The Kiwi Way - Ski Mag

The Kiwi Way

Adventure
Author:
Publish date:
The Kiwi Way

Symon dent peered over the edge of the rollover and allowed a grin to spread beneath his Fu Manchu mustache. "Eeh-uhh," he said, a New Zealander's way of elongating the word "yeah" into a two-syllable bray. "I think we've found what we're looking for." Falling away below him at a 40-degree angle between two shoulders of rock was a pocket-sized couloir harboring a six-inch top-dressing of densely uniform snow.

It was only early August, but spring weather was sticking its nose into the heart of the New Zealand winter. In some places, the snow was so punch-through soft that you'd sink to your knees with the slightest down-weighting. But elsewhere smooth patches had set up with enough buoyancy to allow surfing the uppermost stratum. You just had to know where to look.

That's where the 32-year-old Dent came in. A ski guide specializing in New Zealand's South Island club ski fields-"field" being the Kiwi term for ski area-Dent had shepherded a small group of skiers through the countless open faces and chutes of Mount Olympus to the precipice of a prime piece of real estate. Now, like a bouncer pulling back the velvet rope, he gave the signal to plunder.

This was club-field skiing at its essence-lift-serviced backcountry without even the rumor of a tree for miles and consistently steep pitches peppered with numerous drops. It was what had attracted the ragtag assembly in Dent's wake: an Australian with multiple piercings wearing oil-stained pants and a moth-chewed sweater; a genial Scotsman with a lyrically incomprehensible farmer's brogue; and two young Japanese skiers with blond-streaked hair extending in spikes from beneath wool hats. They were a typical club-field cast of characters-four guys short on cash but long on appetite for big-mountain skiing.

I was a part of this crew for more or less the same reasons: the appeal of untracked snow, particularly in August, and the utter lack of pretension that makes the club-field experience a welcome antidote to the gloss and pampering of North American big-resort luxury. To make the most of our four club-field days, Dent had mapped out an itinerary that included Mount Olympus, Craigieburn, and Broken River-in his opinion, the best of the club-field bunch.

New zealand's club fields are relics. ski clubs, after all, were how the sport began in places like St. Anton, Austria, and Stowe, Vermont, before commercial interests assumed command.

For whatever reason, places like Mount Olympus, Craigieburn, Temple Basin, Broken River, and Mount Cheeseman have resisted development impulses, surviving into the present in an almost hermetic time warp. They remain the barely changed legacy of New Zealand pioneers of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s who formed winter-sports clubs and then headed to the mountains to create their own ski fields on State Forest Service and privately held lands.

They often lugged building materials into the mountains on their backs-one reason why there was little effort to modernize rudimentary facilities beyond basic utility. Their agenda: to ski hard and drink hard, not necessarily mutually exclusive endeavors for Kiwis.

Things haven't changed much. The club fields are still run largely by and for clubbies, who in addition to paying annual dues are usually obliged to help with light maintenance such as lodge upkeep and road repair. The facilities remain rudimentary, and you can forget about modern idiocies like grooming-almost entirely nonexistent-and snowmaking-absolutely nonexistent. The terrain is as rugged as it ever was, and the snow is whatever it is.

It's also cheap: The public has always been welcome on a pay-as-you-go basis, and you don't have to pay much-on average about US$40 a day for lift ticket, accommodation, and two meals. The resulting combination of top-drawer skiing at barrel-bottom prices creates one of the best bangs forour skiing buck anywhere in the world.

The route to mount olympus winds to the northwest from the orderly pasturelands and hedgerows of the small town of Methven, just west of Christchurch on the South Island. It passes through the Rakaia Gorge, a place Dent gleefully called the windiest place in New Zealand, perversely entertained by his SUV yawing under buffeting 60-mile-per-hour gusts.

Where two dirt roads joined into one, the journey reached an abrupt intermission. A herd of 3,000 sheep was spread across the road. Waiting out the 10-minute delay, Dent amused himself by attempting conversation with the herdsmen, a famously tight-lipped lot.

"Looks like we've got some warm weather moving in," Dent offered from his vehicle.

