Almost as thrilling as the road to get there
I’ve always enjoyed waking up that first morning in a new place, especially a place like Queenstown. There’s excitement and curiosity over what a scenic destination will look like when you first see it in the early morning light. If you’re in Vegas, this might occur when you’re walking home to your hotel room. If you’re not careful, the same can happen in Queenstown. On this morning, however, I woke up early, peeked out the window, and saw a patch of low-lying clouds hovering over Lake Wakatipu. Streaks of sun poked through to brighten the lower landscape. The view was enough to lift the spirits, if only momentarily. My enhanced morale would come in handy minutes later as I ate a wretched breakfast pie from a gas station on the way out of town. (Who puts curry in a breakfast pie?)
My traveling partner was my buddy Richard Ennis, a Northern Irishman now living in Melbourne with a sharp wit and the instinctive ability to strike up a conversation with anyone. (I mentioned he was Irish, right?) Ennis spent two seasons as a ski instructor at The Remarkables in Queenstown. In addition to being a strong skier, he brought a valuable and quite comprehensive knowledge of Queenstown’s local haunts.
The rainy, 90-minute morning drive from Queenstown to Treble Cone ski area involved a trek through the Crown Range over a high country tussock pass (their words, not mine) along what they call the highest sealed state highway in New Zealand. And only when you explore further off the beaten path can you begin to comprehend why the “sealed” element of that last sentence is so vital. The road through the Crown Range passed through what they call merino sheep stations and the views were dramatic. The “highest sealed state highway in New Zealand” looked like one you might see in the Tour de France, with a dozen switchbacks winding up and over the pass, but without the trail of carelessly discarded syringes and blood transfusion supplies.
We hit the small but charming lakeside ski town of Wanaka after an hour and change. From there, the road snaked its way along the lake’s shore and, after 25 more minutes, we arrived at what looked like the end of the two-lane highway we’d been traveling on. Our only option was to turn left, passing under a Treble Cone sign that looked like it led to a cowboy’s ranch. And then the fun began. A quick side note here to the uninformed: In the world of skiing, it’s not often that the drive TO the mountain is more dangerous than anything you’ll encounter ON the mountain. You could make that argument about Treble Cone. To describe the 10km drive up Treble Cone’s dirt access road as a tad nerve-wracking would be a disservice to harrowing life experiences the world over. It’s probably safer to have unprotected sex in Thailand or walk around Islamabad in your Bruce Springsteen “Born in the U.S.A.” T-shirt and a Yankees cap.
What was I saying? Right, the drive up…
The road is wide enough to fit one vehicle in each direction with a few feet to spare. It twists and turns its way along what is essentially a ledge for vehicles. There are no guardrails, retaining walls, fences or anything that would lead you to believe even a second of thought was given to your safety during the road’s construction. Miss a turn, and that’s likely all she wrote. In the U.S. they simply wouldn’t let you drive this road, let alone do it in the snow squall and light rain we found ourselves in. Fear aside, the road is a minor engineering marvel. It must have been hell to build.
I should point out that Treble Cone is not alone in its ability to test your love of skiing by seeing what lengths you’re willing to go to just to reach the chairlifts. Evidently, most ski areas in New Zealand require this type of drive to the base area because that’s where the snow line begins. It’s a testament to the adventurous spirit of New Zealanders. After a few minutes of holding the steering wheel as if someone is going to pry it from your lifeless hands, you get used to the road and the sphincter loosens enough to feel comfortable in your seat.
Treble Cone itself is the South Island’s largest ski area and there is ample terrain to keep any level of skier entertained, with plenty of off-piste terrain in the form of steeps and chutes. To our delight, the upper elevations had received six inches of fresh snow overnight and, while the base area was being engulfed in grey clouds that were spitting intermittent rain, the top was bright, sunny and much warmer. We got our feet wet with a few high-speed runs from the top of the main chair, then went further afield and found the good stuff. Off to the far skier’s right, a quad chairlift in Saddle Basin provided access to a healthy amount of advanced terrain where large rock formations dotted the landscape and made for some fun banked turns and fairly steep shots in certain areas.
