HELL OF A SKI

Go Travel New Zealand - - Contents - By Mark Se­don

As the sound of the he­li­copter di­min­ishes we are left with a deaf­en­ing si­lence. The only sound is the oc­ca­sional squeak­ing of dry crisp snow un­der ski or snow­board boots. There’s a mix­ture of emo­tion, adren­a­line and com­plete awe which threat­ens to make us dizzy. Once brave enough, ev­ery­one peers down the slope be­low, with a cer­tain amount of trep­i­da­tion, quickly fol­lowed by a broad smile stretch­ing across ev­ery­one’s face as they see the smooth invit­ing pow­der snow cov­ered slope, and re­mem­ber to breathe...

We’re on the top of Triple Peak, at 2200m, in the South Buchanan Moun­tains, 20 min­utes drive from Wanaka, NZ. The day started as any typ­i­cal ski re­sort day does, early alarm, a hot break­fast in a lo­cally brewed cof­fee scented cafe, but in­stead of driv­ing off to­wards Cardrona or Tre­ble Cone, we or­der an­other cof­fee and wait for our heli-ski van pickup.

The van ar­rives about 9:00 and along with other ex­cited skiers and board­ers we’re driven up the Matuk­i­tuki Val­ley. Where most of the cars turn off at Tre­ble Cone, we keep go­ing, past deer, cows and sheep graz­ing in the morn­ing sun. Our necks twist sky­wards at the snow cov­ered peaks al­most 2000m above the val­ley floor. The Buchanan Moun­tains are on our right, the North Har­ris Moun­tains on our left, Mt As­pir­ing Na­tional Park is straight ahead.

The stag­ing area is in a pad­dock not long va­cated of sheep which seem to have left be­hind the oc­ca­sional sheep poo which can stick to a badly placed ski boot. We meet our guide and he­li­copter pilot, both qui­etly con­fi­dent and ooz­ing moun­tain knowl­edge and spend 10 min­utes go­ing over the he­li­copter brief and all laugh when the guide points out that this air­line ac­tu­ally gives you an axe, in­stead of tak­ing away your nail file. But it’s a se­ri­ous brief and af­ter­wards we are all afraid to kick the he­li­copter or to run off af­ter a blown away hat.

Next safety brief is on avalanches. You can’t have good snow with­out a lit­tle avalanche dan­ger. But the guide ex­plains how we’ll move around the moun­tains safely, and how to res­cue each other if the un­likely hap­pens, an avalanche. Ap­par­ently he’s in the most dan­ger as they al­ways goes first. Af­ter our les­son he sounds con­fi­dent that’ll we’ll be able to dig him out, should the need arise.

We load into the he­li­copter, buckle up the seat belts and get the cam­era ready. You can al­most smell the ex­cite­ment as the pilot starts the jet en­gine and waits for it to warm up. The pilot and guide nod to each other and we are ef­fort­lessly hoisted sky­wards. What a feel­ing as we pick up speed and altitude. We can see the moun­tain top out the front win­dow and the pilot seems to ef­fort­lessly land us a few me­tres down from the top on a nar­row snow arete. The moun­tain drops away alarm­ingly in front of the he­li­copter and the back skids are hang­ing off the other side.

The guide gets out and calmly un­loads the skis and boards then opens the door, stand­ing be­tween us and the drop. We climb out and as in­structed, slowly walk around be­hind our gear and crouch down, hold­ing it all in place. He closes the doors and af­ter check­ing on us, gives the pilot the thumbs up and the he­li­copter takes off down the val­ley. That’s when the si­lence hits us.

We clip into our skis and boards and the guide gives us our third brief for the day. Please al­ways stop above him. Ski care­fully ( we’re a long way from med­i­cal as­sis­tance and haz­ards are never marked). And most im­por­tantly, HAVE FUN…….

The guides are all avalanche pro­fes­sion­als so af­ter he looks at the lay­ers of snow and does a quick sta­bil­ity test, he in­structs us to let him get 50m ahead, then fol­low. The slope be­low is like some­thing out of a War­ren Miller ski film. Not a track can be seen. It’s cov­ered in 30-40cms of fresh snow, but it hasn’t snowed in a week. “It dries out and just gets bet­ter” he says. We can see an­i­mal tracks, which are rab­bits and oc­ca­sional Thar.

