I've always wanted to spend a winter as a seasonnaire, living like a bum and skiing every open day. Unfortunately work and study always got in the way. However in 2009 I finally found my window, and resolved to finally spend a full winter skiing, sleeping in my car and hitting up every club field in the South Island. Flexibility and freedom would be my watch-words. I bought myself a Chill pass, some fat skis, and all the equipment I'd needed to set up my car for living on the road in icy conditions.
Despite the plan, my 2009 ski season ended up being less of a Winter Roadtrip and more of a Winter Spent Ski Bumming At Temple Basin. The offer of free food & accommodation in exchange for volunteer work and friendly faces to hang out with proved too inviting to pass up and I spent an increasing share of my time up the hill, slowly progressing from part-time staff to full-time by the end of the season. I kept a snow diary for the season and published most of it to my blog, hoping I could make something interesting. It became a verbose ramble and I had to scrap most of it, but I've salvaged the highlights for this post — 15 highlights from my 2009 ski season:
Beating my previous record for earliest turns of the season
Mt Cheeseman – 10th May
When an early winter storm delivered over a foot of snow in early May, a couple of friends decided it might be an opportune moment to test the fresh base. I joined them for daytrip to Cheeseman. An hour's hiking/snowshoeing from the the skifield gate earned us a couple of short runs, followed by a wee kicker session before skiing back down to the car. The lack of solid snow base gave my new Gotamas a good pounding, but nothing compared to the damage Ryan's snowboard edge suffered.
A good day out: Nothing compared to a good mid-season day, but fun all the same.
Tracking out the fresh pow before the student hoardes arrive
Temple Basin – 1st August
Dawn on Saturday of the 80s Party weekend unveiled a fresh blanket of beautiful untracked snow with not a chunky spot in sight. I'd arrived the night before with the food delivery, and got to share a pow feeding frenzy on Cassidy tow with barely half a dozen other punters. We laid waste all morning and left only scraps for the lunchtime arrivals.
The Temple Truck breaking down again, and again, and again
I spent much of July through early September making Temple Basin food resupply missions to earn my turns. A typical TB food run begins shortly after dawn in Christchurch, working through a several thousand dollar shopping list and loading up half a ton of supplies. Once the truck is loaded, it's taken on a two hour drive to the Basin, usually arriving around sunset. The next hour or two are spent sending the food up to the lodge in the goodslift while fending off keas, followed by an hour-long walk up to the field by the light of a head-torch. Whilst the food run (usually Thursday) is a long hard day's work, you get all your volunteer work out of the way in one go, and get to spend the next few days skiing without having to worry about more chores. It's a fairly good gig.
The fly in the ointment is that you have to do it all in the Temple Truck. This ancient behemoth is notorious for its unreliability, and has broken down on me more times than I care to remember. This season provided a few hairy episodes, including a couple of trips that I had to make while wearing a headtorch to see the speedometer because the truck was missing interior lighting, a headlight, both indicators, and its horn. However undoubtedly the worst of the season was the Fire & Ice Party food runs, which involved two consecutive days' work (dawn to midnight both days), eight hours on the road, five tonnes of food and alcohol, and two truck breakdowns. The weekend's lowlights included an hour spent single-handedly defending a truckful of exposed food from a dozen ravenous keas with a ski pole while trying to jump-start the truck; a midnight return journey to Christchurch during which I could not under any circumstances allow the truck engine to stop or stall; and a total gearbox failure while descending Flock Hill. All in all, an eventful couple of days.
Knocking off the Grand Traverse
Temple Basin – 9th August
Brian and I trekked from the top of the Elevator Chute, across the top of Upper Bills (just under B'limit) to reach a point just short of Cassidy peak at sunset, culminating in my longest Temple Basin run to date. I'll blame my sketchy skiing on loose boots, but I managed to hold it together at least and made the descent without bailing nor losing the ear-to-ear grin from my face.
