Lisa Scott gets snowboarding lessons at the home of New Zealand’s Olympic medallists and falls in love with the mountain.
Three cars had already come to grief in the Lindis. One sat, wrapped in accident tape, quite a-ways off the road in a field of thistle. The hoar frost made everything look soft when it was really hard, crystalline shards.
Wanaka hadn’t seen the sun for six days but we would, after turning right at the bra fence – tradition calls for women to leave their old bra on the fence before leaving town (because it’s seen too much?) – and taking the farm road to the sky, the inversion layer a scoop of cloud inside a cone of mountains. We were headed for a ski field founded 40 years ago by John and Mary Lee, who built this road to accommodate buses because Cardrona had lost its school bus due to a lack of children and it was either that or have more babies.
As we round Sally’s corner, named after Sally Frengley – “She lost my pocket knife!” said John, “I was terribly upset about it.” – we skid on a patch of ice, the precarious drop obscured by the hovering white.
Snowboarding was born in the ’80s when skaters and surfers took to the slopes on boards. Many ski areas decided the sport was altogether too reckless and, following a collision between a snowboard and a ski patroller, snowboarding was banned at Cardrona. The ban was lifted in ’89 after the then-GM was given a lesson and the country’s first half-pipe was carved out using chainsaws the following year. Cardrona now boasts the most exclusive park and pipe facilities in the southern hemisphere, sponsoring pretty much everyone who went to the PyeongChang Olympics plus big mountain and adaptive riders (the term “adaptive” comes from how both the sport and equipment are modified to individual needs).
Officially open from today, my recent weekend was a one-off “hello” with only a single lift operational. Even so, 1400 people showed up on the Sunday in question, proving there’s nothing quite like skiing and boarding where Olympians train.
Cardrona has invested in technology around snowmaking, but more natural snow was even then promising to coat the whole mountain.
Apart from a table of sneery 20-somethings who don’t realise how ridiculous they look, the place has the vibe of a small alpine town: babies, teenagers prepared to be seen with their parents, learners as unashamedly rubbish as me … the air of abiding kindness comes from its builder, a man who couldn’t ski himself but just wanted to be close to his family when they did.
Cardrona sees its future in a whole new kind of freestyle athlete, “which makes it buzzy for people being on the same slopes,” says general manager Bridget Legnavsky. “We’re a huge part of the development of snowsports in New Zealand. Over the last five to 10 years New Zealanders have begun to understand just how good we are. A lot of alpine sports are really, really old but when we took on park and pipe we became world class really quickly.”
As I ride the magic carpet, through New Zealand’s first gallery tunnel, to the top of the learner’s slope with Kyle, head of snowboard school, we spot Nico Porteous, New Zealand’s youngest medallist. He’s not wearing his bronze. I would wear that sucker everywhere.
I’d been snowboarding once before and accidentally got into the heli-ski queue. After the helicopter dropped me back, I spent the whole day falling over and making it up as I went along. Now, thanks to the random awesomeness of the universe, I was getting a lesson from the best.
“Are you breathing?” asks Kyle.
“She’s a mouth breather,” explains the Mountain Man, rather disloyally. Kyle holds on to the back of my bibs and steers me around. Enjoying such an enviable amount of one-on-one, I pick up the basics fast and have a kind of epiphany: lessons are a very good thing. It’s a realisation tinged with regret. If only someone had taught me to drive.
But there’s no time for wallowing and hardly any waiting for the McDougall’s Express chondola (named after the proprietor of the Cardrona general store, which sat next to the hotel in gold-mining days. In case you’re wondering, a chondola is a combined chair lift and gondola cabins). I’ve been scared of gondolas since watching James Bond fight Jaws in Moonraker but I hear there’s a bar at the top of a mountain.
At 1860m above sea level the views are breath-taking, Instagram heaven, with the Southern Alps and Lake Wakatipu as a background for your selfies. Champagne and a view and learning something new: Cardrona, I do.