It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks, even if she's never before strapped herself into a pair of skis and tried to propel herself down a mountain. Shandelle Battersby reports from the snowface.
Skiing passed me by for various reasons. My parents never skied and despite growing up three hours' south from the Central Plateau, our school offered only one ski trip during college (didn't go), and my tertiary education in was more about tackling the terrain of Auckland's bars and clubs rather than the slopes of Cardrona or Mt Hutt. As someone who likes fires, hot pools, red wine and champagne I always imagined the apres ski would be more my kind of vibe.
Still, I'd always wanted to try it and finally, at 41, I had my chance to see what the fuss was all about. Would I emerge from the slopes of Mt Ruapehu bruised and disillusioned? Or would I become one of the possessed who chases cold mountains around the globe? I had absolutely no idea which way it would go, but definitely expected to spend more of my weekend on my backside than my legs.
As I head for Whakapapa Ski Area on Mt Ruapehu's northwestern slopes, I'm already congratulating myself on my magnificent timing. It's an ideal day for skiing with no wind and clear, sunny conditions (what's known in the trade as "bluebird"), and the fluffy, dry snow is in plentiful supply. It's so ideal, in fact, that the ski field is opening its upper slopes a day earlier than planned.
Thanks in part to its new snow-making factory and the weather gods, Whakapapa opened its lower slopes, including the Happy Valley Snow Park beginners' area, a month earlier, at the start of June. The opening weekend broke all attendance records as more than 3400 skiers hit the slopes. Numbers today will go on to top 1100 — not bad for a Friday early in the season.
As a newbie I have no equipment or suitable clothing except for a few pairs of thermals and some hiking boots but luckily I can outfit myself in rental gear in Taupō at Snow HQ.
You can also rent gear up on the mountain.
Bobbie sorts me out with waterproof pants, snow boots, a jacket, helmet, skis and poles, while goggles and gloves are available for purchase. Getting in and out of the boots is my first hurdle for the day, but I soon have it sussed. Sort of. Standing up in the boots makes me feel I'm going to topple over frontwards, and I have to quickly learn to relax into my shins.
The drive to Whakapapa, New Zealand's largest ski area with more than 65 trails, is an easy one that will take you less than 90 minutes on sealed roads. The lake views, native bush and the desert landscape of the Central Plateau soon giving way to the amazing sight of the snow-clad Ruapehu and Ngāuruhoe mountains. Cars are pulled over to the side of the road and their passengers are playing with the snow in the sunshine, actually throwing snowballs and building snowmen. When you live in New Zealand's urban areas it's all too simple to forget that snow is just a few hours away and it is fun. If I hadn't been so excited to get to the top, I would have stopped to build a snowman too.
We take two chairlifts up to get the lay of the land and have a quick lunch at New Zealand's highest cafe, the award-winning architecturally designed Knoll Ridge, which sits 2020m above ski level. The good news is that even more people will get to enjoy these views when the high-speed Whakapapa Gondola starts operating next winter on June 1.
I've been here once before, 18 months ago on an equally spectacular day, but the journey up the mountain and the views from the top could not be more different. Back then I couldn't imagine snow and ice covering the mountain's bare rocky volcanic terrain; today the deck where we sat last time is covered in 2m of snow and the ground below us is an ever-changing picture show of graceful skiers and snowboarders.
There was no time to linger over the glorious sights of Tongariro National Park — and even Mt Taranaki today — from the top, however, because it was time to head downhill again for my private ski lesson at the self-contained Happy Valley Snow Park beginners' area.
Happy Valley got a host of new facilities last year including elevator lift access, four new carpet lifts and a purpose-built sledding area. There are families enjoying themselves everywhere you look and one thing you quickly stop worrying about is how people who only come up to your waist look like they were born on skis and snowboards. You really do have to ignore everyone else and go at your own pace.
The other great thing is that there are people of all ages and levels there to achieve the same goal: get outdoors, have fun and, for many, try something new that's out of their comfort zone.
Sam, a lovely British lad in his second season at Whakapapa, helped me into my boots (harder under pressure) and we went over to a clear space of snow where over the next two hours I took a course in Skiing 101. This started with the very basics (how to put the skis on my feet, move about with one on at a time — for me, left was much more difficult than right — how to take them off again and, very importantly, how to stop using the "pizza" move) to slightly more advanced moves such as turning and even skiing backwards.
We go up the chairlift (harder than it looks) and the carpets (brilliant) then down again on our skis over and over until I get a high-five for nailing a couple of moves.
I was buzzing — not only had I stayed on my feet almost the whole time (only three minor collisions with the snow), but I had skied. And I had loved it.
The buzz continued during dinner back in Taupō at the excellent Vine Eatery on Tūwharetoa St (I was so hungry I nearly ate the waiter) and into the spa bath at the Heritage Collection Reef Resort on Lake Terrace which finally brought me down to earth in time for a good night's sleep.
The next morning I caught the daily Mt Ruapehu Snow Shuttle back to Happy Valley from the Taupō Snow Depot ($39 return, departs Taupō at 7.30am, leaves Whakapapa at 4.30pm) and dozed as we made our way back up the mountain. The weather was just as good with a front forecast to move in late in the afternoon, so staff were expecting big numbers earlier in the day. They were proved right, with 2800 skiers on the slopes. It was also opening day over at Tūroa and they too had a big turnout: 2300.
This time I'm trying out a group lesson with eight other skiers of varying capability and two instructors, Shannay and Matt. We go over some of the basics I learned yesterday and then step it up a notch, learning to control the skis and turns a lot more. Happy Valley is definitely much busier today, and I was glad I'd had my one-on-one time with Sam yesterday when I had a bit more room to flail about.
Shannay gives me some advice on my stance, which is a little too forward — "Your knees should be over your feet and your shoulders should be over your knees" — and this helps a lot, though I'm a bit cocky and I fall over a few more times today than yesterday.
Getting up from a fall on the snow is tricky. Those long skinny things attached to your feet get twisted in ways you had never thought possible, plus gravity is against you. Still, there's always someone nearby who is willing to help haul you to your feet.
As I headed back to Taupō for another spa bath and to collapse into bed, I was already thinking about how I'd structure my next visit to Whakapapa: a couple of private lessons in the mornings, followed by group lessons in the afternoon over the course of a few days until I had it sussed.
My holidays from now on are definitely going to involve cold mountains. I'm converted.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, NIGHT SKIING
is staying open for night skiing under lights every Friday and Saturday until September 29 from 4.30pm-8pm, weather permitting. Catch the shuttle from Taupō ($39 return) on Fridays. It departs at 3pm and gets back at 10pm, or get one of the $6 shuttles from National Park ,which go several times each afternoon of night skiing. If you're over 18, head up to the Schuss Haus Corona Bar for live music and DJs and a taste of apres ski. Tickets $39 for 5-17; $49 for 18+.
Whakapapa is a 4 hr and 20min drive from Auckland or Wellington and 90 minutes from Taupō. Air New Zealand and Sounds Air offer flight services to Taupō.
Where to stay
Heritage Hotels has two properties in Taupō. The Reef Resort is at 219 Lake Terrace, and is great for couples; while The Anchorage Resort is at 346 Lake Terrace, and is ideal for families.
Where to eat
A great option for dinner is The Brantry, while other excellent eateries include The Storehouse, Cafe Baku, The Lakehouse and Vine Eatery.
Whakapapa's winter season goes until October 22, while it is open from December to April for summer sightseeing.