The thought of powder skiing in July was intriguing. And where but in the high peaks of the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed? New Zealand -- a beautiful, uncomplicated, uncrowded country of 3.1 million -- became our summer-into-winter mecca. Mount Cook -- the 12,300-foot crown of the country's Southern Alps where snow base averages 12 feet with 20 inches of powder on top -- became our destination.
My husband and I arrived at Mount Cook National Park's Hermitage Hotel in a snowstorm. The Southern Alps are in the midwestern part of New Zealand's South Island. Here, bad weather is more common than not in winter, and the easy half-hour flight from Queenstown was delayed hour after hour until it was finally canceled. The passengers were shipped north on a four-hour bus ride over icy mountain passes in blowing snow.
Mount Cook and 17 neighboring peaks over 10,000 feet are spectacular as they rise straight from the 2,500-foot valley floor, encircling the large old hotel, but that day we couldn't see more than the lowest ridges and the grass-covered river valley.
It was the next day that we learned what a magnificent spot it is and could see why the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand call Mount Cook "Aorangi" -- the cloud piercer. Even when skies are clear, wisps of clouds curl constantly upward at the summit and nearby ridges as warm winds from the Pacific, about 20 miles to the west, wash across the South Island.
Five days here made for a unique ski experience, because of the physical grandeur and conditions, a total absence of commercial clutter, the comfortable, dignified hotel and the challenging Alpine Guides ski program.
On the snowy Sunday afternoon of our arrival -- to a much-welcome fire in the two-story wooden lobby of the Hermitage -- we learned we had dinner reservations with our guide for the week, affable Canadian Dave Cochran. It was a gesture characteristic of the friendly, take-charge guides and provided an opportunity for us to get to know each other and discuss the week's skiing options.
We had pre-booked the four-day "ski-hi" package from the United States. We were not part of a group, and the details of the arrangement were tailored for us: a day each of glacier skiing, heli-skiing, ski touring in the valley and lift skiing at a nearby downhill area. But lack of snow (none of New Zealand's ski areas were open as of July 15) and therefore a later than usual start to the season (normally July through early October) made the latter two options impossible. Instead we would take an extra day of heli-skiing, it was decided -- if the weather would allow.
I questioned whether heli-skiing would be too difficult for one pregnant, advanced recreational skier and one coordinated near-novice. Not to worry, said Dave. The groups would be divided by ability and there would be a choice of terrain.
At breakfast the next morning, the skies were clearing and it looked like we could go heli-skiing. (We were lucky with the weather during the week of our visit, it turned out. Ski planes and helicopters can go up to the mountains only 40 percent of the time because of poor weather conditions. Guides keep an eye on quickly shifting clouds once they do take groups up: Storms are sudden and treacherous.)
At 8:15 a.m. we checked in at the well-stocked ski and mountaineering shop of the Alpine Guides. We had decided to rent rather than carry our skis from the United States, and it was a good decision. We brought boots but needn't have -- the shops' equipment was up to date and in good condition.
There was an informal, friendly, yet well-informed and professional attitude on the part of all we met in this guide operation. Dave, in his second season at Mount Cook, works the rest of the year in British Columbia with Canadian Mountain Heliski in the rugged Caribou Mountains. He, like the other guides, always carried a 50-pound pack with two-way radio, pick and ropes, extra food, tents and first-aid for rescue and emergencies in the unpredictable conditions of these mountains.
Avalanches occur constantly in the steep Southern Alps, which are interlaced by dozens of glaciers and covered by snow of shifting stability. When you ski you see and hear the gunshot cracks and rumbles frequently. It's a thrill -- but not too close please. (I watched an avalanche cover the trail of a group that had skied by an hour before.) The heli-guides scout potential ski sites in the morning and study daily park service snow stability reports to minimize the risk for skiers. Groups are reminded constantly to ski only where the guide advises.
