Thursday, October 13, 2005

Skiing

The plan had always been to try and get some skiing in whilst we were in New Zealand. October is very much the tail end of the season, but there was always the chance. So it was that we left Wanaka early and headed up the twisty mountain road to Cardrona. At the base of the mountain things didn't look too promising. It was warm, the sun was shining and there wasn't any snow to be seen. The tops of the mountains were still cloud-tipped, asleep, part of the 'long white cloud' which is what the Maori call New Zealand. Still the ski-bum at the entrance gate seemed to think it was worth our while proceeding, so we headed off the tarmac and onto the gravel track that lead to the ski lodge.

It's about fifteen kilometres from the main road to the lodge, and all of that is up. I've never driven anything like it in my life. Endless loops and hairpins of loose gravel road that make the Alpine passes of Switzerland and Italy look millpond smooth and flat. It wasn't until we were about three quarters of the way up, around about the time we hit the cloud base and it started to snow, that I realised I would have to go down this track as well - in an automatic car with alloy wheels and useless low-profile tyres (have you ever seen a hire car with alloy wheels and low profiles tyres? I tell you it's not natural).

By the time we reached the ski lodge, the snow was quite heavy, but unable to reach the ground on account of the high wind. Nevertheless, the lifts were open and there were even a few buggers madder than us already skiing, even though nobody could see where they were going. We hired all the necessary kit (including pants, which is only amusing if you're English), and strode out through the lodge complex into a bewildering wilderness. There was the beginners slope, complete with 'magic carpet' tow lift (and if you're a novice skier, trust me. If you can master this, any other kind of lift is a piece of cake). There too was a short poma for the faint of heart, but we couldn't see any sign of the promised chairlift.

As it turned out it was only about fifty yards away. Visibility was something shy of thirty, and closing in rapidly. With the aid of a local guide, we made it to the top of the first run and then by a mixture of blind luck and follow-the-leader, we made it back down again.

My earliest skiing memories are the dry slope at Harlow, something I have no great desire to dwell upon. Later I was lucky enough to go on a school skiing trip to Tignes. I recall a great deal of this trip: sharing a room with Marcus Adams, whom nobody much liked; making a complete tit of myself on more than one occasion; being show up by the other boys who had skied many times before (or possibly just once, and not at Harlow dry ski slope); and finally, in the last hour of our day, understanding how to turn without looking like I really needed the loo.

There was a ten year gap before I strapped on skis again.

This then was Glenshee, Scotland. Yes, you can ski in Scotland. Doubtless there are hardy souls who have never skied anywhere else and think it normal to queue for hours at the drag lift, to scrape one's skis on the rocks that poke up through the ice (nothing as soft as snow could survive oot here, pal), to ski uphill, backwards, pushed by the bracing gales, to wonder why it is that you're bleeding about the face as you warm up above freezing and realise that, numbed by the cold, your skin was being stripped away by the flying ice all unawares. Doubtless there are people like this, but I'm not one of them. Long ago I forsook the hard man's pleasure of the Lecht for the delights of British Columbia. Here it may be minus twenty-five, but the sun's shining and the powder's deep.

So Cardrona was a bit of a rude awakening. Like Glenshee factorial. Currently my beard is quite bushy, overdue (some would say) it's quarterly trim. I'm glad of it, though it took some hard chipping to get the ice out of it at lunchtime. The wind was vicious, and it carried ice and snow with it just for the fun of the game. Being in the cloud meant that it was difficult to know exactly which way to go. The ever-helpful locals had put out orange flags at almost the right intervals to guide us downhill in the right direction (avoiding cliffs, rocks and other terminal distractions), but many of these had been knocked over by young snowboarders, barely in control of their hormones, let alone anything else.

We made one bold foray from the McDougall's chairlift over the shoulder of the mountain (bearing in mind this is all happening seven thousand feet up or more), to what is charmingly known as the Captains Basin. Visibility being a myth, however, it was difficult to see where the green runs were and where the double-diamond (works wonders) black ones ran. There was also the worry about how exactly to get back to the main drag, the lodge and our car. And also niggling in the back of my mind was the problem of injury. Should either Barbara or I hurt ourselves, we would most likely have to wait a long time to be rescued. And then only if the uninjured party had sufficient clue to tell the locals where to look, and the locals sufficient luck to stumble upon a snow-covered recumbent near-corpse in zero visibility possibly on but more likely off-piste.

In my Glenshee days I would have laughed at such worries, tweaked their beards for I had none of my own, and carried on regardless. Now I am older, possibly wiser and certainly a great deal less carefree. So we worked out way back to the familiar side of the mountain.

Here the wind was wilder, if that is possible, and the snow more akin to little bits of sharp stone. After one more go on the chairlift, we decided that enough was enough. I must surely be getting old.

After all the worry, the descent down the gravel track of doom was much easier than anticipated. We didn't even need snow chains, which is a relief since we didn't have any. And so we proceeded to Queenstown, first settled back in the nineteenth century by a Mr Rees, from Haverfordwest in Wales. Stout fellow.

Next: Only idiots bungey jump

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