Riding in a storm: NZ edition

I have to admit, I've been totally spoiled by the last winter in Japan. Conditions in Hokkaido are so consistently good that it's a bit of a shock to ski anything other than powder. A few days skiing in Australia (sigh...) last week reminded me of one of the truly exceptional aspects of a Hokkaido winter: It's an awesome place to ride during storms.

A storm in Japan is often the best time to be riding. It's not unusual to get deep snow, low winds, plenty of trees to provide definition in bad visibility, good stability or a range of safe terrain options, and often it's snowing hard enough to reset your tracks after each run. I've experienced similar conditions in Canada, but never with the same consistency as Hokkaido. And storms in alpine terrain in Europe and New Zealand are a completely different story.

 What storms in Hokkaido are like.

What storms in Hokkaido are like.

There's something of an art to getting the most out a ski trip to New Zealand, but getting the most out of storm is one of the most subtle, and rewarding, arts to master. If you're looking to get the best out of some bad weather, you need to think about visibility, wind, snowfall, avalanche danger, terrain and lift closures, and road closures.

But first: Canterbury's ski areas get snow from two main weather systems. Nor-westerly storms pick up moisture over the Tasman Sea and then smash into the mountains on the west of the South Island. They typically come in warm and cool down as they move over the island, so it's common to see these storms start with wet snow or rain, and finish with good quality dry snow. This is usually good for stability as the new snow bonds well to the old snow surface. The bad news is that a really warm nor-wester will just rain the whole time.

Southerly storms come up from below the South Island, often along the east coast. These come in cold and stay cold, often bringing good snow down low. This makes for great skiing, but can also lead to road closures.

The club fields we've mentioned in earlier posts are roughly lined up,  with Temple Basin right on the Main Divide in the north, then Craigieburn, Broken River, and finally Mount Olympus in the south. As you go south, you get further from the West Coast and the Main Divide, so a good nor-wester will usually pound Temple with snow, but will often fizzle out a bit by the time it gets to Olympus. On the other hand, a southerly will can drop a metre or more of pow at Olympus and never quite make it up to Temple.

So let's start with VISIBILITY. You can forget about riding in the trees to give you some definition and shelter. The consistent skiing in NZ starts at about 1300m, and that's right at the tree-line. Very occasionally you can ski the trees at BR and maybe even Craigieburn, but we're talking about a day or two every couple of years. Expect to be skiing alpine terrain.

Fortunately, what NZ lacks in trees it makes up for with rocks. You can ski chutes to give you definition. But first you have to find them. Those big alpine bowls that are so much fun on a bluebird day are diabolical in bad visibility. It's common to lose any sense of the fall-line or whether you're moving. If you want to ski good lines in bad visibility you need to know your way around.

One more thing: The weather here can blow in and out really fast. You can get clearances that last for half an hour. If you're shut down by bad weather, leave your ski gear on and sit near a window. If things clear up even a fraction get out and ski as much as you can - you'll get fresh tracks and it might not last. If it closes back in a minute later you can always go back inside, but you'll be kicking yourself if you miss a chance to get some good turns.

 What storms in New Zealand are like.

What storms in New Zealand are like.

You know those shots you've seen in ski movies where the snow falls gently through the air to settle delicately on the sign outside some luxury heli-ski lodge? That's not New Zealand. Here, WIND and snow are best friends, and they spend most of their time hanging out together. It's not uncommon for exposed areas to finish a storm with less snow than they started with. That all sounds very sad, until you realise that all that snow has settled somewhere. If you can find sheltered aspects after a storm you're in for a good time.

Temple has whole range of aspects, so although it's usually ugly during a storm, there's typically good skiing once things clear up. Craigieburn gets very scoured in a blustery nor-wester, and pretty scoured in a blustery southerly as well (but when that rare storm comes through with low winds, it's superlative). Broken River has the best shelter from a nor-westerly and does OK in a southerly although the tops of their basins get hit pretty hard. Olympus has good shelter in a nor-westerly and holds up OK in a southerly too. It does get a bit scoured up high, but it has better terrain down low than BR so it makes for better skiing.

