Antarctic blast gets New Zealand ski season off to a good start
Jul 9, 2008, 5:35 GMT
Wellington - A raging blizzard all the way from the Antarctic is not every holidaymaker's idea of fun. But the cheers rang all around the mountains in the last week of June as an icy blast swept up New Zealand's two main islands, dumping enough snow on the peaks to ensure a great start to the ski season.
Some commercial ski fields in the South Island with powerful artificial snow-making facilities, which traditionally open early in June, unhappily had to close again in the middle of the month because unseasonably warm weather was melting the pistes.
But it was all smiles after mid-winter's day as they reported overnight falls of up to 15 centimetres of fresh snow, setting the scene for a bumper season that gets into stride for the country's winter school holidays in July and the first flush of keen skiers from Australia and the northern hemisphere.
About 1.2 million visitors took to the slopes on New Zealand's 15 commercial skifields last year and thousands more mounted their skis and snowboards on club fields and in the mountainous back country. Tourism officials expect more this year.
Most commercial fields are in the South Island, with some of the largest and best overlooking the dramatically scenic lakeside resort towns of Queenstown and Wanaka.
But the country's biggest and busiest fields are on the slopes of the North Island's highest peak, the 2,797-metre Mount Ruapehu, an active volcano sitting halfway between the largest city Auckland to the north and the capital, Wellington, at the foot of the island.
Coronet Peak, overlooking Queenstown, is one of the largest commercial fields and the first to open thanks to extensive snow-making facilities which include nearly 150 new snow guns installed for this season.
The other main Queenstown field is on a mountain range aptly named The Remarkables, which also has a host of facilities from large beginners' slopes for families to more challenging runs for the experts.
The Treble Cone field contains the South Island's biggest ski area, covering 550 hectares, and the slopes offer jaw-dropping views over Lake Wanaka and the 3,072-metre Mount Aspiring.
Another popular commercial field is on Mount Hutt (2,188-metres) in Canterbury province, which is only just over 100 kilometres from the city of Christchurch and its international airport.
Truly adventurous and experienced snow men and women can ski on the Tasman Glaicer, in the shadow of Mount Cook, the highest peak in the Southern Alps at 3,754-metres, and on the Invincible Snowfields, near Glenorchy. Both can only be reached by helicopter.
People have been skiing on the North Island's Mount Ruapehu since the first skifield was established 55 years ago, and about 100,000 go onto the mountain every winter.
But as this year's season began, Department of Conservation scientist Harry Keys, who is an expert on the mountain, said skiers should be reminded that it is an active volcano and it erupted suddenly only last September, trapping a climber who lost a leg after being hit by falling rocks.
'Ruapehu is a fantastic place to climb, ski, hike and photograph,' he said, 'but it's a very active volcano where even small eruptions can be hazardous.'
Systems giving early warning of an eruption are in place and designed to give authorities and ski field operators time to clear everybody off the mountain before they are endangered.
Ski field operators insist that their staff are trained in the practices of working in a hazardous environment.
And if an eruption or global warming did close the slopes, there are plenty of other attractions to keep tourists happy in the Ruapehu area, including some of the world's best trout fishing, thermal hot pools, river rafting and kayaking and mountain biking.