Skiing in the Land of the Long White Cloud
The sun has melted most of the skiable snow in the continental US, so it must be time to turn our skiing sights to where winter is just cranking up. Let's start with New Zealand (Aotearoa).
New Zealand's skiing is unlike anywhere else in the world. The fault line between the Pacific and the Indo-Australian plates has pushed the mountains and volcanos skyward from sea level to 3,724 metres (12,218 ft) and back again in a 450km (280 miles) span, so we're talking some serious peaks. It is here that the snow sits high above the tree line and requires some steel nerve driving on heart rate raising roads to get there.
Lake Wānaka and the Southern Alps in winter.
But remember, this is the country that brought the world Sir Edmund Hilary, who was the first man to summit Mt. Everest along with Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay – so a pesky little dirt road with serious drop offs isn’t going to deter the average intrepid Kiwi skier from accessing the white gold.
Whether you like your snow packed and groomed within an inch of its whiter than white life, or untouched and clinging to a steep couloir begging for your jump turns, New Zealand will not disappoint (so long as the weather is on your side). The country boasts a series of microclimates and can swing from blizzards to blazing sun, rain and sleet – sometimes in the same day. The trick is to act like a local and go with the flow, bro.
No trees? No problem. Wide-open trails welcome skiers from around the globe.
The South Island is where the big guns come to play – cashed up leisure skiers and cash poor (but time rich) ski pros alike. The US Ski team regularly trains at Coronet Peak and Treble Cone, and the world’s best terrain park aficionados compete at Cardrona.
In Methven (an hour's drive from Christchurch), you can be guaranteed if the locals are not farming they’re working for Mt Hutt. A 365 hectare (900 acre) commercial ski field a half hour drive up a windy access road from town, this resort has a 4-meter average snowfall and is known for getting more snow than its sister resorts further south. There is plenty of steep off-piste pitches, as well as uber-groomed runs favored by the Austrian ski teams who used to train here in the early mornings.
Mt. Hutt – an hour's drive from Christchurch – boasts more snow than its southern brothers and sisters.
While you’re in town make sure you drop in to Primo e Secondo Café, run by an old world eccentric Kiwi woman with a wicked sense of humor. The coffee is the best in town and complimented with home baked fare and fuelling breakfasts. Set in the bowels of a second hand bric-and-brac vintage store, you can pick up a 12 inch vinyl, a set of pineapple condiment shakers, or a fetching scarf on your way out the door.
Let’s start by saying no view from any ski resort in the world beats Treble Cone. Some have tried, some have come close, but no view has beaten the vista that overwhelms the eyeballs when you stand atop of the peak and look out to Lake Wānaka and the surrounds.
Once you are here, you are here.
We won’t go on about the road, all the access roads to New Zealand ski fields are not for the feint hearted. Instead we’ll tell you about the Saddle Basin that fills with squeaky fresh powder snow and has backcountry gate access to the Matatapu Chutes for the expert skier and boarder. There’s groomers, terrain parks and hike to terrain over 550 hectares (nearly 1,400 acres) with 700 meters (2,300 feet) of vertical with 45% dedicated to intermediate and 45% dedicated to advanced.
One of the best things about TC (as it’s known) is the town of Wānaka. Think of Wānaka as the quiet creative cousin of rowdy Queenstown. This is where you’ll find the core skiers fuelling up with coffee and famous cheese scones at the funky Federal Diner downtown. It is also where you’ll find your accommodation as there is no accommodation on the mountain.
If you are in New Zealand in September, TC’s closing day is legendary with costumes to rival Halloween. Olympic coach Victoria Beattie dressed up as a GoPro one year and Sam Smoothy once hauled up a wood fired pizza oven and served up pizzas all day and night.
Midway between Queenstown and Wanaka over the Crown Range sits the ski field of Cardrona with a world class Olympic super pipe, an international half pipe and six terrain parks from mini to extra large. Did we mention the 350 hectares (860 acres) of skiable terrain from groomers to rocky chutes?
Cardrona has the best terrain park in New Zealand, so its likely you will see high-end athletes practicing there through the Southern Hemisphere winter.
