Australia and New Zealand Skiing

Published May 1998. This article does not reflect any lift upgrades or terrain expansions since then.

Australia

Australian ski areas are concentrated near the border of Victoria and New South Wales. The Snowy Mountains are geologically old like the Appalachians and the highest peak Mt. Kosciusko is only 7,300 ft. Lift serviced skiing ranges from 4,500 to 6,700 feet at latitude of 37 degrees, comparable to Yosemite or West Virginia. To Western skiers, Southern California (higher altitude but lower latitude than Australia) is a closer analogy than the Sierra. Snowfall averages about 200 inches at 5,800 feet but rain is frequent also. Consequently, full operation of terrain occurs about 75% of the time even during the most reliable period of early August to mid-September. The tree line is about 6,000 feet and the snow gum forests are quite dense below 5,500 feet.

Since this is the only skiing Australia has, development is quite extensive despite the erratic natural snow cover. There is some snowmaking, but it is not as comprehensive as in North America. Lift tickets are expensive (lifts $45-$50US) and Australian skiing should definitely be avoided on weekends and holidays. On-snow lodging is expensive, but reasonable lodging (i.e. Jindabyne for NSW areas) is within half an hour.

Major Areas:
Area Top Elev. Vert. Drop Acres Drive Time Comments
Thredbo 6,681 2,204 450 Sydney 6 hrs Canberra 2.5 hrs Best NSW area for advanced, but still mostly intermediate to Americans. Needs 150cm. base for some advanced runs. The bottom 1,000 feet is snowmaking dependent.
Perisher Blue 6,671 1,423 3,000 Sydney 6 hrs Canberra 2.5 hrs Merge and interconnect of 4 small areas. Minimal advanced terrain and few fall lines of 1,000+ vert. Numerous lifts and large acreage reduce crowding.
Mt. Hotham 6,053 1,297 500 Melbourne 4 hrs Recent expansion makes terrain comparable to Thredbo. Similarly needs 150cm. natural snow base for full potential of advanced runs
Falls Creek 5,840 919 800 Melbourne 4 hrs 250 acres of snowmaking make this the most reliable area in Victoria.
Mt. Buller 5,872 1,312 600 Melbourne 3 hrs Good reputation for terrain, but snowfall is least reliable of the major areas.

The above information should convince North Americans that it makes little sense to travel to Australia for the skiing. Most tourists prefer to visit Victoria and New South Wales during the warmer months In summary, if you're a skier and visiting Sydney, Canberra or Melbourne for other reasons, try a day or two after verifying conditions. Australian ski conditions are posted regularly on one of the most informative ski Web sites I have ever seen: Australian Sno-Info

New Zealand

New Zealand skiing is of much higher quality than Australia's. However, it is still best to view a visit to New Zealand in terms of overall tourism. Avid skiers should have a flexible itinerary with a car, and plan to ski about half of the days there, allowing for weather and other activities. The tree line is a very low 3,000 feet and lift serviced skiing ranges from 3,800 to 7,500 feet. The open terrain is a definite plus for ski variety and fantastic views, and consequently these areas ski somewhat bigger than the statistics might indicate. The downside is that there is no visibility during storms, and the areas can also be closed for wind or avalanche control. There is almost no on-snow lodging, and most access roads are unpaved ascents of 3,000 to 4,000 feet from the resort towns. For optimum conditions, stick to the high season period of August to mid-September, but be aware of a two week school holiday ending the first weekend of September. Lift tickets run $35-$40US and resort lodging is available at a broad range of prices. Ski area information and ski reports are at New Zealand Snow .

Major Areas by region:

North Island - Mt. Ruepehu: Latitude 39 degrees, same as Lake Tahoe
Area Top Elev. Vert. Drop Patrolled Acres Exposure Estimated Snowfall Recommended Time to Ski
Whakapapa 7,544 2,214 1,000 Mostly North 250 inches August - September
Turoa 7,616 2,361 1,000 South and West 250 inches August - October

Mt. Ruepehu is the highest of 4 volcanic peaks on the North Island at over 9,000 feet. The top 1,500 feet is not lift serviced, but is popular for backcountry touring. The mountain is bigger than Mammoth or Mt. Bachelor if you take the 1.5 hour hike to the top. Both areas have a good mix of terrain, but Turoa is more wide open while Whakapapa has more challenging chutes and gullies.

There is limited lodging near Whakapapa and the town of Okahune is 17km. from Turoa. Both areas have more lift capacity than any South Island area, although only Whakapapa has a high speed quad. As 75% of the 3.5 million New Zealanders live on the North Island, these will be the most crowded areas on weekends or holidays. It's a 4 hour drive north to Auckland or south to Wellington.

Whakapapa faces the sun and has a swift transition to spring conditions if it hasn't snowed recently. Both areas will likely close in big storms for wind or visibility. Another recent risk is that Ruepehu became volcanically active in September 1995. The areas were closed most of 1996, although the volcano has been quiet so far in 1997.

South Island - Christchurch area: Latitude 42 degrees, same as Oregon / California border
Area Top Elev. Vert. Drop Patrolled Acres Exposure Estimated Snowfall Recommended Time to Ski
Mt. Hutt 6,806 2,148 900 Mostly South 250 inches July - October
Porter Heights 6,494 2,230 200 South and East 200+ inches August - September

Mt. Hutt is primarily a huge glaciated bowl, which has a reputation for New Zealand's most reliable snow conditions, including about 100 acres of snowmaking. It attracts some Northern Hemisphere ski teams for training. Mt. Hutt has an excellent balance of terrain for all levels of skiers. It's 1.5 hours from Christchurch, but most skiers stay half an hour away in Methven or Ashburton. There are two chairs, several surface lifts and a scenic but scary gravel ridgetop access road. Sometimes skiers call it Mt. Shut due to storm closures for wind, visibility or road conditions

Porter Heights is 1.5 hours from Christchurch off the Arthur's Pass road to the West Coast. It has only 3 T-bars for lifts, but a very good reputation for powder skiing due to advanced terrain and low skier density.

South Island - Southern lakes area: Latitude 45 degrees, same as Washington / Oregon border
Area Top Elev. Vert. Drop Patrolled Acres Exposure Estimated Snowfall Recommended Time to Ski
Coronet Peak 5,412 1,476 700 Mostly South 100 inches mid-July mid-September
Remarkables 6,419 1,171 550 North and East 150 inches August mid-September
Treble Cone 6,101 2,165 1,350 South and East 200 inches August - September
Cardrona 6,212 1,279 600 South and East 150 inches August - September

The Southern Lakes region is the most popular tourist destination on the South Island. Queenstown is a lively international resort and adventure capital, offering jet boats, river rafts, parapente and bungy jumps from bridges or a helicopter, as well as two ski areas. Don't miss a day trip to Milford or Doubtful Sound, fiords which feature Yosemite's geology in a temperate rainforest setting. It rains 200+ inches per year at the fiords and snows 500+ inches at the crest of the Southern Alps. However, Southern Lakes skiing is well leeward of the crest and lower in elevation. This reduces wind as well as snowfall, so total shutdowns are less likely than at Mt. Ruepehu or Mt. Hutt.

Coronet Peak is 20 minutes from Queenstown on the South Island's only paved access road. While there are no trees, the mountain is covered in tussocks, a soft grass which allows most terrain to be skiable on a 100cm. base of snow. Aside from the groomed runs, the rolling hills of tussocks create a natural terrain park effect which was entertaining even before snowboards were invented. Coronet has a top to bottom high speed quad plus 3 other lifts, but is still the busiest South Island area on weekends and holidays. Coronet has New Zealand's largest snowmaking system covering 200 acres.

The Remarkables are 30+ minutes from Queenstown. While Coronet has a consistent intermediate pitch, the Remarkables have a sunny face of easy runs plus an east face which is primarily advanced. From the top of the advanced fixed quad, you can also extend the vertical by skiing to the access road and catching a shuttle back to the base. Terrain is rockier and more sun exposed than Coronet Peak and thus more coverage is needed.

Wanaka is about an hour and a quarter north of Queenstown, and 30+ minutes from either Treble Cone or Cardrona ski areas. Wanaka has the laid-back time-warp atmosphere more typical of New Zealand. Treble Cone has the best terrain in New Zealand for advanced intermediate to expert skiers. Its front SE face, serviced by a 1,600 vertical high speed 6-pack chair, has two groomed runs with snowmaking and is otherwise rolling hills of tussocks, slightly steeper than Coronet Peak. From the top of the 6-pack, traverse south into Saddle Basin, a 1,000 vertical area of bowls and chutes, serviced by a double chair and T-bar. There are also numerous expert chutes overlooking the front face from the top of the T-bar. While Treble Cone is skiable on 100cm., look for at least 150cm. to realize full potential of the expert terrain.

Since Treble Cone has almost no beginner area, low end skiers will be happier at Cardrona. The two lodge area chairs and the backside Captain's Basin all service primarily low intermediate runs. The advanced runs are between these two sections, but they are shorter than those at the other Southern Lakes areas.

South Island - Glacier and Heliskiing:

Many New Zealand tourists take flightseeing trips over the Southern Alps and landing on glaciers. Skiers should allow a day or two to ski in New Zealand's backcountry.

Harris Mt. Heliskiing is the largest heliski operator outside of Canada. They operate in 11 areas from well north of Wanaka to just south of Queenstown. This wide range increases the chances of finding a calm and clear area to fly. Even so, weather normally grounds them two days a week, and in a stormy year they may only fly half of the time. Harris has offices in both Queenstown and Wanaka, but more skiing is available from Wanaka. Prices ($425US for 4 runs totalling 10,000 vertical) are comparable to U. S. operations and more expensive than Canada. Experienced powder skiers should request the option to take 7 runs for about $550US. Fat skis are recommended for the coastal and sometimes variable snow.

Mt. Cook at 12,346 feet is New Zealand's highest peak, and adjacent to the scenic Tasman Glacier. For about $350US you get a skiplane flight to the glacier and two long and gradual runs of about 3,000 vertical. Although some of the skiing is through ice formations, it is easily accessible to intermediates with fat skis. For more advanced skiers, Alpine Guides offer heliskiing in the Ben Ohau range just south of Mt. Cook at prices similar to Harris Mt. This region is higher and snowier than the Southern Lakes region, and thus more vulnerable to weather. It's very isolated at 3 hours drive from Queenstown or 4 hours from Christchurch, with little to do if you're grounded. Some skiers fly in for the day for an extra $150US.

South Pacific Combinations

There are often attractive three and four country airfares (intracountry flights cost extra). July to September is the best time for the tropical destinations of Fiji, Tahiti and Australia's Great Barrier Reef. You can choose how to divide your vacation between the beaches and the skiing. Recommended New Zealand itineraries: