Weather in the South Island Alps is as fickle as it comes, especially during winter and spring. And with LKI’s two-time Prince of Crankworx Sam Blenkinsop back in home in Christchurch after a hectic season travelling the world, the pressure was on to find a day for a unique LKI photo shoot before the ski season finished.
After some recce missions into the Alps (snowboard attached) I’d found a couple of banger spots that were going to look amazing for a mountain-bike shoot with a difference. There were a whole gaggle of factors that needed to be juggled though.
The killer spots I’d pinpointed for the shoot were on government land, and as such, a whole raft of approvals, concessions and forms needed to be filled out.
The locations could only be accessed by using the Mt Hutt skifield chairlifts, then hiking into the back-country. Fortunately, the Mt Hutt staff were amazing and were only too happy to help us out, saving us about a day’s worth of effort.
Since Sam returned from the DH World Championships at Val di Sole, the mountains had been choked in thick cloud, with constant drizzle either eating the snowbase, or piling on little dumps of powder. Neither are ideal for riding on. In fact, the snow has to be pretty damn hard for Sam to ride on without his front wheel disappearing into a softer pocket and sending him head-first over the bars…as we’d find out.
Sam’s schedule since arriving home had been pretty hectic, and combined with my busy nine-to-five, finding a time that suited us both, then marrying that up with a perfect weather window, took weeks to pinpoint… and even then it was a sketchy one, where the weather would start fine, the close in during the afternoon.
Still, Monday was locked in and we were on. We were greeted to a crystal clear, windless morning when we arrived at Mt Hutt and after meeting the staff we were on the first chairlift of the day to the summit of the skifield. From there we left the ski area and hiked down through a wide saddle to our photo shoot location and began ripping through the shots.
The day was off to a flying start as the factory Norco DH racer bombed a couple of steep snowy slopes, until his wheel sunk into a hole and he went over the bars and cartwheeled onto the rocks. Fortunately both he and the bike were OK, but we decided to look for harder pockets of snow from then on. You don’t get lucky twice when it comes to big endos like that!
Our next spot was perfect – a snowy ridge that overlooked a huge valley. We just had to wait for a small cloud to pass away from the sun. We waited…. and waited as the cloud rapidly grew bigger and greyer, until it was drowning out the sun and descending onto the highest peaks around us. Noooo! The forecast had been for the weather to close in around 2pm, not 10am!
With time and the weather suddenly against us, we began working in a frenzy. Sam threw his bike into manuals, wheelies and two-wheel drifts time and again across the snowy ridge, often threatening to slide hundreds of metres off the side of the mountain in the process.
We quickly scouted out and shot a bunch of other spots, both shale and snow-based as we chased diminishing pockets of sunlight around the mountains, but the unusually warm temperatures were softening the snow up rapidly, making it harder and harder to ride consistently and safely.
By noon the sooty grey clouds had choked out the sun completely, so we hiked back to the ski area and snowboarded/rode our way back to the base.
After a quick lunch it was obvious the weather wasn’t going to improve, so we exchanged bikes and cameras for snowboards and skis and snuck in a handful of incredibly fun runs down Mt Hutt through the soft spring snow. It was the last time we’d get to hit the slopes for 2016 (the season finishes this weekend), so we made the most of it, even if the final run was through a painful hailstorm that peppered our faces like air-rifle bullets.
On the way back down the mountain road we pulled off and scoped out an old DH trail that Sam had ridden a handful of times. It looked promising and we punched out a couple of extra photos on some beautiful sections of trail, but the weather continued to close in on us and we eventually conceded that we’d milked the day for as many shots as possible and it was time to pull the pin.
For all the ripper shots we got and that you’ll see over the coming months here at LKI, Sam and I both left the day feeling as if there’s some unfinished business to attend to. Any snow-based shoots will have to wait a year, but the potential for incredibly scenic images on the DH tracks around Mt Hutt is mindblowing and for the most part, untapped from a photography and filming point of view. We’ll be back for a second helping sooner rather than later…
Cheers Simon Makker - Smakka!
Pics - @Makkreative