"Eeh-uhh, mate," one of the herdsmen responded without turning his head to see who had addressed him. Dent was delighted.

"Two words!" he said. "Usually you're lucky if you get one."

The dirt road eventually deteriorated into a rough track that lurched upward through stream crossings and dwindled to little more than a notch along mountains of scree. A mile from the ski area, at a gate bearing signs warning of avalanches and falling rock, two ragged-looking pilgrims emerged-the pierced Australian and the incomprehensible Scotsman. They had decided their rental vehicles weren't equal to the road.

So they ponied up 10 bucks each to hitch a ride, then decided to dig deeper into their wallets and enlist Dent as their guide for the day. Smart thinking there. In the almost entirely unmarked domain of the typical club field, going without a guide can mean either missing out on the best terrain or getting into a world of trouble trying. With the two newbies on board, the journey entered the last, axle-trashing push to a car park that was no more than a wind-scoured tabletop of bulldozed rubble, with room for a dozen cars. It felt like the most forlorn parking lot on earth.

At mount olympus, there are never worries about how long the fresh snow will remain untracked, for on your average day, fewer-usually far fewer-than 50 skiers show up. Dent described the worry-free environment: "You can scout out a line, then go into the lodge for tea knowing that when you come out an hour later, the line will still be there." Simon Midgely, the snow-safety director, had another take on it. On the busiest day of 2002, a Saturday after a big dump when the skies cleared brilliantly, Mount Olympus was "swamped," Midgely said. It turned out he meant 70 skiers.

All that was the good part. The bad part was getting to the good part. The rope tow is the lift of choice at club fields, and to ride the tows, you must first come to terms with a device known as a nutcracker, New Zealand's gift to lift technology.

Here's how it works: Swaddle yourself in a waist harness, which has a shock cord that extends from the navel area and is attached to a hinged, clamping piece of metal resembling a large household nutcracker. Approach the fast-moving rope and grasp it with one hand to initiate momentum. With the other hand, snap the nutcracker closed over the rope in front of you. When a bond between nutcracker and moving rope is secured, lean back and enjoy the ride. It sounds easy. It isn't. With the tows typically running at warp speed, getting the nutcracker properly positioned before having your fingers crushed by rope-stabilizing pulleys requires considerable dexterity. Neophytes often endure dozens of false starts before finally, clumsily, getting the hang of it. In the process, gloves, seared by the coarseness and speed of the rope, take a savage beating. The running joke is that if a movie is ever made about nutcrackers, it will be titled "Glove Smoke."

And the nutcrackers are just a start. To get to the best lines and most impressive chutes, you've got to hike, and the hiking, as Dent explained with that grin again, "is often gnarlier than the skiing."

The principal rock here is greywacke, a sandstone highly susceptible to cracking. On the high ridges, the greywacke forms a fragmented, wildly uneven surface of boulders and shards of stone. Throw in ice, snow, and wind, and it's not unusual to see people crawling on their hands and knees.

So why bother? Because the payoff, at Mount Olympus and other club fields, is between 1,500 and 3,000 vertical feet of untracked snow at a consistent 35- to 40-degree pitch (or more). On top of Olympus, a giant bowl arcs through three compass points. The ridgeline forms a chain of rocky parapets streaked with short, skiable chutes and hyphenated by broad, open saddles. Plenty of people will crawl for that.

No one would crawl to experience a club-field lodge like the one at Mount Olympus. But then the lodge was never intended to be luxurious.

A large, wooden, hand-painted trail map on the wall looked like something conceived in shop class. Clusters of half-empty beer bottles stood on picnic tables. Newspapers, dog-eared paperbacks, socks, and homemade nutcracker harnesses, patched together from horse-saddle girth straps and old car seat belts, were scattered on the floor. The living-area furnishings consisted mainly of a few weary-looking chairs leaking stuffing.

Members of the staff looked equally weary, and understandably so. They had just survived Dogtucker Week, one of several theme weeks held every year, and the prospect of Wrinkle Free Week darkened the imminent future.

A "dogtucker" is a New Zealand term for an old, lame sheep suitable for nothing but food for the sheep dogs. At Mount Olympus, the term applied to the old guard of clubbies, many of whom would ski in farm attire-call it Carhartt chic-on equipment at least 40 years old.