 Windbuff is your friend.

Windbuff is your friend.

SNOWFALL depends both on how many flakes fall from the sky, and where those flakes get blown to. As mentioned above, Temple does well out of a nor-wester but usually doesn't get much out of a southerly. Craigieburn is awesome if there's a storm with low winds and will get snow from both kinds of storm. Broken River has the most consistent conditions, getting good snow from both directions with pretty good shelter. Olympus is epic after a southerly and usually gets something from a nor-wester as well. Finding good skiing in a storm is all about knowing where it's snowing and what the wind is doing.

Be warned: That sheltered, windloaded terrain is usually pretty AVALANCHE prone. If you’re inbounds, Patrol will typically control or close terrain that they think is risky. In the backcountry, you’re on your own. Respect all closures, especially in a storm when the visibility is bad, and be really careful in the backcountry. The skiing and boarding in Canterbury is steep. There are limited options for safe travel and with poor visibility it’s easy to get committed to terrain that looks safe and turns nasty.

High winds, avalanche hazard and poor visibility make it pretty likely that ski areas will CLOSE TERRAIN OR TOWS. Broken River pride themselves on being open the most days each season. That’s a bit of a marketing ploy – often when conditions are grim they’re just running one lift which doesn’t access much of their good terrain – but usually the other fields are all closed when that happens, so it’s better than nothing. Olympus are the next most likely to stay open. Again, they don't always open their whole mountain but the terrain off their access tow is a bit more interesting than the BR equivalent. Craigieburn close at the drop of a hat. Temple usually close in any serious weather, but that's for your own good.

As the storm clears out, each field will send out their small Patrol staff to reopen the mountain. BR are usually the first to reopen all their terrain. Temple somehow manage to get everything going within a day of the storm ending. Craigieburn open bit by bit, and will usually have a bunch of good terrain ready the day or two after a storm. Olympus can bit a little frustrating. They have a bunch of amazing backcountry terrain above their lift-accessed terrain. Patrol are (understandably) worried about slides from that terrain hitting people in the ski area below, so they often close this terrain after a storm. It's completely reasonable - they have a small staff that's doing their best to get as much terrain safe as they can. Just be aware that you might need to wait a day or two if you turn up there expecting to hike those lines right after the storm.

Please be nice to the ski field staff after a storm. Guests and clubbies are usually coming out of the woodwork to froth at the prospect of fresh tracks and powder-day patience can be in short supply. The staff, on the other hand, have usually worked their butts off for hours already to get everything open and running. While you're skiing, they'll be digging stuff out, selling tickets, and making your dinner. As disappointed as you may be, they probably don't need to hear about how upset you are that some bit of terrain will take a few hours to open. There's always someone who's keen to let everyone know that this didn't happen on their trip to Verbier or Aspen. Hit tip: Don't be that person.

One aspect of kiwi skiing that can throw new visitors is road closures. The club fields maintain their own roads (or walking track, in Temple's case). Sometimes a storm will bury a road, some roads cross avalanche paths that Patrol will need to clear, sometimes they get washed out, and in big storms the highway will close. It can take a day or two for whoever drives the bulldozer to get around to firing it up and clearing the road. In 2011 the state highway closed for four days. At Temple, the walking track becomes something of a mission if there's a big snowfall. If it's icy enough they'll close it to anyone not wearing crampons. Getting snowed in can be an unbelievable experience. Getting stuck at the bottom of the road can also be unbelievable, but in a "I can't believe I've screwed this up" way.

Road closures add an extra level of spice to the "where should you go in a storm" calculation. It can be worth heading somewhere where the skiing won't be as good during the storm (e.g. Temple) so that you get first pick of the good skiing when things clear out. It's a high-stakes approach, but those who pick this situation correctly get supreme bragging rights for a long time.

I've had some of my best days riding during storms in NZ. It comes down to knowing your way around, figuring out what the weather's doing, and knowing what will be sheltered. If you play your cards correctly you can be skiing pow while everyone else is sitting around inside. Get amongst it!