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Knowledge Dispels Fear

| Jye Parkinson

I haven’t been to New Zealand since I was five years old. It was the first place I ever saw snow and rode the mountain. Admittedly I was on skis, and it might be a slight exaggeration to say I “rode the mountain” but it was my introduction to that environment and I loved it from the beginning. So when the opportunity to go heliboarding in NZ came up, and with Gentemstick to film for their twentieth anniversary film, I jumped at it.

I was excited to spend time with Taro Tamai and the rest of the crew and further my understanding of backcountry riding under his tutelage. One of my goals is to ride AK – Alaska – so I’ve done a lot of reading and research about it. I’ve been told New Zealand is similar, like a smaller version of AK, so I knew that the snow conditions could get pretty heavy but the zones would be sick.

 

Photo by Katsuhide Fujio


I met up with the crew from Gentem when we arrived at Christchurch airport. After collecting our bags we had a 90-minute drive to Methven, which would be our home for the week. The apartment had a view of the mountains so I was frothing to go boarding, but preparations needed to be made first.

Learning from Taro goes way beyond riding and my first task was waxing my board, which had been in storage since I left Japan in February. Once we’d finish that, there was the rest of the gear check to complete. The Japanese are meticulous in everything they do and I know that watching, learning, and forming those same habits is going to be invaluable to me in backcountry riding.

Taro had also brought a new board with him for me to ride, and my excitement to get to the mountain the next day went next level. Ending a good days prep on a definite high, Taro’s son, Temma and I decided to go to the hot tub. Temma and I have known each other for about five years now and it’s cool to see how our interactions have changed. When we met, communication was mostly sign language as we struggled with the language barrier. We’ve always enjoyed hanging out and laughing at each others mistakes, but now we can actually have some good conversations as both our skills in the other’s language has improved. It’s actually a good analogy of how my relationships with all of the Gentem crew has grown over the past five years, and why this trip was so important to me.

We planned to ride at Mt Hutt for our first day, but the resort was closed because of high winds. An hour drive later and we ended up at a spot called Porters where there was some really fun groomers to carve and get the gear dialled in.

 

Photo by Katsuhide Fujio


The next day the weather was still not cooperating, so it was a day for rest and a backcountry safety talk from Taro. He ran us through everything including how to use our beacons, but obviously it was in Japanese. My Japanese has improved… but not that much! Fortunately, our photographer/filmer Fujio was there to translate for me. The plan was to leave for Methven the next morning, but plans change quickly when you’re relying on weather and at 5pm I got the word from Fujio to pack my bag cause we were heading out that night. It was all systems go with gear everywhere, but at 8pm we loaded the car and were off.

We arrived just after midnight but no one got to sleep until one. At 5am we got the wake up call for the heli charter, but once again the weather decided our fate and it was postponed until the next day. So running on four hours sleep we drove to Ohau resort after breakfast. After another scenic drive (all the drives in New Zealand are scenic) we got into some fresh tracks in a bowl, just in front of the lift. It was a short hike and totally worth it for the view and the run. The day finished up with a briefing from the heli operator about where we’d be riding the next day and the terrain. While we were at dinner the call came through confirming that it was on.

 

Photo by Katsuhide Fujio


We pulled up at the helipad at 7.30am and met our guides. Tom Willmott gave me my helicopter and avalanche safety briefing while the Gentem boys got the Japanese version from our other guide, Taichiro Naka (everyone calls him Tai). Once everything was good to go we separated into two teams. I was with Taro, Temma and Fujio. Orange man, Taka and Kazushige formed the second team.


Our team loaded into the chopper first and took off into the NZ Alps around Mt Cook. Flying through the valleys and over the tops of the mountain peaks reminded me so much of the footage I’d seen of Alaska. It gave me butterflies for a second but once we landed and the heli took off to go get the second team I just got really excited to ride.

 

Photo by Katsuhide Fujio


We landed at the top of a big open bowl and Tai and Taro dug a pit to check the snowpack. As I’m learning, there’s a lot that goes in to determining when and where we snowboard in the backcountry, and this was another part of the process. It looked good so Fujio rode down to set up and shoot. I rode the face first and then Temma followed behind me. The second team arrived and rode to the safe spot where Temma and I were waiting. Just after everyone rode through we heard a whoomp. Tom told me it was the stabilising of the face and the snowpack, which is why digging the pit to check conditions, is so important. A rider could quite easily trigger an “avy”, so you have to be confident in what you see.

 

Photo by Katsuhide Fujio

The face bottlenecked and then opened up, so we got a boost up from the heli to the top of the next face and our second run. The day proceeded like this with my team riding first and then the second team. There were big open bowls and rolling gullies – perfect for snowsurfing – and I couldn’t believe I was finally here. It was amazing.

The runs were long and my legs were burning but I was loving every minute. Luckily we needed to stop periodically to set up for filming and check conditions. On the last run of the day there was a gully with one really big backside wall which everyone was calling “Pipeline”. Whilst we were keen to get into it, safety is always in the forefront of everyone’s mind, so Tai, Fujio and Taro rode down to check stability. They triggered some snow sliding but it was minor and they decided it was fine to ride. I got an opportunity to go first and was a little apprehensive, but I trusted Taro and the guides so I dropped in. I’m so glad I did.

I’ll be forever grateful to Taro and the Gentemstick family for the chance to go on this trip, the amazing experiences that came with it and the people who continue to teach me. It’s crazy how much I learnt about the mountain, avalanche conditions, snowpacks, preparations, riding, filming… and myself. I’m looking forward to getting back to Japan for the Northern Hemi winter to continue the process.

Photo by Katsuhide Fujio 

* Jye Parkinson is a 15-year-old snowboarder, surfer and environmental campaigner from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.