With June almost upon us, you've either sorted out your NZ trip or you need to get cracking. What's that you say? You say you're not going to New Zealand? You're going to ski in Australia? Well. You're definitely not going to have a good time in New Zealand. That's a serious breach of step zero of skiing in NZ:
Step zero: Go to New Zealand
It would be a true feat of self deception to have a good time in NZ if you weren't actually there at all. And yet each year hundreds of otherwise reasonable and intelligent skiers and boarders fail at this most fundamental step. I cannot fathom why so many good skiers stay in Australia. It can't be convenience. You can get from Sydney to a ski field in NZ in about the same amount of time as it takes to drive to the snow in Australia. Surely it isn't cost. You can stay, ski and eat at Broken River for a week for $750NZD. Lift tickets alone will cost about that much in Australia, and that's before you start paying the ridiculous prices for accommodation and food they charge in the mountains. And it cannot possibly be the quality of skiing. It. Just. Can't.
Maybe it's because people have been to NZ and didn't like it, or maybe they think it's more expensive than it really is, or maybe they just haven't thought of it. Start thinking now people.
Step one: Don't go to Queenstown
The Inverse Law of Brochure Radness states that the more frequently a place features in tourist brochures, the less rad it is. Look at a brochure for New Zealand. See Queenstown? Not rad. Cross it off your list.
Queenstown suits some people. I hear there's excellent mountain biking there. If you were a boutique kebab retailer and you wanted to open a new branch, perhaps it would be your thing. If you are looking for poorly paid work in adventure tourism, or you want a bungee jumping selfie, or even just like to spend money on things, Queenstown is a rich vein of opportunity. Just don't go there if you like skiing.
It's "close" to the Remarkables and Cardrona. Close means about an hours drive. Cardrona is terrible. People say there's good touring off the back. Maybe, but the lift accessed skiing is woeful. Don't bother. The Remarkables has some incredible terrain, none of which is lift accessed. The inbounds is pretty lame, and somehow they've managed to set out the lifts so that there's no real time saving for using them to access the backcountry. If you want to ski this stuff, and it is really good, don't bother with the lift ticket. Just skin and bootpack your way around. You can take the $104NZD you save and put it towards a burger in town. Coronet Peak is actually quite close to town, but why are we even talking about this?
Queenstown is expensive, busy, touristy, and the skiing isn't even good. If you want to get wasted and maybe drunkenly punch someone (as the region's tourists clearly do) just save everyone the hassle and do it at home.
If you're desperate to ski in the Southern Lakes district, go to Wanaka and ski at Treble Cone. Wanaka is nice (although very expensive) and TC has great skiing. Again, you'll need to drive to and from the ski field each day but at least this time the trip is actually worth it.
Step two: Ski the club fields
Fly in and out of Christchurch. It's cheaper than Queenstown and puts you near a bunch of excellent skiing. To the west is the Craigiburn Range, with Mt Olympus, Porters, Mt Cheeseman, Broken River, Craigiburn and Temple Basin. There's Mt Hutt near Methven (although it's in a bunch of brochures), and further south the Mackenzie district with Fox Peak, Roundhill and Mt Dobson. To the north is Amuri and Mt Lyford (near Hanmer Springs).
Of these, the best and most consistent skiing is Mt Olympus, Broken River, Craigieburn and Temple Basin, although each of the other areas has something to offer in the right conditions. These places have on mountain accommodation, great inbounds terrain, good snow (in a New Zealand kind of a way), aren't crowded, have sensational hiking, and are cheap. These four, along with Fox Peak and Amuri (and a little place called Awakino a ways further south) are club fields. They're run by not-for-profit clubs who built places, run them, and maintain these places out of love for skiing with their family and friends. It makes for an incredible sense of community and a unique and really authentic way to spend time in the mountains. The infrastructure is usually pretty simple, but the passion the locals show for their hills makes the simplest rope tow feel like the finest gondola.
