed in nature, far from any kind of civilisation, removed from our comforts, yet close to our passion.
As the sun rises on that first day, we find ourselves at the base of the first ascent, towards the first pass, the first glacier. We're alone, yet we are all filled by the same desire to live every day intensely and to the fullest, in close contact with ourselves, and in close contact with the group. We are fellow adventurers united by a shared love: the mountain. A mountain that will see us navigate it alone, without other explorers, mountaineers or skiers. An incredibly stunning mountain: we are guests in a villa that has been decked out to celebrate our arrival. A naked mountain, which displays its glacial heart that lies below a pure white snowy mantle.
Majestic mountains rise up above the moraines that, endless and descending, flow into a single, pure, turquoise basin. For us, lakes of truth. We are only thinking about one thing: to integrate ourselves to the fullest in an environment that is hostile to mankind, yet gently embraces our spirit.
It is difficult to describe the sense of awe that we feel moving across these colossi, giant mountains with a proud appearance, yet the joy of being in that place, in that moment, with those companions is priceless. Imagine you are in Ancient Rome and you walk enthusiastically into the Colosseum. It is filled with people, thousands of people who are screaming your name. And then, you look around, you feel great, and you're ready to gleefully and happily face the next step. Well, try to put yourself in the Roman's shoes and you will understand what we felt.
I'll leave the details of the climbs we made during our crossing in New Zealand to your imagination, from Hochstetter Peak to Elie de Beaumont via many other peaks, because I want to concentrate fully on the experience and the emotions we felt.
An extremely heavy backpack, exaggerated climbs with 2500-m elevation gains, impressive lengths, yet at the same time the elation, delight and emotion of the setting transforms our exertion into a lovely feeling of belonging to a bigger whole that is made up of many factors, the most important being nature and spirit. The beauty of sharing the same struggles with the other guys who have become like brothers in just a few days, with whom I shared unique experiences, allows us to continue to dream, once we've returned home.
Our upside-down expedition doesn't finish like this. After more than 7 days spent completely isolated in a breathtaking setting and after visiting the most touristy places, such as Wanaka and Queenstown, the desire to return to the mountains, the real ones, is overwhelming.
In fact, thanks to Latham's enthusiasm, we decide to jump into a chopper and go back to the central mountain range. We have one real objective: to be the first of the season to climb and ski the entire east face of Aoraki, Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. Standing 3,724 m above sea level, it is clearly visible, even from the plain of Lake Pukaki. It is an imposing and intimidating wall, 1,800 m at 55° of rock, snow and ice. An iconic symbol of Kiwi mountaineering and a goal of mountaineers everywhere the world over.
It is a real endeavour: we depart at 00.45, climb for over 10 hours and we're still not at the top. The conditions are unusual and difficult to define: some sections have rather hard, grainy snow, others bare ice.
We don't know if we'll manage to ski the face. Doubts run rampant and the fear factor is elevated too, but the atmosphere is indescribable: the fiery red dawn is surrounded by imperious mountains that emerge vertically from a soft mantle of dense white clouds.
Gradually as we climb the situation becomes increasingly delicate. We grow more tired. The wall becomes steeper. The terrain becomes more and more unsteady. Our emotion and enthusiasm continues to build however, more intense than ever.
Once at the peak, the joy and happiness we feel exceed all other human perception. Being at the summit of the famous east face of Mount Cook is, nevertheless, something that I am unable to truly put into words. It is an incredible feeling of satisfaction. I allow my eyes to wander past the beauty of the view, with New Zealand below us, the southern hemisphere and the ocean.
We're only halfway there. From here onwards, we can't make mistakes. We can't mess up. Any false move, any fall or slip, and it's all over. And yet, intensely, with extreme commitment and despite our exhaustion from the climb, on 7 September 2019 we fulfill a dream: we ski down the entire east face of Aoraki.
It's important to me to emphasise what skiing the east face of Mount Cook meant to me. I've been devoting my life exclusively to mountain climbing, skiing and mountaineering for a few years now. It is my greatest passion. Thanks to many good friends, I have learnt a lot in the last few years and, for me, Mount Cook was like a turning point, a test for a new beginning. It allowed me to put what I have learnt over many years into practice over the course of one long day. The joy of challenging myself, to have found myself, gives me the determination and desire to continue to do what I am doing. To continue to work on my abilities and commit myself to improving day after day. To continue to travel around the world to make my dreams, desires and goals come true and, at the same time, share the most beautiful experiences that life has to offer with the people around me.
New Zealand moved and thrilled me. It was quite probably one of the most beautiful trips of my life. I strengthened an extremely strong bond with one of my closest friends, Alex.
I will never forget the joy I felt getting on the airplane in Christchurch after breathing life into my dreams. It is the beginning of a new chapter in my life. I return to Milan with an indelible tattoo branded in my mind: never allow yourself to stop dreaming. Live and share what you love.
Special thanks go to Vibram, Salewa, Camp-Cassin, ATK, Blizzard, Tecnica, Smith and Ferrino.