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Snowboarding at Mt Cheeseman

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We planned to do lots of snowboarding in New Zealand, so much so that we have a special category for it on this website. We’d posted wristguards, ski-goggles and even, in my especially clumsy case, kneepads from Delhi to Sydney in anticipation of the heavy usage they’d get on the famous slopes of the Southern Alps. I reminded myself bitterly of all this as I sat in Mt Cheeseman’s Day Lodge, nursing my ankle and watching Caelen and Phil descending the slope with a surprising degree of competence and grace.

The snow report had been uncertain as we packed the car to the gills in Christchurch that morning, but we’d hoped that by the time we’d covered the 100k or so to the ski field things might have improved. At the turnoff from the road, it seemed our optimism had been justified. According to the sign, the ski lifts were open and snow chains should be fitted at Middle Lodge. Looking at the wind whistling around us and the thick dark cloud swathing the mountain, we were dubious. Still, there was only one way to find out.

After twenty minutes crawling along the unsealed road, we came to a lodge. Ah, we thought, this must be where we put the snow chains on. And it’s pouring rain. What a perfect time to learn. After a committee effort, resulting in a pretty muddy committee, someone drove by and told us Middle Lodge was much higher up the mountain. Oh, and the ski lifts were closed anyway. We crawled back down to the road, consoling ourselves with the fact that at least we now knew how to put the things on.

Rather than heading back to Christchurch, we decided to go further into the mountains, to the tramping base of Arthur’s Pass. At least that way we could go walking if the ski lifts didn’t open, we reasoned. The rain got heavier as we went on, and by the time we reached Arthur’s Pass, all thoughts of tramping were abandoned and we picked out the toastiest hostel we could find to while away the day in front of the fire. As the wind howled and the rain fell in sheets, we were none too optimistic about our prospects for the next day.

What was rain at Arthur’s Pass was snow up on Mt Cheeseman, and we awoke to news that the sun was shining down on 30cms of fresh powder on the slopes. If we got up there quick we’d be carving new tracks on pristine snow. We set off full of excitement, picturing the wide graceful turns we’d sweep down the mountain, hearing in our minds the swoosh swoosh of our boards cutting through snow with perfectly applied pressure.

Only six or seven cars were in the carpark when we arrived, most of them belonging to people staying up on the mountain to judge by the snowdrifts smothering them. The keas were delighted at our arrival, presumably hungry for more windscreen rubber. Keas are New Zealand parrots, viewed on with a mixture of irritation and sneaking fondness by natives and visitors alike. Cheeky and opportunist, they’ve been known to snatch sandwiches from unsuspecting picnickers’ hands, pilfer muddy shoes from outside hostel doors and peck off the entire rubber perimeter of a car windscreen. We were torn between wanting more cars to arrive to divert the keas from their onslaught on ours and wanting no one else to sully our empty slopes.

We had picked Mt Cheeseman over the many other skifields near Christchurch because, as a small club field, it was much cheaper than the commercial fields. We weren’t interested in having an extensive choice of red, black and double black diamond runs to choose from. One long, gentle blue slope would keep us happy all day. The commercial fields could keep their snowmaking machines and their daily grooming – today we had the real thing, and we had it almost to ourselves.

We trudged up to the gear rental shed, watching the few snowboarders arcing with geometric precision down a steep slope, winding trails behind them, untouched snow awaiting their descent. While we knew we wouldn’t be demonstrating such style and control when it came to our turn, but on the slopes of our imaginations execution was flawless.

I’ve never had a lot of luck with snowboarding boots. I don’t usually have trouble finding shoes to fit me, but apparently snowboarding boots are made according to a different sizing scale – a scale that doesn’t cater to size 37 feet. Faced with a choice between boots I could slide my foot out of and ones I couldn’t wriggle my toes in, I went for the smaller pair. In Livigno, Northern Italy, I had been faced with the same dilemma and chosen the bigger size. I regretted it when my foot parted company with boot and board during one tumble, leaving me sitting with one wet sock (and foot) ankle deep in snow.

Whether it was the too-tight boots, a hitherto unnoticed ankle weakness or a psychosomatic wish to avoid falling down all day, I found to my dismay that I couldn’t turn from a forward-facing to backward-facing position. After a few catastrophic wipe-outs I remembered how to turn the opposite way, but as soon as I started the front-to-back turn, the pressure on my left ankle was agonising. I was very upset, and took the only possible course of action for a mature, responsible 30-year-old. I threw a tantrum.

Fortunately, like most tantrum-throwing children, I’m quite easily distracted, and the sight of Caelen flailing face first in the snow while the T-bar caught in his coat dragged him uphill shook me out of my self-absorbed state. The misfortune of others can be such a solace.

I was willing to play the martyr and hang around for a couple of days while the lads played in the white stuff, but luckily they were far too nice to allow that. New Zealand wasn’t exactly short of things we wanted to do, so brushing the keas off the windscreen we loaded up and headed off in search of new adventure.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of a Kea on Mount Cheeseman - New Zealand Travelogue
Photograph of Mt Cheeseman carpark New Zealand Travelogue

Crowded carpark

Picture of the veiw from Mt Cheeseman New Zealand Travelogue
Photograph of a Kea on our car on Mt Cheeseman New Zealand Travelogue
Canterbury mountains

Kea checks out our boot