To the west Mt As­pir­ing (3033m) is clearly vis­i­ble with the blue Tas­man Sea not far be­hind, to the north we can make out Ao­raki/Mt Cook be­hind an end­less fore­ground of hun­dreds of snow capped moun­tains. To the south is Tre­ble Cone, look­ing boney and well skied, be­low us is the green Matuk­i­tuki Val­ley.

As the guide skis off his boots are hid­den by fluffy pow­der snow and we’re sure we hear a lit­tle hoot or holler. Ev­ery­one fol­lows and are in­stantly ad­dicted to the soft vel­vety snow, the ef­fort­less turns and the mel­low slope

makes us smile and re­lax as we ski the first pitch of the most amaz­ing pow­der snow of our lives. We stop af­ter the first pitch and look back to ad­mire our turns, all smiling at each other, puff­ing lightly in the cool moun­tain air. We chat about the run ahead and are di­rected to stay close for the next pitch, get­ting fresh turns of course, but there’s a gully to avoid as it’s tricky for snow­board­ers to get out of so we all care­fully fol­low.

An­other two stops, more puff­ing, loads of laugh­ter and legs start­ing to burn, we pull up to the guide as he’s stomp­ing out the snow. We ask what he’s do­ing and are told he’s mak­ing a land­ing pad for the he­li­copter. We get out of our skis and boards and lay them in the in­structed po­si­tion, click off a few pho­tos, have a drink of wa­ter and a few min­utes later we can hear the he­li­copter com­ing. It lands right next to us, the safest po­si­tion we’re told, we climb in shak­ing our heads in dis­be­lief at the ease of this heli-ski­ing.

Within a few min­utes we are dropped on the top of Mt Alta at over 2300m and from here we can clearly see Lake Wanaka and Wanaka town­ship at the end of the lake. The guide tells us some­times he takes peo­ple up to the glaciers, land­ing at 2500m and ski­ing down past big crevasses and long runs

even fur­ther west that we are now. But the wind had ef­fected the snow, so we we’re ski­ing the Buchanan Moun­tains with more than two dozen peaks over 2000m high and ten times that num­ber of runs. An­other group is ski­ing the North Har­ris Moun­tains and a char­ter group has flown into the Minarete re­gion to ski and have a five star lunch at a lux­ury tent camp with fresh cray­fish (a good way to spend a lot of money!).

But Mt Alta is the most amaz­ing snow we have ev­ery skied and much steeper than the first run. We de­cide on a sec­ond nearby and af­ter the fourth 800m run we stop at the bot­tom, the guide builds a ta­ble from snow, lays out a ta­ble cloth and dis­plays a smorgasbord of lunch, hot soup and drinks. It’s amaz­ing how warm it is and we take off our jack­ets and en­joy the peace­ful lunch break in the moun­tains. It’s so dif­fer­ent to re­sort ski­ing. No noise, no tracks, no cues and it’s easy to see how you could spend all of the kids in­her­i­tance in a few win­ters.

Af­ter lunch, we load back up and fly to Dragon­fly Peak (2165m) and ski the aptly named ‘Mil­lion Dol­lar’ run. Then dur­ing the sixth run in a run called Chamois Basin we’re of­fered an ex­tra run, so we head over to Moli­effe’s Re­lief for two amaz­ing runs in boot deep un­tracked pow­der, ski­ing to­wards the green farm­lands of the Matuk­i­tuki Val­ley on wear­ing legs.

Af­ter the fi­nal run, we have a few min­utes to take in the view, snap pho­tos and talk about the peaks we can see. Our guide tells us he’s climbed the nearby Mt As­pir­ing 26 times, has sum­mited Mt Ever­est and sailed on a 20m yacht to Antarc­tica to take clients ski­ing. Which starts us dream­ing of fu­ture trips, more he­lisk­ing and ap­pre­ci­ate how lucky we are to have shared an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in one of the most beau­ti­ful places in the world...

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