Ski New Zealand 2012 - Part 1

Spring is a great time to ski in New Zealand. The snow season starts a little later than in Australia, and finishes a touch later as well. A few days before I wrote this post, the brilliant skifield at Mt Hutt reported a 30cms dump!

Amazingly, my first sight of New Zealand from the airplane was an unique view of the summit and ski lifts at Mt Hutt rising out of the cloud that had blanketed the land and sea all the way across on the short flight from Melbourne to Christchurch.

In two and a half weeks we drove between Christchurch and Wanaka (and back) and skied all but a handful of days. The map below, if you play with it a bit and click and enlarge it, shows all the locations of the different skifields mentioned in this and the follow-up post.

View New Zealand Ski Trip 2012 in a larger map

After picking up the 4WD hire car and stocking up with food, mucho cheese and bueno cider at a Pak 'N' Save supermarket, we drove the short distance from Christchurch Airport down the highway to Methven, a resort town at the base of Mt Hutt on the Canterbury plains.

We spent our first five nights in New Zealand at a perfect little apartment in Methven that had everything we needed for a comfortable stay.

Two of those five days we skied at nearby Mt Hutt, which had been having a very good snow season with a couple of metres snowdepth.

Mt Hutt 16 September 2012
This Methven stay was the only accommodation we had booked in advance this year as the skifields down south around Queenstown had been struggling a bit and we wanted to keep our options open.

The snow cover at Mt Hutt was as good as I can remember it in the last six or seven years. There were areas of the mountain open and runs groomed that I have never seen open before. For those who know the place, The Bluffs was being skied and Bob's Knob was groomed. Thanks Bob!

On another day we went to Porters, which is a highly recommended scenic drive from Methven on a gravel road that eventually skirts along the side of an eerie, misty lake. It appeared like sea fog and, coincidentally, it was International Talk Like A Pirate Day so I expected a ghost ship from Scooby Doo at any moment!

Porters 17 September 2012
The snow at Porters was good up at the top, but the bottom was rocky as always around this time of year. The problem with Porters is that it takes three T-bars to get up to the good stuff! Compare that to the Mt Hutt six-seater that rockets to the top of the mountain, 2000m above sea level.

The view to Christchurch from the top of Porters is great though, and there was some nice skiing up high.

Entree over ... the main course on this year's NZ trip was a first heliskiing experience!

YEP, the big ski adventure in New Zealand for all you serious skiers. One of us had been very unhappy about the helicopter idea ... but I'm glad to say those fears quickly evaporated and were overtaken by the thrills, the realities, and the sheer beauty of the mountain landscapes. Only a few moments of terror! Just a few ...

Methven Heliskiing's base at Glenfalloch Station
Methven Heliskiing's base is at a working sheep farm station in the mountain ranges behind Mt Hutt towards the Divide, about 40 minutes drive from Methven. The setting is stunning. You get the feeling that there is nothing but wilderness for miles around this property.

The helipad is basically a raised mound in a paddock ... albeit with a lovely farmhouse setting looking out on the mountains. Before you get to go anywhere near the helicopter you are provided with avalanche beacons that you must wear, instruction on how to use them, as well as a crash course on how to find and extricate people buried in an avalanche.

The helicopter ride was fantastic, really fantastic - so much more smooth and gentle than I had expected. A calmness descended in the midst of the wild mountain landscapes ... until we realised where we were going to land!

Heliskiing - First Landing - 18 September 2012
This first landing was a total surprise. I'm not sure what I had expected our landing would be like ... a big H in a circle perhaps! Not this though ... no, not this.

The helicopter hardly hovered before it perched on the mountain ridge line, effectively a narrow snow-covered cornice. No ski lifts, no people, no ski patrol ... nothing ...

You unload the ski gear from the carriers, keep your heads down, hold onto the gear as the helicopter leaves and suddenly ... silence.

As you stand up to see where you are you look over the edge on one side and find a sheer snow-covered drop of hundreds of metres. Your guide takes a deep breath of the mountain air to encourage you! All around you are mountain peaks, virgin snow, and blue skies. It would be invigorating if it wasn't a little terrifying .... you feel yourself wobble.

Heliskiing - Pickup - 18 September 2012
This heliskiing operation has hundreds of named runs they use in many ranges of mountains, but they cycle around them so that they are always untracked by skiers and riders.

The first run was a bit tricky for us! Grippy, deep, snow and steep, combined with some nerves, and we didn't do so well. The thing with heliskiing is suddenly you're at the bottom of the class again! At least that's how it felt for the first half of the first run.

The second half of the run felt much more like .... woohoooooooooooooo! Gliding across the fresh snow, taking whatever lines we felt like, nobody there except your four friends and your guide. More of that please! More!

Heliskiing - Looking back at our first run - 18 September 2012
The helicopter picks you up and you're heading back up to a new summit ... the helicopter is basically your ski lift but the passengers are the only ones to ski that terrain that day.

It takes some getting used to ... being left with your gear at the top of a mountain with no prepared way down to the bottom. But there's your guide and your fellow passengers ... and once you let go and get going, the experience is just amazing!

To get an idea of what its like in the heli from pickup to dropoff, take a look at this video.

After five fun days in Methven including the heliskiing adventure  we drove the few hours south to Lake Tekapo, stopping at pretty little Geraldine to stock up with more food, cheese, and NZ vino at the supermarche!

Busy Morning at Mt Dobson - 21 September 2012
Tekapo village sits on the beach of a stunning turquoise glacial lake in the Mackenzie high country. We stayed two nights in this pretty little spot in a lovely, tiny, new cottage that had all the mod cons.

The first morning in this new base we made the short trip back the way we had come to visit Mt Dobson, a private family-owned skifield between Lake Tekapo and Fairlie.

A few years earlier we had had a stunning fresh snow day at Mt Dobson with our friends ... this year was so similar!

One of the two bowls at Mt Dobson - 21 September 2012
It was almost like deja-vu, so much so that I couldn't resist texting our friends from the previous trip when we got back to the Tekapo cottage that evening and ate our homemade pizzas!

A good fall of snow in the preceding days reflected a great season for Mt Dobson in 2012. The Friday we visited was a sunny day, no wind, no people, fresh lines all day!

This part of the South Island is fairly quiet for tourists in September and is not really close enough to any major town centres to attract too many locals.

What this means is that when the skifields here in the Mackenzie open on week days you can get fresh tracks all day ... something that is in great contrast to those skifields around Wanaka, Queenstown and Christchurch, even on a week day.

Clouds in the valley at Mt Dobson - 21 September 2012
Mt Dobson sits high above the Mackenzie and the whole area was bright, pristine white under the sun but with fresh winter snow to start the day. We shared the two bowls with a few dozen other skiers and riders.

The ski area is very intermediate-friendly, the wide bowls giving access to whatever lines you might want to take down. Off-piste is the way to go here as there are only four or five groomed runs, but the terrain is nice and rolling so that you can pick your lines and steepness and work your way up to the more challenging stuff.  Its easy to hike a little to get access to a lot more lines also,even if you're lazy like us! A great day! What will the Mackenzie bring next in 2012?

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