Boarding in the Land of the Kiwis

Porter Heights

Morning arrives with all the subtlety of a Megadeth concert. It's a typical New Zealand weather system, which is basically a week's worth of bad weather all at once: rain, fog, wind, hail, and, says the radio, "a polar blast." Though I can't see much past my front bumper, I grab a couple of chicken mince pies, to go, and make my way into the mountains, reminding myself every five seconds to keep to the left side of the road. As I ascend, the rain turns to snow, which produces in me such joyful delirium that I sing aloud to the Duran Duran song on the radio. I pull into the first ski hill I come to, a place called Porter Heights, then work my way up a sadistic access road and arrive at a nearly deserted parking lot.

Porter Heights is a low-budget operation: It's got three T-bars and one snack bar, which is constructed entirely of cement and is shaped exactly like a mushroom. And that's pretty much it. This makes me happy. Small, locals-only-type hills have always been my favorite—I'm a dirtbag at heart, and places like Porter Heights, where half the mountain knows your name by lunchtime and the pass holders are more than willing to treat an out-of-towner to a powder stash, represent to me the true attraction of snow-sliding sports. If every mega-resort in the world went belly up, I wouldn't feel a nanosecond's worth of sadness.

As I'm putting on my boots, a dozen parrots strut over and patronizingly eyeball me. That's right—parrots. Turns out that the New Zealand Alps are home to the world's only mountain parrots, a green-feathered, hook-horned, comically mischievous bird called the kea. They're intelligent birds, fully protected by the government, and while watching them I get the distinct feeling they're all thinking, "We're protected. We can do whatever the hell we want and get away with it scot-free!" They emit high-pitched squeaking sounds, like a baby's toy, and have a propensity to chew on absolutely anything, including gloves, backpacks, and car tires. Occasionally, one will fly off with a windshield wiper. (The snack bar sells a product called Kea Covers, to protect automobiles.) I watch one bird dash across the parking lot dragging a pair of sneakers; a young girl is in hot pursuit, racing across the snowy lot in her socks. I've yet to make a single turn and already I'm enchanted with the place.

The boarding is extraordinary. The storm's dumped a foot of fresh, and I ride the slow T-bars, pairing with whichever local happens to be milling around, then plunge full-bore down the mountain. Snow plasters my face, and summer—that season the poor folks north of the equator are dealing with—is instantly forgotten. I can't tell you about Porter Heights's supposedly splendid views or its reputed terrain variety; visibility is right about zero and every run is exactly the same: a euphoric romp through white waves of powder. By late afternoon, though, the snow tapers off to ice pellets, which slam cruelly against my face and make me feel as though I've just shaved with a rusty nail. I call it a day.

Porter Heights's manager, a transplanted Austrian named Noldi Heiz, buys me a beer at the mushroom hut and, whispering conspiratorially, tells me that if I like the eccentric smallness of this area, I'll love a nearby hill called Temple Basin. No further convincing is necessary. I make my way swiftly there.

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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