Queenstown: Access all (alpine) areas

No good at skiing? No problem. Danielle Wright sets out in snowshoes through Queenstown's backcountry.

Oh, we've just been for a cup of tea and a sandwich on a frozen lake, how about you? Photo / Getty Images
Oh, we've just been for a cup of tea and a sandwich on a frozen lake, how about you? Photo / Getty Images

We're 1800m above sea level, sitting in a freshly carved snow seat on the edge of a frozen lake sipping hot tea and eating cookies.

Duran Duran's former bodyguard, Peter Hitchman, is my guide. His company, Guided Snowshoe Walks, has a strapline: "Every Step a Story". And with Peter, it really is. You learn not only about the mountain, the environment and the locals, but also about his days with the 80s pop band - who knew they were so scandalous?

From time to time, water bubbles under the frozen surface make eerie noises in the silence. It sounds like a whale is trapped under the ice of the frozen Lake Alta in The Remarkables.

"I've never heard that before," says Pete, who has taken thousands of people to this spot over the past two years and suggests it's because the season was slow to start and too much water from the lake was taken to make snow for the slopes, creating air bubbles underneath.

Down below are small dots of snowboarders and skiers, no doubt unaware of this hidden spot. We've managed to go off the main slopes into the beautiful backcountry thanks to a pair of snowshoes, which Peter introduced in 2009 with five guided walks that season and almost 1000 the next.

Snowshoes were once just a mode of transport, but now they are part of the fastest-growing winter activity in Japan and the United States. Traditionally, they looked a bit like you'd strapped a pair of tennis rackets to your feet, but now they are sleek and resemble tiny skis.

The shoes distribute your weight over a larger area so you don't sink into the snow and are used by runners or hikers who want to continue their sport into the winter, or by anyone wanting a day off from other winter sports, who have injuries, or who just want bragging rights around the lodge fireplace.

It's so simple and there's really nothing to learn, unlike the more difficult pastimes of skiing or snowboarding. You just clip on the steel-and-plastic shoes and you're off - albeit feeling a little like you're wearing a pair of flippers, until you get used to them.

We walk through snow, over rocks and even ice and the shoes are so sturdy and stick so well to any terrain that you never feel unsafe. If you do slip, you have walking poles for support.

Although the views are spectacular, it's also about the adventure of walking off the beaten track. Pete has taken a blind man and a couple of elderly ladies up this mountain during a 160km/h snowstorm, and they loved it.

There's no path to follow, you make your own way through the backcountry, so there's no dodging a snowboarder who hasn't bothered with a lesson. It's good to escape the crowds and appreciate the peacefulness of the mountain.

Although it is a bit daunting at the bottom of the mountain as Peter points to the top to show me where we are headed, the time goes quickly and too soon we're back on the main slopes walking past waterfalls that go unnoticed by others zooming their way back to the base.

As we head back down the mountain, attracting lots of attention because of our novelty footwear, we offer to tow a couple of snowboarders across a flat slope.

"We saw you walking up the mountain hours ago, what have you been doing?" they ask us.

Peter takes pride in answering: "Oh, we've just been for a cup of tea and a sandwich on a frozen lake, how about you?"

TAKE TO THE SNOW

Half day walk: Adults from $140, children from $105.

Full day walk: Adults from $180, children from $155.

Overnight trip flying by helicopter to mountain ridge to stay at a private hut: Adults and children $980.

Further information: See Guided Snowshoe Walks.

Peter's team can also tailor privately guided walks for individuals or groups, make the walks adventurous or passive, and cater for special interests such as photography.
Phone: 03 442 7126 or email info@nzwalks.com.

- Herald on Sunday

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