Legend has it that skateboard photographer Daniel Harold Sturt once drove for twenty four hours with Matt Hensley to shoot a photo at an utterly absurd spot. When the irate owner of said spot kicked them out, within ten minutes, they got back in their car and drove the twenty four hours straight back home. It sounds ridiculous but is a believable example of how far skateboarders will go to spend fleeting moments doing what they love to do1.
However snowboarders? That’s an entirely different level requiring mountains with snow, and since they’re in relatively limited supply that involves flying thousands of kilometers dragging stupid amounts of equipment along with you. For most this is an annual pilgrimage that will last for a week, two at most, and they return exhausted, bruised, and sometimes broken. Then it’s repeated again the next year. Why? Because snowboarding.
So when i decided to spend seven days in New Zealand i received some odd remarks. Well OK, i live in a ski resort and, yes, NZ is known to be hit and miss when it comes to the quality of the snow; and yes, it’s a long way to go, almost the furthest possible place from where i live2. So why? Because snowboarding! Oh, and i had some vacation time to use up.
Having only one week in the country meant i wanted as much of the trip as possible to be organised by someone else, that duty was handled by NZ Snow Tours3. They arranged everything from accommodation to lift passes and transport. In fact the only thing i had to do was book the flights and tell them my arrival time. Highly recommended.
My biggest apprehension was the flights: seven hours to Dubai, fourteen hours to Sydney, then a final three hours to Queenstown. However i managed to get some sleep and the short stops between transfers were very welcome. The strangest experience was transferring at Dubai at half past six in the morning, where the temperature had already reached 34ºC. I wondered why anyone would want to build anything there, a place requiring perpetual air conditioning.
The second half of the journey is a little hazy as i seemed to enter some sort of polyphasic sleep pattern, with noise cancelling headphones on and some low volume music playing i would wake every now and then to realise i had missed the last couple of albums by whatever artist i was listening to. I was getting sleep, it just felt very odd. Eventually i awoke to a stunning view of New Zealand’s southern island alps4, twenty minutes later i was in Queenstown.
I was joined by three other snowboarders on arrival: Joel from Australia, Mandy also from Australia, and Alex from Hong Kong. Our guide was Ruth, a local with over 15 years experience on the slopes. We were to be stationed in Wanaka, approximately one hours drive from Queenstown. My accommodation was a small backpacker’s hostel next to the lake: cheap, cheerful, and full of friendly travellers. I was feeling pretty good despite close to forty hours of travel and managed to stay lucid until 8pm, and which point i decided to call it a day (or at least, call it the equivalent of three days).
Our first trip, early the next morning, was to Cardrona. Located a half hour drive from Wanaka, Cardrona is one of the larger resorts in the Southern island. The resort had an even mix of green, blue, and black slopes; beginner, intermediate, and advanced, respectively. There were also a few double black chutes, which could probably be classified as expert and/or crazy depending on your perspective5.
It took a couple of runs to get my legs back, quite quick as i had only been off the board for around three months. The snow seemed very good given the mumblings that the country was having a bad season. I had timed it well, with a few heavy snowfalls the week before i arrived. The pistes were in excellent condition and the off piste areas were reasonably well covered.
Cardrona also had a huge terrain park, and this probably goes some way to explain the ratio of snowboarders to skiers: at the least a fifty/fifty split and perhaps even more biased in favour of the boarders. The terrain park was intimidating - you’ve probably seen the huge ramps and obstacles at the Winter Olympics, but to see them up close in person is mind boggling; the kickers are several metres high and riders are getting several metres of air out of them. I kept well away.
One surprise was the cost, now this is to be expected given it was high season and of course a ski resort; but without exaggeration i can say that the lift passes, which were included as part of the trip so not an issue, were more expensive than back in Switzerland. A day’s pass at Cardrona cost NZ$99, that’s about 75 CHF. Food, however, was cheaper so it evened out.
One of the things i enjoyed very much about Cardrona, and i took advantage of this a lot on the second day, was the wide open pistes; there seemed to be an absence of any piste boundaries on the right hand side of the resort, meaning a great feeling of freedom. It also had the affect of spreading out the users of the pistes making it feel quieter than it truly was. Of course, once you arrived at the lifts you realised that actually the resort was very busy.
Regarding the lifts - i had been told about this before i arrived, that the lifts are old. Generally this meant they were low capacity, or slow, always lacked a foot rest, and are limited in number. This was true but it didn’t really bother me, although the lack of a foot rest can cause problems with a snowboard as having only one foot strapped in can lead to an uncomfortable ride up sometimes. I had been told about the dreaded nutcraker ropetows that exist at some NZ resorts, fortunately i didn’t encounter any.
