Summer skiing in
By PETE VORDENBERG
Mary Lee gives the impression that she could grab two sheep by their necks and sheer them simultaneously.
Lee and her husband, John Lee, own the Waiorau (pronounced why rau) Snow Farm near Wanaka, New Zealand. She exudes confidence and gives the impression of being capable of handling any task set before her. One gets the feeling she revels in hard work. Yet she says, "John is really responsible for this place. When he decides to do something, he just goes and does it."
John Lee, tall and thin, sits with a smile of supreme satisfaction in the upper lounge of the Waiorau Snow Farm. There is a tray of cheese and
crackers at his elbow and he holds a glass of red wine. He seems almost the opposite of Mary, who seems always to be on the move. Even as we talk she looks about, calls people over and checks on the progress of tasks she has set for them. John is in repose, telling a story to a small group of people
who listen attentively.
John Lee decided to build a fine cross country ski area, and he did. Originally sheep farmers, the Lees have branched out considerably. The Snow
Farm sits atop New Zealand's South Island on the Pisa Range, a plateau of rolling hills, long grass, gurgling brooks, schist rock formations, and, in
I stayed at the Snow Farm for almost a month as the assistant coach for the U.S. Ski Team. My boss, head coach Trond Nystad, like John, is one who makes a decision and then follows through. "New Zealand," Trond told me this past spring, "is where we're going this year for summer skiing.”
Europe is too high, Norway too rainy, ski tunnels too claustrophobic. New Zealand, they say, you ski right from the door into winter conditions."
"Sign me up," I said.
Flying over New Zealand's South Island, I looked out at a sprawling chain of craggy mountains. Snow covered ridges and peaks held glaciers perched over deep gorges. The gorges descended into wide, flat valleys woven with meandering glacial rivers all flowing out to a sea beyond my view. I could not see a town, not a road, only mountains, glacial valleys, a few icy blue lakes and rivers that from the air looked slate gray.
Sixteen hours en route, thirteen of them in the air over the Pacific, eight of those dead-to-the-world asleep, the others reading a book called The
Bone People. It is a good, maybe even great, book which paints New Zealand as a rocky, wind swept country assaulted on all sides by crashing waves,
isolated from the rest of the world and peopled by a dour, hard drinking, and crass breed with a propensity to violence.
(New Zeland is isolated. It lies 1,300 miles over the ocean from its nearest major neighbor, Australia. Waves do bash its shores, and there is
great surfing year-round. But I found the population, on the whole, to be considerably less drunken and crass than you'd find in many an American town on any given Saturday night. It seemed every person I met had a cheery disposition. I was frequently greeted with a hearty, "Ow ya going there?")
The plane circled a long, blue lake surrounded by high, snow covered peaks and put down in Queenstown next to a field of sheep. From immediately transferred to a van with steering wheel on the right and drove, with constant apprehension, on the left.
From Queenstown, the trip to Snow Farm requires an hour on a serpentine asphalt road, which climbs from fields to forest to high mountain grassland. We crested the Crown range and dove into a steeply walled valley. On our
left towered the Southern Alps, on our right the high plateau of the Pisa range.
At a historic inn called the Cardrona Hotel, we took a right onto a dirt road and began the final ascent toward the Snow Farm. There was no snow in the valley, no snow as we climbed. Behind us, the Southern Alps were covered with it, but the Pisa range was grassy, the road gravel and mud.
Grazing sheep watched us drive by. Then we came to the top, and there was snow -- snow as far as we could see. On this snow were tall and bent formations of black rock looking like decaying castle spires or perhaps, to some, like petrified trolls. New Zealand -– the place where J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is being filmed.
Upon arrival, we noted with no little surprise four large Yeti charging a cabin. They had long white hair, mean gorilla-like faces and stood seven or
eight feet tall. One of the Yeti in full stride, hooked an oversized foot and took a tremendous fall. From behind the cabin an amplified voice roared
"CUT, CUT!" TheYeti stopped their attack. "OK, Yeti," said the voice, "Places!" The creatures tromped back up the hill away from the cabin.
"And" said the voice, "ACTION!" The Yeti repeated their charge.
In fact, the terrain around Snow Farm is used by many companies for making
television ads. While we were there, there was the credit card Yeti ad, an
ad for some sort of SUV, and one for a Japanese soup. The area also has
miles of tracks for test-driving vehicles on snow and ice. The test track
provides provides Snow Farm with most of its profit. Companies from around
the world pay Snow Farm to groom the tracks to test prototype cars and
tires. Snow Farm Lodge and its ski trails are a good distance from that
Snow Farm has a full service lodge with rooms ranging from comfortable to
plush. It has a snack bar, a restaurant, a well-stocked ski shop and a very
well stocked ski rental shop. There is a comfortable lounge, a skimpy
library, an excellent TV and video room, three dinning areas, a tower with a
viewing room and fireplace and a fully stocked bar. Every evening cheese
and crackers are served at the bar, along with beer, wine and other drinks.
John Lee –- king of the castle -- presides in a relaxed manner.
John and Mary Lee pay the bills with the car test tracks, fees from
advertising agencies, and a huge snowboard park, but cross-country skiing
is at the heart of Snow Farm. The resort has up to 60km of skiing,
although not all of it is groomed. We had about two hours worth of groomed
trails, which is considerable for summer skiing. Except for a few
hillsides, which are terraced with trails to gain more flat terrain for
beginner skiers, the terrain matches that of the Pisa range. Trails roll
along with the hills, swoop down gullies, and climb gradually up beside
bubbling creeks. There are some trails with steep climbs and fast descents,
which are perfect for interval training and racing. Much of the terrain is
gradual, but rolling and twisty enough to be playful. There are no trees on
the upper Pisa. The altitude at Snow Farm is about 4,500 feet and the top
of the range is only a thousand feet higher.
