With it’s lush greenery, sweeping landscapes and low-key resort scene, all New Zealand needs to break bigger on the international ski scene is a more media coverage, a good snow year… and a few less birds..
Riding shotgun is an unnerving experience. I’ve never been comfortable with putting my life in someone else’s gloves, especially when that person is driving a right-hand drive spaceship. Sure, ‘Spaceship’ is only a trademarked name for one of thousands of notorious orange rental vans on the narrow roads of New Zealand’s South Island and not an intergalactic vessel. But it is piloted by Kevin Hjertaas and we are driving up one of the country’s many ski-hill access roads. If that doesn’t sound scary, you haven’t driven a New Zealand ski hill access road before… or seen Hjertaas ski. My hands sweat profusely. I dry them on my pants as subtly as possible but the Banff-based ski mountaineer still notices, laughing gleefully. Mine is a valid anxiety, however, with the void below inviting the top-heavy vehicle to plunge down the steep mountainside and bounce off the many switchbacks before coming to rest in the cliché herd of sheep. The road doesn’t help; gravel, pockmarked with potholes and teeming with Kiwis who grew up driving the barrier-less lanes, it seems like a recipe for death down under. Despite my timid nature (read: pussy), I realize the roads are only a warm up for the country’s burly skiing. What have I got myself into?
Mike Berard photo
I’ve landed in Christchurch, capital of the South Island after a long flight from North America and am making my way south on Highway #8 through a dramatic Lord of The Rings landscape. Similar to Western Canada, the terrain here is huge–wide open spaces and vertical mountain walls that give the Rockies a run for their overvalued money. Along with Hjertaas and Sunshine Village local/part-time ex-pat Tim Haggerty, we’re en route to Wanaka. If there’s one destination in the Southern Hemisphere that can claim ski-mecca status, it’s here. Wanaka is to New Zealand as Whistler is to Canada, minus the crowds and weekend stabbings. It’s the sort of place where Jakob Wester orders Butter Chicken next to you at Bombay palace or you pick up TJ Schiller hitchhiking. There’s a charming small-town feel that only smitten tourists like myself can truly appreciate. It’s also the sort of place where you can ski in the morning and wakeboard in the afternoon. Ski legendary resorts or grab a heli deep into the high ranges of the Southern Alps. Wanaka is ground zero for all these reasons, but mostly because of Snowpark
Thirty-five klicks out of Wanaka, we pilot the Spaceship across a cattle gate and up a dry, dusty road on our way to New Zealand’s newest and most innovative ski area. Snowpark was established in 2001 by Sam Lee, a former pro snowboarder. Lee saw the need for a NZ area that would support the time-intensive task of maintaining a top-level terrain park. Fast forward seven years and park skiing is all Snowpark is known for. The area has become an off-season training facility for the Northern Hemisphere’s best skiers and boarders. Basically, Snowpark is a big deal. As the Spaceship crests the still-dry ridge—NZ is having one of its worst winters in history—and enters the deep mud of Snowparkinglot we see what all the fuss is about.
The actual area is small, but what it lacks in acreage is made up for in sculpted terrain. The entirety is a terrain park and a star-studded one at that. Within minutes of gearing up, I’ve spotted four pro skiers and three pro snowboarders. Twintips are the only ski of choice. Two halfpipes remain permanently busy, with 3-4 kids working each one. Snowmaking equipment is everywhere. Rage Against the Machine pumps from speakers all over the hill, something most ski-area marketing departments shy from. But Snowpark is clearly not most ski areas. It’s an anomaly in our tight-ass industry; a haven of freestyle dedicated to the kids and damn their stodgy old dads.