On the third day we were given the option to go Heliskiing. This sounded interesting and i initially signed up for it. However having thought about it some more i changed my mind. Partially this was down to cost - an extra NZ$800 for 4 runs lasting around ten minutes a time. The snow was not fantastic, and even though there had been heavy falls the week before i arrived the wind and temperatures had turned any off piste snow into the crunchy-on-top-soft-underneath crème brûlée kind of powder that is not really fun to ride in.
I reasoned i would have plenty of powder days in the future back home, i had already enjoyed a few in the last season. So i spent the third day again at Cardrona spending time riding switch then exploring some of the black runs and off piste areas with Ruth, which turned out to be a lot of fun. I also took a look at some of the chutes but quickly “noped” out of there due to the amount of rocks and their proximity being somewhat closer than i was comfortable with.
The fourth day was a rest day, two members of the group decided to take that literally whereas Alex and myself visited Queenstown. Like Wanaka the density of snow sports related shops, restaurants, and gift shops was very high. Of course there was one compulsory stop: Fergburger, home of (allegedly) the best burgers in the world6. I don’t know if that’s true, but they were certainly very very very good burgers. We stopped by the original bungy bridge on the way back… no, i didn’t, snowboarding was enough.
Day five started with a two hour drive through no man’s land to Ohau Snow Fields, the last twenty minutes of the trip being up a sketchy mountain dirt road very much of the type “use at your own risk”. The clouds had set in and it seemed like it would be a whiteout, but within an hour they cleared to reveal a stunning view7. Ohau had only one double seater slow lift, and to reach the top of “The Ridge” required a hike up 100m through deep snow that was close to 60º slope in parts. It was worth it, i don’t think i’ll ever forget the view from the top.
Ohau had the feel of a club field, although is a commercial resort; the majority of it was not groomed and largely off piste, it was clear the season had been difficult here as most of the right hand side of the snow field was lacking snow coverage. The other sections had better coverage but still some exposed rocks here and there so were tight in places. Still, i enjoyed the day very much and it was interesting to snowboard in more challenging off piste terrain. Ohau was also very quiet, at a guess fewer than fifty people the entire day we were there.
The next day was the final day of riding and for that we visited Treble Cone, which is the largest ski area in New Zealand’s South island. The resort was a good demonstration that piste grading is only applicable to a resort and not transferable - Treble Cone’s blue runs were equivalent to Cardrona’s black runs and the resort was all around much steeper with narrower pistes in the Home Basin section. The resort was very popular with skiers so i was back to being in the minority. Although i enjoyed Treble Cone i wouldn’t recommend it for snowboarding, however i can imagine the Saddle Basin part of the resort is amazing on a powder day.
It all seemed to be over very quickly, i spent the last day with another short visit to Queenstown before saying farewell as my flight was the last to depart of the group. I expected i might sleep more on the return trip having spent several days throwing myself down slopes, but i was neither physically or mentally tired. I had travelled 20,000km to New Zealand done five full days of snowboarding and i felt, well, fine. It was as if i had just been down the local skatepark for a roll around8.
If anything this serves as a reminder of how lucky i am to live in a ski resort. My fellow boarders for the week didn’t leave unscathed - although they had clearly had a great time they were also clearly exhausted, and very nearly broken. I think this is largely down to time on the mountain, as i alluded to in a previous post, having five days a year isn’t enough. Alex, who had flown all the way from Hong Kong, spent most of his time on the nursery slopes.
It takes a day or two just to get the rhythm and confidence back, i assume, and from my time on the mountain last season i would estimate it took around twenty to twenty five days before i really felt able to ride without effort. I think a big factor in confidence is learning how to fall and being able to get back up again unfazed when you do take a big slam, skateboarding taught me a lot of harsh lessons in that respect.
There was one more observation from my travels, and i saw this not just on the pistes but also in the airports, and on the planes, and in the canteens. I was up on the pistes and i saw snow machines everywhere. At Ohau they had the snow makers running all through the day, in high season. In Dubai airport, at half past six in the morning, air conditioning was running full blast. With global warming this is only going to proliferate. Refrigeration, air condition, snow making. Invest in companies that make things cold.
The colour coding is slightly different to Europe, which uses blue, red, and black. With yellow generally meaning “any of the three but not patrolled so you’re on your own”. ↩
However the jet-lag did catch up with me about 18 hours after getting back to Villars. I didn’t get away from that and it took at least 3 days to recover. ↩