There I was, above familiar territory and enjoying the view. My Flyinn guide had relaxed now we were on our way. The 1,000 + 1 things that needed done or didn't get done before leaving, were a thing of the past. Life was sweet!
Even with shorter daylight hours, there were many routes we could fly today and still arrive with ample time up our sleeve. Usually the South Island mountain weather dictates, however with calm blue stretching from coast to coast, today the choice was ours. From our vantage point I could easily depict Mount Cook and continued my steady climb to the north of its towering peak. "What altitude shall I level off at?" I thought while checking the map, when my Flyinn guide interrupted with:
"We could continue climbing above the tops, but with this still weather it would be much more interesting to choose a route through valleys and over passes".
Aaaahh! Of course I should have expected that. Matt's favourite 'trick' especially on this leg, was to reach our destination as direct as possible without climbing any higher than needed.
"Won't that take us longer?" I forever the queen of caution.
"Only marginally, if at all. Here's a route I've never taken before that's nearly on our path," and with that Matt enlarged the iPad screen to point out his plan.
"Ohhh-kay?" The valley system looked quite straight forward until it came to a series of passes through the highest point of around 5,500', before opening out again on the western slopes of the alpine divide. I knew a various tops around there were up to 9000' with Mt Cook a whopping 12,200'.
"How about leveling off here and we'll go and take a look?" It wasn't really a question. It was also Matt's holiday, and he had huge experience compared to me. I levelled off.
I was used to flying valley systems and crossing passes, that part I understood. I'd even flown my parents on a tour past Mt Cook and the west coast years before. At around 9000'. But levelling off lower at 6500', and heading into this new valley system of white, felt very different. I hugged the northern slope as it slowly and steadily rose alongside. The radio was silent and had been for the entire trip. This was post Covid Lockdown with NZ borders closed and no visitors. The airwaves were unusually quiet for this area on such perfect day, which was both peaceful, and unsettling.
Except for clear blue above, the world turned white. Bright white clinging to shear sides of jagged rock, while the shadowed white below covered lumpy moraine, and cradled smokey hues of glacial ice amongst the waterways. Majestic. Cold. Thrilling. Intimidating.
Feeling unsure, I turned to study Matt who was obviously enjoying every minute: The new view and stunning landscape captivating him.
This was incredible. I breathed deeply, in an effort to absorb the majesty around me and take on it's fortitude. But I was on edge. Ahead the valley narrowed. The mountain passes Matt had pointed out looked like a labyrinth. The confidence I'd felt at the outset was slipping away. I dried sweaty palms on my legs again, and checked in with my guide. "Yes there was plenty of room to turn at any point", and "yes our altitude was enough for every pass." Yet, a few minutes further on I decided this was not for me.
"I'd like you to fly this bit" I ventured. Matt hesitated - always keen for me to build on my skills "You can manage this, it's new but no different to other mountain passes". I thought about that for a moment. But it was different. I'd really never been surrounded by so much snow and had spent little time amongst these steep sided alps. It was forbearing and I was afraid of losing my horizon if I turned, or misjudging this area of white, with that area of white, with that white ridgeline! And then God knows what else after that!
"No, not this time Matt. Your airplane!" I knew Matt was ready as I let him take the yoke.
On this still day, we flew through those passes as if on a magic carpet. Slowed down with 20' flap there was time to assess passes and ridges, showing there was indeed plenty of room to turn which Matt did at one point, just to demonstrate. Still alert, I felt much more secure and settled, and was more than happy to observe.
Then, within a very short time, our white world changed dramatically. Within minutes solid white turned into rocks and ridgelines, which gave way to open valleys of green native forest. The west coast. I breathed deeply absorbing the magic, and still harbouring the adrenaline of a past 10 minutes, felt dazed by the stark contrast of beauty.
If you asked me now, I'd definitely do it all again. But knowing me we'd be 1000' higher and it wouldn't be the same.
Mountains and snow are definitely the domain of those with experience.
Once settled I gladly accepted handover of the controls, and was flying again. We were not even half way there!
Comfortable and enjoying the view
Valley rising alongside
Glacial moraine and frozen lake below
View of white and rocks!
Stark contrast of scenery on the west coast happened quickly once over the mountain passes.
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