Of course, there’s more to Wanaka than park skiing. Two of the country’s premiere resorts, Cardrona and Treble Cone, are located within sight of the idyllic, lakeside town. With a serious case of jet-leg, we make our way to the latter in search of steep lines, something TC holds as an OB ace up its more reserved in-bounds sleeve. Wanaka local and freeskier Janina Kuzma is our guide and it happens to be the day she’s preparing for the upcoming New Zealand Freeski Open (which she’ll go on to win). The 22-year-old Kuzma has been a fixture on the Canadian freeski circuit for the past few years. Needless to say, she rips—hard. Despite the lean snow year, Kuzma does her best to show us TC’s hidden stashes. We don’t ski many lines due to warm temperatures and rising avie danger but the potential is there. As I stand atop a couloir that seemingly drops all the way to the green valley bottom some 2,000 metres below, my knees shake and scrotum tightens; outside the boundaries of its moderate resorts, this country is fucking steep.
Dan Treadway, Treble Cone, NZ. Mattias Fredriksson photo
Meat pies and Speight’s Gold Medal Ale, two icons of Kiwi culture that I felt I already knew intimately despite having never experienced either. Here I am, on TC’s deck at the end of the day enjoying both under the watchful gaze of Keas, beautiful but pesky giant mountain parrots that populate all of NZ’s ski areas. Extremely intelligent, one of the bastards tried to pull the zipper open on my camera bag earlier in the day. When I walked over, it backed off just far enough that I couldn’t kick it, and then taunted me. I’m an animal lover but this bird’s attitude was unacceptable. Like a bad comedy sketch I chased the inquisitive little fuck around the mountaintop, fruitlessly kicking and throwing stuff at him. Now, as I try to enjoy my cold beer and steak and bacon pie, another one (maybe the same one) lingers behind my head, waiting and praying. Who said parrots are charming?
Mike Berard photo
I’m eight pints deep and all I can think is “I flew 14,000 kilometres to drink in an Irish pub in New Zealand?” I’ve never been to Ireland but they are apparently so prolific at drinking that the entire world has modeled their bars after the lilted drunks. One look around the establishment and a convincing argument can be made for the alcoholic fortitude of kiwis as well. Maybe in Ireland they have New Zealand-themed bars? We’re in Queenstown, a thriving adventure-tourism centre southwest of Wanaka. The lakeside town of 10,000 boasts jet-boating, bungy jumping and two ski areas, the Remarkables and Coronet Peak. Apparently the breathtakingly beautiful landscape here is where much of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed, though every NZ town I’ll visit has claimed the same. One thing for sure: if Wanaka is the Kiwi Whistler, then Queenstown is the nation’s Banff, plastered from one end to another with signs promising ADRENALINE and GETTING A RUSH! Meanwhile, high-end clothing and jewelry stores keep the financially adventurous excited in their own way.
In Queenstown we find a culture of backpackers and fellow Spaceship crews in search of snow and beer. The beer is plentiful; snow, not so much. On our way up yet another sketchy access road to The Remarkables, we encounter more dust than snow. When we get there, we’re relieved to see an imposing and eponymous mountain range with a decent covering of the white stuff. Haggerty, who has patrolled at Mt. Ruapehu on the North Island for years and knows NZ well, shows us around. Our first step is a trip up the Shadow Mountain chair and a short boot-pack to a couple steep chutes named Elevator and Escalator. Haggerty points out different features in what is Kiwi skiing legend Geoff Small’s personal playground. From the top, a huge array of chutes, couloirs and cliffs dominate the panorama; with a pair of touring skins and a solid set of lungs, the options are endless. Dropping in, we’re surprised to find soft snow in the steep chutes and link fluid turns all the way to the shores of frozen Alta Lake. The rest of the day is spent lapping the resort’s slackcountry borders and marveling at the possibilities. At one point, we stop to shoot photos of Hjertaas and Haggerty boosting a cliff band onto substandard landing conditions. On first try, Hjertaas gets cocked sideways in the air and augers in upon landing. He ragdolls down the suncupped slope and swears. To the sound of the Kea birds mocking laughter, Hjertaas picks up his yard-sale and starts climbing towards redemption. After a few tries, he nails it and we all call it a day. I turn to put my camera back in the bag and there, just far enough way to avoid taking my ski boot in its beak, is another (or the same) damn Kea, poking around my bag. It looks askance and defiantly stares me down. If Wanaka is Whistler, and Queenstown is Banff, Keas are the dirty, garbage-dump crows of New Zealand.
