Camp at Big Bay
Jamie Sterling at Papatowai
A ridgetop in the Southern Alps
Clockwise from top-left: Jamie Sterling, Dana Flahr, Gary Elkerton, Johan Olofsson, Eric Themel, and Sage Cattabriga-Alosa
Even by the lofty beauty standards of New Zealand's South Island, the scene at Big Bay is out of hand. A notch in the island's sparsely populated southwest coast, north of Queenstown and the Southern Lakes, Big Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage park that remains roadless and pristine. A beach of smooth sand gives way to rolling dunes and a forest of podocarp trees, which in turn march sharply upward to a million snowcapped peaks, including the stunning 9,931-foot Mount Aspiring. From the mountains, creeks tumble down to the Tasman Sea and rocks covered with mussels. It appears the healthiest of ecosystems until a non-native species suddenly invades in the form of a heavily tattooed, six-foot-two Austrian. Jumping off an eight-foot sand dune and onto a huge yucca plant is 31-year-old snowboarder Eric Themel, winner of freeride competitions in several countries and the 2007 Red Bull Tribal Quest ski-and-snowboard photo contest.
Hucking off the dunes alongside Themel is 26-year-old Canadian freeskier Dana Flahr, a winner of the International Free Skiers Association North American Tour, as well as its Sick Bird Award, given to the ballsiest skier. From his feet, he launches a misty late 180 into the forgiving sand as his new Oakley shades rocket off his head.
Hungry to record the spontaneous moment on film in the slanting light of late afternoon, Australian cameraman Dwayne Fetch scurries about till his ski pants fall inexorably south, but he remains focused on the action. Which comes to include bottle-blond 43-year-old Australian surfer Gary Elkerton, winner of two Masters Championships and the 1983 Australian Amateur Championship, who's crawling around the sand on all fours. He balances a deer skull on his head while emitting a bleating, mammalian sound.
The man behind today's madness is Jose Cuervo and, to a greater extent, Tony Harrington, who's running around to various photogenic scenes with camera in hand, as he will most of the ensuing week. With more than 120 magazine covers to his credit, Harrington, a 42-year-old Australian, is a legendary surf-and-snow-sports shooter. While he's hardly the only action photographer to frame hairball adventure, Harrington is the rare one to create the hairball himself. He puts together groups of top athletes, gets backing from their corporate sponsors, then chases big swells and snowstorms around the globe and shoots the athletes in action. He recently landed a Ski Channel series: 13 episodes starring Harrington as Storm Hunter, in which he'll "hoon around with my mates" looking for powder.
For the Big Bay trip, Harrington put together a cross-cultural stew of renowned skiers, boarders, and surfers. The initial plan: Camp on the beach in the middle of the park for a week or so, "sessioning" its "epic" surf break; when conditions allow, summon a helicopter to land on the shore, pick up the athletes, airlift them to the skiable steeps of Mount Aspiring National Park, and shralp accordingly. Harrington hopes on occasion the snow guys might surf and the surf guys might try out the snow, taking some athletes far out of their comfort zones. Harrington will shoot for this magazine, and the film guys will capture streaming video for Web sites and possible commercials. Harrington convinced The North Face (sponsor of all the snow dudes) that bringing this cluster of international strangers to Big Bay is good business that You, the End Consumer, will find the resulting images compelling. This is Harrington's expertise: the Economics of Extreme.
AND SO SEVEN INSANELY accomplished athletes inhabit a New Zealand beach usually visited only by driftwood. There's 28-year-old American freeskier Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, the gap-jump honcho and ski-film star (winner of Best Male Performance at the Powder Magazine Video Awards). A college art major before his ski career took off, Cattabriga-Alosa is busy drawing landscapes and still lifes of beach detritus in a sketchbook. With the surf flat (and very, very cold) and the heli-skiing currently impossible (more on that later), he is bored. Soon he joins in the dune-hucking, pulling a series of inhumanly athletic inverted aerials.
Swedish snowboarder Johan Olofsson, 31, who made the Guinness Book of World Records after ripping a raw, 40-degree-plus, 3,000-vertical-foot Alaskan mountainside in just 35 seconds, is poking at a smoldering bonfire with a stick. Hawaiian Jamie Sterling, 26, tow-in-surfing prodigy and winner of Billabong XXL's Surfline Performance Award, throws various burnables on top confirming that, at heart, all men are pyros. Neither the crackle of the fire nor the yelps of the aerialists manage to roust Queenslander Mark Visser, 26, a stud with 6 percent body fat who surfed one of the biggest waves ever in Australia (a 55-foot monster born of a freak swell). He almost never leaves his tent, because of a debilitating case of the stomach flu.Presiding tirelessly over it all is Harrington. He's known to friends and family as Harro. It's a puppies-and-kittens world Down Under, and most names get tagged with cutesy suffixes: either an -eee sound (sunglasses are "sunnies") or an -o (thus "Harro"). His blog is even WheresHarro.com.
