Sliding on snow doesn't come easy in New Zealand. You've really got to love it. A typical season is barely three months long. Snow is minimal. The approach is scary. It's not the steezy runway stroll to KT-22 on a powder morning. Or a Whistler après scene. It's definitely not a heated gondola. Skiing in New Zealand is a different animal. And it's rather uncivilized.
Sure, Treble Cone, The Remarkables, Snow Park, and a few others have a chairlift or two. But that's not the standard. Instead, at most ski areas, or club fields in New Zealand, you'll learn about nutcrackers, a metal device used to get up the rope tows. If you don't, you won't ski. And if you're not experienced with the nutcracker, it's common to burn holes through your gloves, or worse.
I arrived at the Ohau club field with a sheep farmer, the editor of NZ Skier Magazine, and Camilla Stoddart, a Kiwi photographer. Ohau, pronounced "Oh How," is a one-and-a-half hour drive north of Wanaka. On an island of only 1 million people that drive puts you on the extreme side of rural.
The nearly single-lane dirt road to Ohau climbs from the valley floor, winding back and forth for about 3,000 feet. Snow tires aren't common in New Zealand, so chains are always required. Seat belts are not recommended in case your vehicle slides off the road and over the edge. The Kiwis reckon that in this situation, riding sans seatbelt will allow passengers to jump out of the vehicle in time.
We made it safely to the base area. Twenty or so diesel vans and Subaru station wagons filled the parking lot. Booting up in the lot, you can see Lake Ohau and Mount Cook in the distance. It is iconic New Zealand scenery: mountains, lakes, and snow dusting just the tops of the surrounding peaks. In gravel and mud, we made our way to the tiny base camp. Reggae poured from a loud speaker. A bunch of kids with huge muppet--the Kiwi version of gaper--gaps and mutton pie on their faces ran around the lodge. We bought tickets, a ginger beer, meat pie, and skied down to the only chairlift.
At the top we chose the one bootpack. The other option was the one groomer. Topping off on the hike, we decided to ski in the sun, hoping it would soften the otherwise firm surface sprinkled with a millimeter of sparkling hoar.
New Zealand skiers are keen no matter what the conditions. Whiteouts, rain, dirt patches, or powder--they'll take any version of a ski day they can get. To travel so far, drive the insane dirt roads, and get your nuts cracked on the way to a hard packed surface of mixed snow, ice, and rock, it has to be about something else. Maybe it fuels dreams of a trip to Whistler or Jackson? It makes a short winter shorter? It helps you meet girls?
Whatever the reason, Kiwi skiers make the rest of us look spoiled. We are spoiled. Our tram laps, paved roads with snow tires, and post-powder day après are skiing luxury. I've never had a powder day in New Zealand, but I'll keep going back if I can, because one day at a clubbie will remind you that everyday on skis should have you thinking, "Oh, how I love to ski."
Photos: Camilla Stoddart