We were on our first run on a pristine, blue-bird day at
, the day after a massive snow dump late in the season, and my heart was singing.
The sun was beaming down from a cloudless sky on slopes sparkling with powder snow that squeaked underfoot; it was a week day outside of any holidays so the queues were non-existent and there was no wind, not even a zephyr.
The Eagles' Take it Easy was blasting from the PA system at the Captain's and the lifties were dancing while dispensing sunblock to over-excited skiers and boarders.
Breaking our long-held no-alcohol-while-skiing tradition, we decided to indulge in a glass of cider at lunchtime — it tasted so good as we basked in the September sun, eating pizza and chips, we had another. Super-relaxed, I skied better than ever in the afternoon, so cider at lunchtimes on sunny days with fresh powder will become the new tradition.
No doubt there would have been a high degree of absenteeism amongst Wanaka workers that day so I chuckled to see the cafe staff wearing T-shirts with the words "Cardrona — promoting sick days since 1980".
Fresh snow creates a kind of a kind of mass lunacy in a community like Wanaka. At the mere mention of those magical words "snow-to-low-levels", people's behaviour changes. They gather in groups to sniff the air and study the cloud formations, making wise prognostications about how much of the precious white stuff will fall, from which direction, which field will get the most, whether it will suit skis or snowboards best, and how early to hit the slope — before heading home to tune their gear.
That morning, keen to be among the first on the mountain, we left home ridiculously early. The notice to fit chains to all vehicles including 4WD was right at the bottom of the road so I fully expected a white-knuckle trip up the mountain, and even considered jumping on the shuttle bus. But the road crew had obviously been on the job all night and had the road in tip-top condition, graded and perfectly gritted. I was impressed to see a couple of Cardrona guys assisting people to fit chains, which was an enormous help to those struggling with the notoriously tricky procedure.
While other resorts were still digging out their carparks and lifts, Cardrona's facilities were cleared of snow and fully operational by 9am. We already had lift passes so we snuck into the lowest carpark at the foot of the Valley View lift, which now has a little cafe and toilets in a smart converted container.
The day was pure magic, the stuff of legends — a far cry from the previous day when I was caught in a white-out so dense I'd have been seriously disorientated if it hadn't been for the little red flags down the mountain. Skiing defensively makes me tense — my feet and legs ached so much I'd retired to the cafe to wait out the storm.
To fill in time I read the entire history of the skifield on the wall of the cafe. Tall, rangy Cardrona pioneer and founder John Lee is pictured there, building his non-consented "high-quality farm road" back in the 1970s. The Mt Pisa farmer had a bold vision to one day "farm snow" so he designed the road with a gradual gradient, ensuring buses and cars could manage it with ease. The road today is testament to John's methodical planning many decades ago — gentle, wide and well-barriered, I always feel safe on that road.
The first official ski season at Cardrona was in 1980, but there was so much snow the new field was open for only 16 days. The following year, they operated for six weeks and purchased a snow groomer.
The double lift was installed in 1983 followed by McDougall's lift and a 200-seat cafe in 1985.
In hindsight, it seems bizarre but Cardrona actually banned snowboarding in the late 1980s, a ban that was only lifted in 1989 when one of the managers got hooked on what was then considered a renegade sport after he was persuaded to take a lesson.
The famous blue clock tower was added in 1993-5 along with the Mezz Cafe, expanded kids' facilities, apartments and a medical centre.
In the summer of 1999-2000, mountain biking, hiking and rock climbing at Arcadia began, heralding a new era of operations at Cardrona outside the winter months.
An express quad chair replaced the Captain's Quad in 2008, the old Captain's lift was installed as the Valley View lift in 2010, Real Journeys bought Cardrona in 2013, and the intermediate jumpline opened in 2014 bringing the resort's freestyle collection to four terrain parks, two half pipes and a big air jump.
The summer of 2015-2016 was Cardrona's first full summer of operations including mountain biking, hiking, stargazing and the Southern Hemisphere's first mountain carts.
In time for the 2017 winter season, Cardrona is installing a $10 million Doppelmayr "chondola", a lift combining eight-person gondola cabins and six-seater chairs. The new McDougall's Express Chondola will be the first cabin-style lift on a ski area in New Zealand, replacing the existing McDougall's Quad chairlift. The Chondola will increase the lift's capacity by 150 percent, with an hourly uplift of 2550 skiers, snowboarders and sightseers.
Having gorged on history while the storm raged outside, we eventually gave up waiting for the weather to clear that day and packed it in. The mist lifted around 5pm as we drove down the road for glühwein beside the roaring outside fire at the iconic Cardrona Hotel, another tradition after a day's skiing.
The blizzard returned overnight and it snowed again like crazy. There were even wispy flakes falling to lake level in Wanaka. I went outside to watch the celestial pillow-fight and catch a few flakes.
Our last run of the season was the re-enactment of yet another tradition — Queenstown Return — a scenic glide along the cat-track on the Cardrona boundary, with breath-taking panoramas of row-upon-row of the Southern Alps and the entire Wakatipu Basin. You could even see Arrowtown where I spent all my holidays as a child.
Born a Southerner, I took lungfuls of pure mountain air and eyefuls of alps to sustain me in the tame, green North Island landscape I now call home ... until the next pilgrimage to my turangawaewae.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: JUCY has a range of motorhomes for hire.
Gear hire: Outside Sports has an extensive range of ski and snowboard gear for hire.
Hit the snow: Cardrona Alpine Resort's winter season is set to open on June 10, 2017.
Justine skied courtesy of Cardrona Alpine Resort and Outside Sports and travelled to Wanaka in a JUCY Casa Plus motorhome.