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Snowflakes meandered lazily down from a slate-grey sky as we crunched through icy puddles on the lakeside track.
The rocks beside Lake Wanaka looked like wedding cakes with a layer of fluffy white icing on the top, and spider webs dangling from the trees were frozen into artworks of silver filigree.
Tiny icicles formed on our eyebrows and eyelashes, making it hard to blink, and our breath hung in the air in puffy little clouds like cartoon speech bubbles.
The mountains had vanished behind a misty shroud, but it was safe to say that if snow was falling at lake level, a serious blizzard would be raging at high altitude.
I was so numb from the cold, I couldn’t feel the sharp pinch I administered to my arm. I felt the need to carry out frequent reality checks because I could scarcely believe our good fortune. It was August 2020 and against all the odds, here we were in Wanaka, in the middle of a global pandemic, blessed with snow to low levels and the opportunity to enjoy a winter holiday while the rest of the world was under house arrest in varying degrees of lockdown.
The blizzard had cleared by morning, so we left our cosy lakeside lodge before sunrise and headed up the Cardrona Alpine Resort access road, marvelling at the pure white smoothness of the new snow. The air danced with diamond frost filaments in the first rays of sunlight.
We were so early, we had the rare distinction of parking in the top car park and boarding the first chair up the mountain.
It was a sparkling, eye-wateringly sharp, clear day without a hint of cloud or wind which Cardronaphiles will recognise as a rare occurrence, one to be treasured.
More self-pinching ...
The school holidays had been and gone, so the numbers on the slopes had dwindled and we pretty much had the mountain to ourselves. We lost track of the number of runs we had, and my leg muscles were screaming out for a break, so we sat in the sun at Captain’s Cafe, indulging in crisp chilled cider, pizza and chips.
We were the last skiers on the mountain that day, relishing the solitude of the empty slopes and the long shadows of late afternoon.
But shared adversity always brings out the best in Kiwis and the ebullient spirit on the mountain was infectious. The lifties were even cheekier and more cheerful than usual and there was a strong sense of camaraderie among the skiers and snowboarders. Everyone was counting their blessings, so thankful to be there.
By early September, the restrictions had eased, allowing chairs to be fully loaded as long as neck warmers were pulled up over mouths and noses, and gloves were to be worn on the chairlifts (who wouldn’t — the temperatures were seriously cold!)
Over the next 10 days, the snow just kept coming — fine, light powder. When we left, there was twice as much snow as when we arrived. Note to self — September is always a great month to ski: there’s more sun on the mountain, fewer people and usually more of the precious white stuff than earlier in the season.
So it’s no surprise then that we are heading south again in September this year. However, for those who prefer to ski earlier, the 2021 winter season officially opens this Saturday, June 12 at Cardrona and June 26 at Treble Cone. Cardrona’s season stretches well into spring, October 17, while Treble Cone closes on September 26.
Cardrona’s 400 hectares are characterised by open, undulating, perfectly-groomed pistes, mellow basins and world-class terrain parks. The field is classified as 25% beginner, 25% intermediate, 30% advanced and 20% expert.
Treble Cone’s 550-hectare field is famous for its long, steep, uncrowded runs, natural half pipes and chutes, legendary off-piste terrain and spectacular panoramas over Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps. The resort is classified as 10% beginner, 45% intermediate and 45% advanced.
We’re a big family group, so we’ll be heading to Cardrona, where we’ve skied since the resort opened 41 years ago.
There’s 65 hectares of thrilling new terrain to explore this season, thanks to the installation of the Willow’s Basin Quad chairlift on Cardrona’s southern boundary. Real Journeys, which owns Cardrona, bought the skifield rights to the privately-owned Soho Basin in July 2018 and Willow’s is the first part of an extensive development which will eventually more than double Cardrona’s size to over 900ha of skiable terrain. When completed, it will become New Zealand’s largest alpine resort. Accessible from the Skyline cat track, Soho’s high altitude, southerly-facing slopes receive and retain a great cover of early and late snow. It will be superb for September skiing.
Bridget Legnavsky, the general manager of Cardrona and Treble Cone, is encouraging visitors to leave their cars at the foot of the mountain and catch the bus from the shuttle car park.
"We know that one of our biggest footprints comes from our access roads, with tens of thousands of cars driving up and down to Cardrona and Treble Cone every winter. To mitigate this environmental impact, our access road shuttles [from the bottom of each mountain] will now be free of charge. Our guests can take the bus up and get dropped off right outside the ticket office.”
No more trudging up the road and across the icy car park with skis, poles, boots and backpacks overflowing with gloves, neck-warmers, helmets, goggles and lunch.
"And to encourage our driving guests to fill their cars, we’re limiting our top car parks to vehicles with three or more occupants, and assigning hitchhiking spots at both mountains."
So grab a hitcher and get a top slot.
The other initiative is designed to reduce rubbish going to the landfill.
"We’ve made a lot of small changes over the years, like removing single-use coffee cups and PET plastic bottles from our food and beverage outlets, and we’ve been proud to be an industry leader in this space," says Bridget. "But now it is time to make big changes, and we need everyone to come on this journey with us.
So the message is "Pack in, pack out", a practice trampers who have stayed at Department of Conservation huts around Aotearoa will be familiar with.
Thumbs up to these initiatives.
Another piece of good news is that the Valley View Quad will be back in action for the 2021 season. This lift, combined with the new Willow’s Quad, will increase the resort’s uphill lift capacity by 44% compared with last season, when Covid-19 severely restricted operational capacity.
The first significant snowfall of 2021 has already arrived, so I’m hauling out my ski gear, sharpening my edges and stepping up the lunges to get in shape for the winter.
We’ll take the shuttle bus up the mountain this year, which will deliver us all to the base facilities ... it sure beats the hassle of putting on chains ... and it’s kinder to Mother Earth.
For more information about Cardrona and Treble Cone, go to: Cardrona Alpine Resorts
Stay at Buchanan Lodge overlooking Lake Wanaka: https://www.buchananlodge.co.nz/
Pick up a JUCY Rental at Queenstown Airport: https://www.jucy.com/nz/en/cars/