The Kiwi Travel Bubble is temporarily burst, but when it’s back to get away the hordes check out our Ski NZ Secrets series of little known commercial ski areas that rock, starting with mighty Roundhill Ski Area above Lake Tekapo in the heart of the South Island.
Set a neat halfway between Christchurch and Queenstown – about 3 hours drive time from each – Roundhill boasts several amazing stats, including the lift with the most vertical drop of any in New Zealand, 643m off the Heritage Express Rope Tow, and the most lift accessed vertical period at 783m.
Yes, express rope tow. Sounds different that, not to mention scary for anyone familiar with the “nutcracker” rope tows that famously populate NZ’s club ski fields. These are hard enough for some to come to terms with at regular pace, never mind at “express speeds”.
But Roundhill is not a club field, it’s family owned by the local Rieder family who grew up skiing here.
And don’t worry, the rope tow is not the only option. They boast two t-bars accessing the main beginner and intermediate cruising terrain on the round shaped front mountain here, plus there’s a platter and short rope tows for beginners.
This looks straight down on the lake, and the ski area was simply called Lake Tekapo for many years. It’s a perfect place to take the family or friends who have never skied and get them into it in a relaxed way for less than you will pay at major South Island ski areas.
The front mountain tops out at a relatively low 5,280’/ 1610m. That low summit altitude helped contribute to some unreliable seasons, but these days that’s not a problem thanks to snowmaking here.
Nor up at 2,133m on top of the Richardson Range off the rope tow. For better skiers and riders, up to and including absolute guns like Kiwi FWT freeride star and occasional Snow Action contributor Craig Murray, it’s the terrain off the rope tow that makes all the difference. Craig is a big fan.
“Roundhill is a very unique ski field. It is so close to NZ’s most impressive peaks, and has an awesome Kiwi feel. The rope tow is incredible, they are my favourite type of lift, so to have one reaching that many vertical meters is crazy. The pitches you can ride off the rope tow are some of the longest and most consistent in the country.”
We got then Mountain Manager Simon Murrell to give us the lowdown on why the Heritage Express is the beast of rope tows for our series on the Southern Hemisphere’s best ‘soul ski lifts’ – the ones with the most character that deliver something special- and it rated #2, only behind the amazing Roca Jack lift at Portillo, Chile.
“There’s nothing really different 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” Murrell says. “The word express really comes from giving you a heck of a lot of altitude in a relatively short amount of time compared to regular ski lifts.”
Not exactly heated seat bubble cover 6 or 8 pack detachable comfort, but delivering riders one at a time to the summit of the ridgeline means only so many can get up there to get into the goods sprawling out skier’s right and left of them. If you can ski well there is no better place to be on a pow morning.
“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” Simon continues, “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.”
After you ride it you get the really fun part. Don’t expect grooming off the rope tow either.
“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 Murrell with a smile.
The massive amount of terrain off the backside is uncontrolled and unpatrolled, so check your gear and sign in /out with ski patrol after checking conditions. If you know your stuff and are properly equiped the options here are huge.
What you can see off the ridgeline back down to the tow is good enough for most, especially on a powder day. 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” says Murrell.
For our money, or lack of it, it’s poor person’s heliskiing when it’s on at Roundhill. NZ’s most spectacular heliskiing, Mt Cook Heliski, is close by for the real deal. A day or several on the Roundhill tow lift is a good warm up for that.
Roundhill options and accommodation
Lake Tekapo has boomed in recent years thanks to star gazing. The usually clear skies are perfect for lovers of the night sky, and putting in an observatory proved a huge winner. european and Asian enthusiasts have flocked here to enjoy the near perfect conditions, sparking a boom for accommodation, restaurants and associated services.
Obviously with only Australians able to get there subjet to “bubble pauses” that will leave plenty of choice in winter 2021, so this year is a great time to go. See below for the best deals to suit your dates.
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.
Roundhill day passes for 2021 are $NZD 95 adults, $45 children, beginner passes $55 / $35.
For resort info check the resort website here
Getting to Roundhill is easy
It’s only just over half an hour off the main Highway 8, in the heart of a region that also offers Ohau to the south and Dobson to the north, plus Mt Cook Heli and Tasman Glacier skiing too with all these options close enough to pick your spot for the day over a few days in the area.
The 8km access road is one of NZ’s easiest. 2WD may need chains, carry them and fit as directed, 4WD will rarely need chains.
- 3 hours from Christchurch
- 3 hours from Queenstown
- 1.5 hours from Timaru
- 1 hour from Fairlie
- 35 minutes from Lake Tekapo Village
Next not so little secret heading south is Ohau, next heading north is Dobson