The Majestic Earnslaw Glacier, NZ

Since I arrived in Wanaka, I heard about Earnslaw burn. People were saying that you need serious skills to get there. That it’s lost in the wild, far away from everything, kind of a secret spot where people go more by helicopter rather than by walk. They were right! This 12 hours return walk is difficult especially when you add some pouring rain to the equation.

A real adventure starts when you get lost, or so the saying goes … I make sure that I’m lost from the first one hundred meters of almost any hikes… don’t laugh at me, it’s just like that. For most people who come with me, it can be annoying and they start to have serious doubts about the fact to trust me for the rest of the adventure. This time, was not an exception and when after 30 minutes of walking on a really slippery and a bit too dangerous track a meter by a hundred meters cliff following the river, I had to admit we were lost. Iva just laughed and accepted it saying that it was a good exercise to start again. We came back to the car and I double checked on my computer, to find the NZ Topo Map webpage still open and realized that the hike was starting on the other side of the river!

We have a river to cross! And what a river, we both almost slipped on rocks due to the strong current but everything went well and my photographic gear was still dry (for now). Then, we finally started to hike on the good track marked with orange triangles. You finally don’t need specific skills to find your way as soon as you start on the good track.

While we were walking, battered by the rain and the wind, I’ve had a lot of thoughts going through my mind during this 6 hours walk. After two hours, I’ve asked myself if I could find a dry part of my body. Negative answer. Impossible to notify a dry part on all of my body even with my “waterproof” jacket on. We were both totally soaked!

In this kind of situation, your mind can be really impressive and find the best way to disconnect from the bad feeling of the body. When the outside feelings are too uncomfortable, I learned to turn the focus inward and feel the warmth inside of my body rather than the cold and wet environment outside of it.

One of those thoughts was about Mike Horn’s adventure around the world on the equator, latitude 0. While he was crossing the Amazonian forest, for few weeks and was wet all the time. I felt instantly good as I knew that in our case it was going to be like that just for a couple of days.

Then, my mind jumped on his choice to allow the water to come in his shoes by creating holes in it, instead of trying to keep his feet dry. At least the water didn’t stay in his shoes when he was out of the water. It’s really nice to have dry feet when you hike but if your shoes are going to be wet you should prefer something that can release the water. The choice can be tricky.

A bit after that, I thought about my body and the feelings. I realized that our body is just a tool gave to us to emit and receive information. Nothing less, nothing more. What if you can disconnect the unpleasant information to just keep the pleasant ones? It’s maybe in what Tibetan monks excel at!

So, I tried to disconnect my mind from the feeling of my body. Not so easy. I guess the best way to do that is to focus on your breath. Thinking about the infinity of possibilities to accept the moment even if it’s not a pleasant one. After a few hours, we finally reached the alcove under a mountain where we set the camp for the night.

When you are in this kind of situation, totally wet, cold and in a remote area, you must set up the quickest possible the following points:

  • A shelter to be protected
  • A fire to stay warm

Iva started to build a stone wall to protect the fireplace from the wind while I set up the tent under the alcove. Luckily, there was some not too wet wood underneath the big alcove. Definitely not enough to stay warm all the night but enough to start a fire and dry some of our clothes especially Iva’s sleeping bag. To keep the fire going all night long we’ve been for a mission to find some wood, obviously wet, that we cut in small pieces to make it dry faster. We finally ended up with much more wood than we needed but it will be for the next ones who adventure here.

There is maybe a specific technique to make a fire under an alcove or in a cave to avoid the smoke. But we definitely didn’t know it and we had some bad time coughing with burning red eyes due to the smoke. The wind was turning quite often and it was difficult to define where to put the tent and where to put the fire.

The night was cold. Very cold. And Iva’s sleeping bag still wet after few hours of drying… We organized a bed to keep us warm with my dry sleeping bag and covered us with the wet one.

In the morning, I saw some orange glow coloring the roof of the tent and cannot believe it was the sun reflecting on the mountain. I opened the tent and it was the total opposite than the day before. Blue sky, not a single cloud. Hard to believe in Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud.

I jumped out of the tent, grabbed my wet camera bag, and start to walk barefoot to the end of the valley. It’s a long walk. The temperature was certainly below zero… I could tell because of some parts of the waterfalls and rivers were still frozen. It was really nice at the beginning to walk barefoot and feel the land. Ok, at some stages I didn’t feel some of my toes anymore but as soon as the sun touched them, they came back to life. What was impossible to see last night was finally here in front of me or it was maybe me in front of him. This majestic giant Earnslaw Glacier with all its waterfalls. Majestic is the perfect word to describe it. I was feeling so small. It’s in this kind of moments that you can feel the beauty and the strength of nature. So much stronger than each of us.

We must stay aware that we are a part of this nature, we are not over or under it. We are it and every of our action should be aligned in a way to respect it. It’s really difficult today to live in harmony with nature by consuming responsibly and locally but every effort as small as it is count. I’m trying to be more responsible every day and I realize how difficult it is.

Going to the end of valley barefoot was maybe not the best idea as the bush started to be really dense and full of thorns that were scratching my feet and legs. What a great challenge in the way to disconnect the brain from the body. But as soon as I wasn’t focused anymore on taking photographs and running in the bush it started to be very painful.

Unfortunately, a lot of my photographs were blurry due to the fog into my lenses created by the heavy rain and the humidity of my camera bag. Luckily the 70-200mm was not that foggy so I created few panoramic to recreate the wide effect of the 24-70mm to keep a souvenir of this majestic mountain.

Iva was supposed to meet me on the way to the end of the valley but I didn’t see her. I know she wasn’t going to stay at the camp and will join me but I guessed we might miss each other on the way. We finally realised back at the camp that we crossed each other by a 25 meters apart on the way without noticing it. The valley is really wide at some parts and from the alcove, there are no proper tracks anymore.

The way back to the carpark seemed infinitely longer than the first way. This is when I realized that the brain can sometimes shut up some unpleasant parts unconsciously.

If you want to do this hike you should:

  • download BackCountry Navigator App. It allows you to save some maps to access it offline with your gps. Of course, it’s always better to use a paper map as on this kind of temperatures, the battery of your smartphone will drop significantly.
  • Allow two days, three must be the best to enjoy fully the end of the valley.
  • Be ready to be wet and face some strong winds.
  • Don’t be afraid of crossing rivers, as you will need to.

If you go there, enjoy the hike it’s wonderful and worth it even if it can be tough on the body and the mind.

Breast hill – A mountaintop photo studio

As I am writing this article 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 Thank you to Amy Nieuwsma for proofing this article.