Winter Magic in the Snow

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

The arrival of winter limits the choices of outdoor activities. When it’s cold outside we tend to curl up in front of the fire with a hot drink, rather than venture out. Unless you are a skier or a snowboarder, what other choices do you have to enjoy the cool winter magic? Alina Suchanski explores the possibilities of cross-country skiing at New Zealand’s only ski field dedicated to this sport.

Internationally recognised as an activity that promotes health and fitness for the whole family, cross-country skiing is the world’s oldest snow sport. In northern Europe it is common to see three generations skiing together. They call it a ‘sport for life’ due to the large number of participants starting as children, who keep skiing until they are well past retirement.

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

The arrival of winter limits the choices of outdoor activities. When it’s cold outside we tend to curl up in front of the fire with a hot drink, rather than venture out. Unless you are a skier or a snowboarder, what other choices do you have to enjoy the cool winter magic? Alina Suchanski explores the possibilities of cross-country skiing at New Zealand’s only ski field dedicated to this sport.

Internationally recognised as an activity that promotes health and fitness for the whole family, cross-country skiing is the world’s oldest snow sport. In northern Europe it is common to see three generations skiing together. They call it a ‘sport for life’ due to the large number of participants starting as children, who keep skiing until they are well past retirement.

Cross-country or Nordic skiing originated more than 6000 years ago in northern Europe amongst Sami people (sometimes referred to as Lapps or Laplanders) who populated the region of present day Scandinavia. Beginning as a utilitarian means of transportation, it evolved into modern day recreational activities and disciplines such as downhill skiing, ski touring, jumping, running and telemarking. It is practised in regions with snow-covered landscapes, including Europe, Canada, Russia, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Simply speaking, cross-country skiing is walking on skis, although one can propel oneself using ski poles or learn to ski-skate to gain more speed.

At first glance, cross-country skis appear similar to downhill skis. However, there are a few important differences. Cross-country skis are generally long, narrow and lightweight, with the heel always ‘free’, i.e. not connected to the ski, as with downhill skiing. To stop the skis sliding backwards when climbing uphill, strips of seal skin were once attached to the bottom of each ski. Nowadays they have grooves or scales on the underside which grip the snow to prevent a backwards slide.

The Snow Farm in Cardrona Valley near Wanaka is a perfect place to venture out into this environment for the first time. Located 35km from Wanaka and 55km from Queenstown, on the top of the Pisa Mountain Range, it comprises 300 hectares of land between the elevations of 1400 and 1600 metres and is New Zealand’s only groomed cross-country ski field.

Three generations of the Lee family used to farm the area until 1989, when they opened the ski field. In 2008, the Pisa Alpine Charitable Trust (PACT) was formed to secure the ownership of the Snow Farm and was assisted by the generosity of the Lees who wished to see the place preserved as the base for cross-country skiing in New Zealand. Together with the Queenstown Lakes District Council, PACT has acquired the Snow Farm land to ensure that the area remains available to the public for cross-country skiing and summer recreation activities.

Snow Farm is also the major access point to the Pisa Conservation Area – 23,000 hectares of stunning high country, largely snow covered in winter, and characterised by broad, gently rolling ridges and valley systems broken by tors (upright rock forms). From the heights of this wild and spectacular landscape one can see Lake Dunstan, the Wanaka region, and Cardrona Valley with views of Mt Aspiring and even Mt Cook on the best of days. There are many back country routes off the ski field to explore and 40km of groomed trails for the less experienced.

Cathy Lewsley of Te Anau has been leading the annual Fiordland Tramping Club trips to the Snow Farm for the last twenty years, which has always been one of the most subscribed outings for the club, with members aged from 2 to 74 in attendance. The secret of this trip’s popularity may be that it caters not only for all ages, but also for a great range of abilities, from novices to backcountry alpinists.

Skiers near the Snow Farm Lodge
Photo: P. Duncan

I’ve been on three of Cathy’s Snow Farm trips and have thoroughly enjoyed it each time. On my last trip, we left Te Anau early in the morning driving to Queenstown and on towards Wanaka over the Crown Range. The road to Snow Farm starts at Cardrona Village, not far from the legendary Cardrona Hotel – one of the oldest and most iconic hotels in New Zealand built in 1863 during the gold rush era.

