High flyer happy to keep afloat

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

From Tasman Glacier, to Greenland, Norwegian Fiords, Alaska, Antarctica, and Fiordland, New Zealand - Kylie Krippner leads a life full of adventure. Alina Suchanski talks to the first New Zealand woman who made it to the South Pole on skis.

Kylie Wakelin was born and raised in Little River, a tiny settlement on the Banks Peninsula near Christchurch. Although she grew up near the sea, from a young age she loved mountains and became a keen hiker and rock climber.

At just 19 years of age she teamed up with a friend to start their own business venture running boat cruises on Tasman Glacier terminal lake near Aoraki Mt Cook Village. They named it Glacier Explorers. When the lake froze in winter, the work would stop, giving Kylie an opportunity to pursue other interests, such as flying over the mountains with

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

From Tasman Glacier, to Greenland, Norwegian Fiords, Alaska, Antarctica, and Fiordland, New Zealand – Kylie Krippner leads a life full of adventure. Alina Suchanski talks to the first New Zealand woman who made it to the South Pole on skis.

Kylie Wakelin was born and raised in Little River, a tiny settlement on the Banks Peninsula near Christchurch. Although she grew up near the sea, from a young age she loved mountains and became a keen hiker and rock climber.

At just 19 years of age she teamed up with a friend to start their own business venture running boat cruises on Tasman Glacier terminal lake near Aoraki Mt Cook Village. They named it Glacier Explorers. When the lake froze in winter, the work would stop, giving Kylie an opportunity to pursue other interests, such as flying over the mountains with her pilot friends, mountaineering and alpine rock climbing, which became her passion.

Through a climbing acquaintance she got an offer to work as a guide for High Places – a UK-based company running hiking expeditions in Greenland. Each trip was 17 days long, and she’d do three of those before coming back to New Zealand. She stuck with it for three consecutive seasons, but found the job physically demanding.

“It was hard yakka, carrying heavy loads on my back, staying in a tent every night. After a few years my knees started to play up,” Kylie says.

Through her contacts she was offered a job in Norway as a guide for a company called Ice Troll, running glacier lake kayaking and later sea kayaking in the Norwegian fiords. She continued to divide her time between Aotearoa and northern hemisphere destinations, where she’d work in the New Zealand off-season. Inspired by the Mt Cook ski-plane pilots, Kylie decided to re-train as a pilot herself. It was a big challenge, but she persevered and passed her private licence in 2003.

Whenever she could, Kylie followed her passion for climbing. While she was with Glacier Explorers, she climbed Aoraki Mt Cook (3,724m). She stood on the summit of Mt Blank (4,810m) three times, and climbed Europe’s highest peak, Mt Elbrus (5,642m) in Russia.

Denali – North America’s highest peak
Photo: Patrick Federi, Unsplash

The summer of 2007 was her last with Glacier Explorers and when the season ended, Kylie flew to Alaska with her Australian friend Jenny Vran. The plan was to climb Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley), the centre piece of the Denali National Park and Preserve, and North America’s tallest peak (6,190m). Its name, Deenaalee in the language of the Koyukon people of north Alaska means ‘the high one’ (Denali, n.d.).

“We flew to Talkeetna, where you get briefed about bears and carrying your waste out. Then Talkeetna Air Taxi flew us out to the Denali base camp.” Kylie recalls.

The two women were issued with gas for cooking and sleds for loading up their gear and food. On average, each climber carries 20kg on their back and 30kgs in the sled. From the base camp they walked through three more camps pulling their sleds behind.

They stayed in Camp 2 at 3,400m for a few days to acclimatise, then walked to Camp 3, where there is a doctor based on the mountain. The ‘medical camp’, as it is known, was a tent city with snow walls around each tent and snow streets between them.

“We saw climbers walking down from the summit looking like living dead, and we wondered what we got ourselves into,” Kylie remarks.

Kylie and Jenny stayed in the medical camp for two weeks waiting for the weather to improve. Kylie says she enjoyed her time there and made a few friends amongst fellow climbers. But the hardest bit was yet to come.

“Eventually we moved on to the next camp. The air was getting thinner with each step, making it harder to breathe, and when we got there, I pitched our tent. We were exhausted. After one day’s rest, we went to the summit. We felt elated. Getting down was easy. When I got back to Talkeetna, I could feel the oxygen running down my tongue. It felt really thick,” Kylie remembers.

In 2008, Kylie stayed in New Zealand over winter, working at the Wanaka Airport while training towards her commercial pilot licence. It was at the Wanaka Airport that she met a young pilot, Ivan Krippner. A relationship sparked up between them, but it didn’t stop her from completing her training, and becoming a commercial pilot in summer 2009.

