Amanda Jones
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On a Wing and a Pair of Skis - New Zealand

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Written by Amanda Jones

"Stand up now and your head is gone," shouted the guide, who, I feel compelled to add, was only slightly more than half my age. I nodded not bothering to look at him and my nonchalance apparently panicked him. "Dead serious," he persisted. "It'll be lopped off." His hand traced an arc through the air, the arc my head would allegedly take when leaving my body.

I was of two minds-whether to laugh or punch him in the face. How could he possibly suspect I would abandon all reason and intuition and stand up, sticking my head directly into the whirring rotor blades of the helicopter, beneath which we were now crouched? We blondes are sensitive to such slurs.

We were at the very top of Mount Turnbull on the western shores of Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand's South Island, and we were midway through a flawless day of heli-skiing. I was with friends I'd known since my New Zealand childhood. Friends I was adventuring with before this guide was even born. Nicky was my best buddy in high school. She'd taught me to throw myself off things, and off mountains on skis had been one of her early projects. Balfour was Nicky's husband, a guy we'd met at a party when we were 14 and she'd won his heart. I now live in California and they in Australia. It was July, and we'd reconvened in New Zealand in search of snow and a little good-ol'-days revival. The plan was to ski the Tasman Glacier in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, heli-ski in the Wanaka/Queenstown region, and find any ski field we could en route.

We'd hired own private guide. Not the panicker, but capable, relaxed, handsome, 35-year-old JT, or John Thomssen, who we'd booked through South Island Guides, a company that fulfils a myriad of sporting dreams, from fishing to ice-climbing. They make the arrangements, obtain permits, provide transport, the guide, and the packed lunch. Plus they typically add a dose of oddball Kiwi humor to the mix, which lends a cultural immersion factor.

JT was a professional guide in between being an adventure filmmaker and rabid outdoorsman, the top of his game at rock climbing, kayaking, skiing and mountain biking. He'd never tell you that though, braggadocio not being a Kiwi trait. When asked about his talents he'd say, "Aw yeah, I'm alright." Later you'd discover he was a world championship downhill cyclist, a crack kayaker, an envied climber, and he held the prestigious title of Nepalese mountain bike champion, an honor he'd won merely by being there on the right day. He also had a Bachelor degree in business, was a trained water, avalanche and mountain safety guide, and he'd managed to travel the world widely in between. Beyond merely the square jaw and green eyes, (he was Viggo Mortensen's double in the Lord of the Rings boat scenes), JT was easy to be around and lacked the flintiness found in some New Zealand men.

I'd flown to Auckland and then on to Queenstown, where JT met me and we drove one hour to Lake Wanaka where I spent a night at Riverrun lodge. Set on 400 tawny acres with wide open views of the Southern Alps, the lodge is built of salvaged beams and decorated stylishly with locally made furniture. New Zealander owners Meg Taylor and John Pawson are gourmet chefs, and they whip together five-course meals using the country's prime ingredients. It's the kind of place where guests are seen hugging the staff on departure.

The following morning, JT picked me up and we drove for three hours through the sheep-studded plains of Mackenzie Country to Mount Cook National Park, where we met Nicky and Balfour. We were off to ski the Tasman Glacier, accessible by fixed wing aircraft. There are several companies that guide on the glacier, but we'd selected Alpine Guides. I'd been told powder skis were better for the type of conditions we were to face, so I'd left my parabolics at home and rented from Outside Sports in Queenstown.

As we geared up, JT told me to raise my arms and then strapped a plastic device across my torso. I knew these things were standard issue in the world of backcountry skiing, but I'd never actually worn one.

"Locator?" I asked.

"Yep, transceiver."

"Right." Silence for a few moments as I summoned a suitably casual tone. "Avalanches. Much of a problem up here?"

"No, not really. Actually the problem's more with the crevasses. The snow coverage can be deceiving. No one has here, but people can fall in them, and they're deep."

"How deep?"

"Oh, 200 feet worst case."

Probably all in a days adventure for these guys.

Alpine Guides, as evidenced by their name, provide their own ski guides, and tall, lanky, laid-back Jim Spencer was ours. There was a brief instruction on transceiver usage, a lecture on plane etiquette, some gestured geographic explanation and then we boarded the eight-seater Porter skiplane. The weather was superb, cornflower blue sky and not a wisp of cloud. A rare event in the Southern Alps.

The Southern Alps run like a spine down the western side of the South Island, tailed by a series of other mountain ranges. The country's best skiing is done in these areas, and the best of the best is accessible by plane or helicopter. Americans come here to ski for several reasons: It's cheaper than the States, you don't have to be an expert skier, and you can be on snow just as temperatures hit 100-degrees in California. The Tasman Glacier bisects Mount Cook-or Aoraki as it's called in the native Maori tongue. Mount Cook, at 12,313, is the country's tallest peak, and it snags cloud coming off the Tasman Sea. A still, clear day was a gift, we all knew it and we were all silently reverent.

