Community-minded ski clubs offer quick learning on their steep slopes, writes Kelly Lynch.
The gods don't make it easy to get to Canterbury's Mt Olympus. The faint-hearted will turn back at each hurdle, leaving only those hungry for adventure accessing primo powder snow high on the Canterbury mountainside.
Instructions to get there go something like: "After the high country station gate, drive up a tight, gravel, winding road. At bottom hut make a radio call to top hut to check there's no descending traffic. Chains must be fitted. The road becomes narrower. Don't worry if it looks like you're in the middle of nowhere, that's normal."
What we discover on the icy road is, whereas one road side hugs a mountain, the other side drops straight down. There is no wriggle room. We take deep breaths. At the end of the road we strap on our backpacks, squeeze on ski boots and skis, buckle a harness and lock the nutcracker on to a fast moving towrope. With wind in our faces we ski up a steep hillside to a landing. Then ski across to a lodge fit for the gods. It has a bar, bunkrooms, two chefs, instant hot showers and the country's highest hot tub.
The gods are the skiing stalwarts who have created and continue to maintain this haven since 1932; some are fourth generation. They're welcoming, warm-hearted, hardy types, here to ski hard and party hard.
Through a lodge window we watch gun skiers ride over a ridge making a continuous S down one side. In the foreground three skiers perfect back flips; one of them is world champion free skier Charlie Murray. Club manager Todd Windle is also an international extreme free-ride skier.
It's the first day of the season and there's an abundance of snow. No groomed runs mean it's off-piste (steep, bumpy terrain) only. Under the snow's crusty surface is fluffy shin-deep powder, requiring wide skis and good technique to navigate. Is it something a couple of average skiers could handle?
Thankfully, we warmed up a few days prior at a couple of other nearby fields. Canterbury is a mecca for club ski fields. At the foothills of the spectacular Southern Alps, in Selwyn, central Canterbury, an hour and a half from Christchurch, there are five club fields: Temple Basin, Broken River, Craigieburn, Mt Olympus and Mt Cheeseman, near to the smaller commercial field named Porters.
The community-minded clubs, open to visitors, offer quick learning on their steep slopes. There are small or no queues, plenty of nearby parking and amazing views. For non-skiers there's warmth, comfort and space to relax. Arriving from the North Island, hiring a four-wheel drive and chains from Omega Rental cars near Christchurch airport works well. We hire skis from Gnomes Alpine Sports in Darfield.
Our first ski field is Porters, a smaller, family-friendly commercial field (previously a club field) at the end of a short, gravel road. It has a carpet and platter lift in the learners' area, a fast chairlift and T-bars for advanced skiers and boarders. Snowmaking machines and groomers work during the night. There's a great cafe and rental gear if required.
Season pass holders have unlimited access to the Skills Clinic run by snow expert Jason, a local from Darfield. On the mountain he now teaches snow sports to kids from the local schools he once attended. Offering casual classes, he has some great tips using analogies — "When turning, your legs need to move together just like the turning wheels of a car."
We practise off-piste skiing. Later, a warm fire and apres ski awaits at Porters Lodge.
Down on the flat, from State Highway 73, ancient limestone rocks can be seen jutting from rolling mounds at Castle Hill. There are plenty of easy walks in the area and more rocks on Flock Hill Station, named because from afar they appeared like flocks of sheep.
While we are eating a delicious hearty meal in front of a fire at Flock Hill Lodge, a large community meeting about avalanches goes on in the next room. Eavesdropping, it's good to learn robust systems are in place, and we retire peacefully under the warm covers in our luxury self-contained lodge.
Early morning, we drive an unsealed, winding road shrouded in mist, fresh fallen snow rests heavily on the outstretched branches of beech trees. Above the treeline, we find Mt Cheeseman's two lodges. Inside the day lodge it's warm and smells of real, hot chocolate. A screen plays amusing black and white film clips of clubbies' early attempts at ski sports.
The club began almost 90 years ago with ice-skating and toboggan riding and has continued to grow. Like the other clubs, it's steeped in history, its committed volunteers making structural improvements during the hot summer months. Today there's a new clubbie in training, Rosko. After two years, he'll be the only club avalanche rescue dog in the region.
Mt Cheeseman field has a dedicated learners' area, T-bars lead to groomed runs and off-piste. During ski weeks, a week staying at the lodge, including meals and five group lessons, skiers/boarders excel in progress. The terrain is varied, a good place to graduate into steep slopes, while enjoying vast views of Torlesse Range.
Taking a day off the slopes, we drive half an hour away to stay at the Alpine Motel at Arthurs Pass. A one-hour return walk to Devil's Punchbowl waterfall has us stretching our legs, feeling muscles we didn't know we had.
Revived, fresh with experience from Porters and Cheeseman, we now try to ski at Mt Olympus. But is our preparation enough? Ski instructor Tim, patiently demonstrates the nutcracker tow system. Trying to ski in deep snow, I wobble uncontrollably and fall repeatedly. It's a humbling experience, like learning to ski all over again. Feeling silly, I retreat in to the lodge. Inside, there's no chest beating or bragging from the gun skiers, instead there's a relaxed community vibe, they're not just there for the skiing and the location, but for the camaraderie — just what you'd hope from the gods.
Jetstar flies from Auckland to Christchurch, with one-way Economy Class fares from $43.