Mini Missions: Overnight in the Pisa Range, NZ

Pick it, pack it, fire it up…

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Words: RMB + Johnny McCormack

Images: Johnny McCormack

The Pisa Range at first glance looks like a flat plateau without much to offer. That’s if you’re viewing from the common vantage points like Cardrona Ski resort and the Crown Range road between Wanaka and Queenstown. However, what you don’t see is the ‘dark side’ of the range, also known as the Cromwell faces or Mordor by some of the local crew. These faces can be accessed by splitboarding or touring to the Mt Pisa summit. How do you get there? First off, take the old Snow Park road and drive all the way to the end where there is a cross country facility and a lodge called Snow Farm. You’ll need to pay a road toll at the office and register your interests for safety reasons. The area is also home to a car testing facility known as ‘The Proving Grounds’, so a there are a few zones which are strictly private but for the most part you can hike, ride and camp with full public access and a few huts which you can overnight in. Opening up a vast area of terrain, you just need to know where to look. Hot tip! Be sure to pack your compass or GPS as the rolling terrain on the way there and back can get quite mind boggling even in clear conditions.

The Pisa range often has better weather due to its lower altitude than the nearby mighty Southern Alps yet it still attracts a healthy dosing of snow in the southern and eastern facing bowls, this is where you’ll score the goods. Back in the day, the area was home to some of the highest gold mining sites in the country and it has very distinctive landforms due to it being a ‘fault block’ range, there are giant column rocks that pop up everywhere, various steep bowls and unusual cliff faces and chutes on offer. So, there is plenty to explore for the adventuress and those that don’t mind putting in a few solid hours of hiking. The Pisa Range is a little like the Margherita pizza, sometimes the simpler less thrills option is the most appetizing.

Mini Mission Checklist

Whether you’re away for a weeklong expedition or just having a fun overnighter, here are some mini mission essentials you should be packing.

1. Tent. This is your best friend. Go for a good four-season one, not a budget K-Mart beach tent. Enjoy shelter from freezing temps, snowstorms and wind. The more comfortable you are, the harder you’ll hike for the goods the following day.

2. Sleeping bag. Ever slept out in the snow before? It’s the best or worst experience … which all comes down to the sleeping bag you’re running. Go for a winter specific one, 800 / 900 down fill, which usually means they are comfortable to around -20 degree temps. Zzzzz.

3. Insulated mat. This will bring lots of extra comfort in the night, leading to a better sleep but also reduce the cold temps away from your body, keeping your inside nice and toasty.

4. Cooker and gas. Everyone loves a hot cup of coffee or tea in the morning, especially when you awake from a night sleeping out in the snow. JetBoil is a good brand to get, super-fast at turning snow into boiled water and really light and easy to pack too. Pack at least two lighters and matches too.

5. Food. Dehydrated meals are the way to go, you can pick up good backcountry cuisine at most supermarkets in mountain towns.

6. Utensils. One everyone seems to forget, but so essential. It’s always handy to have a good shape camping knife and a spoon on you around dinnertime.

7. Thermos and water bottle. Rule number one! Gotta stay hydrated and keep that coffee hot.

8. Headlamp. Never forget your headlamp, you’ll be pissing all over your tent otherwise.

9. Winter clothing. Aside from your normal riding kit, it definitely pays to bring an insulated down jacket (which can double up as a good pillow), spare gloves and depending on how many nights you are planning for, a couple of pairs of extra socks. There is nothing like putting on a warm, dry pair of socks at night to sleep in and nothing worse than being stuck with damp socks. Been there.

10. Avalanche kit. Always have your beacon (switched on), probe, shovel and definitely a first aid kit. 

11. Backpack. What you’re going to put all this stuff in.

12. Map or GPS. Depending how deep into the backcountry you are venturing, having a GPS satellite navigation system with you can be of great assistance. However, if you’re not going out of cell phone range, that’ll be fine, just remember to take fully charged battery packs. Phones ALWAYS die in the cold overnight. 

14. Toilet Paper. This is the final and most important item. Any human should never experience the feeling of wiping your ass with anything but toilet paper … trust me.

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