A glacier is a very sluggish river of ice and snow, and from above, it looked like an overblown rapid, frozen in time. At the bottom it was dirty and disheveled, but as we flew upward it became smooth, dazzling and blue-white. The night winds had swept the surface, leaving a ridged imprint, like wet sand after a wave retreats. Monolithic spires flanked the glacier, their snow-covered faces gleaming in the brilliant sunshine. The plane banked and landed on its skids, coming to a sliding stop on a plateau of snow below a ridge. We piled out and the plane took off, leaving us with no sound other than the chink of melting ice.

"Right," said Jim. "Let's have a wee hike up the hill and have a peek, shall we?" Hearing words like "wee" and "peek" coming from a burly, six-foot-five outdoorsman seemed decidedly Monty Pythonish.

We hoisted skis over our shoulders and hiked through the knee-deep snow to the ridgeline. Off to the side was a boxy hut called The Fridge on the Ridge, where ski touring parties spend the night. The view was staggering. Twenty miles to the west lay the Tasman Sea. Ahead was the formidable mass of Mount Cook, and dropping behind the ridge was the perfect Murchison glacier, draped in untouched folds of snow. I stared down at the virginal glacier and had a strong urge to drop off the edge and ski into its persuasive loveliness. That, of course, would mean three things: getting lost, humiliating airlift rescue, or possible death.

The day consisted of two six-to-eight mile runs, mellow skiing, gorgeous scenery and a picnic lunch in between. Halfway down our first run, Jim veered off towards a cliff. We removed our skies and followed him up a hill. Over the knoll was what looked like a sculpture park; the ice having sheared off to form giant, post-modern totems. We continued up to an ice-fall, a glacial equivalent of a waterfall, streaked with layers of spectral blue.

We were staying at the Hermitage, the only hotel in the park and therefore a monopoly. However, they've undergone a swanky remodel and have chic rooms for all budgets. But we found the restaurant to be large and sterile, so we chose to eat most meals at nearby Old Mountaineer's Café, owned by locals Mary & Charlie Hobbs. The restaurant has a blazing fire, comfortable sofas and a hearty menu, but Charlie is the real attraction. A local legend, he's stocky and ponytailed, with a wind-flogged face. He runs Southern Alps Guiding, taking people heli-skiing, glacier skiing, glacier sea-kayaking and climbing. He sat down, had a beer, and told us a memorable tale. Twenty year ago, a young local named Mark Inglis climbed Mount Cook with a buddy. When they got to the top, they looked beyond the clear skies to see a fierce snowstorm rolling in. They about-heeled and began the descent, but the storm was too quick and it stranded them near the summit. After a week surviving on a packet of cookies, a rescue team was sent in by helicopter. It crashed. Another team was sent in to rescue the rescue team. No one got to the climbers. It was thirteen days until the weather broke and they were taken off the mountain. Both climbers lost their legs to frostbite. Recently, Charlie Hobbs had guided Mark Inglis to the summit once again, but this time on metal legs. And now they're planning a 2004 attempt on Everest. Crazy, invincible Kiwis.

After two days, we made our way back to Lake Wanaka, stopping en route at Roundhill, one of the quirky, homespun "club ski fields" that dot the South Island. Club fields are generally family owned with t-bar, rope tow or poma lifts. In other words, Junior gets tired of rounding up sheep and thinks, "It'd be good ta chuck up a lift and carve a few turns on the back thousand." Meaning: the Mackenzie Country mountains are covered in snow in winter, why not start your own mini-ski resort, without the resort, and get the locals to share the fun. Some wag came up with Roundhill's catchy slogan: "For the newlywed and the nearly dead," which just about sums up the "undulating, meandering, gentle slopes." But at the price of $28 for lift tickets, a great view, and Steinlagers at lunch, it's worth stopping in just to see the blokes snowboarding in gumboots. We had a blast.

Once in Wanaka, we checked on the heli-skiing situation. Although you can pre-book, it all rests on weather conditions. We were in luck. Late that night it snowed, so we called Southern Lakes Heliski, a company that assembles groups and transports them to private areas for guided heli-skiing.

Next morning, we met a boat at the Queenstown marina and motored to Mount Nicholas sheep station in the Thomson Mountains. Here we met the helicopter and flew to the higher Mount Turnbull.

The helicopter maneuvered low over the spectacular peaks, dropping us at the summit, beating up a blizzard of snow with the rotor blades. Then it spiraled away, leaving us kneeling in silence-vast, empty, mountain silence. We'd stand, snap on boards or skis, and make our way back down to the helicopter following JT's perfect S-turns. Just to stave off boredom he was on telemark skis, and made it all look nauseatingly easy. It was early in the season and the snow was heavy and tiring. At times Balfour and I floundered, laughing, while Nicky neatly…executed…each…turn.

The weather was glorious, the company good, and the scenery the stuff of storybooks. A cobalt sky domed behind the range of toothy peaks. Ahead was the long Wakatipu Basin, and lying due north towered the gleaming crest of Mount Aspiring. New Zealand at its finest.

After five long runs, we boarded the boat ruddy and euphoric. Drinking beer propped against the onboard bar, the guide who'd been so concerned about my head offered a humbling explanation. "Sorry if I came on a bit strong there. It's just that a client was killed once when his hat blew off and he stood up to chase it. Lost his block clean and square."  Again, his hand traced what was now a very realistic arc. It occurred to me then that perhaps guides might know more than I do.