They were dedicated drinking men known to go on three-hour backcountry excursions with a bottle or two of whiskey as their only source of liquid replenishment.

At least during Dogtucker Week, though, the staff could count on everybody somehow stumbling to the bunkrooms at night to sleep. That wouldn't necessarily be the case during Wrinkle Free Week, a 25-and-under romp that often involves alcohol and skeet shooting from the deck.

While the long spine of the craigieburn range was clearly visible to the north from Mount Olympus, the drive from one to the other required more than an hour. The trip was complicated, of course, by the spine-rattling Mount Olympus access road, which clubbies of the 1970s and earlier would sometimes execute simply by straightlining in their vehicles down the scree slopes. The access to Craigieburn, was, by comparison, highway driving.

If the word about New Zealand club-field skiing is beginning to spread globally, Craigieburn is largely the reason for it. And the impetus behind Craigieburn's growing reputation is largely the work of Glen Plake, who began spreading the gospel more than a decade ago.

As a gesture of appreciation, the club turned the base-lodge bar area into a kind of shrine to the mohawked icon. There were signed Plake posters and area maps with Plake salutations scribbled on them. The maps showed terrain rated from "easiest" to "tricky" to "suicidal." This was someone's idea of a joke. The reality is that there is no easy terrain. Craigieburn is cut by numerous barely skiable chutes, which in turn are riddled with 10 to 20 vertical feet of unavoidable air time, no screwups allowed.

There is, of course, a line in honor of Plake, a heinous slot through the rocks of Middle Basin called Plake's Mistake, featuring what Dent called a "compulsory drop." He didn't say how severe the drop is, but the map did. The line is rated suicidal.

In the base lodge were visitors from the U.S., Canada, Australia, England, France, Poland, and Norway. Call it the Plake effect. Jan Bjarne Valsvik, a 27-year-old Norwegian with pale-blue Nordic eyes, sat riveted to his laptop. He was studying digital films he had maipal rock here is greywacke, a sandstone highly susceptible to cracking. On the high ridges, the greywacke forms a fragmented, wildly uneven surface of boulders and shards of stone. Throw in ice, snow, and wind, and it's not unusual to see people crawling on their hands and knees.

So why bother? Because the payoff, at Mount Olympus and other club fields, is between 1,500 and 3,000 vertical feet of untracked snow at a consistent 35- to 40-degree pitch (or more). On top of Olympus, a giant bowl arcs through three compass points. The ridgeline forms a chain of rocky parapets streaked with short, skiable chutes and hyphenated by broad, open saddles. Plenty of people will crawl for that.

No one would crawl to experience a club-field lodge like the one at Mount Olympus. But then the lodge was never intended to be luxurious.

A large, wooden, hand-painted trail map on the wall looked like something conceived in shop class. Clusters of half-empty beer bottles stood on picnic tables. Newspapers, dog-eared paperbacks, socks, and homemade nutcracker harnesses, patched together from horse-saddle girth straps and old car seat belts, were scattered on the floor. The living-area furnishings consisted mainly of a few weary-looking chairs leaking stuffing.

Members of the staff looked equally weary, and understandably so. They had just survived Dogtucker Week, one of several theme weeks held every year, and the prospect of Wrinkle Free Week darkened the imminent future.

A "dogtucker" is a New Zealand term for an old, lame sheep suitable for nothing but food for the sheep dogs. At Mount Olympus, the term applied to the old guard of clubbies, many of whom would ski in farm attire-call it Carhartt chic-on equipment at least 40 years old.

They were dedicated drinking men known to go on three-hour backcountry excursions with a bottle or two of whiskey as their only source of liquid replenishment.

At least during Dogtucker Week, though, the staff could count on everybody somehow stumbling to the bunkrooms at night to sleep. That wouldn't necessarily be the case during Wrinkle Free Week, a 25-and-under romp that often involves alcohol and skeet shooting from the deck.