Step 3: Stay on the mountain
The club fields all have accommodation right at the ski field. Once you're there, you can walk to and from the lifts. Most provide dinner and breakfast (which are simple but tasty and cheap), and a few do lunch as well. Check in advance what the rules are for alcohol. Some places are BYO, others have bars and liqour licenses so you need to buy your booze at the hill. There's a bottle shop in Darfield (on the highway back to Christchurch) if you need to resupply.
Staying on the hill saves driving around every day, gives you a chance to meet the locals, and also means you're in prime position if a storm comes in and the roads close. A serious snowfall will close the ski field roads in NZ, at least while they clear the snow away and manage any overhead avalanche hazards. If you're already on the hill, you'll be skiing pow while everyone else is waiting down below.
Step 4: Buy glove protectors or Kincos
Most of these club fields use high speed nutcracker rope tows to get up the mountain. They're effecient, cheap and easy to maintain, run in the wind (when a chairlift would have to stop), and they can pull you up some very steep slopes. They also devour gloves. You'll see obvious damage after one ride on these lifts. Buy a pair of glove protectors (they sell them at the ski areas), or get some Kinco work gloves (also sold at the ski areas). Kincos are insulated leather work gloves. Warm, tough, and cost about $55. That's what the locals use. I usually chew though a pair a season.
Speaking of rope tows, they're pretty intimidating but actually not that hard to ride. It's much tougher on snowboarders, but plenty of people do it. If you spend the whole time nervous and scared it's going to end badly. If you just relax and keep clear of the pulleys you'll be up in no time.
Step 5: Sort your gear out in advance
There's no rental equipment (or no good rental equipment) at these hills. Bring your own gear from Aus or rent in Christchurch. You might even be better off renting in Australia and bringing that over with you. There's little to no grooming at the club fields, and conditions are variable so you'll want a ski that can handle anything. I reckon something about 100mm underfoot or bigger (doesn't need to be huge, even if the locals all love really fat skis) that's reasonably stiff and burly is perfect. Lightweight skis tend to get chattered around in the crud. There is likely to be crud.
Touring gear is always nice, but you don't really need it. Most of the hiking in the area is faster to bootpack than to skin.
Step 6: Be fit
You'll be riding rope tows, skiing crazy terrain and bootpacking. No matter who you are, you're going to end up bootpacking - it's a fact of life. Having some aerobic fitness under the hood will make your trip way more fun.
Step 7: Listen to the locals
If you stand around at the bottom of a rope tow looking confused, or you stand at the top of one looking lost, or in front of a barbeque looking hesitant, or you're not sure if the tea and coffee is for everyone, or you think that a bird is trying to steal your gloves, chances are it'll be a local who helps you out. These folks love skiing and they tend to be very happy to share their communities and mountains with guests. Remember that you are their guest. If they give you some advice about pulling the rope off the pulleys, or ask you to wait a minute or two while they fix something, or tell you that an areas is closed, please listen and do as they say. They're looking out for everyone's safety (including you), and trying to keep their ski field running. There's always a lot that goes into making these places work, and limited money and volunteers to make it happen.
You're going to hear a lot more about where the good snow is or the best way down than you are about closures or maintenance, so take the chance to listen to the true local experts.
Step 8: Don't die in an avalanche
All these ski fields have professional snow safety programs (except Awakino - it's a whole other world down there). The inbounds areas are avalanche controlled and as safe as the mountains ever get.
Outside the patrol boundaries you're on your own. Given that the ski fields are really small, and there's so much amazing terrain that's really easy to access, you're going to end up wanting to ski in uncontrolled avalanche terrain. Make sure you and your crew are educated, experienced, and equipped before heading into this stuff. Some of the ski areas organise avalanche safety courses. If you're interested in upping your backcountry skills this would be an awesome way to do it.
We're running a trial trip to the club fields in August. Stay tuned to see pics and updates. See you out there!