Mt Ruapehu: Kicking up the powder

By Jane Binsley

There's much hilarity when Jane Binsley takes her daughter skiing for the first time

Skiers and snowboarders head up the mountain at Turoa Skifield on Mount Ruapehu. Photo / Malcolm Pullman
Skiers and snowboarders head up the mountain at Turoa Skifield on Mount Ruapehu. Photo / Malcolm Pullman

It has been close to 20 years since I've set foot on skis, and well over a year since I promised my 11-year-old daughter I'd take her to the snow.

So when a friend arrives back from a school holiday jaunt to Mt Ruapehu, gloating over her five days of perfect skiing weather, I bundle Sophie, some road trip music and a change of clothes into the car and set off south.

It's 4pm when we leave Auckland, and by 8.30pm we're checking in at Skotel Alpine Resort, a Lockwood-style lodge in Whakapapa Village at the base of the mountain. There's just time for a quick mulled wine and a pizza in our room before we tumble into bed. Just like on Christmas Eve, the sooner we get to sleep the sooner it will be morning, we tell ourselves.

Skiers takes a lesson on opening day Turoa Skifield on Mount Ruapehu. Photo / Malcolm Pullman
Skiers takes a lesson on opening day Turoa Skifield on Mount Ruapehu. Photo / Malcolm Pullman

The next day dawns clear and cold, and overnight the perfect cone of Mt Ngauruhoe has materialised outside our window. The Mt Ruapehu Snow Report app on my cellphone tells me Bruce Rd and the Whakapapa skifields are open, and within half an hour we're settled into a fireside booth in Lorenz's Cafe above the snow line, tucking into eggs Benedict and a flat white for me, scrambled eggs and a hot chocolate for Sophie.

It's not yet 8am and we pat ourselves on the back for getting up the mountain so early. Not only did we nab one of the closest carparks, but we have plenty of time after breakfast to hire our gear before the queues build up. We can acclimatise to a world that's as alien as another planet, amusing ourselves watching newcomers clomp up the hill in their heavy moon boots, space suits and helmets, on a mission to explore the rocky lunar landscape of the skifield.

It's Sophie's first time on skis and any technique I might have had years ago has long been lost, so I sign us both up for beginners' lessons. We spend a hilarious morning trolling up and down the Happy Valley starter slopes, slowly learning to prevent our legs from slipping away from under us and delivering us - thump - on to the seat of our padded pants. All dignity abandoned, it's a great exercise in learning to laugh at ourselves. By the end of the day we're starting to get the hang of it, in a wobbly kind of way.

So the next morning we venture further up the slopes for another lesson, then reward ourselves with lunch at New Zealand's highest-altitude cafe, the Knoll Ridge Cafe. I ponder the logistics it took to get the materials for this award-winning new building up to this altitude.

Swooping down the softening snow that afternoon, everything suddenly falls into place. I stop thinking about the technique of what I'm doing and relax into it. I can do this! But you can always trust an 11-year-old for an honest opinion. Patiently stopping to let me catch up with her, Sophie offers to take a photo of me on my way down. "It'll be really easy because you go so slow."

Not next time, I promise myself.


Need to know

This spring, Mt Ruapehu is having some of the best snow conditions it has had in years, with exceptional snow cover, top-to-bottom skiing, wide-groomed trails and lovely powdery snow. The back country skiing is sensational at the moment, with four trails to the bottom and the extra-large terrain park (jumps, half pipes, rails etc) is open.

A Discover Package from Whakapapa or Turoa is the easiest and cheapest way to get started on the slopes as it includes a beginners' area lift pass, hire of skis, boots and poles or snowboard and boots, a group lesson and a sightseeing chairlift ride up the mountain as a foot passenger. Adults $110, kids 5-18 years $80.

Once you've got your confidence up you can move up to an Explorer Package, which includes an all-mountain day pass, snowboard or ski gear hire and a group lesson. Adults $155, kids $105.

Or a trip up the mountain makes a great daytrip. Build a snowperson, have a snowball fight and take the chairlift to the top to take in the otherworldly views.

What to take

Lip balm and sunscreen; cash and a credit card (stash them in an inner pocket); some tissues if your nose tends to dribble when you're cold; good thermals and socks; helmet and goggles or sunglasses

What not to take

You can tell the novice snow bunnies like me at a glance because we're the ones lugging around backpacks of unnecessary possessions. The Whakapapa skifield's three cafes each have free water fountains so there's no need to take even a water bottle. And really, who wouldn't rather buy a pottle of hot chips after a morning on the slopes?

Don't be tempted to borrow gear from 30 years ago. Ski technology has come a long way so you'll have a much more comfortable time if you tap into the new designs and materials.

If you're a newbie, by far the easiest way to hire your gear is to wait until you get up the mountain. That way you don't have to haul it up from the car, and you see what the conditions are like before you fork out for extra hireage.

Jane Binsley was hosted by Mt Ruapehu and Skotel Alpine Resort.

- NZ Herald

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