The cheap holiday you probably overlook
AS YOU make your way up the long and winding road towards New Zealand's Mt Hutt ski field, two things quickly become apparent: the lack of guard rails on much of the road and the steepness of the mountain face that lingers just over the edge.
As I look out the window as we near the top of the more than 1500 metre ascent, I turn to my friend who has the unenviable task of driving and say, "You're not scared of heights are you mate?"
It was supposed to be a joke, but the seriousness of the response that came back caught me off guard.
"Yeah," was all he said.
The road we're driving on - one of the highest in the country - was built by a group of hard-headed Kiwis in 1970 with determination, dynamite and some heavy road clearing machinery. The result is an intimidating pathway to one of New Zealand's best ski fields.
Situated about an hour inland from Christchurch on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island, Mt Hutt boasts the longest vertical chairlift access of any mountain in the country. If you're going skiing on the South Island, outside of the Queenstown region, you're probably doing it here.
As we pull into the car park, my colleague behind the wheel is noticeably relieved to have reached our destination. But it won't be the last time he gets thrown in the deep end before the trip is over.
Mt Hutt has one of the longest snow seasons in New Zealand. After opening on June 9, the season will run through until mid October.
"You can ski here until Christmas," says Ritchie Owen, the mountain's marketing co-ordinator. "Last year we closed with a three metre base. It was ridiculous."
Typically a majority of the snowfall comes in July and August so when we arrived at the very beginning of July, much of the snow was manufactured with the mountain operator relying on its 90 snow lances and 20 fan guns to jump-start its snow coverage.
"This year we've upgraded our snow making system and we've been able to have all trails and lifts going from day one which is a real boost for us," says James McKenzie, the ski area manager.
"We can pump out around about 135 litres of water a second, which I think equates to somewhere around 25 tonnes of snow a minute. So it's quite a lot of snow we can make in a short space of time."
'IS THERE ANOTHER WAY DOWN?'
On our first morning on the slopes, my colleague and camera man has pencilled in a lesson as he hasn't put on a pair of skies for about a decade. When we catch up afterwards, he sounds ready to go. "Like riding a bike," he tells me.
Without much thought I proceed to drag him to the top of the mountain to get some filming done. The only problem is the area I take him begins with a steep and narrow run. With camera gear stacked on his shoulder he tentatively follows me down. But after a couple of epic falls, I quickly realised the error of my ways.
When we finally get to the bottom, I suggest heading back up to the top but the idea is met with decidedly less enthusiasm this time. "Ahh, is there another way down?" he asks, sounding concerned I would lead him astray again. I had clearly over-estimated the confidence contained in the bike riding metaphor.
"You can get into some terrain that will really scare you," says Greg Young, originally from Perth, who first started working at the mountain as a ski instructor but now looks after Mt Hutt's social media.
"When I came over here the first time, I did a bit of travelling and it really comes home how steep some of the terrain is here."
From inexperienced skiers to longtime shredders, Mt Hutt can cater to all levels.
"Mt Hutt is definitely a big mountain, we've got the biggest vertical (in New Zealand) in terms of our chairlifts, Mr McKenzie says. The ski field has three large chairlifts, covering nearly 700 metres from top to bottom. "You can't get that vertical anywhere else in the South Island."
When you talk to the locals, the word that often gets used to describe Mt Hutt and the local town of Methven, which sits about a 45 minute drive from the ski field car park, is "authentic".
"When you come up here your skiing alongside locals," Mr McKenzie says. "You can sit next to someone on the chairlift and have a chat about milk prices."
"There's a strong sense of community around here, they really take ownership of the mountain," says Ritchie Owen. It's that strong sense of community that helped Mt Hutt be awarded New Zealand's best ski field in 2015, '16 and '17 by the World ski awards. No small feat considering the competition with Mt Ruapehu in the North Island and the collection of mountains in Queenstown and Wanaka.
"Yeah Queenstown has a party atmosphere," Mr Owen says. "But what you get here is a stripped back experience, it's an authentic and laid back New Zealand atmosphere."
The small town of Methven is dotted with restaurants, cafes, resorts and pubs offering live music. Our accommodation at the Brinkley Resort just down the road from the town's two major pubs has a tennis court, a pair of hot tubs with the mountain in the background and a chef that people seem pretty excited about. But most importantly, with the slightly favourable exchange rate, happy hours beers set you back just $3.68. Not bad for a schooner (or five) of Asahi.
DEALING WITH THE ELEMENTS
We spent three days on the slopes and were lucky to be treated to consecutive days of fantastic weather with bluebird conditions with practically no wind. Plenty of people were enjoying the good weather, which included taking advantage of a hot tub near the top chairlift.
There was no real lift queues despite being the first week of holidays in New Zealand, as well as private school holidays in Australia. But given its location, the weather can change pretty quickly at Mt Hutt.
To keep a close eye on Mother Nature, the mountain has observation towers dotted around its peak that which collect data and send it to the meteorological bureau in Wellington which sends back real time forecasts each hour for the ski field.
"It's very changeable weather here, probably more so than any other mountain in the South Island just because where we're located on the alps here, there are days when it gets particularly windy," Mr McKenzie says. "We can start the day and it can be dead calm conditions and at the end of the day we can have pretty strong winds, so we're monitoring the weather all the time."
It's this reality that has earned the mountain the somewhat undesirable nickname of Mt Shut for the high number of closed days.
"People come into the cafes in town and get angry because they can't get up the mountain," says one Methven local who works as a housekeeper during the winter season. But if the mountain does close for the day, there are other smaller ski fields nearby like Porters, Craigieburn and Mt Cheeseman that will usually still be open.
When you fly to New Zealand (which takes just a few hours from Sydney) it's clear from the Air New Zealand safety video about the airline's support of scientific projects in Antarctica, that it's a country with a deep connection to the environment.
While Mt Hutt is so high that operators aren't too worried about the affect of global warming on its snowfall in the decades to come but it does contend with Mother Nature's other uncertainties.
The mountain was rocked by the 2011 Christchurch earthquake and visitation has only recently returned to pre-earthquake levels.
"The Christchurch Earthquake was a big deal for us, we saw our visitation almost halve in the year following the earthquake but Christchurch has rebounded pretty quickly," Mr McKenzie says.
"In terms of our visitation from Christchurch (which makes up about 80 per cent of visitors to the mountain) we're just passed where we were prior to the earthquake."
NZ OFFERS AN AFFORDABLE ALTERNATIVE
I keep hearing from Aussies travelling to the mountain that even with flights, the cost of going skiing in New Zealand is comparable to a snow trip back home. This is particularly true for those in Queensland (the biggest Australian visitors to Mt Hutt) who already have to travel a far distance to get to a ski field in Oz.
A couple of empty nesters from Australia chatting in the hot tub at the resort remark about how even after the cost of flights, the ski holiday in NZ is financially comparable to a stay at Jindabyne and skiing in the Snowy Mountains. Depending on the circumstance there is some truth to this, especially when the exchange rate is factored in.
A life pass for the day at My Hutt will cost you about $92 which compares to $140 at Thredbo and $149 at Perisher. And if you're a young family, kids under 10 ski free all season long at Mt Hutt.
A Melburnian I meet on the chairlift who came over to visit a friend in Christchurch shares the sentiment and about the affordability of skiing in NZ and seems pretty happy with the mountain's terrain.
At the end of the day as I order my third $3.68 schooner of Asahi and think about jumping in the hot tub, I start thinking they're on to something.
The author travelled to Mt Hutt as a guest of New Zealand Tourism