Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Polar dumping icing on cake for Ruapehu skifield openings

The ski racks have been stacked, the tows have been warmed up, and in just 48 hours it's snow time.

Thousands of skiers and snowboarders are expected on Mt Ruapehu's Whakapapa and Turoa slopes on Saturday, after last week's polar blast gifted 40cm of fluffy new snow just in time for the 2013 season.

A relatively dry lead-up might have been cause for concern, but the mountain's operators knew from experience the white stuff would eventually come. "The snow turned up literally on cue and it's fantastic. It's going to be one of the best starts we've had in years," Mt Ruapehu customer relations manager Annah Dowsett said.

When the Herald visited Turoa yesterday, staff were busy clearing roads, digging out trails and showing the ropes to some of the 700 attendants working on the mountain.

While the ski areas were well covered, last week's heavy snow dump didn't mean all the readying work was done.

"There's a lot of snow that fell but it's now settled, and there's more in gullies and less on ridges," Ms Dowsett said.

"So once we get the snow, we then have to spend a lot of time pushing it around, spreading it out, and putting it where we want it."

The job had been made easier by more than $3 million of new machinery on Mt Ruapehu, including five groomers capable of pushing masses of snow and eight snow guns able to top up hard-packed trails on a cold morning with 20cm to 30cm of fresh powder. Mt Ruapehu's operators have budgeted for around 385,000 visitors this season, with a typical busy day seeing up to 5000 people on Turoa's slopes and 6000 at Whakapapa.

The impending influx meant snow-clearing and snow-making efforts had become a night and day operation, she said.

"Basically, we work a good 10- to 12-hour day now in getting ready and getting operational - it's all hands to the wheel."

She described the mood among her team as "stress, excitement, anxiety, anticipation - all rolled into one".

And as for the season's weather outlook, her gut feeling was good.

"It's definitely starting off in the right direction."

Record early season dumps also graced the opening weeks at South Island fields Mt Hutt, The Remarkables and Coronet Peak this month, and treated Manganui Ski Area at Mt Taranaki to a 15cm base.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Science's winter climate outlook forecasted slightly above average temperatures across the country. But above-average precipitation, with cold snaps, meant there was little worry for skiers.

Snow Business

385,000 Visitors expected on the ski areas of Mt Ruapehu this season, opening on Saturday.

6000 Turnout at Whakapapa ski area on a typical busy day.

700 Attendants trained by full-time staff to work on the slopes this winter.

$3m Investment by Mt Ruapehu operators on new machinery to improve skiing conditions.

- NZ Herald

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