Words: Phil Erickson
Those epic mid winter days scored a few months back are now becoming just another faded memory. Luckily, there's a pretty good option in the South Pacific that may be able to help with withdrawal symptoms. On its day, New Zealand can turn on some pretty memorable conditions, but it does come with its own unique quirks. Phil Erickson from New Zealand Snowboarder mag has a few straight up tips for any one keen to escape the summer blues with a trip down under...
Sitting fairly deep in the South Pacific, the two Islands (North and South) are at the mercy of rapidly changing weather systems that can deliver on one hand, then quickly take away with the other. Here today, gone tomorrow...so make sure you pounce on any fresh snow when it falls, because there's a high chance the next weather event is coming in and its going to screw with it.
This rings especially true in the North Island where the 2 commercial ski fields and one club field on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu (an active Volcano), and T Bar and rope tow on Mt Taranaki (supposedly extinct!) are located. Certainly worth a visit if you have the time, with Mt Ruapehu offering up some insane terrain...
On the South Island, the Southern Alps will rival any of those found in Europe, but unlike there, only a fraction of the acreage is developed with ski area lifts... If you have heli budget, then that's going to open it right up...EPIC! But for now lets assume you will be mainly resort riding when here...actually, the word resort is probably a bit rich if we are comparing apples with apples... Even our biggest only boast a handful of chairlifts and certainly no gondola's. Having said that, you will still get some great riding off the lifts that we do have.
This might be the best time to quickly talk about the ski access roads. Bring your driving gloves, there's a lot involved...our resorts have access roads that vary from sealed with two-lanes to gravel goat-tracks with tight hair-pinned corners. Remember, this trip is going to be an adventure...and coming home having conquered them will be a treasured memory. I think! Oh yeah, if there is a sign saying you need to fit chains to your car - you definitely need to fit chains! A good 4wd is going to be a bonus, especially if you want to tackle our 'club fields. A New Zealand institution, these ski areas normally use rope tows or T-bars for access and can be challenging, even for experienced riders. Run and managed by mostly' unpaid' club members, they exist on the smell of an oily rag, hence the use of cheap-to-run lifts and facilities. Most of these clubs provide cheap lodge style accommodation with food included... but you may have to assist in preparation and tidy-up as is the code. There's minimal grooming on most of these areas, so ideally you want to hit them after fresh snow, that's when they are at their best! The club experience is unique, take an open mind and go with the flow. One thing I can guarantee; if you make the effort (and it will be an effort), on their day some of these club fields will provide the best uncrowded riding you'll get in New Zealand, at a ridiculously cheap price.
If your coming to just ride park and pipe, the best facilities will be found at Snowpark NZ, Cardrona and at the Remarkables.These areas are located in the Central Otago region of the South, and are all within an hour and a half drive or less from each other.
On the free riding ledger, Treble Cone is holding the goods on this front, world class on a powder day for sure... check them all out on the web so you have an overview of what's on offer.
So to wrap up, here's a couple more key things that will help make your trip:
– The New Zealand winter is short and sharp...best time to score cold blower pow is generally July through August... Springtime hits in September, and there's still good powder too be had, especially on shaded slopes, but will generally get 'cooked' by Midday if the suns on it...
– Our resorts do not get the same levels of annual snow that will fall in Canada, America or Europe... as a bare minimum, if you want to ride 'off piste' and hard out without shredding your board or yourself, the snow base should be around a meters or more (3 and a half feet). There are a few resorts that have tussock at lower levels that can get away with a bit less base than that, but caution is recommended. Check the ski fields snow reports to see what their bases are sitting at, and how much fresh has fallen overnight.
– Keep your schedule free and do not lock into having to ride at a certain resort on a certain date...Because the weather systems can be so localised, one resort may miss snow altogether, where another 2 or 3 hours drive away may get dumped on.
– Get up early so you miss the access road traffic build up. Most resorts lifts open at 9.00am.but on occasions they will open them early, so it pays to be up in the parking lot by 8.00am...that gives you time to get your boots on, down a flat white, and be on that first chair. If you get trapped on the road too late, its going to kill the start of your day!
– There's generally no tree riding in New Zealand, so bring a good set of goggles for those low light days.
– During school holidays and on weekends, the commercial resorts get crowded, with long waits in the lift lines...as mentioned above, if your here at those times, get up the hill early and go hard out before the crowd builds.
– Bring your split board and back country gear for sure if that's your bag...there's good side country terrain options off most of the ski areas...just make sure you check in with Patrol before heading out of bounds.
– Free riding snow conditions can go from sheet ice to deep powder, all within a few meters...make sure you have a board that's going to hold an edge when you need it to!
– Generally speaking, most kiwi riders are friendly, and will be willing to show you how to get to the best snow. Just ask!
– There some great skate parks all over both islands and epic surf options as close as a couple of hours drive from some resorts, so bring your whole kit for those weather down days when the resorts are shut.
So there you have it...by no means the full picture, but hopefully enough there to be able to figure out whether your staying home this summer in the sweltering heat dreaming about it...or clipping in at the top of your first run in 'Aotearoa, the 'Land of the Long White cloud'
Check out the May 2012 issue of New Zealand Snowboarder on the 'App' store for more info on riding in NZ, including a resort location map.