Boarding in the Land of the Kiwis
The Cragieburn access road wends through a dense beech-tree forest, alive with the cackle of keas, and ends at a tidy collection of wooden chaletsno hiking necessary. Once again, everyone's crowded into the kitchen. And again, it's only a matter of minutes before I'm treated like family. Darryl, the Cragieburn bartender (this area has an actual bar), introduces me to the two dozen people who'll be staying the night. And for the second time, I'm assigned dish duty (what is it about me?). By the time dinner's over and I'm scrubbing plates, I have 24 potential ski partners, each of whom feels compelled to buy me a welcome-to-the-club drink and tell me stories about the place.
Cragieburn, by all accounts, is far and away the king of the club fields. Its motto is "Steep, Deep, and Cheep," and it says right on the brochure that beginning and intermediate boarders would be better off someplace else. Its trail map categorizes runs as "Intermediate," "Advanced," "Tricky," and "Suicidal." The patrollers make their bombs themselves, in two-liter milk bottles. The place has a rougher edge than Temple Basinthere are no little kids at Cragieburnand it's even less expensive. Basically, Cragieburn is strictly for low-budget, high-energy dirtbags. I feel as though I've discovered the promised land.
It takes me the better part of the night to finish all my drinks, and I don't wake up until after 10, whereupon I discover I'm one of the first people awake. This place is paradise!
Well, paradise with a twist. Cragieburn, too, is cursed with nutcracker towsthree of them, one above the other. Though I didn't think it was possible, they are steeper and faster than Temple Basin's. And the force of these tows drags you perilously close to the metal wheels driving the lift. On my first ride, I'm not paying strict attention and my hand gets pinched between the wheel and the cableouch!and within minutes the inside of my glove is sticky with blood. I've donated a small patch of finger skin to the ski areaa first-timer's mistake that's so common, I later learn, it's almost considered part of the ticket price.
Atop the mountain, I'm invited to join a small group of boarders. We hike along a ridge for a few minutes, to a place called Middle Basin, then strap on our boards and shove off. Within one turn, the pain in my finger is forgotten. The snow is deep and cold and wide-open and untracked. Middle Basin is so vast there's probably room for 500 powder lines. And a grand total of 25 people are on the hill. You do the math. I carve huge, high-speed, ultra-GS turns, the snow billowing up from under my board like mist off a waterfall, cocooning me in powder. Middle Basin is steep, very steep, but the snow is bottomless and stable. Fear is not a factor. I gobble through acres of snow, delirious with joy, actually laughing aloud as I listen to the sweet hiss of parting powder. My partners are lost in their own reveries; we're spaced so far from one another our tracks never cross. Two thousand vertical feet. I'd say it was a heli-quality run, except that most helicopter runs I've taken weren't half this good.
Of course, at the bottom I don't hesitate for an instant: Up the torture tows I go, and right down Middle Basin again. Then a third time. And a fourth. Afterward, I'm shown Siberia Basin, then Hamilton Face, then the Castle area, then Gumsnake, then Marty's. It is all good. There is so much terrain at Cragieburn it would take five seasons to ride every line.
In the evening, all of us lit on adrenaline, people tell me about New Zealand's other unknown stashes. "At this place called Ohau . . . " "If you go over to Mount Olympus . . . " "Off the top lift at Treble Cone . . . " "There's this chute at Cardrona . . . " And on and on.
I write it all down; I make plans to spend a day at each area; I start mapping my route. And then I realize that none of this is quite what I want. On a trip like mine, sometimes you have to go with the flow, and sometimes you have to kick back and stay right where you are. I'm staying at Cragieburn, I decide, and I'm not leaving till it's time to fly home.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication