Nat Segal goes in search of active relaxation in the backcountry

Ski touring. Photo Jason Beacham.

Big mountain skier, Nat Segal, shares a backcountry hut with the former New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clarke, while ski touring the wilderness of the Two Thumb range. 

These days we are all looking for the next revolutionary ‘cure’ to overwork, stress and lack of sleep.  However, this concept of switching off isn’t so simple. There is a significant difference between collapsing on the couch to binge-watch Netflix (I’m guilty) and active relaxation.

Recently, I joined Alpine Recreation, a guiding group based out of Tekapo New Zealand, on a three-day ski touring trip into the Two Thumb range in search of a little downtime.

We were heading to Rex Simpson Hut, a cosy retreat that was designed thirty-two years ago by the founder of Alpine Recreation, Gottlieb Braun-Elwert. The site in the Two Thumbs Range was chosen as the resting place for the hut due to the terrain that is suitable for both nordic and alpine ski touring. Most importantly the hut can be accessed on foot, without the need for a heli-drop.

After arriving in Tekapo and packing up our gear, we loaded up the Alpine Recreation van and started along the 4WD road to the access track that leads to the hut. Photographer Jason Beachman, our guides Paul and Axel, an energetic group of kiwis and myself got to know each other as we bumped up and down along the dirt road.

All professionals and varying ages between 45 and 50, Leigh, Doug, Claire, Matt and Andrew were brimming with energy. It wasn’t their first rodeo in the backcountry. Together, they had been on several ski touring outings.

I was intrigued, what made them seek out such a specific, and frankly very European pastime?

“I have been pestering everyone to go ski touring for years,” Doug later explained in the hut. “And finally I managed to convince them all.”

To meet a group of friends, who have full-time jobs and kids to boot, who set aside time every year to hike up mountains on their skis together was inspiring.

“I think instead of declining as you get older, you do more things, try new things, you don’t necessarily need to become old and safe,” Leigh told me when I asked her what drew her to ski touring.

Claire agreed, “You don’t want to stop doing things.”

The van pulled up just before Mt Gerald station on the far side of Lake Tekapo. The hike into the Rex Simpson hut is routine by kiwi tramping standards. That is, equal parts rugged and awesome.

Nat and Leigh committed to an ice-cold river crossing, the last bath before three nights in a mountain hut. Photo: Jason Beacham

A few river crossings, jumping through tussock, a snack break and some vertical meters later we found enough patches of snow to switch from hiking boots to skis and hiked up the last two hundred meters to the hut.

As the slope gave way to the flats the hut came into view. The pace increased and ten minutes later we were bursting into the main compartment of the hut, where we found three previously installed tenants awaiting our arrival. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark, her husband Peter and their guide Elke (Gottlieb’s daughter) sat around the table having afternoon tea.

Your muscles may be sore by the end of the day but your soul will be satiated.

I wish I could say we were surprised. Usually walking into a backcountry hut to find famous former minister sipping tea in her thermals would be quite shocking. However, we’d been told that they would be there and they had very kindly agreed to share the hut with us for the night.

The former Prime Minister later told me that she has been exploring the wilderness since she was a child. Her first trip to Rex Simpson with Gottlieb dates back to over twenty years ago and she has been coming back annually ever since.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark enjoying the homely atmosphere of Rex Simpson Hut.

“I find with ski touring, you are overwhelmingly focused on where you put your feet and how you balance and it is a good way to chill out, you are very focused on your immediate environment and it’s a good break from all the usual things that are going on in life” explained Clark.

After holding office as the Prime Minister of New Zealand for nine years and Administrator of the United Nations Development program for eight years, the ‘usual things’ sound like they would be a little more stressful than my everyday life.

We spent the evening sharing stories in the cosy hut, Elke, Helen and Peter reminiscing about moments spent together with Gottlieb in the mountains before his untimely death in 2008.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark, Peter and Elke preparing for their ski back to Mt Gerald Station. Photo: Jason Beacham

Despite their departure the next morning, the awe of meeting such an incredible woman didn’t fade quickly but with no more distractions, our group focused on the task at hand, skiing.

However, the whiteout conditions meant we had to find other activities to keep us busy until the clouds blew off.

Watching a group of adults perform their first avalanche beacon search should be a spectator’s sport.  What began as a serious demonstration, quickly turned into a pack of giggling kids spread out across the snow searching for treasure and occasionally falling in open creek holes.

For me, it’s these moments that make spending time in the mountains so special and worthwhile. The rest of the crew agreed as we discussed hut trips over home cooked meal in the hut, care of our guides Paul and Axel.

“The thing about going ski touring is you are creating a special moment to be part of that you can give your undivided attention to because you haven’t got any means to do anything else,” Leigh philosophised. “Your muscles may be sore by the end of the day but your soul will be satiated.”

The next morning, the weather began to clear and we made the most of two spectacular days in the range. I hadn’t set any expectations for my time at Rex Simpson hut; I didn’t know what I would find there.

But after six months of stress, travel and film production I was looking for something more than gnarly ski lines. Finally, over a cup of tea in front of the fire I found five minutes just for myself.

Professional freeride skier and backcountry lover from Melbourne, Australia. Always keen for skiing buddies who carry extra snacks and a good game of backcountry backgammon.

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