A Round Hill that Rocks

For the price of a day’s heliskiing you could spend a week accessing terrain and snow that, on it’s day, is as good as any in NZ, just as long as you can ride the amazing 1500m long rope tow at Round Hill – it’s truly a stairway to powder heaven when it’s on, and actually the highest ski lift in the South Island, topping out at a spectacular 2133m for a huge 643m vert (that’s more than Crackenback lift at Thredbo) from a 5 – 6min ride when it’s cranking at full speed. It’s another of those only-in-NZ feats that make you go, “Bugger, why can’t we do stuff like that in OZ?”

The Parks &/or insurance would never allow it here that’s why, but at Round Hill overlooking Lake Tekapo the terrain they opened up was always within their DOCS (Dept. of Conservation) ski lease and locals had been skinning/hiking it for years, so with typical ingenuity the owners worked out exactly how to maximise terrain options at minimal cost by installing an ‘express rope tow’, a term liable to instill fear in the hearts of anyone (especially boarders) used to riding the dreaded nutcracker rope tows around the NZ club fields over the years.
But Mountain Manager Simon Murrell assured us there’s nothing to worry about when we asked him to explain the difference between an express and a regular rope tow.
“Nothing really as far as the fundamentals go, but it’s the biggest one of its type in the world and it’s running at 5m per second. The word express really comes from giving you a heck of a lot of altitude in a realtively short amount of time compared to regular ski lifts.” The average gradient is between 28° and 32° for the just under 1500m long ride.

“It’s a relatively easy rope tow to ride, it’s got consistent fall-line, so you’re constantly sitting back in your harness so the rope does all the work, it’s a straight line with a nice camber on it so if you do come off you just slide away, we haven’t had any problems since it opened.” So no woosing out, nothing to it!

Rope tows aren’t like quad chairs, where you just call Austria or wherever, send a few million dollars and get them installed. In Enzed it’s all home made, often by farmers using tractor motors and whatever else over the years.

But at Round Hill they got smart. “We just took an old idea and developed it to our own design and modernised the rope tow theory a bit” says Murrell. “We run it off an electric motor on a soft start, with metal poles as opposed to wooden ones. There’s not a lot of pressure on the pulleys either, it’s one of the safest, if not the safest rope tow out there. The pulleys are off the pole so you’ve got a bit of room there.”

Even better, they can raise or lower the pulleys according to the snow level, so it’s a constant height for riding on even in big seasons. Like most places in our hemisphere, late July through August is usually optimum. They close late September for lack of clientele rather than lack of snow, and you can get some great corn snow days off the tow then too.

The ride time is a mere 5½ minutes at full speed, which is actually a faster ride for more vertical (643m) than you get off the Crackenback Express at Thredbo – not bad for homemade!

Unlike the club fields, where it’s usually all rope tows, the original main area here has a t-bar, grooming and cruisy runs for beginners and intermediates, so couples or mates of varying standards can have a good time – whereas unless you wanted a divorce you’d never take your intermediate level spouse to a regular club area.

A new t-bar for 2012 season opens up more mid-range terrain, between the rope tow and the original area, so there’ll be more groomed/cruisy options and a great little powder bowl for those looking for adventure but not quite ready for a rope tow, albeit ‘the world’s safest’.

Don’t expect grooming off the rope tow either – the whole point is to access the untracked.

“We groom up to the bottom five towers of the lift line, just to make it nice and comfortable taking off, but after that you’re on your own” says Simon with a smile.

They also have an innovative one ride pass for backcountry skiers/riders. The massive amount of terrain off the backside is uncontrolled and unpatrolled, so when you buy a one lift ride ticket they check your gear and you sign in /out with ski patrol, so they know who’s out there. If you know your stuff the options there are huge, but sneaking out without letting patrol know is pretty stupid.

What you can see off the ridgeline back down to the tow is good enough for most, especially on a powder day. The word gets out locally, but midweeks out of NZ school holidays you will get your fair share of fresh if you get in early – there are no large towns close by.

“It’s one of the more unique settings you get in New Zealand – it gives you a real sense of being out in the mountains. You look northwest across the turquoise lake out to Mt Cook towering above the ranges on the other side, and look the other way you can see the ocean on the eastern side. It’s not just skiing, it’s more of an adventure riding the tow.”

It’s also poor man’s heliskiing when it’s on, and 100% worth stopping to check out if you’re driving down from Christchurch to the Wanaka and Queenstown area.

There’s stuff to do for families and couples as well, with Tekapo Springs complex offering hot pools, a big ice skating rink and a tubing park.

So leave a spare night or several in your itinerary, outside of NZ school holidays you should have no trouble finding a bed. Powder stashes like this for this price are hard to come by!

[the ticket]round hill

snowfall 5m top lift/summit 2133m base 1350m vert 783m terrain 550ha • 35% adv/exp • 45% int • 20% beg

lifts 2 t-bars, 2 beginner tows, 1 platter, 1 express rope tow  day pass $NZD 75

where to stay good range across the spectrum, upmarket go peppers.co.nz/bluewater or moderate check

tekapoholidayhomes.co.nz

what’s new a 2nd t-bar opening easier powder bowl options and more groomed runs for 2012; ski here with the new OnePassnz see p86 or onepassnz.com

dont miss the backcountry if you’re up to it & have your avi gear. To chill after a big day the Tekapo Springs complex has hot pools, a tubing park and a big open air ice rink open to 9pm alpinesprings.co.nz  more at roundhill.co.nz