Who Dares to Drop In With Sam Smoothy?

Looking down the barrel of this that would be a no from me – Kiwi freeski legends Sam Smoothy & Janina Kuzma tackled the Stevenson-Dick couloir on Mt Tasman during their assault on NZ’s second highes mountain last year.

The Mt Tasman mission was a part of the ‘A Winter Affair’ series, a project lead by Janina and backed by The North Face. Snow Action caught up with both of them for a more on what it takes to be skiing at this level. Here’s what Sam had to say – Janina’s chat drops next. He’s on a mission to climb and ski all 24 of Aotearoa’s 3000m peaks.

Sam Smoothy belaying into the Stevenson-Dick Couloir on Mt Tasman, New Zealand
Sam Smoothy belaying into the Stevenson-Dick Couloir © Jeff Ward / TNF

You were no slouch in the comp department winning several FWT events at epic venues like Chamonix. But is what you are doing now a whole different level of challenge?

Ski mountaineering feels like a whole different world from the freeride comp scene. The skills I learned freeriding form the foundation I have built upon to get to where I am now. There are so many additional skills you require to take on these incredible mountains safely. Glacier travel and rescue systems, climbing ability and rope work, navigation and weather forecasting, snowpack analysis and backcountry first aid; there are just so many aspects to consider it becomes this shifting live action 3D puzzle to solve. With everything you value on the line each time you step into the high alpine arena.

Back in the late 80s/early 90s French high altitude skiers like Patrick Vallençant and Pierre Tardivel were skiing tropical mountains – with a bicycle kick hop turn their preferred method to get the gloppy snow off on insanely steep descents. “You Fall, You Die” is the expression originally accredited to Vallencant. Sadly, many did.

Out of all that came first the ‘Extreme Skiing’ comps, then the whole free ride/big mountain comp thing, and what morphed into the FWT. 

Hopefully you’re not encountering quite such diabolical snow in the South Island. But how bad does it get and how do you ensure you don’t die – like skiing down roped up, how does that actually feel?

The conditions in NZ are easily some of the wildest I have ever seen in the world. Being a tall yet narrow mountain chain perched on a small South Pacific Island in the Roaring 40s there’s nowhere to hide when the storms rage.

Wind is our biggest destroyer of dreams, stripping, loading and changing snow so rapidly we are often skiing a massively variable surface, from white ice to wind slabs and to corn and back. 

You have to know how to read the surface and predict what you will encounter. In the picture (previous page) I’m dropping into the start of the Stevenson-Dick couloir of Mt Tasman on 50-degree white ice with no chance of self-arrest if I fall. So, we put a rope belay on as a safety measure for a 30m pitch, which adds another level of complexity to your turns to avoid tangles.

From there I was on my own, but retained my axe in my hand for the entire descent which never softened past ice until the bottom. In a strange way I really love challenging, gripping descents but would rather powder/soft snow if I could choose every time.

Sam Smoothy skiing a line on Mt Tasman with a view to the West Coast
Sam finds a line on Mt Tasman with a view to the West Coast © Jeff Ward / TNF

Conversely, how good can it get? Are the turns so expensively effort earned actually worth it?

Quality of turns is inherently subjective. To me snow quality is only part of an ever-evolving equation. Placing turns in steep, exposed positions, descending with scenic views, the mana of the mountain, the aesthetics of the line, the hours of effort in a remote, beautiful location, all impact the quality of turns. The ratio of hours of uphill effort to backcountry skiing can be ludicrous, like 30:1, but that’s all part of the adventure.

You could spend a lifetime just picking off peaks in the South Island, and with travel bans you had no choice. Where else would you like to have a crack at?

I was really grateful to be stuck in NZ during Covid. For my entire adult life I’ve spent almost half each year overseas, so being at home for an extended stay was incredible. From being able to simply see the seasons pass naturally to even getting some summer adventures in it was really special.

I got to ski some incredible lines, like the second descent of the Caroline Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook, a 2500m serac riddled masterpiece of steep skiing. These lines inspired me to make an attempt to climb and ski all 24 of Aotearoa’s 3000m peaks. I skied 7 of them so far and there are some huge challenges to come, but I can’t wait to get stuck in again this winter. 

Have you noticed in your own lifetime skiing on and among them like few others have how much the South Island glaciers are retreating ?

The rapid glacial retreat in New Zealand has been truly sad to witness over my year exploring and is creating numerous issues. On a personal level, on foot access to the high alpine is deteriorating due to the retreat and increasing the amount of travel in the dangerously unstable morraine left behind. But the larger scale issues, like increasing large rockfall events from surrounding mountains and flooding events downstream are even more alarming. If we stick on the path we are continuing on, then it seems that glaciers in NZ will only be tiny remnants hidden away high in the mountains which would be a huge loss for everyone.

Stay tuned for our chat with Janina Kuzma dropping 16 July and then our TNF comp dropping on the 19th for your chance to win a couple of awesome $250 TNF Base Camp Duffel bags – perfect for getting back on the road with ..

For a flashback check out Sam’s winning run at FWT Andorra back in 2015 here: