New Zealand's Heli-Skiing

Ever considered going heli-skiing? If you consider this activity is the exclusive domain of hot shot skiers with mohawk haircuts, think again. There are runs on the Tasman Glacier well suited to intermediate skiers. Pure joy rather than absolute terror is the dominant emotion. All you need is a desire to carve turns in virgin snow surrounded by some of the most glorious mountain vistas on the planet.

That last sentence may seem overstated - but only to readers who haven't visited Mount Cook on a clear blue day. After skiing in Europe, Canada, and the US, I found the upper levels of the Mount Cook area to offer incomparable glacial scenery - both from the ski plane and on the snow. I'd say it was a once in a lifetime experience except the adrenalin rush is so addictive that I know I'll be back and suspect most people who experience glacier skiing are similarly hooked. There are resorts with steeper runs but glacier skiing is the most perfect wilderness encounter accessible to a wide range of downhill skiers.

As a ski lift, a Mt Cook Line ski plane is hard to beat. Not only are there no lift lines, but no gondolas or chair lifts take you past the nation's highest peak on the way up. Landing on the Tasman Saddle, the smooth surface of the immense glacier slopes down past the sharp mountain spires that lines its route. Skiing in a group of six to 10 people with a leader from Alpine Guides, there's time to complete two 10 kilometre runs down the eastern and western sides of the glacier and also have lunch at the top of the icefall. Ice caves and crevasses are some of the scenery en route. Accommodation is at the grand old Hermitage, a rambling hotel with views straight up the valley to Mt Cook.

Glacier skiing isn't the only advantage of trans Tasman ski holidays. For expert skiers, New Zealand offers the ultimate skiing thrill: heli-skiing. Yes, there is some heli-skiing suitable for intermediate skiers and wide, short, powder skis are now available that make even deep powder relatively easy. But purists agree that heli-skiing should remain the way expert skiers can escape the herds and find the alpine "steep and deep" that, through skill, they have made their own domain.

Imagine stepping out of the helicopter onto a small platform at the edge of a cornice, the chopper takes off and you're committed to the precipitous descent. Bowls and ridges give grandstand overviews of craggy peaks. In front there are kilometres of untracked snow. Behind is the track you've carved as a signature on the mountain face. If you can't envisage this scene - with you in it - it's best to head for a resort.

New Zealand doesn't have the grand on-snow resorts of America or Europe - or even Australia. But it does have young, sharp mountains that offer some of the very best heli-skiing in the world. Indeed, New Zealand's terrain has made the helicopter a natural transportation option. It allows you to experience downhill skiing in a way the sport's pioneers could have only fantasised about. There are several heli-skiing stepping off points: Queenstown, Wanaka, Mt Cook and Mt Hutt.

When thinking about skiing in New Zealand, one's first thoughts are of the alps of the South Island. However, two of New Zealand's largest ski areas are at Ruapehu, about midway between Auckland and Wellington, on the North Island. Mt Ruapehu is the highest peak on the island and Turoa covers much of one side of it. Turoa is mainly suited for intermediate skiers but has a whole side of largely untracked snow over on the glacier. Whakapapa is the nation's largest ski area with a lifting capacity of 23,000 skiers per hour. There are views over to the perfect volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki (it used to be Mt Egmont) and the west coast. Whakapapa has offered some exceptional deals to Australian skiers over the last couple of years.

Even if you buy single day lift passes, New Zealand skiing is considerably cheaper than Australia's. An adult day pass is about $A37 at both North Island areas. The most expensive area is Coronet Peak near Queenstown which is $A44 per day. Multi-day passes are available at all resorts and offer substantial discounts.

A major breakthrough for trans Tasman skiers is that expanded Air New Zealand and Mt Cook Line flight services ensures that you can travel from Sydney or Melbourne to Queenstown in a single day, most days. That had been impossible before last year and the frequency has been greatly increased this year.

