Season wrap up: Spring pow and good times at Rainbow

When I first told people in Australia I was heading to New Zealand in mid August, a lot of folks asked if that wasn't a bit too late. Having skied here a few seasons now, that didn't occur to me at all. But I guess if you're used to Canada or North America then I suppose turning up in the last month of winter is a bit strange.

Not so in New Zealand. Admittedly, I've only been here a few years, but in my experience the month that usually turns out the best skiing is September - and that's not just spring corn. September regularly brings good dumps of quality powder and the bluebird conditions that follow those storms mean that often there's good skiing for days (especially with some local knowledge).

This year was no different. There was a bit of powder skiing in mid August, but things didn't really fire up until a month later. Mid September had a epic midweek powder day in the Craigieburns, followed by more snow for the weekend, then some warm unsettled weather and a few more powder days to bring us into October. A bunch of club fields shut up shop after the extended period of high pressure we had during August and early September and conditions were so good they rounded up their staff and reopened.

The real suprise story for the winter was Rainbow - a little commercial field near Nelson at the top of the South Island. Even in a bad winter, there's always one field that seems to deliver. Last year it was Ohau. Everyone else was madly shovelling snow onto their tow lines to stay open and Ohau was racking up days and days of powder skiing. This year it was Rainbow. Most of the storms that hit elsewhere were too warm, starting with rain and then changing to snow (or just staying with rain, if the universe was feeling particularly sour). Rainbow, on the other hand, just kept getting snow. At the start of October Broken River got maybe 20mm of rain with 7cm of snow on top (which, I should point out, skied pretty well). Rainbow decided to keep things simple and somehow arranged for 45cm of dry pow. I don't know what the locals were all doing on Saturday, but when I arrived on Sunday and there were still a bunch of untracked lines.

The warm, sunny October days have prompted most people to turn their minds to other things, so the season here is drawing to a close. There's still snow up high, but the weather at the moment is alternating between warm clear days and furious storms (the Mt Cook area got 1.5m of snow at altitude in 48 hours last week). With any luck that will fill in the glaciers for some ski touring, but it makes for some difficult conditions right now.

I'll be hoping to sneak up some peaks in the next few weeks before I head back to Australia and then on to Japan. Still looking forward to getting the Kingswood into some seriously deep snow. And tree skiing! And ramen!

Hope to see you guys over there!

2 is better than 1

OK, I know what you're thinking: Surely John isn't about to make some vapid contribution to the "skiing vs. snowboarding" or even "skiing vs. monoskiing" debate. That argument got stale at about the same time as grunge music.

Don't worry. I really don't care how you get down the hill provided you're having a good time. Instead, this is a story of love, of loss, and of new love.

My first pair of skis were Karhu Kodiaks, 80mm underfoot, traditional camber, and lightweight capped construction. When I bought them in Australia (along with a pair of boots a full two sizes too big) I thought they were the bees knees. "Everyone will be impressed by my wide and powerful skis", I thought to myself as I packed my bags for Chamonix.

Instead, everyone in Chamonix had wider and longer skis than me except the hordes of English tourists who stuck to the groomed runs. There were only two things about me that impressed anyone on that trip: My determination to keep skiing despite my complete lack of ability, and a bruise that I got on my butt after sliding 70m or so down some steep ice into a rock. It was a fine bruise indeed.

And yet I persisted with my Karhus. By the time I made it to Canada a few years later they were held together mostly with Ptex and epoxy resin, and they had developed a miraculous ability to feel chattery and unstable at all speeds in all snow conditions. I was working in a little ski shop named Powderhound in Rossland and my boss suggested I get a pair of 176cm Kastle BMX 108s. We didn't have a pair in the shop and I'd never even seen them, but the Kastle rep was offering a good deal so I nervously ordered some.

Going from 80mm to 108mm underfoot was intimidating, and the skis were much stiffer and heavier than my old Karhus. I mounted them up in the back of the shop one evening in January 2012 and took them to the hill the next day.

And they were awesome.

No adjustment period needed. These things were perfect. Nimble, floaty, stable, predictable. I have never skied anything so forgiving. I went from terrible to mediocre overnight.

Since then I've skied over 200 days on them. From trees in the Kootenays, to rocks in the Craigieburns, these skis soaked up an alarming amount of punishment. I bought other skis but they never got as much use. The BMX 108s did it all. It was like finding the love of your life, only it was a ski, and there were two of them, and they never ever complained about you leaving dirty socks lying around. I thought we would be together forever (or that I'd at least buy another identical pair), but love never seems to last.

It was shaping up to be a good day. I climbed Mt Phillistine near Arthur's Pass with Nick and Tess, two super-strong snowboarders and Broken River regulars. We met up with another group of friends on the way and had made our way to the summit in perfect weather and good time. The other group dropped a sunny line off the ridge and Nick, Tess and I headed down a colouir directly below the peak. One of the guys in the other group told us he had bum-slid down the colouir in summer, which must have been one of the gnarliest bum-sliding descents ever made because this thing was steep. I dropped last, and after a few great turns on firm windslab off the top, I missed a jump turn in punchy snow in the choke and tomahawked a long way. Usually when you tomahawk there's a point where it seems like the worst is over and you're about to slow down. This time, I reached that point and sped up. I briefly considered trying to self-arrest with my newfangled ice-tool/ski-pole-combination-stick, but was forced to abandon that plan once it became clear that I couldn't actually work out where the ground was. There was a good layer of soft snow and the runout was clear, so it was just a matter of keeping my arms and legs tucked in and riding it out.

My friends were all suitably impressed when I came to a halt on the glacier below the chute. I had lost both skis, and although one was just above me the other was nowhere to be seen. My first question was about the missing ski, but the crew were much more concerned about my physical wellbeing. After convincing them that I was fine, and stomping back up the slope to collect my gear, they broke the awful news: The ski had scythed across the glacier and lept exuberantly over the bluffs below. It was gone.

Losing one ski is possibly even worse than losing two. It's every bit as useless, but you're left with the folorn reminder of a happier time.

But the skiing must go on. Like a spurned lover hooking up on the rebound, a few days later I was clipping into a pair of Kingswood SMBs. At 122mm underfoot and 188cm long, these are an awful lot of ski. At first it was strange (as I can only imagine hooking up on the rebound is strange), but after a while things were starting to feel good. It can't have helped that conditions were mostly churned, refrozen crud at the time.

But then it snowed, and the universe smiled upon me again. The SMBs are not quite so nimble and dainty as the BMX 108s. They're more like a steamroller. That goes fast. And handles precisely. A sports steamroller, if you will. After years of promising myself I'd buy another pair of Kastles, I find myself wondering if I might already have a one ski quiver. At Broken River on Wednesday they were admirable on open faces and in technical lines. At Temple Basin over the weekend they were downright awesome in some steep dry powder.

It will take a few more days in some other conditions to be absolutely certainly that these things are versatile enough to be the ski of choice for New Zealand, but one thing is for sure: I can't wait to take them to Japan.

Murchison Glacier Ski Touring

I've finally had a chance to sit down near a power outlet and fire up the laptop. Those of you who are following the instagram feed will have seen some of the pics from a trip I took with my brother James to Kelman Hut at the top of the Tasman Glacier.

It has been a pretty grim season in NZ so far. There was plenty of precipitation early on, but most of that fell as rain on the ski areas. Normally my home field, Broken River, opens in late June. This year they had to wait until mid August. But in the big mountains most of that rain fell as snow, and with Kelman Hut at just over 2400m elevation we were able to find a few great stashes of dry snow on the Murchison and Mannering Glaciers. It just goes to show that even in an ugly season there are always some good turns lurking around.