From there, a half-hour drive on a gravel road leads to the lodge. Partway up the hill, gravel gives way to packed snow and I was pleased I took snow chains with me.

A café, bar and dining room provide a bit of affordable luxury for lodge guests, but we headed straight for the office to register our arrival, hire ski gear and book lessons. With five preschoolers in our group, hiring sleds for towing the littlies was a popular option. For first-timers, a lesson is obligatory, but once you get the gist of it, cross-country skiing is almost as easy as walking, although much faster on the snow. The good news for the uninitiated is that, unlike down-hill skis, cross-country skis can go down and uphill, as well as on the flat.

Once we completed our lesson, practised a few rounds on the learners’ circuit, and loaded our bags on a skidoo snowmobile, we were on our way to Meadow Hut where the club makes its base each year. It took us half an hour to reach the hut on a groomed trail with parallel tracks conveniently pressed into the snow for beginners’ skis to glide through.

The Meadow Hut has the feel of a Swiss chalet with its high ceiling and wood paneling. Its kitchen is well appointed, with gas cookers and plenty of pots, cups, dishes and cutlery, while the wood stove keeps the hut cosy and provides a steady supply of hot water. The kids loved to clamber up and down a steep ladder and slept on mattresses lining the boards of the mezzanine floor, while the adults kept to the bunks below.

After lunch and having settled in, we went to explore the neighborhood. While the kids played in the snow, some of the adults climbed the big rocky tor behind the hut. My group went to visit the Bob Lee Hut, a few kilometres up from where we were staying. The snow cover was good and the undulated landscape looked like one giant Pavlova. Skiing uphill can actually be easier than downhill – with one’s skis in the grooves, there is limited maneuverability and when you pick up some speed it’s easy to lose your balance. Close to Bob Lee Hut the terrain is a little steeper, so we took our skis off and climbed the last few metres on foot, skis over our shoulders. Although lacking the charm of Meadow Hut, Bob Lee Hut is warm and comfortable and offers fabulous views of the surrounding mountain ranges.

View from Bob Lee Hut
Photo: P. Duncan

Even following the groomed trails you are unlikely to meet many people, as cross-country skiing attracts far smaller crowds than its downhill counterpart. Without ski lift noise or loud music pumping out from speakers, it is always quieter at Snow Farm than at any other ski field, although, on rare occasions, that tranquility can be broken by the noise of cars driving around a vehicle testing circuit located near the lodge. The Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground (SHPG) is a favourite destination for global car manufacturers such as Audi and BMW to carry out winter testing for tyres, new systems and prototype vehicle models. The icy conditions of Snow Farm allow European, American, and Asian companies to continue their cold climate test programmes during their home countries’ summer months.

Huskies
Photo: Alina Suchanski

Sometimes it’s surprising whom you meet on your tranquil journey through the snow. On our way to Bob Lee Hut we came across three dog sledges pulled by huskies. Snow Farm would be one of the few places in New Zealand where these dogs, native to the Arctic region, can feel at home.

Occasionally you may even see some of the world’s best winter Olympic ski teams who, chasing the snow around the globe, come to use the facility for training in their off-season.

After a pot-luck tea, I joined some brave souls armed with head torches, who ventured out for a night ski. Our courage was rewarded by an amazing display of stars echoed by the shimmering of snow crystals in the torch light.

The next morning, an adventurous few set off early to climb Mt Pisa (1983m). Some of us went up on skis; others used snowshoes. We reached the summit by lunchtime and ate our sandwiches admiring the views from the shelter of a rocky outcrop.

Snowshoeing up Mt Pisa
Photo: Alina Suchanski

One does get a good workout with cross-country skiing, and a skier or not, anyone can enjoy the exquisite beauty of this place. At the end of my weekend out on the snow I left with a solemn resolution to come back again soon.

 

Sources: 1. Cross-country skiing, Wikipedia 2. How to Choose Cross-Country Ski Gear 3. Cardrona Hotel 4. Audis on ice, AA

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