Consolation prize at the Gnomes Freeride Competition
Temple Basin – 22nd August
Neil Williman (the club's resident pro rider) organised a joint club competition and sorted out sponsorship from Gnomes. A paucity of good snow forced the organisers to move the competition from Downhill Basin to the top of Upper Bills, but with Hot Pocket as the venue there were still plenty of good features for the adventurous. Each competitor had only one run to show their stuff and we were advised against hucking off big drops if unsure about sticking the landing. The judging would instead focus on fluid, controlled riding. As a competition newbie, I chose a mellow line, figuring that it's better to own an easy line than to bail ingloriously in front of two dozen solid riders. Final result: 14th place and a T-shirt spot prize from Neil for being an old bastard.
Actually getting to sleep in my car
Broken River – 31st August to 2nd September
My original plan for the season had been to spend most of my time living in my car and exploring all 12 Chill ski fields. Instead I ended up getting regular volunteer work, accommodation and food at Temple Basin, so I stayed there instead. As a result my investment in a car electrical system, roof box, curtains, mattress and camping stove were largely wasted, but I did manage three days and two nights camping out in my car at the bottom of the Broken River access road.
I left Christchurch planning to try for Cragieburn, Cheeseman and Mt Olympus over three days in order to finish off the Selwyn fields that I hadn't yet visited. However strong winds and heavy snow meant that I ended up only managing Cragieburn and Broken River. First up was Cragieburn. which had a fair amount of fresh snow which had been redistributed by the winds so that ridges and exposed points were extremely icy but basins, gullies and chutes were filled to the brim with powdery goodness. What's more, gale-force winds quickly erased any ski tracks: Sweet, unlimited freshies!
I awoke on day 2 dawned to horrible weather pelting the windscreen, and the word on the carpark grapevine was that everywhere was closed but that Broken River would be opening at 6pm for night powder skiing. I spent the day mooching round Castle Hill and hanging out at Flock Hill Lodge, then when dusk came I made a move up to BR. It'd been snowing most of the day and over a foot of fresh pow lay on the ground already, woop woop! The vibe in the BR carpark was electric - everyone I met had giddy powder-day grins, including a few familiar faces.
Sleeping in the car was surprisingly comfortable, albeit a little cramped and cold. Unfortunately the auxiliary car battery had sprung a leak and was buggered, so it only managed to power my laptop for an hour for an hour at a time without firing up the engine.
On the way up Cragieburn on the third day, one of my snow chains ripped themselves apart and wrapped around the wheel axle. Removing the wheel to pry the chain loose proved to be an adventure in the fresh snow on a steep hill, but I got it off eventually and managed to get a tow up to the field from a helpful clubbie in a 4wd. That's the last time I buy cheap chains.
Enjoying the Big Mountain Competition with a beer in a deck chair
Temple Basin – 5th & 6th September
Screw watching rugby or cricket — for me, there are few things better than a sunny afternoon spent reclining in a deckchair with a beer at the top of Cassidy and watching a freeride comp. While we sank stubbies and worked on our tans, Neil and Sam competed over who could claim the biggest drop from the cliff by lower Main.
(Another hightlight of the weekend: Managing to stick my first 180. Stoked.)
Climbing to the ridge at midnight under a full moon, and downing a beer with a group of pro skiers
Temple Basin – 5th September
Saturday night after the Big Mountain Competition was clear and bright with a full moon, so I delayed joining the lodge party for a few hours and instead joined a wee group who were planning to climb to the top of Hot Pocket. The climbing party consisted of several skiers/snowboarders with way more talent and experience than me including patroller Ross and pro circuit skiers Sam and Pete, but I figured I could always turn back if unable to keep up. We left the lodge at around 10pm and climbed from Temple tow with ice axes in hand. The snow was pretty hard, which made for fun climbing if not for good skiing. We had a beer on top of the ridgeline overlooking the Mingha backbowl at 11:30pm, and skied down at midnight. Magic.
Temple Basin – 5th September
“Breakin’ hearts and savin’ lives”
Temple Basin – 19th September
Saturday the 19th (International Talk Like a Pirate Day and Aoife's birthday) was the also beach party day, and the weather turned out perfectly with sunny blue skies and light winds. We had a BBQ outside on the veranda with a badminton net (complete with coke bottle shuttlecocks), and all the staff were wearing Hawaiian shirts.
