Skiing and Speight’s: a week in the high country
High in the Southern Alps, a lonely road through Arthur’s Pass winds its way between collections of sharp mountains and along ice-cold braided rivers.
The high country here is starkly beautiful, the sort of place that’s breathtaking to drive through but doesn’t necessarily make you want to pack up and move there. Jagged peaks dominate the scene, the snow at their tops giving way to dry grasses, scree, and gnarled beeches covered in black lichen. A few sheep stations are tucked between the mountains, the sheep extra wooly and hardy looking. It’s all very epic.
Several ski fields occupy the Craigieburn Range, an eastern outlier from the core of the Alps. New Zealand’s club fields have a no-frills reputation, where big terrain and a lack of crowds supercede the need for plush amenities. Rope tows and t-bars are the only upward offerings, often with a walk to get to them. Surprisingly rough single-lane dirt access roads cling to the edges of the mountainsides, with just a few spindly bushes between you and an unpleasant drop should your tires stray from the road. It made our local Vermont benchmark for a crusty ski area— Mad River Glen— look like Vail.
We started off at Cragieburn Valley ski club, which is well known for abundant and steep terrain, looking for a single ride to the top to begin a day of out-of-bounds touring. Though we’d emailed to confirm the existence of the $15 ticket, a grumpy staff member was determined to turn us away, saying we weren’t “touring properly,” would “abuse the privilege,” and even insinuating that we’d steal their rope tow equipment. So, we tried out nearby Mt. Cheeseman, which had a huge array of backcountry options, friendly and accommodating staff, $10 single rides, and the exciting side bonus of many nickname opportunities.
After a t-bar ride to the summit, it was an easy ridgeline hike to the entrance of several long chutes and the snowy Tarn Basin. There was enough here to keep us occupied for days.
One chute in particular caught our eye. Spilling into a river valley off the sunny north side of the ski field, it quickly became our mission to ski it. We spent a day consulting with topo maps and the friendly ski patrol to determine the route out, and headed to the top the next morning.
The line was long, sufficiently steep, and held soft spring snow for 2,000 vertical feet.
Unfortunately, when it came time to take off our boards and hike back out to the access road, we discovered that our weeks of working in the vines did not contribute to our aerobic fitness level. We gasped and struggled upward, cursing the heavy gear on our backs and the spiky Spaniard grass festooning the hillside.
For the second run of the day, we traversed over to a wider snowfield. This eastern aspect held even better snow, and after linking big, fast turns, we faced a second exhausting hike out.
Thankfully, we hitched a ride back up to the lodge, which offered a refreshing local brew, Speight’s— “The Pride of the South.” There is nothing quite so good as enjoying a cold beer on a deck in the afternoon sun after a long day of skiing.
The rustic Flock Hill Lodge, located on an isolated sheep station, was our home for the week and a scenic place to spend our downtime. Evenings frequently found us lounging on the couch in front of a fire and rugby game, a pint of beer in our hands.
One day we left our skis behind and headed up to the summit of Arthur’s Pass, where the mountains get incrementally steeper and larger. Quite spontaneously, we followed a trail into the Otira Valley, meandering through varicolored bushes and grasses, and past icy waterfalls fed by snowmelt. Huge mountains loomed overhead, and a small footbridge at the edge of the snowpack was a perfect place to stop and soak up the view.
We returned to Cheeseman several more times, exploring Tarn Basin on the south side, and soaking up the views of wild terrain. Off the backside, slopes dropped away into countless isolated river valleys with no roads leading to their rugged interiors. There is no shortage of mountains here in New Zealand, but with very few roads crossing the Alps, access is an issue. It would be quite easy to spend months here skiing new terrain every day if we had a helicopter but…we don’t. So we contented ourselves with imagining big descents of faraway mountains.