Unskied Lines #6: Caroline Face, Mt. Cook[Ed's note: Don't miss the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh installments of our Unskied Lines series.]
The first time Andrew McLean saw the Caroline Face of Mt. Cook, on the South Island of New Zealand, he was looking at a post card. He couldn't believe the potential ski line: roughly 6,000 feet of perilous turns down a steep, broken, beautiful glacier -- on one of the hemisphere's most famous peaks. The best part? No one had skied it.
By the time McLean saw the Caroline Face up close, in October 2006 (late spring in New Zealand), he was standing at the bottom of it, prepared to attempt a first descent with Jackson Hole skiers Steve Romeo and Chris Figenshau and Kiwi Grant Guise.
A lot had changed from the way it looked on the post card. "A huge chunk had broken off," said McLean. "If it'd looked like the post card, we would've gone. But it didn't."
Theirs was one of many attempts to be thwarted by the nasty Caroline, which presents an atypical ski mountaineering line. Not only is the southeast face in full view of the tourist haven that is Mt. Cook Village, with the base of the line just a half-day hike up the glacier valley; but it features so much unpredictable danger that it's only seen a handful of ascents since it was first climbed in 1970.
"Internationally speaking, it's a pretty spectacular line," said McLean, regarded as America's premier ski mountaineer. "Definitely one of the biggest potentially skiable lines I've seen."
The face remains an afterthought among most skiers, however, even in New Zealand. "There's a lot of objective hazard," said Jamie Laidlaw, an Idaho skier and climber who tried to ski the peak in 2006 with BJ Brewer. "You're doing rappels under big seracs, it's icy, and if it's not icy, that face avalanches all the time."
One skier who has committed huge time and resources to skiing the Caroline is Axel Naglich, a Red Bull-sponsored Austrian from the racing Mecca of Kitzbühel. Naglich has made at least three attempts on the face, using an astronomical budget (rumored to be in excess of $1 million) to employ local mountain guides for ground support and a helicopter for scouting purposes, often flying for an hour at a time.
Mt. Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand at 12,316 feet, was first skied in 1982 by Kiwi guide Geoff Wyatt, on a much easier route than the Caroline Face. Even today, ski descents off the peak, which gets raked by winds blowing in off the ocean, are rare. If someone solo climbs the Caroline, the feat is covered by national media in New Zealand.
Both McLean and Laidlaw believe if the face is going to be skied, it will likely be done by a Kiwi skier who can watch it for months at a time, years even, then "pounce," as McLean put it. "It's one-in-a-thousand odds to travel all the way around the world to ski it. Such a crapshoot that I wouldn't try again," he said.
Despite the added exposure that climbing the face would bring, it'd be the only way to do it, the skiers said.
"It's so technical that I can't even imagine entering it from the top," Laidlaw said, estimating that the face was 60 to 70 percent skiable when he saw it, but would be 90 percent skiable in a perfect year.
McLean worries that the line is getting less skiable as more chunks break off, but he still believes it can be descended. "Hopefully if it does get done, it will get done in good style," he said. "If you end up rappelling 2,000 feet of the face, that's not very sporting."