It had been pretty icy that morning while I manned the rental department, and Temple tow was covered in treacherous rock patches. I rented some skis to a Danish visitor then taught her how to use the ropetow, and she got to the top first time. I rode up with her, checked she was ok, then skied back down to the rental shop. I noticed the Danish girl was taking her time at the top so I rode back up to check if she was ok. I was only halfway up the tow when she lost her footing and began sliding out of control towards a rock field. While I hung on to the tow and willed it to go faster, she screamed through the first patch of rocks and kept going for the second. As we drew almost level I dismounted the tow, bunny-hopped a rock patch, traversed into her fall-line and chucked my poles. I dug my skis into the ice and threw my shoulder into her path, braced for impact and grabbed her. Her momentum caused me to lose my footing and we slid together for a while as I dug my skis and hands into the snow to brake our descent. Once we were stable, I checked her condition. She had broken her wrist on a rock but was otherwise okay. Ski patrol had seen the entire thing and were already on their way. We loaded her onto a sled and returned her to the lodge, where she waited for a couple of hours to be helicoptered to a hospital. While we were treating her I noticed that my arm had a fair bit of blood on it from the icy slide, as I'd only been wearing my Hawaiian shirt at the time.
Best snow of the season
Temple Basin – 23rd September
The day before had brought 10-15cm of freshies, and it continued to snowing on and off all morning. Shortly after I arrived at Downhill, the sun came out for an hour and I got some sweet turns in good vis before heading in for lunch. The weather socked in during lunchtime and delivered about 5cm which covered up most of the morning's tracks. Then as we were heading outside again, the sun reappeared as suddenly as it had left, and we had 4 hours of bluebird freshies! The afternoon snow was if anything even more fun than the morning's, and we thrashed it till 5pm. I got the last tow out of Downhill back through Lower Bill's, and had a sweeeet run through Cassidy chute. Then, to top it all off, it started snowing again less than 5mins after I arrived back in the lodge. Perfect!
Playing snowboard instructor
Temple Basin – 27th September to 2nd October
During TB's final week we were overwhelmed by the arrival of 26 kids between the ages of 5-16. The mountain became a noisy place filled with 'miniature drunks', whose only purpose appeared to be the conversion of sugar into violence.
Whilst we had a couple of ski instructors, there were no qualified snowboard instructors on the hill. I used to snowboard a few seasons back, so I grabbed a board out of ski hire and gave the kids some lessons. It's a pretty cool feeling when one of the kids comes up and says thanks for the lesson, and that the tips I gave him really helped his snowboarding. :)
The Basin's final open day
Temple Basin – 4th October
After a season of cajolling, Hugo and I finally managed to drag Aoife up to Bill's Basin and show her the field's full potential.
Staff-only powder day
Temple Basin – 5th October
Once the punters had finally left, the staff finally got a day to themselves to pack their bags, tidy the lodge, take down the trip cords, and of course pillage the empty slopes. Inevitably there were wind-blown freshies the day after closing, so we spent a couple of hours picking out pow between the ice patches in between taking down trips at Downhill, then headed home through Lower Bill's for the last time with packs full of gear.
Skiing on Halloween
Mt Olympus – 31st October
Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.
Mt Olympus announced a final weekend of skiing over Halloween with a forecast for blue skies and corn snow. Paul invited me to join him so I ignored my now-dire financial situation and tagged along.
The access tow wasn't running so we had to hike to the lodge. The walk's difficulty showed me just how much the last month had cost my fitness. Once we arrived, the spring sun beat down, it was exhaustingly hot and the combined smell of sunscreen, sweat and snow filled my nostrils. The snow melted quickly throughout the day and became very slow after lunch in sun-affected areas. Definitely not the best day of the season for skiing, but a fun post-script to a brilliant season.
Snow days: 43
Ski fields visited: 6
Cheers 2009 for an awesome ski season!
If you're a sucker for punishment, you can read the entire archive of my 2009 season by clicking on the following links. Each post contains a list of that month’s snow days with commentary. I’ll warn you, it’s not exactly compelling reading. I decided to write them as a complete chronicle of my ski season, kind of like an online road diary. I included nearly everything I could remember at the time of writing and published it. As a result it’s even more of a verbose ramble than this post. You’ve been warned.