Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Skiing in Queenstown

Part of the reason why we came to the South Island during the winter was experience some of the places we'd already been to our on original trip during a different season. However, we were never sure if we'd get the chance to do any winter sports partly because skiing/ snowboarding aren't the most accessible activities for beginners on a budget. To begin with you need clothes such as a ski jacket and pants, ski socks, waterproof gloves, a beanie, thermals and ideally some goggles, although some people make do with sunglasses. It helps if you know someone you can borrow clothes from as we did from our old "flatties", who kindly lent us their fancy gear when they weren't using it!

I loved the Speights branded Sessions ski jacket!

Then there's the equipment itself: a board/ skis, boots and bindings, and maybe a helmet. However, you can rent a lot of clothing and equipment from any number of shops, especially in Queenstown or at the ski fields themselves. Last but not least there's the cost of the mountain lift passes depending on how often you reckon you'll be carving up the snow. A season pass can cost around $1300 NZD (or £660 GBP at the time of writing), which is quite a huge outlay, but you can use it as often as you want throughout the season, although you might not be able to use the pass from one ski area to another. For example, a lift pass for the Remarkables wouldn't allow you to ski at Cardrona as they're run by different companies. The other alternative is to get a day lift pass as this cheaper if you're going to be skiing infrequently, but it does work out more expensive in the long run at $95 per day. Another thing to consider is how are you going to get to the ski area? If you don't have your own transport then there are buses which take you up to the mountains (at an additional cost), but some people try their luck and hitch a ride.

It's also definitely worth getting some sort of winter sports insurance, as with any adventure activity there's always some risk of injury, but it can get costly if you hurt yourself badly - we've seen quite a few people around town with arms in slings or walking around on crutches. We didn't get any ski related injuries, but I got a nasty inversion ankle sprain playing indoor football - so it goes to show it's not always the sports you think are the most hazardous...!

The ski season in New Zealand runs from June to October, however, it wasn't really until the end of August that we got an opportunity to give it a try, but this was still great as never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd actually be able to go down a slope on a pair of skis! The closest I thought we would get to doing a winter activity was when we went snow tubing at Lake Tekapo! I was quite fortunate to get a job at Outside Sports on Shotover Street for a short while, where I was able to make use of the staff benefit of using the rental ski gear for free whenever I wanted!

Snow tubing is not to be scoffed at!

Our very first skiing experience was at Coronet Peak, where we booked a one day starter pack designed for an absolute first timer. It covered all our equipment hire including boots, poles and skis (not clothing), two 90 minute lessons, and our lift passes. The aim was that by the end of our lessons we should hopefully be able to slide with confidence, learn how to stay upright, stop, ride the surface lift and maybe start to change direction - easier said than done, right?

The Coronet Express chairlift at Coronet Peak

Getting all kitted out for our first lesson on the snow!!

Coronet Peak ski trails
Actually, it was quite surprising how quickly both me and Lizzie picked up the basics. Granted there were quite a few comical moments when we tumbled over, especially when I was coming off the surface lift, but it wasn't quite like the visions I had of my legs going in opposite directions and not having any control of where I was going. Having spoken to quite a few people, the general consensus is that skiing is often easier to pick up than snowboarding, although there's obviously less equipment involved with snowboarding. As to whether it looks cooler, it's debatable, especially if you're spending a lot of time on your arse in the snow - not that I wouldn't want to give it a try!

Lizzie on a successful descent down the beginner slope

Once we got the technique sorted, we actually felt the group lessons were a little hard work, especially as there's no guaranteeing the people who you're put into a group with will pick it up as quickly. There was an Indian family we were stuck with who acted like money was no object, turning up to the first group lesson unfashionably late without their rental equipment and expecting the ski instructors to fetch it for them! They also held up the lesson as they had bought a load of ski gloves that wouldn't fit because no one bothered to try them on in the shop... What made this situation more of an omnishambles was that none of the family  listened to the instructor and just did their own thing - at least they're weren't booked onto the afternoon lesson. The moral of the story is that it might be worth paying a little extra to do some private lessons for some one-to-one tuition, especially if you want to improve your technique quickly.

