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Skiing, New Zealand Style

Summer is Winter in the Land of Down Under


Story by Lee Juillerat

Photos by Randy Boverman


It was a gloriously sunny day in late August. Randy Boverman, other friends and I were standing in the shadow of incredibly ragged, rugged mountains admiring the view of the glacial-carved valley 5,000 steeply vertical feet below.

We started downhill. Not hiking. Not mountain biking.


We were in New Zealand, a southern hemisphere country where water draining out of the bathtub spins counter-clockwise and the seasons are upside down. It was summer in the northern hemisphere, but it was winter in the Queenstown area of New Zealand's South Island, prime time for downhill skiing.

Film aficionados associate New Zealand with "The Lord of the Rings" film trilogy. The eye-popping scenery bedazzles even people who couldn't connect with the Academy Award fantasies based on J.R.R. Tolkein's novels. It's even better in person, especially from the aerie-like perches common from Queenstown region ski areas. I was part of a group of ski journalists visiting four downhill ski and snowboard areas within a two-hour drive of Queenstown, which some brochures tout as New Zealand's "sexiest city."

If adrenaline-pumping adventures and more than a hundred bars, taverns and club in a city of about 17,000 is sexy, Queenstown qualifies. The city is the jump-off place, literally, for activities like bungee jumping and hub for 4-wheel drive treks, jetboat rides through narrow canyons, luge runs, rafting trips that make most class five rivers seem mild, canyon swings, paragliding, aerobatic warplane rides and tandem skydiving. There are derring-do activities like fly-by-wire that no one outside the area has ever heard of - and other heart-thumping thrillers that are still being invented.

Located in Central Otago, Queenstown's environs also produces world-class Pinot Noir wines. Its outlying region features sprawling farms grazed by red deer, beef cattle and more than enough sheep to keep sleepy bedtime counters tallying from dusk to dawn. We ate lamb, drank wine, cruised Lake Wakatipu on a vintage coal-powered steamship, screamed down the Shotover River in jetboats piloted by trained maniacs, toured the fjords of moody Milford Sound and, depending on individual choices, sampled other wild and mellow activities. My mix included a tour of wineries, visit to a Glenorchy area sheep farm and dive off the 143-foot Kawarau Bridge with a bungee cord wrapped around my ankles.

Thrilling, yes, but the bungee jump wasn't as frightening as the bus rides to the ski areas. Roads to three of the four areas are at least partly unpaved. All wigwag up slopes better suited for mountain goats. Guardrails don't exist. Several people on our bus closed their eyes, especially on hairpin turns.

Wide-open terrain defines New Zealand skiing

Skiing was the seasonal reason for the trip. A quartet of "ski fields" are located near Queenstown, including The Remarkables, Cardrona, Treble Cone and Coronet Peak, my personal favorite. Unlike larger U.S. ski resorts, the four have
relatively few lifts, but a challenging array of choices.

Carving at Speed

The Remarkables, only 40 minutes from Queenstown, is a place for everyone from families to fanatics, with runs varying from beginner and low intermediate runs to kamikaze drops for experts. Shadow Basin, the Sugar Bowl and Alta are the Remarkables three main runs. Combined, they served as excellent testing ground for long dormant ski legs. While Randy and others headed immediately for black diamond runs in Shadow Basin, several friends and I started more slowly, but we quickly moved from Alta to the Sugar Bowl and, after lunch, the steeper slopes in Shadow Basin.

Cardrona Alpine Resort, an hour's drive from Queenstown, features varied terrain with runs that range from easy cruising groomers to jaunty, more challenging steeps that follow natural mountain contours. With its many tree-less wide-open runs, Cardona is a favorite area for snowboarders and beginners. Away from the base area, the Captain's Quad offers mostly intermediate challenges. Our hearts beat a little strong skiing a series of black diamonds that meander through drops from near the top of the Whitestar Express Quad, including the Arcadia Chutes, Irish Press and Powder Keg.

Treble Cone, only about 45 minutes from Queenstown, is the choice for black diamond skiers and boarders who test out-of-bounds bowls. There were also ample opportunities groomers wanting to work on speed and technique on steep, challenging but forgiving runs. Part of the thrill of Treble Cone is getting there. The final stretches wiggle up a dauntingly winding, unsealed road that provides birds-eye views from progressively higher perches. Rides up the lifts are even higher and more dramatic. But when our group tested some of the black diamond chutes off the Saddle Quad Chair, we forgot about the long distance views. In comparison, the runs from the Volkswagen 6-Seater Express seemed almost easy.
Catching an eagle's eye view at Treble Cone


Randy skis any and every thing, but I prefer blue and more forgiving black diamonds. That's probably why my favorite choice is Coronet Peak, a mere 25 minutes from downtown Queenstown. With a mix of classic groomers and, best of all, create your own intermediate and expert routes over roller-coaster terrain; there wasn't a run I didn't enjoy. Locals trumpet Coronet for its proximity, but some black diamond skiers were frustrated by the lack of runs. My gerbil instincts prevailed, leaving me content to repeat favored runs, especially several off the Greensgate Express that I skied again and again. Coronet's proximity to town offered another plus - it gave us a chance to sleep in and, after several hours of skiing, the quick drive back left us with plenty of time for perusing Queenstown's many evening attractions. For those who want to stay on the mountain, recommended is night skiing under a big moon or, for early risers, arriving early for first tracks.
The skiing seems easy on fresh powder

The skiing was generally excellent during our days on the mountains, especially as the late morning sun softened ice-crusted slopes. Incredible, too, are the views from all four ski areas, whether from the parking lots or perches near the highest chairs, are incredible. At Treble Cone, which offers possibly the most evocative vistas, the slopes overlook bucolic valleys, distant snow-peaked mountain ranges and erratically shaped Lake Wanaka, which Maori legend says was dug by chief Te Rakaihaitu and a team of excavators.
Lake Wanaka provides a dazzling backdrop from Treble Cone slopes.

It's your turn to ski New Zealand

None of us had to dig deep to enjoy the sights of Queenstown or the skiing at its four regional resorts. But go prepared. It may be summer in the U.S., but between June and September, generous heapings of sunscreen, warm underwear, layers of shirts and sweaters, wool hats, extra gloves and thickly-lined parkas or jackets are necessities in New Zealand.

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Lee Juillerat is a writer for a daily newspaper in Southern Oregon who also is a frequent contributor to several regional magazines, including Northwest Travel, Oregon Coast and Alaska and Horizon airlines in-flight publications. He can be reached at lee337@cvc.net. Randy Boverman is a freelance photographer who has specialized in shoots for major retail stores. He can be contacted and his work can be seen at www.randyboverman.com.

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