While the long spine of the craigieburn range was clearly visible to the north from Mount Olympus, the drive from one to the other required more than an hour. The trip was complicated, of course, by the spine-rattling Mount Olympus access road, which clubbies of the 1970s and earlier would sometimes execute simply by straightlining in their vehicles down the scree slopes. The access to Craigieburn, was, by comparison, highway driving.

If the word about New Zealand club-field skiing is beginning to spread globally, Craigieburn is largely the reason for it. And the impetus behind Craigieburn's growing reputation is largely the work of Glen Plake, who began spreading the gospel more than a decade ago.

As a gesture of appreciation, the club turned the base-lodge bar area into a kind of shrine to the mohawked icon. There were signed Plake posters and area maps with Plake salutations scribbled on them. The maps showed terrain rated from "easiest" to "tricky" to "suicidal." This was someone's idea of a joke. The reality is that there is no easy terrain. Craigieburn is cut by numerous barely skiable chutes, which in turn are riddled with 10 to 20 vertical feet of unavoidable air time, no screwups allowed.

There is, of course, a line in honor of Plake, a heinous slot through the rocks of Middle Basin called Plake's Mistake, featuring what Dent called a "compulsory drop." He didn't say how severe the drop is, but the map did. The line is rated suicidal.

In the base lodge were visitors from the U.S., Canada, Australia, England, France, Poland, and Norway. Call it the Plake effect. Jan Bjarne Valsvik, a 27-year-old Norwegian with pale-blue Nordic eyes, sat riveted to his laptop. He was studying digital films he had made a few days earlier, and he was particularly impressed by the work of Pete "the crazy Swede."

The face the Swede had chosen was an unrelentingly steep and pocked moonscape of greywacke cul de sacs, with mandatory drops every five turns or so. Somehow the Swede managed to pick his way through unscathed, and Jan couldn't get enough of playing and replaying the descent.

Broken river, the last stop on the four-day trip, features something called a "goods lift," a contraption to carry skis and luggage from the parking lot to the base area. While your gear gets a comfortable ride, you are expected to walk-about a 10-minute, switchback climb through the beech-tree forest. Broken River-and all the club fields for that matter-stands as one of the last links not only to a previous era in skiing but to a previous attitude about skiing. Avoiding the modern proclivity of commercial resorts to rid the sport of its rough edges, club fields have instead followed the rugged-is-beautiful tack.

In a history written about Broken River, Leith Newell, one of the club's founding members, wrote of the field's first season in 1953: "I can still remember the floating sensation after one memorable snowfall, running down the Access Basin on my Southland beech skis in two feet of powder.... Back in (the lodge), it was pressure-cookered chops, dodging the drips from the socks and boots hanging on the rafters to dry, and dinner eaten sitting on the bunks." An almost identical account-except for the part about the beech skis-could have been written almost 50 years later.

Even the people seemed the same, images of another era. There was, for example, a tough-as-nails patrolwoman from Tasmania able to roll her own cigarettes with one hand. And there was a guy named Noel Womersley, scion of one of the original Broken River families of the 1950s, dressed in such an odd assortment of clothing that it looked as if his entire getup could have come from his sock-and-underwear drawer.

But then that was club-field skiing in a nutshell-stripped to the basics. And all the better because of it.

KIWI 411

Notes: Don?t take the meager verts listed below too seriously, the skiable vertical (with hikes) can easily be double the official figure. The ski season runs from July to September.
The Clubs: Broken River: 1,300 vertical feet; 5 rope tows; day ticket: NZ$35 (US$17*); overnight accommodations: NZ$60 (US$28), includes bed and three meals. 011-64-03-318-7270; snow.co.nz/broken river. Craigieburn: 1,650 vertical feet; 3 rope tows; day ticket: NZ$39 (US$19); overnight accommodations: NZ$45 (US$21) includes bed, breakfast, and dinner. 011-64-03-365-2514; craigieburn.co.nz. Mount Olympus: 1,840 vertical feet; 4 rope tows; day ticket: NZ$35 (US$17); overnight accommodations: NZ$40 (US$19) includes bed, breakfast, and dinner. 011-64-03-329-1727; mt.olympus.co.nz.
The Guides: Black Diamond Safaris (011-64-25-508-283; black diamondsafaris.co.nz) offers a variety of packages ranging from just transportation to and from the club fields (from Methven) to multiday trips that include transportation, lift ticket, lodging, food, and guide service. A two-day package costs NZ$270 (US$130), and longer, custom packages including heli-skiing or cat skiing can also be arranged.
The Trip: Air New Zealand (800-827-6689; airnewzealand.com) offers evening flights from Los Angeles to Auckland, with connecting flights to Christchurch. Hertz and Avis service the Christchurch airport. For accommodations in Methven, the Powderhouse Country Lodge (011-64-03-302-9105; powderhouse.co.nz) is a comfortable five-bedroom B&B that caters to skiers.