Harro was born on Australia's Central Coast and grew up skiing Thredbo Mountain, a major commercial ski resort. Though predominantly a surfer (he was sponsored by local surf shops as a teenager), Harro became a good-enough skier to finish in the top three in a few New Zealand extreme contests. He also worked as a resort photographer at Thredbo, smiling at tourists as they skied off a lift and asking, "Hi, I'm Tony, can I take your photo?" In 1995, at age 29, when few international freeskiers knew who he was or had any familiarity with Down Under skiing, Harro brought them to New Zealand for the World Heli Challenge, a one-of-a-kind ski contest he organized in which choppers whisked competitors up the unmanaged, chairlift-deprived Southern Alps.
Though he stands six feet tall, with the powerful torso of a linebacker (or someone who's spent his life paddling into big waves), Harro comes across as a gentle soul. He never raises his voice not even during the herding-cats frustration of moving a ten-person cluster of healthy egos and a thousand pounds of gear. A big scar traces across his right cheek, but it's from a childhood accident, not a bar fight.
Harro has spent his recent months chasing storms. He resurrected the Heli Challenge after several years off, got married in October, and two days later "took off to Tahiti and shot some epic images" of surfers at Teahupoo. This past December, he followed one swell from his part-time home in Oahu (where his Jet Ski stalled when a 25-foot wave broke right in front of him) to Southern California to the west coast of Mexico (where six months earlier he was pulled over and searched by militia at gunpoint). Ever cheerful, Harro regards the trip as "the biggest adventure of my life."
Here in Big Bay, plans also derail. Though Harro was told otherwise before the trip, we find out at camp that we won't be able to heli-ski from the beach, because the fuel tab to reach the peaks is prohibitive and the snow conditions are too sketchy up high. Meanwhile, only two of the snow jocks possess the will or the 4.3-millimeter-thick wetsuits to venture into the gray, ice-cold water: Johan Olofsson, who's Swedish after all, and Dana Flahr, who goes out only briefly. "Just paddling and getting smoked by waves," Flahr shivers. "Stood up a couple of times but just on the whitewash. My muscles were so cold I didn't have the energy to really ride."
Still, Harro gets his wave-riding shots. Surfers Jamie Sterling and Gary Elkerton head into the water, pointing their boards directly into rocky coves, dancing on the curl, and milking languorous 15-second rides out of six-foot chop. Harro, with a waterproof housing on his camera and booties on his feet, wades far into the surf and burns a few million pixels. Later, as wetsuits dry on tents and bushes, Harro sounds content. "It's funny with these adventure trips," he says. "How much can you truly plan? All you can do, really, is bring lots of food and toilet paper and let the trip happen."
OUR FIRST NIGHT IN BIG BAY, Harro apologizes: "One thing you haven't heard about New Zealand are the midgies. I bought you all head nets." New Zealand sand flies, known as "midgies," are why the orcs from the Lord of the Rings films seem so pissed off. There are billions of them black, pin-size, elusive, ruthless biters. They inject their foulness into Gary Elkerton's neck until, by day two, it becomes a reptilian horror of nasty welts.
We planned to work Big Bay's surf and sand for a week, but after two days of itchy and scratchy and no skiing, Harro does what all good storm chasers do: changes direction. He retrieves the satellite phone and summons the planes, which pick us up right on the beach, at low tide. By noon we're in the groovy, lakeside resort town of Wanaka, brunching alongside college-age snowboard chicks.
The next day, a rented RV and beaten minivan trundle us 35 minutes west of Wanaka to Treble Cone, a First World ski area reached via a Third World access road, with slippery switchbacks and 5.8 exposure. Harro herds us up to the base area, then disappears inside to cajole ten lift tickets out of the marketing department. Freeskier Sage Cattabriga-Alosa pounds a Red Bull past his scratchy beard. Boarder Eric Themel who served as a snowboard instructor after avoiding mandatory service in the Austrian army by claiming he was clinically shy and afraid of the dark shares boarding tips with surfer Jamie Sterling, who's snowboarded exactly two days in his life. Surfer Mark Visser is still suffering from the flu, retching and invisible. Meanwhile surfer Gary Elkerton raves about his first boarding in France. "I was going so fucking fast, like it's Waimea, and I hit ten French people," he says. "There was blood all over the snow. Surfers are always trying to generate more speed by working waves. But with gravity " His eyebrows rise conspiratorially.
