Dispatch from New Zealand: Winter in Aotearoa
While North America watches the snowline descend, New Zealanders (nicknamed Kiwis, because of their yummy fruit and their rare nocturnal flightless bird) are skiing the last of their snow. My husband, two boys and I spent August and September chasing storms from the North Island to the South. We scored a few powder turns and survived the gamut of conditions from breakable crust to rock hard ice to buttery corn.
With the goal of skiing as many ski fields (that’s what Kiwis call ski areas or resorts) as we could, it became an accidental 60 day roadtrip. We hired a small camper van, barely fitting us, two hobbits, and ski gear. The first few days were adventurous enough, just remembering to stay on the left side of the road. Once we got in a daily groove, we’d spend the night in a warm grape-growing valley, wax our skis at the beach, grad a cuppa and meat pies, pass a million sheep, then cruise up through prehistoric rain forest. Put on snow chains, grind low gear up 17 crazy switchbacks of muddy washboard, then strap on our boards and have a hoot ripping turns as a family.
And repeat….We were able to ski 15 different areas, all uniquely Kiwi.
The hard-work ethic of New Zealanders shines through in what they have established as a persevering ski culture. They don’t ski glitzy resorts (well, there are a few of those, but they are the exception), many of the fields are tiny. We’re talking a rope tow, a poma, or a t-bar if you’re lucky and a chairlift if you’re really lucky. Farmers must get bored just staring at the snow above their green paddocks and decide to bull doze steep, narrow, switch-backing tracks up to the high country. For entertainment they haul up a tractor motor, hook up a rope, and there you have it – an alpine ski field with views of the ‘GodZone’. A small dedicated ski club plows the road, sells the tickets, runs the lift, fixes the lift, and cheers pints in the car park at the end of the day.
They are a hearty people –working hard to play hard. We saw farmers sliding around in their dungarees; straight out of their muck covered gum boots into the oldest or sometimes newest skis out there, “Milk the cows, going skiing, milk the cows.” Little race kids would blow the doors off any elevens I’d try. My boys made friends fast, competing to be first to the bottom. In addition to the Kiwi locals, skiers and boarders from all over the world travel to this remote corner of the world to play in the snow, slam gates, catch big air, and get some extra ski days.
We went searching for those few more turns. Found them…and much, MUCH more. In between our missions to find obscure ski fields no one had heard of, we dallied at beaches, hot springs, explored trails (or tramps as they’re call), stopped at obligatory interpretive signs, and took in a few meals of mutton at dang good pubs. Of course watched some rugby too. The perfect ski adventure, or as the grizzly bearded guy who was acting manager/mechanic/bus driver/liftee/and ski host exclaimed when I slid in to grab the T-bar on a gorgeous spring day, “Bloody good, Bloody good!”
Our little rippers learned New Zealand was one of the last lands settled by humans. It remains the most geographically isolated nation on the planet. It has mystery that will keep you intrigued from one ski field to the next. Always wondering what we’d see next: green parrots that live in the alpine (and will steal your gloves when you’re not looking), lizard like creatures left over from dinosaur days, penguins nesting at our campsite, opossums sneaking into our beds.
Oh, and the backcountry skiing New Zealand!
WOWza – side hikes from the ski fields are numerous and breathtaking – looking down from the snowy peaks, over the native forest of trees left over from the Jurrassic period, out onto the patchwork of brown and green pastures, then, as far as the eye can see, blue, blue ocean. In the Southern Alps there are big peaks and glaciers to fill anyone’s fancy for ski mountaineering. Just be prepared to work hard to get to the snow, going ‘bush’ is a mindset I’m told – once you’re up there: climb it, ski it, enjoy it, because New Zealand snow is ephemeral due to it’s proximity to the coast, high wind, and that gaddang hole in the ozone – but hey, that’s when the thought crosses my mind, wait a second, this is our SWINTER – in North America, WINTER is just beginning – again! Ski on…
Sarah Carter grew up nordic skiing in Anchorage, and now lives in Valdez with her husband and two boys. Sarah is the lead avalanche instructor for Backcountry Babes in Alaska and has been involved in the avalanche community since 1997. She is the avalanche education coordinator for the Alaska Avalanche Information Center and forecaster for the Valdez Avalanche Center. She has worked on ski patrols in British Columbia and Alaska, and with snow safety for a mechanized operation.