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Chasing the endless winter

What's going on Down Under in New Zealand.

If summer is getting you down, then take a 12 hour flight to Aotearoa – the Land of the Long White Cloud – otherwise known as New Zealand. It’s where Snow God Ullr goes in the off-season, from July to late October.

For a country the size of British Columbia, New Zealand manages to pack in a fair number of ski resorts – more than 25 in fact.

Now as any good Skiwi (skiing New Zealander) will tell you, the South Island is where it’s at, thanks to a long mountain chain called the Southern Alps running through almost its entire length. Dotted along that chain are where most of the resorts – or "ski-fields" – are.

However, the North Island also offers its fair share of excitement. A beautiful cone volcano called Mount Taranaki sits alone on the western peninsula, offering some old-school rope tow action to get to the top of its ski-field.

For those uninitiated in the delights of rope tows, it involves wearing a waist harness with a nutcracker dangling off the side. When you're ready, you close the nutcracker on the moving rope and it jerks you forward, up the mountain and over a series of pulleys. If the rope falls off the pulleys (as it frequently does), just hang on with grim death from ground level. It’s even less fun on a snowboard, but it makes you tough.

If you hit Taranaki on a poor "vis" day – the local saying goes "If you can see the mountain it’s going to rain. If you can’t, it’s already raining" – never fear. You can check out the mysterious Taranaki in Tom Cruise’s movie Samurai, masquerading as Mount Fuji.

Head inland to the central North Island and you'll find New Zealand’s biggest ski resorts on Mount Ruapehu. The most vertical, the most lifts, and, most exciting of all, the most eruptions. The resorts actually had to close for two years in the mid-90s when the mountain erupted during the first few weeks of the ski-season. Loads of powder and lava to boot.

Things have quieted down in the past few years, so some of the must-do’s on Ruapehu are the hike to the crater and the ski down to the lake below (don’t drink the warm water). Then take some time out to visit the underground larvae tube caves on the Turoa skifield side. Locals have carved faces into the cave walls, and candles are always burning – usually along with a big fattie.

That said however, if it’s big terrain, big variety and true powder you are after, it’s time to jump on the ferry and head south. So that’s exactly what we did last August – two Kiwis and a transplanted Whisterite hungry for powder.

Things didn’t start out too promisingly. Several private ski fields hadn’t opened yet due to a lack of snow, so we took a gamble on the only resort open that day near Lake Tekapo, Round Hill. And Round Hill it is, by name and by nature.

The weird thing is, they are proud of it. The huge sign greeting you at the bottom of the one and only T-bar lift proclaims: "Round Hill – for the newly wed and the nearly dead." Since we were neither, after a few runs we were back in the motorhome heading to Central Otago in search of whiter pastures.

Within two days, Ullr answered our prayers. Fifty centimetres of snow overnight at Treble Cone near Wanaka, and we were among the first waiting for ski patrol clearance. Taking the edge off that frustrated anticipation were kea birds providing some sideline entertainment. Now Canada may arguably have the best ski terrain in the world, but it doesn’t have keas (pronounced key-ahs). These khaki-green mountain parrots with the burnt orange colour feathers on the underside of their wings are the clowns and tricksters of the high alpine, and hilarious to watch.

Hilarious that is, so long as it’s not your backpack they are opening or the rubber around your car windshield they are ripping off with glee. While most birds seem to dedicate a fair chunk of their day to survival activities such as eating, the highly intelligent keas are hell-bent on destroying things and amusing themselves.

Treble Cone turned out to have some decent runs, and if you are prepared to hike, some excellent backcountry terrain that feeds back down to the high-speed quad at the bottom. The funky little town of Wanaka is the perfect place to wind down after a great day’s riding About an hour further south are the jewels of Cardrona, the Remarkables and Coronet Peak nestled around the crown of Queenstown – a town better known for winding it up.

Between the two centres is also a jibber’s paradise – Snowpark – and Snowfarm for the cross-country ski fans.

Compared to Canada, the lift access on the Southern Alps is very limited. Yet according to George Robbi, a part owner in Queenstown’s Southern Lakes Heliski and Tulsequah Heliskiing in north-western British Columbia, New Zealand’s ski terrain equals anything in Canada. And if you can afford the air ticket, it’s yours for the taking.

Fortunately a Wanaka-based ski company, Backcountry Helicopters, lets local ski-bums have a taste of what’s out there with a Local’s Day deal it runs every season. It’s always a sell-out and it’s easy to see why. At a discounted cost of $350(NZ), you get four heli drops and you chose your way down – from the easy to the steep, with fresh southern powder all the way.

Backcountry Heli’s marketing manager, Harley Anderson, says the quality of the snow is often a big surprise to customers.

"There’s a common misperception that the snow we get at lower elevations is the same as what’s up here," Anderson says. "There are different weather systems hitting all these mountains, so there’s huge variation in snow depth and quality. We take people to where the best snow is on the day. These Locals Days help educate people about what is really available here."

And true to his word, the snow was fabulous – at last Ullr was there in full force. With the pink alpine glow starting to creep its way over the mountain-tops, our heli day was almost over, and the end of our southern ski mission. It might have been a time to wind down, but there was one more bit of excitement to come.

You see, before Backcountry Helicopters got into skiing, the company was into deer recovery, shooting wild deer thundering through the alps while hanging outside the chopper. Not for the faint hearted, and boy, these pilots can fly. So if you’re not ready to ski the steepest stuff yet, ask for Mango the pilot and chalk up some of the craziest yet probably safest flying you’ll ever do. Just don’t eat too much lunch first.

As for the 2004 season, this month we’ll be checking out the ski resorts in the central South Island – namely Mount Hutt, Mt. Cheeseman and Porter Heights, not to mention the rope-tow club fields of Temple Basin, Broken River and Craigieburn.

The latter holds the dubious honour of the steepest and fastest rope-tow in the southern hemisphere and some of the sickest terrain to boot. If there’s enough cash in pocket, another goal is the private high country farm of Mount Potts. It’s ski-cat access only terrain and apparently the best powder in the country. Hence it’s become a popular location for northern hemisphere ski and board companies to shoot their catalogues for the next season.

And last but not least, the big mother herself, Mount Cook or Aoaraki, is in our sights. We called in there during our last ski trip, and who did we meet on the tarmac waiting to fly into the backcountry huts for some multi-day touring but Helen Clark.

So hell, if it’s good enough for New Zealand’s Prime Minister, it’s good enough for us.

Come on Down Under Ullr, we’re ready!

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