As I am currently in the heat of South East Asia, I’m trying to remember the feeling of being in a cold environment. One vivid memory I have was the end of the winter on Breast Hill. This adventure was filled with excitement, to say the least. It started out breathtaking and ended with a dark night at the base of an icy wall. Let me take you back to the beginning…
At the beginning of the southern hemisphere’s spring, end of September 2015, my friend Leandro most known as Leo, was visiting me in Wanaka as he had to renew his Australian visa. Since there were some complications he ended up staying two extra months in New Zealand which meant he could join me on my adventures. Stoked! With us, there was also a couple, Matte Vonnée, Canadian and very talented portrait photographer and his French girlfriend Sonia. Matt and me, met at a potluck dinner at my house in Wannaka. He contacted me a few days ago and we planned on going to an adventure together. Our plan was to reach Breast Hill summit to shoot some amazing photographs with the beautiful views of Mount Aspiring, over Hawea Lake, as a background. Little did we know what that was going to take!
Before we could start our journey, it was important to find out the conditions and weather. Is it still snowy? Icy? What is the forecast for the next couple days? Google is a great way to find information but the guide companies and tourism centers usually have a better idea of conditions. However, no one knew exactly how it was up there since some said it’s snowy and we need ice axes and crampons, while others said it was fine to hike normally. We didn’t have the technical equipment and were on a low budget, so we decided to take the latter advice and go with our hiking shoes, gaiters, all the usual camping equipment and our photography gear. Which for Matte included a huge Rotalux Octagonal softbox and a Broncolor Move 1200 L battery for his flash unit.
Once we had everything packed, we met downtown Wanaka in the morning and followed each other to the east side of Hawea Lake. We parked the cars and despite the lack of sign to go up, we thought that we were roughly at the right place. It already got off to a bumpy start since that first place we arrived was not the correct spot. We had to hike back down to the cars and drive back until we saw the very small and discreet sign. Now we could start the hard climb up. The sun was strong and it felt warm in our t-shirts and shorts, even though it was the end of winter. During our hike up to Breast Hill, we met a mother with her kids who told us that if we were to keep going it might start to get icy in some parts.
We were determined so we continued on to the ridge. The view was breathtaking! The first patches of snow started to cover parts of the track. And a bit further along, the snow started turning to ice. This is when the technical gear would have been useful! The sunset was nearing so we stopped to get some photos at the golden hour. It was a little bit of a challenge to get the big flash set up in the wind. I was able to get some behind the scenes shots of Matte and Sonia during this process. After a quick session, we packed everything back up and kept going.
As night was beginning to fall, the snow got deeper and icier. It was important to put all our weight on each step to crush the ice for a good grip. The night became dark. Very dark as there was no moon to light the sky yet. We followed the trail poles that were rising above the snow but soon arrived at a point where we couldn’t find them anymore. They were either completely buried or too far away to be seen with our headlights. According to the map, the hut was supposed to be on our right. But all we could see was an icy cliff. If one of us would have slipped, it would be nearly impossible to rescue or find them. This realization caused some of us to panic. We had to be so close to the hut but just couldn’t see it! After a too long time trying to find our way on that wall, it was time to make a decision to either keep searching for the hut path or hike back to the car in the dark.
The fact that we were tired, cold and that our vision was limited to the gleam of our headlights made it harder to make a decision. After being stuck for at least 30 minutes on that slope, I decided to find a flat spot for everyone to rest while I climbed over a rock face to see if there was anything on the other side. The snow was deep, making it hard to make footprints. We were definitely the first to come here after the last snow. Upon reaching the top, I could see a fence in the distance! This was a good clue to help us find the track again. I came back to the others to motivate everyone to keep going before we could be getting comfortable in our sleeping bags.
The best motivation, when in very harsh conditions, is to trick your mind with imagination and visualisation. Picture yourself in a warm and comfortable environment. Especially if this is what you can get at the end of your current trip. Feeling comfortable inside your body, inside your mind even though the outside is still very cold, windy and wet.
We started hiking up the rock face and, as we reached the fence, we saw other poles indicating the track. It motivated all of us! But after walking on that track for 20 minutes we should have seen the hut but still couldn’t. Everyone was tired. Making wrong steps and sliding on the ice, some of us didn’t have enough strength to crush the ice anymore. We needed to stay positive and keep going. The mind is the key, if it starts to fade, everything else will too. A few minutes later we made it back to a crossing where we saw the mistake in our earlier footprints. We had followed the wrong poles and went to Breast Hill instead of to the hut. After 50 more meters downhill we finally saw the hut and everyone felt relieved. We began running and sliding on the ice all the way down to the hut which was hidden behind the edge of the icy wall.
The hut felt like paradise after our challenging hike in the dark. It felt good to organise ourselves, cook a nice warm dinner and soon after, everyone fell fast asleep. Except for me, I wasn’t done with the day just yet and wanted to see if I could get some photos of the aurora australis. There were some very weak green and purple lights but not enough for a memorable photo. However, the moon was beginning to rise which made for some great photographs with Leo who joined me outside of the hut. Too bad the moon wasn’t out earlier to help us find our way!
After our short night of rest, I got up early to hike the ridge for the sunrise. Leo wasn’t far behind. It was unbelievable! The view was astonishing and soon Matte and Sonia joined us in my excitement. It was the perfect location for Matte’s portraits! We spent half the morning up here taking photos. After a successful session on our mountaintop studio, we went back to Wanaka for a much-needed burger. The best meal after a hard hike! We all reminisced about our crazy adventure and we were all glad to make it safely back to town.
As a photographer, it’s rewarding to go on adventures with your peers. We can see how each other work and gain new insights and perspectives. It inspires us to keep taking photos, try new compositions, and explore different settings.
When going on hikes like this, where the temperatures can drastically change, I like to wear and pack multilayers clothes. Most important is the base layer. It’s good to have it be Merino wool. Primino is the best… it has all the advantages of Merino wool and it dries faster. Then a mid layer. This could be a fleece or a flannel shirt. Finally, a good jacket. Sometimes I will layer a windproof jacket under a rain jacket if it’s raining or really windy. Otherwise, a nice Gore-Tex will help keep you warm and dry from the elements while still be very breathable. I use Montane clothes thanks to my sponsor Further Fast NZ. They make very lightweight and packable gear. If I had to choose one, I would definitely recommend the Prism jacket, great for all conditions and it packs down to the size of a pillow.
If you want to know more about Matte Vonne, check out his work and bio here Fi.hn. Thank you to Amy Nieuwsma for proofing this article.