Your Guide to a New Zealand Ski Trek
I have found a backcountry skiing paradise: It’s in the Two Thumb Mountain Range near Lake Tekapo, South Island, New Zealand. Over five days last August (wintertime down under), I was immersed in a landscape of broad valleys, gentle ridges and small peaks, while I gazed at majestic mountains and a surreal turquoise lake. This amazing landscape allows for customized ski tours without seeing any tracks but your own. Accompanied by four friends (including former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, now Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and front-runner to become United Nations Secretary-General, and her husband, Dr. Peter Davis), we experienced a unique adventure (through alpinerecreation.com) that included a stay in a rustic hut complete with bunk beds, wood-burning stove, solar power and stream water. About why she’s drawn to these mountain excursions, Clark says: “It’s a time to exercise, unwind and spend time with Peter, family and friends, skiing, exploring and absorbing the rugged, dramatic beauty of one of New Zealand’s remote mountain ranges.”
Fly into Queenstown and rent a car for the three-hour drive to Tekapo—but keep in mind that driving is on the left-hand side of the road. I suggest spending three nights in Queenstown at either Matakauri Lodge, Eichardt’s Private Hotel, or for a wonderful friendly bed and breakfast, Louise Keily’s Queenstown House. I also recommend a day or so at world-class ski resorts in Queenstown and Wanaka en route to Tekapo.
We start at 8 a.m. at the Alpine Recreation office in Tekapo, where we meet our three guides. We have been instructed to pack only the essentials. Our guides inspect our interpretations of this, then eliminate half of the things in my backpack: No need for PJs, long johns will suffice. The tour company provides any gear/equipment we don’t have, including cross-country skis and skins. Food and sleeping bags await us on the mountain.
We are driven 40 minutes to Mt. Gerald Station (a ranch), where we board a helicopter to the Rex Simpson Hut, our base camp. (We turned down the option to tramp three to four hours, since we wanted to save our energy for ski touring.) The hut is home for the next four nights and five days. After a cup of coffee and homemade soup, we set off for a couple of hours to get a feel for our skis, boots, altitude and snow, as we inhale the stunning view.
Early morning start with a homemade Bergen muesli and Vogel’s toast breakfast.Then we make our own sandwiches—prosciutto, artisanal cheeses, homemade chutney. We choose skiing around the terraces high above the lake. Our chief guide, Elke, makes a trail in fresh snow. After an “easy” day of five to six hours, I am happy to be back in the warm hut in full relaxation mode, in long johns with a glass of sauvignon blanc while our guides cook another delicious meal, this time a lamb curry made with locally sourced ingredients.
Our guide has been up since daybreak checking snow conditions. We put skins on the bottom of the skis to climb up Snake Ridge toward Stag Saddle. This will be the toughest day physically and the most exhilarating. Before we set off for our six- to seven-hour day, our guides perform the daily tests of our avalanche beepers.
In full view are Aoraki Mt. Cook (12,339 feet), Mt. Tasman and other 10,000-foot peaks that make up the Southern Alps. One cannot help but think of Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealand’s greatest mountaineer, the first to climb Mt. Everest, and feel a mountaineer’s awe of nature. We are lucky snow conditions allow for a fabulous ski run back down via Mt. Gerald plateau. I take off, thrilled as always with the feeling of speed on skis, perhaps wishing I had a pair of downhill skis. After a particularly fast and challenging downhill run, Helen Clark comments with a broad smile: “What a fabulous day!”
Keen for another small climb, we head for Pyramid Peak near the eastern basins. We traverse a broad valley leading down to Camp Stream Valley, take off our skis, ford the stream, and climb back up to a sunny ridge, Beuzenberg Peak, towering over us. Time now to practice telemark turns, not so easy for an ex-ski racer. Another magical day in magnificent scenery. It seems too soon to have a final sleep.
With skis attached to our backpacks, we make the two- to three-hour downhill tramp to Tekapo and the end of our unforgettable adventure.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of CTC&G (Connecticut Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Summer Ski Touring.