After arriving at the helipad, each of us was given a "Pieps" avalanche transmitter to wear around the neck under all clothes ("if it's loose it'll get ripped off in a slide and we'll never find you") and drilled for an hour on its use in rescuing others. Then, after reassurance that probably such precautions would prove unnecessary, the helicopter was ready to take us up into the Ben Ohau Range.
We divided into two skiing groups of nine and flew to the 7,200-foot ridge of Whales' Stream, with the guides in smaller groups of four and five. The guides arranged it so that one of them was always either on or receiving each helicopter to unload the skis, stowed outside in a basket. We jumped out into the deep powder as fast as possible, crouching down and covering our heads until the blowing snow from the rotor blades stopped when the helicopter lifted off again. The sudden peacefulness was a marked contrast.
I looked around while hauling my skis another 50 feet uphill through thigh-high powder to a better starting point. The views were breathtaking: silent white peaks all around; little whirls of snow sparkling in the sun as winds gusted; dramatic shadows from jagged peaks and snow formations.
My group of nine followed Dave in a varied, 2,300-foot vertical descent of about two miles. The snow ranged from deep, light powder to windblown crust and the terrain from steep to smooth bowls. The quick changes were challenging and there was never a danger of scraping on rocks. The copter grew from a speck below as we carved virgin trails toward it at the pickup point. Up we went again.
Because it had been such a good run, we repeated it -- in fresh snow -- after lunching on sandwiches and fruit brought by the helicopter. (It was unusual to make the same descent twice, I was told. There are lots of run options and each is in untracked snow. The heli-ski operation guarantees a minimum of three descents each day, with a total vertical drop of about 10,000 feet.)
The third run was from Mount Mary, two miles away and 7,600 feet high. We landed on a narrow ridge, so narrow that if the rotor of the perching helicopter had stopped, it could have fallen either way. This run had quite different conditions: windy with a lot of hard-packed, blown snow and a steeper, rockier descent. It ended near the edge of the snow line. By then, at about 4 p.m., the sun was going down and I was ready for a hot bath and something hot and strong to drink.
The Hermitage is a perfect place to come home to. The rooms are quite comfortable: Each has a refrigerator, a tea-making unit and a small balcony overlooking Mount Cook. There are notices in the rooms reminding guests not to leave the porch doors open lest the inquisitive kea arrive to investigate. This parrot-like, scavenging bird with a strong beak is a mountainside pest in New Zealand -- and so-called because of its piercing cry.
The next day was beautiful. Following a robust breakfast (in general, the food was hearty but not gourmet), we set off for ski runs on the Tasman Glacier. Departing from the nearby airport in Pilatus Porters and Cessna 185 airplanes equipped with ski runners as well as wheels, we were flown to the 7,800-foot Tasman Glacier saddle amidst the most dramatic peaks of the Southern Alps. It was from here that Mount Cook was first conquered in 1894 and that Sir Edmund Hillary made many of his pre-Everest training climbs.
The flight up to the saddle was an event in itself. The glacier is most impressive: 18 miles long, up to 1,200 feet thick and more than a mile wide. It moves quickly, as these formations go, at about a foot a day. We flew close to the peaks and swooped into nooks between the valley sides, marveling at the massiveness around us.
We made two five-mile runs on the glacier that day -- descending 3,000 feet in gently undulating powder bowls, past crevices and ice towers. As in the heli-skiing, the planes picked us up at the end of each run and moved us to fresh, unskied slopes. It was definitely easier skiing with more consistent, less deep powder.
The last three days were varied: one more of superb heli-skiing on different peaks and the rest spent hiking from the valley. Snow was minimal at the lower elevations, the sun bright and the scenery stupefying. We explored via bush-crossing paths to glaciers and swing bridges above gorges.
Because of the disappointing New Zealand snow this year, Mount Cook was one of the few places open throughout the season. It offered very good conditions and probably would have been even better with more snow (the runs would be longer, and more would be accessible).
But it was spectacular just the same. And for those of us who prefer snow to glitter, uncommercial Mount Cook is particularly appealing.