(This story originally featured in Wild #177, Spring 2020)

For the first project of her ‘A Winter Affair’ series, Janina Kuzma set off with Anna Smoothy and Ayako Kuroda to ski traverse New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The resultant documentary, ‘East West’—a selection in this years Women’s Adventure Film Tour—is at turns beautiful, inspiring, historical, and harrowing. But it’s tragic, too; the impacts of climate change on this amazing landscape are all-too-apparent. Here, Janina speaks a little about the East West project and what she saw.


“When I started ‘A Winter Affair’ I always wanted the series’ first project to be Kiwi-inspired because we have the beautiful Southern Alps to explore; I wanted to capture this. Twelve years ago I first set foot in the Liebigs near Lake Tekapo on the South Island with The North Face to film ‘The Whole Nine Yards’. So we conjured up an expedition to cross the main divide from East to West, starting in the Liebigs. The Liebig Traverse is one of the little known ski traverses in New Zealand as it overshadowed by the nearby popular and famous ‘Symphony on Skis’. Our planned route would roughly take us hiking and skiing over 80km and 4000m of vertical, crossing over a mix of rugged mountain and glacial terrain, traversing three different types of snowpack zones from the drier Liebig Range to the coastal wet Westland.”



“John Murphy contacted me the previous year when we filmed ‘Taranaki’. His father Brian Murphy was the first person to climb and ski off Mt Taranaki in 1933. He invited me to his house in Wanaka and showed me an original copy of Freda Du Faur’s book The Conquest of Mount Cook. Freda was special. Not only was she was the first woman to climb Mt Cook, she made many other noteworthy climbs throughout the national park, really pioneering the area for other women to follow. Anyway, the book was gifted to his grandfather from Freda. He also showed me a scrapbook with old photos and news articles dating back to the 1930s. It gave me the inspiration to do the story in Mt Cook National Park and to do the Liebig Traverse.”



“The morning we started our expedition, a cold front was forecast to move across the South Island, bringing with it high winds, rain and significant snow. We flew up the Murchison Valley and landed at the base of the Liebigs. After hiking for about five hours we reached our first planned bivy spot. But we had to continue walking; we knew we had to get to Kelman Hut before the storm hit. It took the team hours walking downhill on schist, across moraine, and climbing over rock debris before we finally put our skis and skins on the Murchison Glacier. We’d also planned to bivy on the Murchison to access and ski Mt Acland, Mt Sydney King and Mt Phyllis. But we had to keep pinning it to Kelman, climbing the Murchison headwall at night, navigating large crevasses and bergshrunds. Two planned days of hiking and skiing were pushed into one day. Fifteen hours after starting, just before midnight, our team made it safely to the hut.”



“It was a heinous hike out from Chancellor Hut. It was so different being on the West Coast because of the native forest, which was a nice change from the rock, ice, and snow that we had passed over the trip. We were literally clinging to ferns and swinging from tree to tree before we found safe passage onto Fox Glacier.”



“The expedition’s highlight was standing on top of the Rudolf Col where the East meets the West and being able to see the ocean on the West Coast. We knew we were half way there. It was a special moment for the team! Also, skiing down the Tasman Glacier from Kelman Hut was just so stunning. It’s over a 10 km descent and we skied through some amazing ice features.”



“I would say there is more empathy with an all-female crew. But our group was not an all-female crew. Yes, the athletes were, but we had a team of four media guys. I think this story just showed that, yes, we could hack it with these four guys as they also found it a tough mission. Just like Freda was out there hacking it with the guys.”



“New Zealand’s climate is changing. This is shrinking the glaciers, and it was noticeable on the Murchison Glacier as well as the Fox Glacier. It was a huge eye opener. With the glacial retreat, we were walking through valleys of huge house-sized schist boulders and massive rock fall debris. And I’m sad to say that there’ll most likely be increased ice loss in the future. Many glaciers currently accessible to ski will simply vanish in the coming decades. It’s a huge concern, and has massive ramifications on how this impacts New Zealand’s glaciers and its tourism industry. At this crucial time, we can’t ignore climate change. ”



“Glacial retreat was a shock to Ben Johns, who was with us on the trip and had done a similar route 12 years ago. Ben said, “It seems that there was a time when we built huts to help with access and now it’s reversed; we take the huts away because its too dangerous.” With the glaciers retreating, there’s landslide activity. Murchison Hut is now closed due to unstable geology most likely due to glacier melt. There also used to be a mountain hut at the base of the De Le Beche Ridge, which is now gone because the ground the hut sat on is gone. This is true of Hooker Hut as well, gone due to glacier melt. Also we didn’t know if it was safe to exit out on Fox Glacier or if it was even possible. Currently for tourists visiting Fox Glacier, it’s only accessible by helicopter. Fox Glacier is predicted to have retreated up to five kilometres by the end of the century, losing nearly 40 percent of its mass. Without the Fox Guides’ knowledge, I don’t know if we’d have been as confident exiting out without their current information.”



“There are so many things that make the New Zealand Alps special it’s hard to pinpoint one. For me, I love the high alpine skiing. The breathtaking landscapes and the opportunities for mountaineering are endless. All this, accessible from your back door.”



Next in Janina’s ‘A Winter Affair’ series is ‘Peace Mountain’, a documentary about skiing Mt Hermon, which sits on the borders of three countries officially at war: Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

And if you missed East West in the Women’s Adventure Film Tour, you can still catch it on YouTube here.