At the top of the chair was access to a couple of gates that led to a wide-open area called The Meadows. From there, the terrain fed down toward Motatapu Basin via a number of narrow, rocky, steep chutes. The hike back out to the base of the chairlift was minimal and the sun continued to shine all afternoon so we settled on this area and ran a number of laps until our legs were cooked.That night, we recovered in our Wanaka hotel hot tub with a couple of cold beers. In August of each year, Wanaka becomes a hotbed for some of the best skiers in the world. International race teams and pipe and park skiers and snowboarders from around the globe come to kick off their on-snow training for the upcoming winter in the northern hemisphere. We happened to strike up a conversation with two well-known X Game athletes in the hot tub (insert your joke here). One of them had been out of action for the better part of a year after breaking his ankle when he executed a 100-foot jump flawlessly… except that he went 99 feet. It sounded agonizing. He also had a hilarious story about getting detained by Wanaka’s finest several years earlier. It seems he had a bit too much to drink and decided to avoid the police by…wait for it…jumping into a bush, which they promptly pulled him out of.
As good as our first day was, day two—despite nearly blinding fog and increasingly scratchy conditions—brought us the highlight of our Treble Cone experience. It came in the form of a 40-ish, somewhat overweight Kiwi of moderate skiing aptitude whom we happened to win the chairlift lottery on.
“I just fell twice…and deservedly so. I can’t see a goddamn thing,” he announced just after pulling down the safety bar and despite neither of us asking for an update. “This is my last run. I’m going to sit by the fire and drink. It’s beer thirty. Where are you guys from?” We answered him, extended the conversation and stopped talking as quickly as possible so he could get back to dishing out whatever amusing but impertinent information he would unload next.
“Took the bus up here from Queenstown, so it may be a fun roll home if I get comfy by that fire at this hour,” he continued, while looking at his watch. I looked at my watch as well and found it to be nearing 1 P.M. His bus was leaving at 4:30 P.M. “Let’s hope the bus driver isn’t next to you by the hearth because that drive down on a few beers would be a brief one,” I said.
“No shit. You should try riding up here in a bus. You feel like you’re going to end up on the news. You know, I have a friend who gets drunks, get behind the wheel and thinks he’s Ayrton Senna,” he rambled back, referencing the legendary, deceased Formula 1 racecar driver from Brazil. The way he correctly pronounced Ear-tin Senna made me laugh, as did the fact that he never cracked a smile or seemed to expect his stories to elicit laughter. This was just him being…him. A Kiwi. “Seriously, most people I know who have a few beers and then drive at least have the good sense to slow down and have a look around,” he continued. “They don’t want to get caught or crash, usually in that order. This guy gets half in the bag and thinks he’s testing tires at f-cking Le Mans. It’s scary as hell.”
We laughed for ten minutes as he continued to share unsolicited pearls like this, making it easier to deal with an increasing wind and the accompanying ice pellets that were pummeling our faces with impressive ease. After skiing a few more blind runs, we decided to call it a day. Back in the lodge, we spent a minute trying to find the Kiwi drinking a beer by the fireplace—which is like looking for a needle in a haystack—then gave up. After throwing back a beer of our own to ensure we wouldn’t be driving off the cliff on an empty stomach, we set off down the Road of Death. (That’s my term for it, not what they put in their marketing brochure.) Aside from the brakes on our rental car beginning to smell like a campfire after 5kms, the ride down was blissfully uneventful.
On the way back to Queenstown, we pulled off the road and cracked open a couple of Steinlagers on the shore of Lake Wanaka to celebrate a solid couple of days on the hill. Shortly after stopping, my traveling partner began to fight a sudden need to immediately find a toilet, and I don’t mean a tree. After a 30-second look around, right here, in the middle of nowhere, by a lake in New Zealand, amid the most natural setting one could imagine, was a perfectly serviceable port-o-pottie. And shortly thereafter, running toward it as quickly as he could without causing a personal accident, was the happiest Northern Irishman to ever see a portable shitter. What a country.