The rest of the day was spent practicing our turning and stopping, which takes quite a lot out of you, especially if your leg muscles are not used to the action, but it was all good fun. According to the NZ Ski ability guide we had reached Novice Level 2 on our first day and the ski instructor would have been happy for us to try the chairlift and an actual green (beginner) run, so with this in mind we wanted to try somewhere different and go to the Remarkables.

Lizzie and me practicing our "wedge" technique

View from Coronet Peak ski field - click here to view in hi-res

Going it alone at the Remarkables, we were aiming to boost our confidence before heading onto an actual beginner run, so we spent a fair proportion of our first day there on the surface lifts practising what we had learnt at Coronet Peak, before plucking up the courage to try the Alta Green run. Admittedly, it was a little intimidating on the first attempt as some people can be a little less forgiving when they weave in and out of your path, or in contrast when there's also another beginner nearby and you're not sure where they're going next. Even though there was a lot of falling over (especially down by the Sugar Bowl chairlift as it felt quite steep heading down the slope), it give us the desire to keep improving so we could try the Casterway and Turquoise runs on our next trip to the Remarkables.

Lizzie going up the surface lift at the Remarkables

Riding the Alta Chair looking up towards Double Cone

Lizzie on the Alta Chair with the Sugar Bowl Chair in the background

The Casterway run looks steeper than it really is

On the top of Casterway at least 1900m above sea level!

The Remarkables ski trials
For the next couple of sessions we decided to stick with the Remarkables as the ski area gets the better share of the snow falling in the Wakatipu Basin, partly because it's higher and better positioned. As a result Coronet Peak is often considered inferior (although in my opinion it has better facilities) and at one point a storm towards the end of the season virtually stripped all the snow from Coronet Peak. It was lucky that an unusually late wintery blast brought more snow to Queenstown in the middle of September and saved Coronet Peak from premature closure!

On the second occasion that we went up the Remarkables the visibility was pretty poor and it even snowed quite hard so we ending up getting quite wet, even though our clothes were supposed to be waterproof. However, we didn't have the luxury of being able to pick and choose which days we could go skiing due to work so we just made the most of the time we had.

Ok, but where!?

Looking down the Alta Green run on a cloudy day

The same view on a clearer day

The general opinion has been that this ski season and the one before have been pretty poor due to a lack of consistent fresh snow from Mother Nature, especially at Coronet Peak where there are over 200 snow machines to make up the short fall, compared to the 58 at the Remarkables. However, my view is that Coronet Peak is a perfectly good place to start learning skiing, possibly better than the Remarkables as there's more space for those who want to practice before venturing onto the chairlifts. For those who are more advanced there's also the option of doing twilight and night skiing at Coronet Peak at the weekends (weather and snow-conditions permitting) where the trails are lit up by floodlights!

Coronet Peak is also a more little accessible for those with their own transport as the road up the mountain is at least sealed unlike the gravel 4x4 only road up to the Remarkables, which takes 20 minutes to drive (45 mins in total if starting from town).

You get some amazing views on the road up to the Remarkables

However, if its snowing up on the mountains you're advised to fit your vehicle with snow chains for the road conditions or alternatively you can catch a dedicated bus up to the slopes. If you're really unlucky you could have the bus ride from hell coming back down the Remarkables ski field...

For our last run on the slopes following the late snow flurry, NZ Ski were offering half price lift passes for one weekend towards the end of the season, possibly as a way to make up for the terrible ski season. This would be the last time that we would be able to go skiing in Queenstown as the season was coming to an end and the spring snow was becoming more slushy revealing the tussock and rocks beneath (even compared to the previous week), plus there were other things that we wanted to see outside of Queenstown with our time off work. It was fun while it lasted and it has given us the confidence to build our now found skills in the future and opened up the possibility of going skiing in some other countries in the future!

A beautiful day for our last time skiing
This tunnel is pretty fun to ski through!


  1. amazing post nice place for snowboarding in Queenstown.
    Queenstown Snowboarding

  2. Thanks Shank for commenting on the post. Queenstown is truly a great place for winter sports, roll on next season!

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