On the other end of the line, in the fashion of good managers, Richard Royds sounds as diplomatic as he is pragmatic. “Are you in Twizel? Great! It's close enough. Come walking over here. You may have to wait a while but I should get you something soon.”
We had recently added NZ$250 to a still short list of speeding tickets in the downunder. We make an effort not to go overboard in haste.
After Flying Low, Over the Southern Alps
Still, after 25 minutes, we parked in front of the Mount Cook Ski Planes offices at Mount Cook Airport. Better than promised, with 25 more losers, we are boarding the Pilatus Porter PC6 from Mount Cook Ski Planes.
In a taxi, Wayne, the pilot in charge of the flight, gives us and two Asian couples – one Indian, the other Japanese – a brief safety briefing. Then, against the wind, as the rules dictate, we soar above the frigid waters of Lake Tasman.
As we ascend, Roaring Forties concentrated down the long canyon onward slam into the aircraft and cause passengers to cling more tightly to the front seats.
Wayne remains undaunted and unruffled: “It's okay, don't worry. I have been working this route for a long time, for too long, I dare say.
This wind is here almost always. If planes don't let me down, I won't let them down either.” secures while retouching the stick and adjusting knobs and knobs. “Do you know what bothers me? This heat.
They came at the right time. Some 20 years ago, ice occupied a large part of what is now a lake, down there. If these summers continue like this, it won't be long, only the top will remain, where we will land.”
A Tasman Glacier Flight Above, Aimed at Aoraki Mount Cook
Pilatus Porter penetrates an unexpected cloudiness but breaks free in three stages. In an already completely clear sky, we lost the coziness of the valley and approached the most imposing peaks and fjords in the Southern Alps, Tasman, Dampier, then Teichelmann.
Shortly after, we also identified the aoraki Mount Cook slightly prominent due to its higher altitude and the prism shape of the summit, at that time sheltered by a curious lenticular cloud.
We went around New Zealand's Queen Mountain twice. Repetition allows us to admire the sumptuousness of the Southern Alps and, to the west, the wild coastline of the Tasman Sea, much more visible than we ever thought possible, considering the altitude at which we flew.
The initial purpose of the flight was fulfilled. Wayne points again to the ice bed of the Tasman Glacier that we flew over to the formation zone.
There, he reverses the direction of flight once more, lowers the ski-plane and lands on surface snow. Against the slope and friction, the plane does not take long to come to a standstill.
Wayne takes advantage of the silence and announces with a heavy kiwi accent: “Here are the great New Zealand sets. Have fun". We were, on a majestic mountain glacier, just a few hundred meters above the peaks that countless climbers had aspired to climb.
Revolutionary Innovation Now at the Service of Mount Cook Ski Planes
A few decades ago, this easy access to the top of the mountain range also proved to be a huge achievement. The person responsible was the founder of Monte Cook Ski Planes, the company that had granted us the privilege of adventure.
In 1953, Harry Wigley, a former New Zealand Air Force pilot, was already taking scenic flights around Aoraki Mount Cook and over the glaciers.
Around that time, he realized the need for a retractable ski system that would allow planes to take off from normal runways and land on snow.
Fixed skis already existed but an international investigation revealed that the retractable system had not yet been developed.
On the other hand, stationary skis could only be used part of the New Zealand winter, in seasons when the Monte Cook airfield had its runway covered with snow.
Wigley didn't conform. He invested hundreds of hours in creating a wheel that would stand out through the ski during take-off and landing on asphalt.
And a way for the ski to descend during the flight to allow landings on the high snowfields of the Tasman Glacier.
On September 22, 1955, Harry Wigley landed there the first ski plane – an Auster – equipped with the new system.
One of the most famous passengers to benefit from it was Sir Edmund Hillary who, seven years earlier, had conquered his beloved New Zealand roof, but nevertheless failed to visit.
Later, the concept and design were perfected and the skis were given plastic bases and hydraulically operated.
The introduction of a more powerful aircraft, the Cessna 180 allowed Mount Cook Ski Planes to operate year round and carry more fortunate passengers like us.
The Landing High Above the Tasman Glacier
The Indian couple is the first to leave. They take a few steps and, in a cold but romantic micro-climate, possibly on a honeymoon, they embrace. Japanese youths move away towards lush rock shapes and have themselves photographed in comic and eccentric poses.
We started to climb the ice field with the aim of peeking again beyond the highest edge of the mountain range.
Wayne lives his routine and little strays from the Pilate Porter.
He tells us we wouldn't have time for that, so we've given up on the little expedition.
Instead, we let ourselves be dazzled by the white grandeur of the scenery and the insignificance to which the colored aircraft were subject.
Return to Starting Point, via the same route as the Tasman Glacier
Around it, at an altitude of 3.000 meters, stretched the vast base of the largest ice river in Oceania, 27 km long, 4 km wide and no less impressive 600 meters thick.
The day was drawing to a close and the smudge of light that hit the valley was diminishing to the eye like the tenuous heat that had hitherto caressed the passengers.
Wayne checks his watch and gives instructions to return to the plane. We glide over skis and snow once again with surprising smoothness and return to the heights delimited by the valley.
Ten minutes later, we're running on the aerodrome's abrasive tarmac.
The dynamic landing device was working perfectly again.
Thus, we complete another part of the feat that Harry Wigley insisted on accomplishing.