Mustering the slightest courage will pay off on the pristine slopes of Tasman Glacier, writes Vicki Virtue
"It's virtually flat," our friend said. "I could teach someone to ski on it." Buoyed by these reassuring words, I eagerly anticipated our excursion to ski the Tasman Glacier — only to be confronted upon arrival with a form questioning my ability to competently ski a blue run.
"Just tick yes," my partner whispered encouragingly. "You'll be fine."
I didn't share his optimism but as it was his birthday, and a significant one, I dutifully ticked the appropriate box.
Unfortunately, my anxiety levels didn't improve when I was then handed a safety harness to put on — I realised there was more to this supposedly "flat glacier that someone could learn to ski on" than I'd been told. Still, not wanting to spoil an otherwise perfect birthday, I bravely donned the harness and nervously took my seat in the plane.
I should perhaps explain that I wasn't a complete novice when it came to skiing, but my previous experience had been confined to the "green" (beginner) slopes — so the prospect of a 10km "blue" run filled me with immense trepidation.
Fortunately the weather had defied the forecasters and the Southern Alps were bathed in sunshine as we flew towards the top of the glacier — helping to briefly distract me from what lay ahead. Mount Cook National Park is arguably home to one of the world's most spectacular mountain ranges, and even if you're not skiing the glacier it's well worth taking a scenic flight over the area to see this magnificent part of New Zealand.
It's also the closest most of us will get to the summit of our highest peak — which from the air on a clear winter's day is an impressive sight. Unfortunately, our ski plane landed all too quickly and within minutes it was just the two of us, and our two guides, standing alone at the top of the glacier, with 10km of superb, pristine snow in front of us — and only one way down.
On my first turn I inelegantly executed a face-plant. I peered up at my amused companions with sunglasses filled with snow, and began calculating how long it would take me to reach the bottom if I continued with the same approach. Thankfully, our wonderful guides took charge — unfazed by my ineptitude. The young, eager one raced ahead with my partner while the other patiently guided me down the easiest route.
Mt Cook alpine guides are recognised as some of the best mountain guides on the planet, and while their skills are undoubtedly better tested in situations involving ice axes and avalanches, they did an excellent job getting this rookie down in one piece.
Still, lunch came as a welcome break. We gorged ourselves on hot soup, roast chicken and delicious sandwiches from a picnic box in the snow before the plane ferried us back up for our second run.
Only this time we did a reconnoitre over the Darwin Icefall — an area where the ice has fallen, creating huge towers as large as buildings. "It looks safe," our head guide said, having passed over it a few times. "Would you like to ski through it?"
My partner eagerly agreed. The Darwin Icefall is a highlight on the Tasman Glacier. Skiing among the imposing Jurassic ice formations and exploring the enormous caves is a fantastic experience. But the nature of an icefall is such that there are a lot of steep, uneven bits to be negotiated, and as I stood on the edge of a 2m-high precipice I began to realise the full extent of what I'd agreed to.
Unfortunately at that point, there was no going back — the four of us were roped together and I was third in line. So I gingerly placed one ski over the edge: and watched in horror as a small avalanche of snow fell from beneath it, tumbling into a crevasse at the bottom. Still, with no option but to proceed, I plunged after the crumbling snow like a Kamikaze pilot, and arrived at the bottom (miraculously) upright.
Alas, I didn't fare so well at the next hurdle. Faced with yet another vertiginous slope, I foolishly decided to ignore instructions and headed in the wrong direction.
With no give in it, the rope tightened and I shot up in the air like a circus performer, half completing a somersault before landing prostrate in the snow. Thankfully, a soft landing prevented injury — although not the barely suppressed laughter of my fellow skiers.
So it was a great relief when we exited the icefall and set off on the homeward run, the end finally in sight. Although as I proceeded further downhill I began approaching it with alarming speed.
"Ah, she's finally got the hang of it," my partner thought proudly, as I flew past him and the two guides: out of control and incapable of arresting my rapidly increasing speed. Terrified of falling, I kept my eyes fixed firmly in front of me, not daring to look left or right, and desperately willed myself to stay vertical.
Mercifully, as the plane grew closer the ground grew flatter and my speed reduced to a manageable level, until I ground to a halt. At which point I unclipped my skis and walked the remaining distance to the plane.
My own challenges aside, the Tasman Glacier is a wonderful adventure — and for a relatively confident skier it's one of the best off-piste experiences you'll find in New Zealand. And if, like me, your courage does falter, remember the words of George S. Patton: "Courage is fear holding on a minute longer."
Getting there: The Tasman Glacier is in Mount Cook National Park, mid-way between Queenstown and Christchurch. There's a daily Great Sights bus from both Christchurch and Queenstown to Mt Cook.
Bookings: It's possible to ski (not snowboard) the Tasman Glacier from July 1 to September 30.