The magnificent views over Lake Wānaka from Treble Cone. © Larry Prosor

Adventure time: hitting the slopes in Wānaka

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I’m sliding into a blank white abyss and I can’t see a thing. Snowflakes stick to my face. My goggles are completely misted up and my skis are channelling through thick-falling powder. The distant clank of a chairlift is my only point of reference.

Cardrona, apparently, has some pretty spectacular views over the sweeping river valley. I wouldn’t know. The brooding, snowflake-filled clouds hung low over the mountain for my whole visit. Still, if the scenery on the drive over the Crown Range was anything to go by, I missed out on some awe-inspiring sights. 

Flying into Queenstown, the craggy, toffee-coloured hills were sifted generously with icing sugar snow, and the drive across the range to Wānaka, dangerously scenic. Tumbling ridgelines drop steeply to tawny, sheep-filled valleys. Fluffy spring blossoms along the roadside contrast with the snow covered mountains, glowing like beacons at the head of the valley. 

Up the mountain, my day on the slopes of Cardrona proves to be great fun despite the thick cloud. The ski field is wide and bowl-shaped, with most of the trails suited to intermediate skiers and snowboarders.

There is nothing too daunting, except, perhaps, the terrain park – full of colourful airborne boarders, chattering down specially designed jumps and landing nonchalantly with dense thwumps on the soft snow. 

Though it is snowing, it’s certainly not cold skiing in early spring. A thin trickle of sweat runs down my back beneath the strata of my ski apparel. I dread taking off my hat. The combination of sweat, snow and wool does not a good-hair-day make. 

I had been warned that in comparison to Cardrona, Treble Cone is a lot steeper. The road up to the field certainly has its heart-in-mouth moments – with hairpin bends, a one-lane bridge next to a precipitous drop and teeth-chattering corrugated gravel. 

Watching the chairlift ascend almost vertically into the clouds, the ski field does seem daunting. Once up though, it’s not nearly so bad. And worth it for the views.

Gaps in the cloud reveal magnificent vistas over Lake Wānaka, which literally stop me in my tracks. I skid to a halt and gaze in wonder. 

Treble Cone is the largest of the Wānaka ski fields. Though it only has two chairlifts, the runs are epic and it’s easy to pass a blissful 10 to 20 minutes whistling down the mountain. 

They’re right about the steepness though. The gradient is much more pronounced and there are numerous black diamond ‘expert only’ trails and chutes, which I warily avoid. There are two main ski areas, Home Basin and Saddle Basin and the latter seems to have its own meteorological system. It is a revelation taking the traverse trail from the top of the chairlift and arriving in warm sunshine, perfect blue sky and oodles of fresh powder snow. It’s like discovering ski nirvana. 

I carve and weave my way down the mountain through so many runs that my knees feel like jelly when I stop for lunch.

Unlike urban alfresco dining areas which swarm with manky pigeons, the Treble Cone cafe has beautiful cheeky kea. They strut confidently over the tables checking for scraps and form gangs to pillage door seals and wiper blades in the car park.  

Cross-country or Nordic skiing is the precursor to the downhill variation of the sport, although the equipment and technique are completely different. As I am to find out at nearby Snow Farm. 

It’s like balancing on pieces of string while wearing strange futuristic sneakers connected with a small plastic toe-clip. And it’s really not the most dignified sport for beginners.

I discover that my co-ordination skills are sadly amiss – finding it incredibly difficult to maintain a normal walking rhythm or even stay upright. 

The most embarrassing part, as I find myself sprawled in an undignified pile for the third time with a fresh wad of snow down my pants, is watching the silver-haired veterans glide effortlessly past without even raising a sweat. 

With a lot of practice, I imagine it would be a very enjoyable sport. Serene, even relaxing, to whisk across powder snow, away from the mechanical lifts and hordes of downhill hooligans.

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