NZ’s Best Skiing With One Of Their Best, Janina Kuzma

Last southern winter Janina Kuzma and Sam Smoothy set out to summit and ski New Zealand’s second highest peak, Mt Tasman.

The goal was to summit Mt Tasman and ski down a committing descent on the Stevenson-Dick Couloir, which is north facing on the West Coast.

The climb to the summit ridge is 800 vertical metres, then it’s another 300 vertical metres to the summit.

The upskilling, mental and physical preparation that goes into a trip of this calibre goes beyond that of a professional athlete. It takes a certain level of passion and dedication that’s ingrained in a select few who fuel winter exploration around the globe. 

Janina Kuzma scaling Mt Tasman
Janina Kuzman on the up and up, Mt Tasman © Jeff Ward / TNF

For the last 5 years, Janina has steered her focus to film making, and has skied some incredible terrain on the journey. All crucial pieces to the puzzle that prepared her for this mission. 

Prior to the trip, Janina completed her Level 1 Ski Guides Exam and skied the west face of Mt Aspiring earlier in the season.

Despite beginning the trip during what appeared to be an ideal weather window, the pair were faced with wild conditions on summit day and were forced to turn around within 250m of the summit, thanks to gale-force winds. 

While Janina and Sam were unsuccessful on the day, this mission will still mark the pages of their history books. It serves as a humbling reminder that the goals set in Mother Nature’s playground must be balanced with a profound level of respect for the terrain and the sporadic conditions, which will ultimately dictate the outcome on every mission.

The Mt Tasman mission was a part of the ‘A Winter Affair’ series, a project lead by Janina. The final film in the four-part series follows Janina and Sam on their search to explore some steep couloir skiing. It delves into all the elements of freeriding – ski mountaineering, climbing, rappelling, boot packing and ski touring.

Snow Action asked Janina what it takes to ski at this level.

Janina Kuzma gearing up at their base camp for the ski assault on Mt Tasman
Ready for a big day at the office..© Jeff Ward / TNF

Varied does not start to describe your snow career. Olympic half pipe to FWT. Most would be happy with any segment of it as achievement enough. But you are still learning, growing and obviously challenging yourself. Is the big mountain/ski mountaineering the toughest yet?

I actually first started my competitive career in freeride (big mountain), competing in the IFSA before the FWT was a thing. Freestyle skiing always came second as my goals were always set competing on the Freeride World Tour. When they announced that halfpipe would be a part of the Olympics I thought I would give it a good shot. 

At first I tried to compete in freeride and halfpipe while also trying to film, but my seasons just got too hectic. I couldn’t completely focus on both. So I decided to focus 100% on competing in halfpipe after 2012 and only film freeride. 

I want to continue to grow as an athlete. With the ski mountaineering skills I’ve gained I feel like it’s another aspect of skiing I can get excited about. After the 2018 Winter Olympics I decided to commit to completing my ski guiding certification. I passed my exam last September, so I’m now a qualified ski guide. 

How long was that haul up the couloir face, partly by torchlight. Looks scary as! Was that the hardest part of the mission?

We had an alpine start and were up at 1:30am, hence the headlamps. We had factored in around a 6-7 hr climb to the summit. The couloir is approximately an 800 vertical metre climb, then another couple of hours added onto that to reach the summit.

I guess the hardest part of the mission was having to turn around when we were so close to the summit. The winds were blowing 80kmph. Much higher than expected. Conditions can change rapidly in the mountains and if you make the wrong decision it could result in serious consequences.

Who was more stuffed at the end of it, you or Sam?

That’s a hard one to say. I would say our media crew were pretty cooked. Sam and I do this stuff for a living, so it was a relatively straight forward mission for us both. We both train to make sure fitness and endurance isn’t an issue when we go on these trip.

Kiwis have been crushing it on skis and snowboards across most disciplines the past few years. The talent pool seems to just get deeper. What’s the secret?

I think a lot of New Zealand’s success on the world stage for skiing and snowboarding comes down to a couple of things. For freestyle we have Cardrona Alpine Resort that consistently builds a world class park and half pipe every season. International teams come specially to train there. We are extremely lucky to access their facilities. For freeride (big mountain) the terrain available is amazing. Whether it be Treble Cone, The Remarkables, Whakapapa, or the club fields, you’re guaranteed to find challenging terrain to progress in. 

I think also the ski culture in New Zealand is well ingrained in the community. The support athletes get from the community is pretty amazing. Especially when it’s during the Winter Olympics.

Which brings us to the last question, your bio says born in Brisbane! Can we do the normal Aussie thing – like we did with Crowded House, Russell Crowe, Phar Lap, Pavlova etc & call you one of us? That’ll still leave NZ with plenty..

Ha ha, yes I was born in Brisbane. My dad was working in PNG and Indonesia which is where I spent my childhood. I went to school in Borneo at an Australian curriculum school. Eventually I went to boarding school in Brisbane from year 7 to 8 before becoming a day schoolgirl at the same school until I finished high school. Go figure I’d become a snow sports athlete. After high school I moved to New Zealand. But I have to be honest, Australia is great, but I live in New Zealand and it’s definitely my home.

Stay tuned for our TNF comp dropping shortly for your chance to win a couple of awesome $250 TNF Base Camp Duffel bags – perfect for getting back on the road to NZ or anywhere with ..

Night view from Janina Kuzma's base camp at Mt Tasman
Ski in ski out with a view © Jeff Ward / TNF