July 3 to September 16, 2014 (Christchurch and Castle Hill, New Zealand) —
We left the USA on July 3rd and arrived in New Zealand on July 5th – given that we are now NZ Residents it felt somewhat appropriate that we “skipped” the Fourth of July due to crossing the date line.
After a quick stop at Duty Free that resulted in a trolley bag of booze, we were off to our home for the next few months. We had rented a cabin in a village called Castle Hill near the Canterbury ski club fields.
Unfortunately, June 2014 had been the warmest June in 100 years, and even in July the snow was slow to come. A couple of the resorts that blow snow had one run open, but we never got that desperate. There were at least numerous rainbows to brighten our days (and hikes).
We spent our time stocking up the house, buying a car, chopping wood, and generally getting settled. The nearest store is 25 minutes away, the nearest real grocery store 45, and Christchurch is 90 minutes so it really was an effort to stock up.
Thankfully, we met the awesome Dicksons who were renting the house next door and made us feel welcome. Given the lack of snow, they lent us a couple of mountain bikes as we waited for the ski fields to open.
Aside from watching out for sheep, it’s a different way of riding. Despite the lack of snow, it was pretty cold. It was negative 3 Celsius (mid 20’s) at the start of one of our rides. And we had to cross two streams at the bottom. Unrideable and unbridged streams where the water came up to my knees. Cold!
Mark also introduced us to a new way to keep warm – always take a hip flask of rum and kahlua (which sounds gross but tastes surprisingly awesome) to help warm up before the long and freezing descents.
Their 3 ½ year old daughter also taught me how to approach the cold. As she put it:
“David needs a concrete pill!”
Why do I need a concrete pill?
“To harden up!!!!”
By early August, there was still no snow, so we dropped down to Christchurch to take a first aid class at the Red Cross. I also purchased a surfboard – at which point the waves of course went flat for a few days.
By mid-August, the snow arrived and we hit opening day at three different resorts in one week.
Day one was a bit of a mission. We went to a club field where we had never been — Temple Basin — about 45 minutes up the road from our cabin because they had just opened and had more snow than anywhere else. The only approach is a 40 minute hike from the parking lot and you are supposed to dump your skis, boots, and pack in the goods lift which is “850 meters up the road” per their website. Thankfully, they have said “goods lifts” to haul your stuff up for you.
Alas, without seeing the goods lift, we started walking 850 meters up the hiking trail to the first ridge. Looking down, we then saw the goods lift was 850 meters further along the MAIN road (not up the hiking access road). It felt too late to turn back, so we ended up carrying all our stuff to the top. While it dumped snow.
We were shattered an hour later when we got to the top — literally everyone who passed us could not believe we had hiked up with all our gear and kept asking if we were training for something. After a short rest and some water, we geared up and put on our climbing harnesses with nut crackers in order to use the rope tows. This experience is, as always, a bit scary and humbling the first time you do it in a while. The snow was soft in spots but skied off in other spots. It was a busy day — there were 20 cars in the parking lot!
Our enthusiasm with the great snow was tempered by the (lack of) visibility.
At one point, a wrong turn had us above a cliff band where I hit a patch of ice and went for a slide. Thankfully, I stopped short of going over the cliff although we had to remove our skis and hike up (something that I haven’t had to do in over a decade).
After an adventurous day of skiing, we headed back to the Temple Basin “lodge” a bit tired but excited to download our stuff. We then found out that the goods lift only runs in the afternoons on the weekend.
So we hiked down. Carrying everything. Again.
We were properly shattered by the time we reached our car. V said it was the most tired she had ever been from skiing, and that includes our 12 hour tours in Canadian backcountry last year.
We skied another club field called Craigieburn the next day as they opened. We both had skied there before. It was okay — too windy and wind blown for my taste and their top tow blew almost immediately so the runs were short.
Our local club — Broken River — opened the following day so we skied that with our friends.
Pretty awesome and no complaints. And a fun Kiwi experience even if another large production. Skiing at Broken River entails this: Drive 20 mins from Castle Hill to access road. Put on mandatory chains (even for 4wd vehicles). Drive up scary ice luge gravel road for 20 minutes through trees and over rivers to parking lot. Take tram that carries people and goods. Get lift tickets (we have passes for all local areas but have to swap out for daily lift ticket). Then hike 15 minutes up the world’s longest staircase (“Stairway to Heaven”) to the access tow. Ride access tow to lodge. Again, shot before our first turns.
But the snow stayed soft, it was bluebird, and our friends are awesome. Can’t really complain when they haul their whole family (14/12/9/3.5 aged kids) up there along with food (and cough “concrete pills” cough). Indeed, they even took over the grill on the outdoor deck and made awesome wraps and burgers for the family (and us!).
We took a day off when more snow failed to appear and we debated between touring and surfing. Given the lack of snow cover in the backcountry, we decided to drop down to the west coast for a surf. Pretty scary — no one around and wide open ocean swells coming from Antarctica. Not as cold as I thought — I was comfortable in a 5/4 wetsuit – but I felt that I had a right to be a bit sketched because the next point (3 miles up the road) is literally called Spooky’s “due the resident sea lion colony and great white feeding grounds” per my guide book.
A high pressure system then deposited itself over the South Island for the next month. We spent the week backcountry touring while V continued to perfect her cooking.
On the weekends, we skied with our friends and I volunteered with the Broken River ski patrol.
In between snow dumps, we also dropped down to Christchurch (Sumner beach) to see our friends and also to get in some surfing. While in Sumner one Tuesday, a mid-September storm gave us the first snow in a month and presented a Wednesday powder day. We helped persuade Trudi to call a bunk (ditch) day from school for the four girls, and while Mark was stuck at work, we headed up to Broken River for a great day.
A second front dropped another foot of snow, closing the hill until Saturday, so we headed back up first thing Saturday morning and had the day of the season. There was still (NZ) blower powder at 4pm if you were willing to hike.
Sunday brought another top up of snow before turning bluebird again and we skied until we were shot.
We drove back down to Sumner for one last night before heading on the ferry to the North Island to click into summer and a bit of warm(er) water surfing.
We will miss the Dicksons until next year!