In June-August 2009, Kylie went climbing and skiing in Norway, Russia, and Kazakhstan. When she came home, she was invited to join an all-women’s team on the Commonwealth Antarctic expedition to ski from the coast of the Antarctic to the South Pole. The expedition was to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Commonwealth. The group included a representative from Cyprus, Brunei, Singapore, India, Jamaica, United Kingdom, and New Zealand.

In November 2009, the seven women flew from Punta Arenas, Chile to the American Antarctic base and spent two weeks training in preparation for the journey. “Initially we were so incompetent on our skis when we did our ‘mini’ first overnight expedition,” Kylie recalls. “We looked more like Donald Duck slapping our skis around on the snow!”

They started off as a culturally diverse group of women, with different languages and beliefs, coming together for a common goal. For half the group, English was a second language. “Before we began our South Pole trek there was a big storm in Antarctica which ripped our tents in half while we were in them. When Felicity shouted: ‘Grab the poles!’ meaning the tent poles, one of the girls ran out and brought some ski poles instead. A lot of clothing and equipment blew away, but we managed to retrieve most of it and sewed and taped the tents back together.”

After two weeks, the group set off under the leadership of Felicity Aston from England, who ran the expedition as a strict, military-style operation. Their food consisted of 5,500 calories per day including multi-vitamins, carbohydrate and protein drinks, lunch ‘day bags’, and dehydrated evening meals.

The Commonwealth Ladies South Pole Ski Expedition team with flags from their respective countries. Kylie Wakelin is in the centre of the back row.

On 31 December 2009, after 38 days of trekking through some of the most challenging conditions on Earth, the seven women reached the South Pole, making Kylie Wakelin the first New Zealand woman to ski to the South Pole. “We were all absolutely ecstatic. People were out cheering and clapping – it was amazing. The feeling of finally getting there was brilliant. By the end of the expedition we were like sisters. We looked after each other. It was a very empowering thing to finish,” she remembers.

“I looked along the single file line we were skiing in – skis lifting and slapping down on the snow, arms swinging here and there – quite a mess. But we had done it. By this time all judgement of culture, values, beliefs had melted away and that is where we skied in as sisters. Sisters in ‘nature’ in that we all have the same basic needs in life once we are stripped of the conditioning of our ‘nurture’ environments.

“We were the largest team to complete this expedition and the only one to carry out our own waste instead of leaving it on the snow in such an amazing pristine environment,” she says.

On her return to New Zealand, Kylie worked for Southern Alps Air in Wanaka and later was employed by Lyndis Pass-based Flyinn, guiding foreign pilots on flying tours. To stay current in her new field of expertise she started training towards a flying instructor rating, and when this was achieved in 2011, she bought a flying school U-FLY Wanaka, which she ran with Ivan who is also a certified flying instructor.

In the winter of 2010, Kylie returned to Norway with a plan to start her own sea kayaking business. Ivan followed to help her establish the Big Wall Kayaking Company at Lysebotn, at the end of the Lysefjord.

“Norway is an amazing place. We were kayaking in fiords with thousand-metre-high vertical walls on both sides. People were base-jumping off these cliffs with parachutes and wingsuits. We’d be paddling on the water and suddenly, woosh, someone would fly right above our heads,” Kylie tells me.

Kylie and Ivan got married in 2013, and two years later, when she became pregnant with their first child, she knew it was time to settle down.

She visited her friend Rebecca Fisher (Talkeetna resident and Alaska Airlines pilot, whom Kylie had met on her trip to Talkeetna in 2007, which is when Rebecca had introduced Kylie to floatplanes) in Alaska in 2011 and 2015 to do some floatplane training and passed the test for the FAA American Private Pilot’s licence. “We were living in Wanaka, running the flying school.

When in 2015 Wings and Water came up for sale in Te Anau, we came to check it out and loved it,” Mrs Krippner says. “I was pregnant when we bought the business and Ivan was still working in Wanaka, so we employed a local pilot, Adam Butcher for our first season of operation,” she adds.

Today, Wings and Water offer scenic flights in Fiordland and their two little floatplanes have become icons on Te Anau’s lakefront. Kylie and Ivan juggle parenthood duties with flying. Their two daughters: Indi, 6, and Elly-May, 7, keep them busy.

Covid-19 took a hard toll on the tourism operators in Fiordland, forcing both Kylie and Ivan to take additional part-time jobs through the government’s Jobs for Nature programme. “The company just manages to keep afloat,” Mrs Krippner says. But she still believes she has the best job in the world.

 

 

Sources: Denali, Wikipedia

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