They used to promote Treble Cone as Top Cat, lifting the ‘TC’ link from the popular 60’s kid’s TV cartoon character, complete with furry ski mascot skiing with the kids to emphasise the area’s mellower side.
Top Cat lives on, still skiing around the resort promoting the beginner’s area and long easy trails, where improving cruisers can enjoy the kick-ass views too.
But the reality is TC is NZ’s terrain top dog, offering more and better options for gung-ho riders than anywhere on the east side of the ditch with better than rope-tow lifts. If you want ‘with consequences’ this is the place, as Bronwen Gora found out.
Last season I had first hand experience of everything this sensational mountain had to offer thanks to Mother Nature making a full comeback. After a few years of taking it easy she returned with excellent snowfalls. It all started off swimmingly: on opening day June 27 almost the entire front face was covered and skiable while the resort’s own website used capitals to emphasise that the snow in the Saddle Basin area was “UNREAL”. By early July the resort was all time, boasting 30cm fresh on top of a 300cm plus base.
And what’s more, the Motatapu Chutes were open, something of a rare occurrence in recent years. This is TC’s extreme zone with a capital E. Some of these gaping, rock-walled dragon’s throats to either heaven or hell – depending on whether you make every turn or not – is where TC sets itself right apart from anything else offered in bounds in Australasia. If there is anywhere in a ski resort on this part of the planet where you want to be on your game, it’s here. These chutes can get the better of you before you know it.
It almost happened to us. Late in the season I had a first hand experience of just how scary these crazy steeps can be. By September the snow in the chutes had become firm to icy in the middle and then spring like at the ends. And of course it was at the steepest and most dangerous sections that the chutes were at their iciest, something that wasn’t apparent from where you dropped in.
Like a villain enticing a child with sweets, the lovely packed powder on the innocently named Meadows area above this expert terrain drew me past the point of no return and down the entry slopes to the chutes. The single black diamond on a stick that denotes a chute slipped past quickly. There are 12 chutes, and unless you really know your way around it’s just luck of the draw which one you end up in. It was just our luck to inadvertently choose one of the steepest. Before long the chute proper started to appear and then all of a sudden there it was: a slippery slide descending between huge heinous sharp cliff faces before cornering around a precipitous bend and into the shadows. Yikes. It would have been an appropriate moment for a devilish laugh to break out from the cliffs.
I was caught, good and proper. No going back, and only one way out – and that was down. My memories of the chutes from 10 years ago of being perfectly reasonable couloirs were dashed. Back then I had skied them in lovely packed powder. Now in spring conditions it was another ball game altogether.
For an unnerving moment I was almost gripped by fear. There was no way I was heading down into the darkness of that winding choker between the cliffs, which meant the only alternative was to make it to a tiny icy ridge and into the next – and hopefully not so scary – neighbouring chute. This had to be done without missing one turn – or it was potentially plunging head first into what looked like infinity and quite possibly smacking into a rock face along the way.
Then, like cavalry arriving, two strangers appeared above me. Hallelujah, I was not alone. All good skiers sucked into the same sticky and potentially serious situation, we tried to make light of where we were (“wow that doesn’t look too fun over there” and “boy this is steep!”), before getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible. We hopped down one by one, making perfect jump turns on the no-fall-zone above the scary chute and all making it across to our escape route on skier’s left.
Once on the small ridge between the two chutes, I still remember balancing for a few seconds, the ends of my skis momentarily hanging over the precipitous couloir we were trying to avoid. I instinctively threw myself forward and into safety. Thankfully the next chute was far more inviting. While steep it was at least wider and not so icy. Relieved at having escaped the spooky chute we were able to stop for a minute and take in where we were. Towers of jagged rock rose all around us, as high as office blocks. It was awe inspiring, dramatic and made us all feel very small. The Motatapu Chutes are not only some of the most hair-raising places to ski in Australasia but visually some of the most exciting.
For a newcomer to TC, or even someone like myself who hadn’t been into the chutes for more than a decade, these couloirs are a lot longer than they appear on the map. Always ski with a partner or group, and this would easily be one of the silliest places to attempt without a helmet. Almost all of them also require boot-packing it back up a short but testing slope, depending on snow conditions, to the Saddle Basin lift. But if you are an advanced skier it is more than worth it. The chutes are also each quite different, from their entries to their shapes and widths and the rock formations surrounding them so it’s worth hitting them early so as to have time to keep doing exploratory circuits.
The Saddle Basin area has some of the most enjoyable natural half pipes in New Zealand, too. Once you get the hang of them you can lean into them and roller coaster from side to side – just be careful of other skiers and boarders joining in with you to avoid collisions. Like many resorts renowned as being terrific mountains for advanced skiers, Treble Cone has made sure there are easy ways down from the top of both the Saddle Quad chairlift Basin as well as the main Home Basin six pac express so it’s possible to still meet up with friends of different levels.
When the snow is at a premium, the front face is an expert playground, a huge area on which to let your skis or board loose, full of lips, gullies and rolling slopes in between the man made runs.
The Ticket Treble Cone
getting there Fly to Christchurch or Queenstown (4-5 hours/1 hour to Wanaka respectively, 45 mins to resort)
lifts TC day passes $NZD 105; or get a OnePass, www.OnePass.com and ski either TC or Cardrona or use for local activities.
ski/board improvement www.yesimprovement.com
snow travel insurance use code SNOSAFE to save 10% off their existing great rates www.noworries.com.au
Still need convincing? TC is such a complete paradise that it was awarded New Zealand’s Best Ski Resort at the World Ski Awards (part of the World Travel Awards, considered by many as the equivalent of the travel industry’s Oscars) last November in Kitzbuhel, Austria.
TC also has an expansive base lodge with an outdoor terrace and in spring, live music on weekends. This place has a party atmosphere, terrific home-cooked-style meals, great coffee and a bar. Yes the road is a thin, snake of switchbacks up to the resort but that does not deter thousands from visiting each season.
Should you take a day off – and after several days at TC the legs may well need a rest – the town of Wanaka is just as magical as the ski hill 40 minutes away but in an urban holiday sense. The number one activity on a sunny day is finding a posse at one of the lakefront restaurants, bars or the popular coffee shop/bar Te Whakapai, a café where beer taps take pride of place on the counter. Or take a pew under one of the willow trees on the lake shore and drink in the serene scene of snow-capped mountains ringing the water. Hire a bike and peddle the intermediate track to the west towards Glendhu Station (watch you don’t run off the steep sides) or the more gentle track on the east side.
Barluga is one of the most elegant après ski venues, Speights Ale House obviously the spot for local brews and the exquisite upscale Patagonia Chocolate store by the lake the place to go when you want to replenish the blood sugar burned up on the hill.