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New Zealand Skiing: Don’t Expect Too Much, You’ll Love It
This month, I’ve mostly been living off oatmeal and vegetable soup. Not, I hasten to explain, out of any calorie-consciousness, but because I recently splurged on a new pair of skis, thereby obliterating my grocery budget until next payday. Yes, that’s right, ski-season is upon us down here in NZ! (Well, by the time this goes to print we’ll be well into spring, but you get the point.)
Now I should clarify some things about skiing in NZ. Have you ever watched Flight of the Conchords? It follows New Zealand’s “forth-most popular folk duo” as they attempt to make it big in New York. Band manager Murray also works as Deputy Cultural Attaché in the New Zealand Consulate, and a series of droll and self-deprecating posters adorn his office, one of which reads “New Zealand—don’t expect too much, you’ll love it.” This, I would suggest, is precisely the attitude one should adopt to skiing down here. I now love skiing in New Zealand, I’ve just had to adjust my expectations accordingly.
You see, compared to BC, winter is neither as long nor as consistent here, all the terrain is above treeline and the prevailing weather systems are such that the music-to-our-ears phrase of “fresh snow” is nearly always prefaced by the qualifier “wind-affected.” This isn’t to say that you can’t ski powder in NZ—you can and I have, more of which next month—but the Kootenays it ain’t. As the weather is so changeable, it’s always good to have a B-plan on ski-trips, such as recently when the weather closed in and forced an impromptu trip to hot pools instead (yes, life is tough as a ski-bum). None of us had swimwear with us, so we improvised in a motley assortment of stubbies (the shortest of shorts worn by the manliest of agricultural New Zealand types), sports bras, shiny “Australia” boxers with kangaroos on them, and—the pièce de résistance, as gamely modeled by our friend Lindsay—a pink jazzercise leotard that belonged to our friend Marshall’s mom in the 1980s. We were quite the sight.
Added to the volatility of the weather are the rope tows, the method-of-choice for getting up the hill at the club fields (small, non-profit ski fields dotted around the Canterbury region of the South Island, which I recommend you visit in lieu of larger commercial resorts). A rope whizzes through a series of pulleys, powered by a generator or tractor engine. A climbing-type harness goes around one’s waist, attached to which is a metal device called a nutcracker. You grab the rope with one hand, let it pull you up to speed, then, with your other hand, flick the nut-cracker over the rope, quickly clamp it shut and let it drag you uphill. Learning to use rope tows can be frustrating and demoralizing—I’ve seen grown adults reduced to tears. (Once you get the knack of them, they’re no longer so terrifying, though the lingering fear remains of somehow becoming entangled in them or squishing one’s hand to pulpy uselessness.)
To clarify: I don’t want you not to come to New Zealand to ski, I just want you to come fully informed, and not to expect the sort of ski-town, resort-centred experience of BC or to anticipate chairlift-accessed pow day after day (though this will happen from time to time) and then be disappointed. Instead, you need to accept New Zealand skiing on its own challenging, masochistic, sometimes infuriating but nonetheless somehow-always-enjoyable terms. Indeed, to take stubborn pride in doing so. Case in point: some friends and I recently got up at 6am, drove for three hours, including a final stretch up a precarious 4WD-only access road, strapped our gear to our packs and hiked for half an hour to reach the ski-area base, did battle with the rope tow, then skinned and boot packed up a steep ridge in a, eh, “lively” wind to ski down the sort of hard pack/spring slush combo you wouldn’t even look twice at in Fernie. Was it worth it? Hell yeah. Being in the mountains with your friends is always worth it (even when objectively it might seem that it’s not).