Winter sports: Kiwi skiers conquer highly dangerous Aoraki face

A team of South Island skiers have become the first Kiwis to conquer the biggest face of Aoraki Mt Cook - and one of the most dangerous in the entire Southern Alps.

Professional freeskier Sam Smoothy, and alpinists Will Rountree and Joe Collinson are the second party to ever descend the 2000m Caroline Face, where sudden ice fall and avalanches can spell death in an instant.

The trio began climbing the East Ridge of Aoraki before dawn, reaching the summit ridgeline after nine hours.

They then took two hours to descend the Caroline Face, by first abseiling off the summit, then skiing roughly 1000m, before setting up new anchors to rappel an enormous ice cliff, then skiing off the face to safety.

The fearsome Caroline Face is the biggest skiable face in the country and was first skied in 2017 by a European team.

Smoothy says it’s been an “insane pipe dream” to ski for almost a decade.

“It’s been a real rollercoaster of emotion and something that’s going to last with me for the rest of my life,” says Smoothy of the successful descent.

Smoothy joined Collinson and Rountree, who brought expert mountaineering skills - but no amount of experience keeps you safe on the Caroline.

“The problem with it is that all those ice cliffs are an objective hazard you can’t control and when they release, they will crush you and slide you right off the mountain,” he says.

Reminders of the mountain's power are constant - the team witness an avalanche sweep across the face below them as they climbed.

"It was about 500m wide," says Smoothy. "Anything like that comes down, there's no chance of survival."

The team abseiled from the summit to find skiable snow.

"From there, we worked our way across the face, skiing actually really good snow for about 1000m, until we reached the middle ice cliffs."

They then abseiled another ice cliff with their skis still on - no time could be wasted lingering under the colossal seracs.

"There you are attached only to the ice cliff by this rope and anchors, and abseiling off it," Smoothy recalls. "You're just spinning in the air feeling very tiny and very afraid."

The team successfully completed the ski descent, grateful that Aoraki had decided to let them get home safely.