Across the valley are the Southern Alps, formidable, jagged and beautiful,
and the trails and lodge at Snow Farm afford spectacular views of them.
This is the home of Sir. Edmund Hillary, one of the first two people to
climb Mount Everest. This is where one can heli-ski huge mountains,
pointing one out to the pilot and yelling "That one! Take me there!"
It also is the land of taking yourself where you want to go under your own
power, on ski, on foot, with crampon and ice ax and rope. There is good
whitewater; there are good waves for surfing, endless coast for sea
kayaking, spots for snorkeling and scuba. There are more than 1,000
backcountry huts to hike to, and some of the most scenic hiking trails in
the world. There are rivers that slide icy and transparently blue beneath
the twisted limbs of beech trees, beside forests of fern. And you are free
to explore it all.
In winter you can track-ski, backcountry ski, alpine ski, snowboard, hike,
fish, camp, climb, golf, bike, kayak, taste he wines, shop, surf, explore
and, among , many other things, bungee jump. New Zealand is the home of
bungee jumping and some companions and I felt compelled to try it. Our jump
was a 440-foot freefall –-eight seconds of falling head first
toward the rocks below, which is enough. "Yeah!" says the heavily tattooed
and pierced bungee jumping attendant after
he reels you back up, "Great ground rush, eh?"
Only half an hour down the valley from Snow Farm is the town of Wanaka.
Wanaka is a town of small shops, good restaurants and coffee houses,
bustling sidewalks, movies and a young, boisterous crowd. It sits on the
shore of Lake Wanaka and has the Southern Alps as its backdrop on one side
and the high end of the Pisa range on the other. Wanaka is the starting
point for a number of great adventures. From there you can venture into Mt.
Aspiring National Park, or go alpine skiing or snowboarding at Treble Cone,
or rock climbing, fishing or kayaking all within half an hour of town. From
there you can also begin a drive west toward the coast –- a trip we took to
escape skiing for a few days.
Of the ten most scenic runs in my life, two were in New Zealand. One was on
the west coast, running calf deep in crystal clear water under a forest of
hanging moss and ferns to a white sand beach on the Tasman Sea. The other
was up the Matukituki river valley toward Mt. Aspiring.
The Matukituki valley is wide and winds very gently toward Mt. Aspiring and
a host of equally impressive mountains. The walls of the valley are steep
and ringed at the top with sharp, snow-covered peaks, which on the day I ran
were backed by a pure blue sky. Friends and I ran up the valley on a soft,
springy trail along a river unrealistically blue and clear, and from above
it we could see huge brown trout lurking in deep transparent blue pools.
Waterfalls tumbled from the heights into the valley and poured into the
larger river. It occurred to me that this was the sort of river valley I
had seen from the sky as I flew across the South Island toward Queenstown.
The rivers I had taken for slate gray were really this transparent blue, and
what I was seeing from 30,000 feet was the color of the rocks beneath the
water. We ran into a thick beech forest where I almost captured a Possum by
scrambling up a tree after the rapidly fleeing creature.
New Zealand has many worthy distractions, but it was the skiing we came for
and it was mostly skiing we did. We skied three to five hours a day -– in
brilliant sunshine, in rain, in blowing snow. We used everything from
klister to extra blue, but mostly we used a soft hard wax as the temp
hovered just below freezing. It was winter, and that is infinitely
preferable to what most summer ski spots have to offer -– and most of the
time, it was beautiful and sunny.
At Snow Farm a person can set off on skis in the winter or afoot or on
mountain bike in the summer, get into the Pisa range, feel like he or she is
"really out there," and still be back in time for dinner.
The food at Snow Farm often is some concoction of lamb, frequently
accompanied by rice, sweet potato, salads, warm bread, a vegetarian dish,
and finished with a desert such as plumb cobbler with cream. It is hearty
food, right for someone who is training hard.
Training is what we were doing in New Zealand, and there often is little to
talk about with training. And lack of interesting stories is good. At Snow
Farm we could focus on skiing, and the tales are only of good training,
rather than stories of slopping through calf-deep slush, skiing blind
through fog, or winding around and around an intestine like track –- all of
which are common summer skiing experiences. In New Zealand we skied and
tested skis in winter conditions, on corduroy snow and, often, perfect
With each training session an athlete lives a little life, yet the sessions
blend into one memory of skiing, skiing, skiing. Our skiers trained upward
of 83 hours in three weeks. That is a considerable amount of training. In
training, little battles are fought and won and fought and lost and fought
again. Athletes ask themselves, "How will I get better? How will I
accomplish my goals? How am I reacting to the training? How are the
adaptations to my technique working?" Those questions, and the work, which
is their answer, are what really go on at a training camp. It seems so
little, so menial, unless you are the one doing it. Then it is your life.
As coaches we ask ourselves the same questions -– how we can make our
athletes better, how we can reach our shared goals? To win Olympic medals,
where is the best place to train on snow in the summer? For us, and for the
Canadian national team who joined us there last August, New Zealand was the
answer. And it will be the answer next August too.
IF YOU GO:
Organizing a New Zealand ski adventure is easy. The exchange rate is
favorable, and, if you plan ahead, the price of a ticket from Los Angeles is
comparable to the cost of flying to central Europe from the East Coast. You
can check out the Snow Farm at: http://www.snowfarmnz.com/index.cfm/Home and
email the Lees at: Info@snowfarmnz.com with any questions. If you are
interested in attending a camp at Snow Farm next summer with the U.S. Ski
Team and the Maine Winter Sports Center you can email MWSC Coach, Eli Brown