Cardrona is the only commercial ski field with on-site accommodation in New Zealand, so if you are uber keen for first lifts then bed down up high. The rest of us take the dirt access road (yes another one) after carb loading at Queenstown’s swanky gourmet favorite Public Kitchen or devouring the Turkish eggs at The Chop Shop in Arrowtown.
It is considered sacrilege not to stop at the historic Cardrona Hotel at the end of a Cardrona ski day (and the bottom of the access road drive down) for a mulled wine in the giant outside beer garden with open fires. Drive by (and home) at your own risk.
Those who fly into Queenstown International Airport will feel as though they can reach out and touch the exposed granite of the jagged Remarkables Range. These mountains are omnipressive from every view point in the lakeside resort town. The ski resort of the same name, The Remarkables, nestled high within these peaks is a forty-five minute drive from downtown.
One of the best ski resort names in the world, on a good day the Remarkables live up to it.
Although there is no accomodation on the mountain, a day lodge is the focal point of the ski field with food outlets, lounges, views forever, rentals, retail and an outdoor ice bar on the top of the mountain. Expect over 220 hectares (540 acres) of skiable terrain and some great off piste accessed from the top of the Curvy Basin chairlift.
A short hike from the top of the Shadow Basin Chair will give you access to the finger chutes down to Alta Lake. Homeward Bound is a local’s off piste favorite that takes the skier or boarder back down to the road, so you’ll need a driver to pick you up and bring you back up (or hitch a shuttle ride).
Coronet Peak is the Queenstown local’s ski hill of choice due to its proximity to the town (a 25 minute drive) and an easy access road (fully tar-sealed the whole way). Many locals will come up for a ski before work for early 8am tracks or hit the night skiing after the working day.
An easy drive from Queenstown, Coronet Peak is considered the "locals" resort.
The altitude is slightly lower than the other resorts, though an extensive snowmaking system takes care of that. And there’s no accommodation on the mountain – but there’s plenty in Queenstown to make up for it. (If you’re on someone else’s credit card, hit up Matakauri Lodge where Prince William and Kate Middleton stayed.)
There is, however, a members club with members-only boot lockers, a café and parking. So if you can find a member to hook you up, even better.
Coronet is a solid 320 hectare (nearly 800 acre) mountain with rolling terrain and good transition from beginner to intermediate to advanced accessed by a six seater express, two quad chairs and a t-bar. There is also backcountry out of bounds access off the backside of the mountain if that’s your thing, but you’ll have to hike out once you get down.
Helicopters and Beyond
New Zealand may not have tree skiing but they have heli skiing and lots of it. Kevin Boekholt spends his northern winters guiding for CMH in Canada and his southern winters running his Methven Heli Ski operation out of the town of, well, yes, Methven. His tenure includes some of the best heli skiing terrain in the country on the Arrowsmiths Range. It’s big, it’s steep, and it catches bucket loads of fresh powder snow. You can choose to stay in the luxe cottage on the working sheep farm where the heli pad is, or bed down in Methven and be driven to the site in the morning.
Do you want to heli ski Aoraki (Mt. Cook)? Harris Mountain Heli Ski will take you there.
Further south in Wanaka and Queenstown there are a number of heli ski operators vying for attention for day trips or private charters. The guys at Harris Mountain Heli Ski offer trips outside of either area, as well as to New Zealand's tallest mountain, Mt. Cook (Aoraki).
THE NORTH ISLAND
Sadly, the fate of North Island skiing is undetermined at this time. Mt. Ruapehu Alpine Lifts – the company that ran the two big ski resorts, Whakpapa and Turoa – went into receivership (read: bankruptcy) in October 2022. As of the mid-June editing of this article, the fate of the resorts is still unknown. (What went wrong is pretty complicated.)
Tongariro and Ngāuruhoe as seen from the Whakapapa Ski Resort on Mt. Ruapehu
That said, the volcanos of the North Island and the town of Ohakune are still worth a visit if you are in the area. There are a lot of people working hard to re-establish skiing on Ruapehu, so if the legal challenges of the mountain have been settled and the resort(s) are open, go check them out.
This post has been updated from its original format for length and accuracy.