*All U.S. prices are approximate.

d made a few days earlier, and he was particularly impressed by the work of Pete "the crazy Swede."

The face the Swede had chosen was an unrelentingly steep and pocked moonscape of greywacke cul de sacs, with mandatory dropss every five turns or so. Somehow the Swede managed to pick his way through unscathed, and Jan couldn't get enough of playing and replaying the descent.

Broken river, the last stop on the four-day trip, features something called a "goods lift," a contraption to carry skis and luggage from the parking lot to the base area. While your gear gets a comfortable ride, you are expected to walk-about a 10-minute, switchback climb through the beech-tree forest. Broken River-and all the club fields for that matter-stands as one of the last links not only to a previous era in skiing but to a previous attitude about skiing. Avoiding the modern proclivity of commercial resorts to rid the sport of its rough edges, club fields have instead followed the rugged-is-beautiful tack.

In a history written about Broken River, Leith Newell, one of the club's founding members, wrote of the field's first season in 1953: "I can still remember the floating sensation after one memorable snowfall, running down the Access Basin on my Southland beech skis in two feet of powder.... Back in (the lodge), it was pressure-cookered chops, dodging the drips from the socks and boots hanging on the rafters to dry, and dinner eaten sitting on the bunks." An almost identical account-except for the part about the beech skis-could have been written almost 50 years later.

Even the people seemed the same, images of another era. There was, for example, a tough-as-nails patrolwoman from Tasmania able to roll her own cigarettes with one hand. And there was a guy named Noel Womersley, scion of one of the original Broken River families of the 1950s, dressed in such an odd assortment of clothing that it looked as if his entire getup could have come from his sock-and-underwear drawer.

But then that was club-field skiing in a nutshell-stripped to the basics. And all the better because of it.

KIWI 411

Notes: Don?t take the meager verts listed below too seriously, the skiable vertical (with hikes) can easily be double the official figure. The ski season runs from July to September.
The Clubs: Broken River: 1,300 vertical feet; 5 rope tows; day ticket: NZ$35 (US$17*); overnight accommodations: NZ$60 (US$28), includes bed and three meals. 011-64-03-318-7270; snow.co.nz/broken river. Craigieburn: 1,650 vertical feet; 3 rope tows; day ticket: NZ$39 (US$19); overnight accommodations: NZ$45 (US$21) includes bed, breakfast, and dinner. 011-64-03-365-2514; craigieburn.co.nz. Mount Olympus: 1,840 vertical feet; 4 rope tows; day ticket: NZ$35 (US$17); overnight accommodations: NZ$40 (US$19) includes bed, breakfast, and dinner. 011-64-03-329-1727; mt.olympus.co.nz.
The Guides: Black Diamond Safaris (011-64-25-508-283; black diamondsafaris.co.nz) offers a variety of packages ranging from just transportation to and from the club fields (from Methven) to multiday trips that include transportation, lift ticket, lodging, food, and guide service. A two-day package costs NZ$270 (US$130), and longer, custom packages including heli-skiing or cat skiing can also be arranged.
The Trip: Air New Zealand (800-827-6689; airnewzealand.com) offers evening flights from Los Angeles to Auckland, with connecting flights to Christchurch. Hertz and Avis service the Christchurch airport. For accommodations in Methven, the Powderhouse Country Lodge (011-64-03-302-9105; powderhouse.co.nz) is a comfortable five-bedroom B&B that caters to skiers.

*All U.S. prices are approximate.

Related