Once the lift tickets materialize, the group splinters. Elkerton beelines for a natural halfpipe, touching his right hand to the snow like he touched the gray surf of Big Bay. Flahr and Cattabriga-Alosa start hunting trannies and takeoffs, hauling fast down the steeps and effortlessly hurling into the air, making new-school grabs. When they find a ridge-and-knob-studded stash beneath a chairlift, they pull tricks that induce the lift riders to whoop and cheer.
It's a brilliantly sunny day, and Harro strives to make it YouTube-worthy. With sponsors, magazines, newspapers, blogs, and newsletters to satisfy, he needs content, dammit. He sets up a tripod on the snow and coaxes video interviews from the athletes. Elkerton makes a point of us all being "blessed to be heah." Sterling says some nice words about his new friends being "creative, active athletes. I've never hung with skiers and snowboarders before." But Johan Olofsson, who shows spunk and a wry sense of humor in conversation, becomes downright bland once the camera goes on. Harro tries to egg him on but gets only Bill Belichick like responses. "All right, mate," Harro sighs, "go eat some pies and drink some beer."
SNOW RIDERS AND SURFERS want to love each other. Really they do. You should've heard them the first night we met up in New Zealand.
Jamie Sterling, massaging a weather report out of his iPhone, put forth the question always asked of heli-skiers: "So you guys jump right out of helicopters?"
No, Cattabriga-Alosa kindly answered, the pom-pom on his retro green Smith beanie bouncing agreeably: "The helicopters land on the snow, then we get out."
The surfers talked about waiting for waves; skier Dana Flahr blond and boyish noted, "Sometimes we look at digital photos for two days memorizing safe points and landmarks before dropping in."
Surfer Mark Visser, longhaired and tan (before his flu): "That's like us a bit. You need to know where to get out. When you go under the wave, you see air pockets and swim toward them. The key is to always stay calm."
Snowboarder Johan Olofsson: "That's the way I feel, too."
Despite making nice, we eventually choose our own tribes in Wanaka. The saltwater types stay at one rented house, and the frozen-water ones stay at another, in a different neighborhood. One day, the watermen abandon the snow boys. Harro has noted a massive swell aiming for Papatowai, a point on the rugged southeast coast separated from Antarctica by masses of angry water. "I'm a firm believer that you make your own luck," says Harro. And luck is a freak swell. So he pulls another bootlegger turn on the schedule.
Several hours' drive from Wanaka, the Papatowai trip takes all the surfers and camera ops away for a day and a half. "The surfer duuuudes they don't hang out with us We're not rad enough," one skier jokes. In truth, the snowphiles would be scared shitless at Pap. The waves roll in 30 feet high, with 40-foot faces. "I can shoot small-wave, high-performance, and snow park," Harro says, "but give me the biggest swell or the biggest mountain, where you can use your brain to develop a strategy to survive, and that's where I get my own fix of adrenaline. That's what I live for."
Pap breaks so huge that the surfers decide to tow in with a Jet Ski. And the water is so cold, Sterling will later report, "it was hard to hold on to the towrope." Mark Visser, still sick, surfs three waves until the cold wrecks him and he has to stop.Meanwhile, back in Wanaka, the snow guys hire a plane at the airfield for a reconnaissance mission, scouting jumps and runouts. To scope their powder lines, they pay the pilots about $750. As for me, utterly bereft of sponsorship in this adventure-mad nation, I decide to rent a cheap mountain bike for $20, helmet and pump included.
A COUPLA DAYS LATER, skiers, boarders, and surfers reunite, and we're in the Wanaka offices of Harris Mountains Heli-Ski the map room, to be specific preparing to lift into the pristine alpine above 7,000 feet. Harro asks snowboarders Eric Themel and Johan Olofsson to coach surfer Jamie Sterling, who's taking a helicopter to the backcountry on just his third day of riding. "The bastard surfs 70-foot waves, and says he's never been more scared in his life," Harro says. Sterling ends up freaking a bit on the steeper pitches, yet he harnesses athletic ability, like no other three-day snowboarder in history, to rail most slopes.
We head west to the peaks, and there they are: the sheep. New Zealand is nutty for the lambies. You'll hear sheep-population estimates anywhere between 40 million and 70 million, which are invariably accompanied by the ratio to human New Zealanders. These are overwhelming numbers 12:1 or 25:1 or what ever and would be terrifying to Kiwis in the unlikely event that sheep develop opposable thumbs or any semblance of brains. "Stop!" yells an assistant cameraman as we drive past a 400-strong flock. "I think one winked at me."
