Justine Tyerman experiences pristine snow, no queues, no crowds, magnificent views.. and a gourmet lunch with bubbly.
"I know you love cats but don't you think this is taking it a wee bit too far?" my non-skier friend said to me when I effused we were heading south to go cat-skiing.
She had visions of warmly-dressed cats whizzing down the mountain on skis. She was even more confused when I explained what we had planned was more accurately called caterpillar skiing.
"Now you've really got me!" she said.
I pulled up a photo on my iPhone of a bright red Pisten Bully caterpillar ploughing up a steep track at Soho Basin Ski Area near Wanaka. The cabin attached to the flat deck on the back of the machine was full of skiers and snowboarders with their gear loaded in crates at the rear.
"That's how you get up the mountain at Soho. There are no lifts there so these amazing snowcats transport skiers and snowboarders up the mountain to the top of a run and then meet them at the bottom to take them to another part of the resort. Pristine powder snow, no chairlift queues, no crowds, magnificent views.. and a gourmet lunch with bubbly. I can't wait!" I said as I tried to cram my helmet, skiboots, gloves, jacket, pants, socks and umpteen layers of merino into my small suitcase.
"Okaaay," she replied as she got to grips with the concept, seemingly a little disappointed there was no sign of any cats on skis … or caterpillars for that matter. "I like the sound of the bubbly. Be sure to send me some photos."
Our much-awaited day at Soho dawned clear and calm, and my pulse rate accelerated as we drove up the Cardrona Alpine Resort road to Soho Basin HQ. After coffee and morning tea at a cosy day hut, operations manager-guide Mark gave us a safety briefing and fitted us with avalanche transceivers before he led us to the start of our first run near the hut.
I stood at the top of the glorious, wide open, untracked sparkling slope, my heart pounding. Could I still ski steep and deep after all these years of wussy groomed pistes?
The snow cats were already trundling down the mountain to meet us at the bottom of the run so I had no option but to plunge off the edge and follow Mark and the others with ski patroller Brenda bringing up the rear.
The 20 members of our group quickly spread out across the vast, untouched terrain of Soho Basin, eager to carve first tracks in the virgin snow glistening like diamantes in the morning sun. All I could hear was the woosh of my skis in the powder and the occasional distant whoop of glee from one of our group. The sense of freedom and exhilaration was intoxicating - matched by an overwhelming feeling of relief that I could actually manage the snow and the terrain.
At the foot of the run, the two Pisten Bullies were waiting to take us back up the mountain in air-conditioned warmth and comfort. No freezing to death on the chairlift here at Soho.
With 264 hectares and more than 500 vertical metres, every run was different, and slightly more challenging than the one before. The more I relaxed, the better my skiing became. I surprised my husband - and even myself.
After an energetic, physically-demanding morning we stopped for lunch at a little alpine lodge tucked into a sheltered valley.
Lunch was a five-course gourmet feast served at a long table outside with starched white napkins, fine china and crystal, accompanied by superb Amisfield wines - including a divine bubbly which I photographed for my friend.
The talk among the mainly overseas skiers and snowboarders was of how well Soho compared with alpine resorts they had experienced around the world. As the only Kiwis in the group, we were proud to hear praise heaped upon 'our' Soho.
After lunch, I rode up front with snowcat driver Tony who loves his job so much he 'un-retired' and came back to drive the cats at Soho. The Pisten Bully was working hard as we ploughed our way up a steep track to the highest point, 1936-metre Mt Cardrona. The panorama of the Wakatipu Basin and the Southern Alps stretching all the way to Fiordland was utterly spectacular.
The run down was the steepest and deepest I've ever experienced, but nearby – I could hardly believe my eyes - there was a broad band of groomed 'corduroy' so I took refuge there when I ran out of steam.
The super-fast and fit experts in the group notched up around 14-15 runs that day and I managed a respectable 11-12. For me, it was just as much about the scenic experience as it was about the skiing, so I was happy to hang out in the sunshine by the outside fire at the lodge to give my leg muscles a break every so often.
The aroma of toasted marshmallows and spicy mulled wine were pretty strong drawcards too.
Our day at Soho was the ultimate backcountry wilderness experience, far removed from the hum of chairlifts and roar of snowmobiles, the harsh clattering of edges on ice and the constant state of alertness for potential collisions with other skiers and snowboarders. It was sheer bliss.
There are, however, significant changes ahead for this idyllic place. In the not-too-distant-future, Soho Basin is destined to join forces with Cardrona Alpine Resort which is based on the other side of the same mountain range. A partnership between the owners of Soho and Cardrona announced in July 2018 will see the creation of New Zealand's largest alpine resort within the next three to five years.
With the addition of Soho Basin's 500 hectares of high-altitude, southerly-facing terrain, Cardrona will effectively more than double in size to over 900 hectares.
At the end of the day, over a beer, Mark explained that even after the merger Soho would continue the snowcat skiing operation on a different part of the mountain. That's the best of both worlds. In the years ahead, we'll be able to access Soho Basin's wonderfully-diverse slopes from Cardrona and also escape the crowds for an occasional, extra-special treat.
Soho Basin Ski Area, visit sohobasin.com
A day pass at Soho Basin costs $785 including transport up the mountain in enclosed cabins attached to two 12-seater snowcats, a gourmet lunch and award-winning Amisfield wines and a variety of beer and non-alcoholic beverages. The entire field can be booked for the day for the fee of $20,000. The maximum number of guests on the mountain each day is 24.
Access to Soho Basin is via the Cardrona Alpine Resort road, a 40-minute drive from Wanaka and 60-minute drive from Queenstown, or a 10-minute helicopter ride from Queenstown Airport. The terrain is suitable for advanced intermediate to expert skiers and snowboarders. The majority is ungroomed, off-piste powder of varying depth but groomed runs are also available.