As soon as a young child is zipped into multi-layered snow clothes and onto a mountain, he will inevitably need to use the toilet.
We just reach the bottom of our first chairlift ride into Mount Ruapehu’s Happy Valley, laden with skis, snow gear and anticipation, when a small voice chirps: “Mum? I need a wee.”
Still, the day of our first family trip to Whakapapa ski field is pretty close to perfect. A bluebird day: cloudless, windless, and busy without being unpleasantly crowded.
I learned to ski as a child – younger, even, than my five-year-old Gus – and I was hopeful to instil in him the same enthusiasm and pleasure during his first snow experience.
Tucked safely inside the V of my skis, Gus and I glide slowly over dry, powdery snow. He hangs like a dead weight by his elbows, limp-kneed but grinning and exclaiming at how much fun it is: “whee!”
At the bottom I manhandle him through the short queue for the chairlift, where we don’t have to wait much longer than a few minutes. The ticketing system bleeps us through automated gates on reading our passes, wherever they may be buried beneath layers of clothing.
At the lift, a smiling attendant cheerfully lumps Gus into the seat next to me and we lower the safety bar, skis swinging under us, for the ride back up. “Mum, why is it so quiet?” he whispers. I try to explain about the muffling effect of the snow, but he’s right – I get the strange sensation that my ears have been stuffed with cotton wool. And even though I can see people not far below us laughing and shouting and squealing in the snow, they sound oddly distant in the sheltered valley.
As we reach the top of the chairlift I push up the safety bar nervously, clutching a tight handful of Gus’s jacket as we prepare to dismount, but he surprises me by sliding smoothly off to the side like a pro. This, it turns out, is the only bit of solo skiing he does all day; it seems he’d much prefer to let me do all the work.
After a couple more runs my back is aching and sweat is trickling uncomfortably beneath my thermals, despite the icy temperature. It’s a relief when Gus declares that he’s had enough skiing for the day.
Along with Ben, my non-skiing husband, we catch the Rock Garden and then Waterfall chairlifts to the upper mountain for lunch.
I can’t help smiling at Gus’s amazement at the expanse of the ski fields. He is mesmerised by the huge machines puffing out clouds of fresh snow over the slopes; throngs of brightly-coloured skiers and snowboarders whooshing along groomed trails; the backdrop of the soaring Pinnacle cliffs. “Ahh,” he breathes in awe, “you know, very deep views are the most beautiful.”
Lunch means hobbling awkwardly with laden plastic trays through the packed café dining area, where everyone suffers the indignity of flattened, sweaty hat-hair. It is a relief to unclamp the vice-like ski boots from around my bruised ankles.
Replenished, I steal in some runs on the upper mountain. “Hissssch“, whisper my skis as they skim the smoothed snow; “krrrraw“ as the metal edges cut into a turn. It makes a satisfying rhythm, repeating down the hill.
Near the bottom of the Waterfall chairlift, I teeter briefly on the fulcrum between fear and thrill before hurtling down the end-of-run chute, skis parallel, poles tucked in my armpits and praying for no lumps or rogue rocks to hit at full speed.
Happy, but with aching legs and numb toes I return to the beginner slopes to find Ben and Gus putting the finishing touches on a kid-sized igloo.
Despite having skied for years, I had never been on a toboggan before. Gus, who has spent the afternoon mastering the art with Ben, has his turn to teach me.
We whizz down the track, with sprays of fresh snow flying into my mouth...
He sits in front, steering confidently and we whizz down the track, with sprays of fresh snow flying into my mouth as I laugh.
Reported by Jo Percival for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue