Boarding in the Land of the Kiwis

Temple Basin Skiing

When I finally crawl out of bed and make it outside, the sky is piercingly blue and the view over the Southern Alps is damn near transcendent. My hangover quickly dissipates in the crystalline mountain air. I'm in the highest of all possible spirits.

Then I'm shown the lifts. My God! The lifts at Temple Basin could've served as medieval torture devices. They're known as "nutcracker tows," and before you even approach them you must armor up. First, a leather sheath is slipped over each glove. Then you put on a climbing harness (harness rental is included in the ticket price). Attached to the harness via a short rope is a metal, nutcracker-like device. Then, suitably geared, it's time to confront the lifts.

Temple Basin's three nutcracker tows are like regular rope tows, except they move approximately 400 times faster and ascend a hill that's practically vertical. A rider must grab the speeding rope (hence the glove saver), flip the nutcracker into position (the process must be seen to be even remotely understood), then grip the cracker, all in one smooth motion. I crash a half-dozen times before I finally get going. And then, near the top of the lift, the pressure on the nutcracker becomes enormous—the thing wants to burst open and send me tumbling down the mountain. I set my jaw and hold tight. But my arm becomes weaker, then weaker still. I start shaking with exertion.

And then I let go. The nutcracker springs open and clocks me straight in the mouth. I cartwheel for several yards. My lip begins to bleed. "We've had quite a few broken teeth this year," one of the regulars tells me. Still, I refuse to be defeated. By the time I've made it to the top of the upper lift, I've come to terms with the contraption. Basically, you have to hold on for dear life. Temple Basin regulars develop forearms like Schwarzenegger's.

I ride with my roommates, exploring Temple Basin's two wide-open mountains. The snow is creamy and pliant, prime for popping off wind-lips and not worrying about the landing, but also a bit slidey. Concern about avalanches keeps us off the marquee descents, including a steep, stair-stepped bowl called Bill's and a cluster of enticing chutes a short walk along a ridge. Instead we settle for the safe shots right off the tows. The day goes by at a peculiar pace. I'm exhausted by the lifts, then rejuvenated by the runs. What I enjoy most, corny as it sounds, is simply being there: Temple Basin feels like a private alpine kingdom. The only people on the hill are people I've met; the only people who can join us are those willing to work for it. The area is literally in its own world, with its own weather—while it was sunny and blue at Temple Basin, the valley below was dense with clouds.

When the lifts close—there's no specific time; it's just when the last person decides to come off the hill—the bacchanal revs back up. Everyone piles into the kitchen to help make baked chicken. Though I only planned for one night, I find I can't bring myself to hike back down. I feel as though I belong here. And it's Godfather night in the video room. So I stay another day, and then another.

Eventually, however, I make my getaway. I scramble down the hill and back to my rental car. Where to? Several of the Temple Basin riders had suggested a nearby club field called Cragieburn. None of them had actually been there (New Zealanders tend to pick one club and stick with it), but the stories they'd heard—of epic steeps, of bottomless snowfalls—made them curious. It's my duty, I feel, to investigate.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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