Millimeters of Freshness, and Sheep

Two weeks in New Zealand with the Atomic team


The email from Neil Kerr, our New Zealand guide and director of New Zealand Skier magazine, came today. "Its been puking here in New Zealand for two days and there's snow on the ground here in Wanaka. You should have stayed--at least 300 millimeters of fresh."

My jet-lagged eyes read "snow for two days" and scanned over the millimeters part. It had been a joke during the Atomic team trip that in New Zealand they had to measure snow in millimeters. Our trip highlight was 100 millimeters--almost four inches. We aren't sure where the four inches blew, but we never did find it. But now, after nearly everyone had left it was snowing (300 millimeters is 11.81 inches). As a Kiwi might say, "It was a wee bit frustrating."

Even if you look closely, you will not see any sheep here. Photo: Chris Benchetler

Even if you look closely, you will not see any sheep here. Photo: Chris Benchetler

Regardless, the nearly two weeks Atomic spent skiing the South Island of New Zealand was about as positive as it gets when you go south to ski… and the snow doesn't provide. Sage Cattabriga-Alosa flew in from Utah; Dana Flahr from B.C.; Eva Patscheider from Austria; and Daron Rahlves and Chris Benchetler from California. Other team members journeyed from other parts of the world, and we were joined by photographers Christian Pondella and Re Wikstrom--plus a whole fleet of new Atomic gear to test Atomic at a few of the small, co-op ski clubs and the Arrowsmith Range, with Methven Heli.

"I had the pleasure of showing a bunch of my ski heroes around some of New Zealand’s favorite club fields," said Kerr, the guide. "While the snow wasn’t quite the deep blower pow they are used too, I think they all loved the unique style and vibe of the clubbies."

The vibe was perfect, just as you might imagine New Zealand (with a little less Flight of the Conchords). Getting around is sort of like traveling through Middle Earth in a car. It is as beautiful as everyone says.

"The trip involved a lot of driving, which makes the stories pretty much endless,” says Benchetler. “However, one of my favorites was after our day of heli skiing. We were a good hour from any town, on dirt roads, and in the middle of widespread farmland. Every time we’d cross water, Sage would opt out of the well-built bridges and take the more adventurous route into and across the river. On our first pass of a solid two-foot deep river the car” -- a Toyota Rav4 -- “bogged heavily and nearly died. It literally sounded as if the engine was drowning. But the peanut gallery in the back yelled, ‘Do it again.’ So without hesitation--aside from a quick, ‘I think it’s starting to take a toll on the car’ from Dana--Sage busted a U-turn and floored it back through the river with the logic that hydroplaning was the way to go. Turns out, that's wrong. The car barely rolled out the other side and died the minute we touched dry land. After 30 minutes of airing out the engine and planning our overnight stay, a nice woman pulled up with her eight-year-old son. Without any chance for us to explain, she recited our exact scenario. ‘So, what you’ve done is decided to take the river and your intake is flooded, correct?’ Yes m'am. ‘Lucky for you guys, you have a different intake system than the tourists who blew their engine two weeks ago, so you should be alright. Just let it dry out and if it starts don’t let off the gas. And oh yah, I see you’re all out of Stella, so if you get stuck I’m just down the road and we have another flat you can buy. We’ll get you sorted out.’ With her advice in mind, after another 20 minutes of watching the sun set--sitting, laughing, and reminiscing about what just happened--we gave it another try. On about the fourth attempt the car turned over and started spitting out deathly white smoke along with water pouring from the exhaust. Fortunately, Sage listened well, pinned it, and the car lived to drive another day--even through a few more epic river crossings that happened later on the trip."

In addition to the river crossings, we enjoyed landing a heli amidst a flock of sheep; drinking a mixture of half regular beer and half New Zealand ginger beer; and eating kiwis with the skin. The boys enjoyed playing LAVA (a New Zealand style rendition of the childhood game where you have to jump from one place to another without touching the ground) and bouldering at a "Chronicles of Narnia" and "Lord of the Rings" film locales. A highlight for everyone was staying two nights in Temple Basin's lodge, getting dirty with our assigned dish duty, and mastering the club field's nutcracker rope tows.

"There is a really cool and unique spirit going on with the Atomic team," said trip organizer and Atomic photo guru, Clemens Stieboeck. By the end of the trip almost everyone had a nickname and the Austrians were asking for "memory" photos. In the words of Benchetler, "Team chemistry was flowing like the rivers we kept choosing to drive through." With a group nearing 15 people, a combination of acquaintances and previous ski buddies, ending with nicknames and inside jokes is always a good sign. Or at least a wee bit entertaining.