Learning to ski as a family is easy once you get your kit sorted, writes Monique Barden.
It's 1C as the sun rises over Wanaka. Frost coats the lawn outside, poached eggs, coffee and hot chocolate steam inside. Four of us clad in merino, ski pants and jackets, our lunches and snack packs prepared, the skis, boards, boots and helmets loaded — our first family day on the snow has launched.
The drive to Cardrona from Wanaka is beautiful and ominous, there's ice lining the sides of the road, twice we see a kāhu (swamp harrier) flying above us and we know who this patch really belongs to. As we turn off into Cardrona Alpine Resort and ascend the steep ridge the vistas are spectacular. You can see Wanaka in the distance and later I discover when you go up McDougall's Chondola you can see Queenstown, too. Getting views of both these stunners from your ski run seems greedy.
You don't have to be into snow sports to see this dramatic scenery, the chondola doubles as a chairlift and a gondola, the latter being the luxury way to the top, and there's a champagne bar up there, too. But we're in lessons today and they'll be none of those shenanigans — this is serious ski technique.
We arrive in a bit of a shambles; Orlando forgot his wrist guards; I needed to swap my jacket for a smaller size, and I forgot how damn hard it is getting your feet into ski boots and walking in them. We also parked down the bottom instead of using the drop-off at the top, which makes it easier with kids. Lesson learned.
The rentals room is packed, swapping my jacket is no problem, but we need to go right down the other end to snowboarding for wrist guards. I head down clumsily carrying poles, skis and walking in ski boots, I almost knock someone out. In hindsight I have no idea why I didn't leave the gear on the rack outside. Another lesson. We get to snowboarding and a guy asks if I need help. "Yes please, my 8-year-old needs wrist guards and his lesson starts in five minutes." Wrist guards appear in my hands within seconds, then we scurry to our lessons.
Orlando is the only kid in his group for a first-timer snowboarding lesson, and he ends up getting the fabulous Diego all to himself for the day. We were warned that learning to snowboard is hard and he may not progress as fast as the rest of us on skis. But he and Diego hit it off and as I watch them snowboarding down the slope in tandem holding hands, I know he's having the time of his life.
My husband, Rich, gets Henri settled into his lesson and I arrive a little frazzled to mine. An instructor walks me up the hill and talks to me about how much skiing I have done, then he buckles me into my boots, rearranges my socks and tucks my ski bottoms in correctly, I feel about 5 years old and mortified, but incredibly grateful for his help.
He hands me over to Elle and I join a group with two other women and feel instant camaraderie. As we head down the slope, Elle makes us hold our poles out in front of us to improve our technique. "Remember — toes, knees, hands," she calls. The next run-up she takes some pictures of us with Lake Wakatipu in the background, the views are thrilling. Then, for the first time in my life I have some amazing runs following Elle and my new mates down the slope — I don't feel nervous, I just relax and don't look sideways to see how high up we are, and it feels great.
After our morning lessons, we're famished, so we head to the base cafe for lunch and hot chocolates. Despite bringing a bag of home-made rolls, I succumb and let the kids have a bowl of waffle fries, they keep wafting past us and it's all too much.
We have a debrief; Henri said they were taught to "make a pizza wedge and then you want to make a small and non-existent pizza wedge and then you want to push down on one leg and turn". For Orlando, "there's toes, there's braking, there's turning". Neither of them seemed bothered about falling over. "They told us to go towards your knees and then you automatically pop up," says Henri. If only, I think to myself.
My afternoon doesn't get off to a flyer. Alex starts our lesson telling us there is no graceful way to fall over and no graceful way to get back up and of course within seconds I prove his point by skidding on ice and wiping out. Then halfway through the lesson, he realises I have picked up the wrong skis after lunch, they are the exact same rental ski and size but just not fitted to my boot — he sorts it all out for me and my skiing improves. Always get the right skis — another lesson.
The next day we're much slicker with the whole "get-of-the-car-and-get-your-gear-on" rigmarole. Rich drops the kids and I at the top and while he parks, we get to our lessons. Becky is soon teaching our group the "oh shit" moment: this is where we need to make our turns wider by letting yourself freefall a bit down the mountain before you go into your turn.
I watch Orlando confidently taking himself up and down the magic carpet on his snowboard and I then see Henri queuing with his group for the chairlift. "There's my 11-year-old," I spontaneously tell Redge, a sheep farmer from Perth. He's excited for me and he's hoping his 5-year-old granddaughter will be up there soon too.
We do our last run up the gondola as a family, this is a highlight and exceeds all my expectations — never did I think we would get to this point in such a short space of time. Henri speeds down the slope ahead with no poles, I ask him where they are? "I don't know how to use them, they haven't taught us that yet." He doesn't need them.
"I'm going through the tunnel mum, it's okay if you don't want to," he shouts. I don't want to, and secretly I'm peeved that my kid who only put skis on for the first time yesterday is already scooting through the tunnel, and secretly I'm thrilled.
He's learned his lesson.