Of course, you don't have to go as far as Queenstown to ski New Zealand. Mt Hutt ski area towers above the edge of the Canterbury Plains and Christchurch in the distance. You could commute daily from Christchurch which is 105 km away but most skiers stay at Methven 30 minutes down the mountain. Mt Hutt is renowned for having a deep natural snow base when other areas in Australia and New Zealand are still looking at bare slopes and blue skies. Mt Hutt's snow can be topped up by extensive snow making facilities, too. This year, Mt Hutt has incorporated heli-skiing into its runs: you can ski down the North Peak side of the mountain on a 700 metre vertical of ungroomed snow then catch a helicopter back to the main bowl for an extra $A39 per run.

New Zealand ski areas are located above the tree-line and so have wide open slopes. And, with the exception of Cardrona, none provide on-snow accommodation: everyone commutes from towns at lower altitudes. Cardrona, between Wanaka and Queenstown, is different - it offers self contained apartments for up to eight people. Combined with relatively gentle slopes and a modest vertical drop of 390 metres, Cardrona is particularly well suited as a family resort.

Wanaka is a small town on the edge of a picturesque lake 112 kilometres from Queenstown. Part of Wanaka's attraction is the view across the lake to the mountains where you'll find Treble Cone ski area. Wanaka is also the base for Harris Mountains Heliskiing, a long established proponent of this New Zealand speciality. Treble Cone has just five lifts (including one double chair) serving 500 hectares of ski area over a vertical rise of 660 metres. It is renowned for its mogul fields and has a World Cup mogul course. It also has a new half pipe for keen snow boarders looking for air time.

Queenstown has an international reputation out of all proportion to its population of less than 10,000 residents. Its spectacular setting on the shores of vast Lake Wakatipu and the immense range of adventure activities available here are the secret to its appeal. In winter it is the dormitory town for Coronet Peak and the Remarkables ski fields, both owned and operated by the Mt Cook Line.

The Remarkables is quite a small ski area with 220 hectares of ski runs, a vertical rise of 321 metres and a longest run of 1.7 kilometres. It is well serviced by two quad chairs plus some other lifts and its setting is superb. Its tickets are interchangeable with Coronet Peak and there's an hourly shuttle bus from Queenstown about half an hour away.

Night skiing provides a whole new perspective on a familiar sport. In a way, it's like skiing with your eyes almost shut - many features are obscured by shadow so skiing becomes more instinctive. The greatest attraction of night skiing (apart from the extra hours on the snow) is that your senses are channelled upon the run because the surrounds are lost in glare or blackness. This tunnel concentration must be the way Olympic skiers feel - although I suspect they'd see nothing familiar in the distinctive manner in which I proceed down an icy night ski slope.

Coronet Peak, 18 km from Queenstown, offers New Zealand's only night skiing. It is also probably the country's best known ski field. Combined with the Remarkables and Queenstown's apres ski scene and wide ranging adventure opportunities, that's no wonder. The vertical is 434 metres, there's an express quad chair, two other chairlifts plus other lifts and hourly buses from Queenstown. And most of the runs can be covered by snow making when nature lets us down. It's not surprising that so many Australians ski here.

That is true of New Zealand skiing in general. It's too easy to forget how different the mountains of our near neighbour really are. Then you see the alps towering above you with glaciers tumbling down, and feel crisp snow underfoot. After a flight of less than three hours to this winter wonderland, you'll feel more than half a world away.

For more information on skiing in New Zealand, contact the New Zealand Tourism Board, phone (02) 247 3111; Air New Zealand, phone 132 476; Qantas, phone (02) ????to come. The Mt Cook Line can be contacted in Sydney, phone (02) 929 8388 or (008) 221 134. The Hermitage is part of Southern Pacific Hotels Corporation, phone (02) 267 2144 or (1-800) 222 446.

There are several Australian ski tour operators with New Zealand packages including Value Tours, phone (02) 262 5611 or (008) 222 001; and Alpine Tours (02) 901 4499 or (008) 811 351.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd