“This looks like Alaska right now”, uttered Morgan Schofield as we drove along the access road towards Roundhill Ski Resort,.Fresh snow blanketed everything right to the shores of lake Tekapo . He had spent part of the past April in AK, and he couldn’t help claiming a case of ‘déjà vu! I was in the front passenger seat of Matt Taylors raised Toyota Hi lux ute, with the window down trying to get some scenic shots. Crammed in the rear amongst a mountain of backpacks were Morgan and Will Jackways, who like Matt and I were marvelling at the winter scene unfolding outside.
I had been trying for a few years to get back to Roundhill, and as the 2017 winter unfolded, it became obvious it was the place to be. Multiple storm systems had focused on the Mackenzie country during July and August, turning the region wall to wall white. I had never witnessed that much snow in the Tekapo Township before, with 3-foot berms formed around the streets. You needed Four wheel drive or chains just getting out from your house! The other reason for the return was to take on their giant rope tow, the Heritage Express, which happens to be the Southern hemispheres longest! To be able to do it with blower powder conditions would be cake. There was however some trepidation about having to grip a nutcracker for over 800 metres!
Rolling into the car park, we found a spot which offered direct view of Mt Cook commanding the Alps in all directions. Matt’s American buddy Danny Wilkinson pulled in next to us in his beat up Hi Ace van , which he had been ‘freedom’ camping in for the past month (on nights where the barometer had been dropping to minus 14 Celsius! ). He had been riding Roundhill for a few days already, and was raving about how good it had been.
The car park scene at Roundhill is pure high-country kiwi Ana. Local farming families wearing hand knitted woollen wear mixed in with Uni students, city slickers and tourists alike. Eeveryone seemed to be on a no stress vibe, despite the epic conditions which were sending all of us into overload.
Thanks to field manager Simon Murrell, we sorted out our tickets super quick and geared up in the tray of the Ute. Our plan was to check out some of the backcountry as well as attack Roundhills resort slopes.
The ‘Heritage Express’ would not open till 10.30 so we had time to lap the t bar line in bounds, warm up and gauge the snow conditions. At least 30cms of fresh sat on top of a soft, forgiving base that went way deep .We knew that even deeper stuff could be found higher. After a check in with the ski patrol crew to let them know our plan we rode down to the Heritage. I was the only virgin, so there was plenty of advice on the best plan of attack to make the top. Matt even took my camera bag up to give me a better first shot. Having experienced most rope tows in New Zealand, I was in a good position to gauge any complications. The track looked sweet, base flat and straight. No problems by the looks, as all the other guys had made the top and were waiting, so I hooked up and began the climb. Everything was hunky dory for the first 300 metres, until I felt the fatigue in my ‘grip hand’ start to set in. Two thirds of the way and I was done, and ended up having to eject. The up side was the trip down, and getting to lay some deep carves, free of camera bag restrictions! I had to rethink my technique for sure, and decided to try placing my free hand on top of my grip hand to add more ‘closing’ power. That worked a treat, and straight away, for me, it made this possibly the easiest rope tow yet, especially for the amount of vertical it unlocked. I was soon with the crew ready to hike the short distance to the ridge that then allowed a quick traverse to some amazing options backside as well as in bounds.
We were all kitted out with the usual backcountry essentials… Probes, transceivers, shovels…combined with snow shoes and split boards, we could pretty much go where we wanted, as long as we made it back to the resort by 4.00pm. The patrol guys were happy for us to head backcountry, stability was not extreme, but they certainly had made it clear about getting back over in time and to play it safe. There could be not much worse than setting off an unnecessary search, so we would be watching the clock closely.
The top ridge gave insane views in all directions; it really is a winter wonderland in these parts. The resort slopes made available from the Heritage were so tempting, it would have been easy to just do powder laps and be totally satisfied, but one of our main goals was still to access the terrain available on the other side, and it was looking sweet. The ridge line offered lots of options for mid range airs to either side, and Will Jackways got to work straight away with a couple of tail grab pat downs as the rest of the crew rode down the ridge to get a better view of the far bowl. That revealed a nice little cliff band at the top with two or 3 lines in it, so Matt and Morgan headed off to scope it from the top. With time not on our side we knew we would probably only have one or two drops on this side at best before having to exit stage left back to the resort.
Matt and Morgan came back on the radio. ‘Its blower’…so they dropped it as the rest of us observed from the ridge. Smoke trails rose even when the boys pointed it straight, and big clouds would billow once an edge was engaged. This was the real deal!
We could here their hoots way up on the ridge once they had pulled on the brakes…there was still a lot of vert to be had, but not knowing what the hike back up time would be, they erred on the side of caution. Danny had found another line further up the ridge that would still put him close to where the other guys had stopped, so he let it roll, digging multiple turns into the untracked fresh.
The radio cackled into life again, and a breathless Morgan was babbling about some massive natural features he had spotted lower down that could make for crazy airtime. Looking at the time, we knew this was not going happen this trip. Soon the lads were skinning back up to the ridge, intent on getting some lines in on the resort side.
Back on the ridge and looking South, it was amazing to see how much snow had fallen and how far down it had reached. Crazy low freezing levels hovering at 300 metres or less for weeks had kept it pristine. Normally the enemy of New Zealand snow conditions, this winter they had turned friend.
After some quick ‘kai’ we were all ready to rip the resort side slopes of the Heritage. At 800 vertical metres, this was going to be a big leg burner, coming off the back of some deep snow hikes already. But there were no complaints as everyone pointed it, with ‘See Ya’ at the bottom’ calls yelled on the drop. Will J held back for a second after scoping a good rock drop and some nice powder stashes, so we worked those before pinning it to the car park. We had managed to make it back on time, although there were only a handful of cars left. We couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces, recounting the day. Not only had we found the conditions epic, but the interaction we had had with all the staff at various times had actually left the biggest impression. Family owned and run, they had really rolled out the welcome mat, and not just for us, you could tell everyone gets the same treatment there. Thanks Roundhill, see you again SOON!
For more information on Roundhill Ski Resort, check out their website: roundhill.co.nz
For accommodation options in Tekapo, check out: tekapoholidayhomes.co.nz
orginallky in Ski and Snow 2018 – by Phil Erikson