The helipad is a sheep pasture. Dragging our boards and packs over to the pickup zone, we keep eyes peeled for mutton bombs. The spring conditions are pleasant, but the runs are measured in hundreds of vertical feet, not thousands. The terrain's not quite big enough to blow the mind of You, the End Consumer, so Harro decides we've got to move, that we'll wake before dawn tomorrow, travel a good chunk of the South Island, and hook up again with Harris Mountains Heli-Ski on the flanks of the Ben Ohau Range. "Not to say I don't get frustrated," Harro says, smiling, "but nothing's a problem unless you make it one."
A short night and untold roadside lambies later, we arrive at another heli-pad. Higher up, the riding is superb. Olofsson and Themel rip bold, nearly straight lines down 40-degree pitches. Flahr and Cattabriga-Alosa pack loose snow on top of their boots while awaiting their cues: When they air a cliff or cornice, the snow boils off a trick to create more spray for the camera.Perfect corn runs stretch three, maybe four thousand vertical feet. Surfer Gary Elkerton puts his extensive experience in the original, older Alps to use, powering hard on his back leg, almost popping a wheelie. "Woo-hoo!" he yells. "Can we do anuthuh? That was un-fucking-believable! This is like Jaws and that stuff yesterday was shore break."
That night, we skip dinner and party like rock stars at the skiers' rented house. Cattabriga-Alosa and I hide our gear in a bedroom, as the rest of the house seems a potential puke zone. The Hobbit-like Sterling, all of five-eight and baby-faced, can't keep up with the Famous Grouse shots. His eyes roll independently of each other and his head lolls.
The athletes, at least, consider the cross-pollinated, surf-and-snow excursion a mega-success. "An awesome array of sportsmen in the most extreme place in the world," beams Elkerton. In the end, though, it really doesn't matter what the athletes think. They're not the market here. They're more new-school wildebeests in Harro's grand photo safari. The whole point is the imagery. The stills on these pages, the streaming video and slide shows popping up on dozens of Web sites. Whether it works is for You, the End Consumer, to judge. What do You think?
Access + Resources
GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com/usa) flies to Auckland from L.A. (nonstop, about US$1,100) and from New York (one stop, US$1,700). WHEN TO GO: New Zealand's summer December through February is high season. Prime surf season is October to June; ski season, June through October.
WHAT TO DO & WHERE TO STAY:
MOUNT RUAPEHU (mtruapehu.com) - The North Island's only two commercial areas, Turoa and Whakapapa, are on this active volcano. Stay a night in an igloo near Whakapapa (doubles, US$385; mtruapehu.com). Or check out the Powderhorn Chateau, the closest accommodation to Turoa (US$165; powderhorn.co.nz). CRAIGIEBURN VALLEY SKI AREA (craigieburn.co.nz) - This steep and deep South Island terrain offers prime off-piste skiing. Crash at Flock Hill Lodge, just five minutes from Craigieburn's access road (doubles, US$92; flockhill.co.nz). SNOW PARK NZ (snowparknz.com) - A playground for boarders and freestyle skiers, with two superpipes, a quarterpipe, and more than 30 rails and boxes. Stay at Bluewater Lodge, a luxury bed-and-breakfast on Lake Wanaka's shore (US$270 US$450; bluewaterwanaka.co.nz). HARRIS MOUNTAINS HELI-SKI - This company operates from Queenstown and Wanaka, with excursions to the Harris Mountains and Mount Cook. From US$610 for three runs (heliski.co.nz).
RAGLAN - Manu Bay has one of the world's longest left breaks. Stay at the eco-friendly Solscape and sleep in a converted train car (doubles from US$45; solscape.co.nz). GISBORNE - "Gizzy" offers waves year-round. Check out Wainui Beach and the Stock Route. Stay at Knapdale Eco-Lodge, which serves gourmet local-food meals (US$215 US$255; knapdale.co.nz). DUNEDIN - This surfer's haven has more than 40 breaks within an hour's drive. For a memorable visit, stay at Larnach Castle (from $195; larnachcastle.co.nz). JACKSON BAY - A little-known surf area with waves left, right, and center. Craypot,a locally famous fish-burger trailer, is a must-try. Relax in the tranquillity of Collyer House Bed and Breakfast (US$195 US$240; collyerhouse.co.nz). BIG BAY - This remote area can be accessed only via boat, small plane, or a four-day walk through Fiordland National Park. For more information, check out newzealand.com.
GETTING AROUND: One of the best ways to experience New Zealand is in an RV. Kea Campers offers campers and motor homes for US$60 US$275 per day (nz.keacampers.com).