And it was. A season where many claimed their’s on grey mornings of new snow and early coffees. A record number claimed the goods this year due to one undeniable string of storms that constantly commanded attention. The hyperactive southwesterly weather came in for 6 weeks before a cosmic shot of Ritalin calmed things down a few weeks ago. The snow was there for certain, but it came bundled with punishing winds and prescription visibility limits.
The town hype kept pace with the weather and served up new rounds of ex-pat DJs and rail comps in downtown Queenstown. The lingering afternoon sun started serving up warmth in which to recall the mornings 2 run mission to the Doolans while tipping back beers at the Wakatipu Tavern. The lines are now being done with new variations, windlips slashed that somehow got missed, and cliff drops put to rest.
As long as things were getting ticked off the list, we punched out another chad on a cat-skiing mission to Shingle Creek. This place had snow when I showed up in March, a full 6 weeks before the white stuff got to Queenstown. The vertical is limited by the Central Otago uplifted geomorphology but the broad rocky crests on the high plateau play host to twisted cornices of all sizes above expansive snowfields. All with complementary malted sugar sweets and warm coffee. The fleet consists of three 1960 vintage Thiokol snowcats that do even duty on the tussock and snow while coughing out the carcinogens of their era. Standard procedure includes riding the veins as far down valley as you can before getting carted out to join the operators at the Shingle Creek Hotel bar.
But now, the rush is over. On the way to Tekapo we nonchalantly grab an extra day at Ohau, which turns out to be a few degrees below soft. The afternoon sees a stiff backcountry run with few crust penetrations. The surface is so smooth that after coming to terms with the topography, the hammer is dropped once again as we follow the long sexy contours of the Southern Alps. On the way out, a steep ridge along a the gnorth-facing chute proves an easier ascent than the weak cornbread that has been cooking all day. The tussock is emerging from the frosting, accompanied by the trickling sound of record bases melting away.
It’s the last weekend of official riding at a couple of the resorts and an eerie calmness has taken over Aspen’s sister city. Many have jumped ship for North America and Europe, getting the choice digs in Whistler, paperwork in for Baker, or the night shifts at Val d’Isere. Another winter beast wakes in far off lands. Others less committed head to warmer and sunnier beaches not available in New Zealand.
But this Yankee agent is staying put as this work permit has last longer than the average down here. Winter 2004 (none of this 03-04 confusion – which is it?) was a top shelf welcome to New Zealand for this Yankee. As the windshield srcaper is passed to the top half of the planet, we warm up our bikes and look forward to the browning of pasty white legs. Especially those of us completing winter number 4 without much more than a 4th of July to draw a tan. Many will miss the goggle tan trademark, but from here on in it’ll be warm afternoons with the barby and cool mornings digging trails through the trees. Another 40 bucks leaves the pocket as an excavator fuel contribution as the locals build a new downhill trail to keep the Whistler reflection true. The local council is also kicking down for new dirt jumps in the beech tree forest surrounding Queenstown to keep up with the growing demand.
So with shift in gravity management technique, a new season steps up to the bar and shouts a round to the ones who stayed behind. Thanks to the northern hemisphere for handing off the long days and warm nights of the summer months. These are the warm nights in the pubs of Middle Earth that wind up in the toilet bowl.
—Freeman Anthony, FTH Contributor