Nutcracker. It sounds painful, and destructive. But the aptly named metal contraption is key to the country’s most unique skiing experience, the Club Field. Trying to explain the “clubbie” to a regular resort skier is like trying to explain proper usage of the word “eh” to an American—impossible. The basic premise involves minimalist surface-lifts servicing ungroomed, barely patrolled ski areas with meager amenities. There are no high-speed quads and better, no shitty skiers. The whole Club Field network breeds strong, dedicated skiers and is a godsend for those with no time to wait in line for Johnny Daypass and his six whiny kids. In fact, it’s for people who don’t like lines at all because there are none. The catch is, you need to be able to ski deep powder and rutted bumps exclusively, two things the club network has in spades. You also have to be extremely fit. Of course, hiking to the lift every morning should cover that for you.
We arrive at the parking lot of Broken River ski field after a long drive through a dense forest not unlike Fanghorn. It’s a confusing place, a small lot surrounded by trees and no snow to be seen. A mysteriously unmanned, cable-run “goods lift” is waiting to take our skis and boots to the lodge while we start the hike to the base area. When we arrive, sweating in our ski gear, there’s still no snow. My gear is there though. So is Laurie TK, a former RCR employee who I’d met in Fernie B.C. before. It doesn’t surprise me. The ski bum path between Auckland and Vancouver is a well-trod one, proven by the prevalence of Kiwi accents throughout Ski Town, Canada and direct winter flights offered by Air New Zealand.
Still wondering where the hell the snow is, I sign out a belt and a nutcracker, the deadly combination that will enable me to access Broken River’s small but challenging terrain. After hiking up through more trees the trail opens up into the alpine and we see the vast potential of the club field system. A tiny ski area in the midst of a huge range of mountains, Broken River members have a ridiculous amount of skiing surrounding their alpine fortress. After five tries and a vertebral readjustment, I master the art of the nutcracker and am off at full speed, rocketing up the mogul-infested lift track. At each tower, the cable (which you’re essentially part of) runs through a pulley system. Keeping your fingers means keeping your fingers far away from the pulleys. To the apparent annoyance of the local behind me, I pull the cable off each and every pulley trying to avoid looking like a retired woodworker. I leave the cable hanging in the air to prove once and for all that tourists are douchebags. The rest of the day is spent trying to keep up with Hjertaas and Haggerty through the bump-field descents and not piss off too many locals on the way up. It’s humbling. Although I can’t see it, somewhere a Kea must be watching, and laughing.
We’re sitting in a hot tub overlooking the Southern Alps. Outside the window, New Zealand’s most prestigious golf course is lashed viscously by a wet winter storm. After a quick round of golf where Hjertaas laid one up into the parking lot and Haggerty one-upped him by actually hitting a car, we’ve decided to stick to what we do best, drinking in preparation for skiing. We’ve come to world-class Terrace Downs with the vague promise of heli-skiing and the good life associated with it. Unfortunately, the sparse snow season has been rough on the heli-ski industry and no one is willing to take three dirtbags from Canada for free. Regardless, we still have the four-star suite, the braised lamb shanks and Mt. Hutt. Boasting the “lightest, driest powder in Australasia,” we decide to try the resort out in lieu of the helicopter than eludes us; it seems all birds in New Zealand despise us.
Located 35 minutes from the town of Methven (more jet boating, probably more LOTR) and an hour from Christchurch (Rugby, beer, more meat pies), we soon find out why Mt. Hutt is the most popular resort on the South Island: a well laid-out lift system and consistent fall line make for long, fun-runs full of booters, cat-track airs and steep mini-chutes. We put in lap after lap of high-speed skiing. The snow gets softer as the day goes longer and the quality of the turns is reflected in our smiles.
Later, enjoying a good cold beer on the deck of the lodge’s bar, sitting with two friends after an incredible day of skiing, I almost forget that I’m halfway around the world in another country. Until I hear a shuffle on the railing behind me and come face to face with another damn Kea. And this time, staring into its reptilian eyes, I’m pretty sure it’s the same one.