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With the onset of colder temperatures and shorter days there’s no need to stop walking, even when the snow is low on the hills. Nordic or Telemark skiing allows easy access to our backcountry in winter, and it’s basically just walking on skis. You don’t have to be a skier to try it for the first time. Or, if you really are averse to skis, then you can strap snow shoes onto your feet instead – you won’t be able to cover the same distance, but you can still get to good vantage points and enjoy the peaceful alpine environment.
Cross-country skiing is an activity I'd never tried before coming to live in Lake Tekapo. But when the snow's right outside your door, what better way to go for a walk, than simply don X-C skis and cruise through the forest and out over neighbouring farmland? A doctor specialising in sports medicine once claimed that X-C skiing was one of the best forms of exercise, because there is no jarring action, just a good stretching of arms and legs and a total body workout.
Two Thumb Range
There's only one problem, though. There is not always enough snow every winter to be able to cross-country ski directly from Lake Tekapo Village. However, the Two Thumb Range, adjacent to Lake Tekapo, holds good snow in a normal winter and attracts growing numbers of backcountry skiers from July to September.
Ski touring in the Two Thumb Range is not like following a loipe in Scandinavia or Europe, where a trail is set by a machine and you just follow the tracks. Here in New Zealand, apart from the Waiorau Nordic Ski Area near Wanaka, there are no set trails - you make your own or go with a mountain and ski guide. German-born Gottlieb Braun-Elwert pioneered ski touring in the Two Thumb Range, having worked has a mountain and ski guide for over 30 years, first in Europe, then in New Zealand since 1980.
Peace and serenity
Many people now recognize that ski touring is the best way to enjoy the peace and serenity of the mountains. Cutting your own tracks through the snow is a creative exercise, requiring a careful reading of the terrain to avoid undue effort. Carving a trail too steep is a crime - it takes your focus off the enjoyment of the surrounding landscape. The uphill climb is just as rewarding a part as the downhill run, and the uphill is the bit you miss out on when heliskiing - in the rush to accumulate as many vertical metres as possible!
Ski touring allows you time to take in the sparkle of the snow crystals, the elegant curves of snow-softened landforms, the crispness of the pure air, and gentle swish of the skis on your feet - the details of your environment.
Learning new techniques
Climbing on skis (with skins on the bottom of course) is easier than it sounds - it's all in the art of weaving a track of gentle gradient backwards and forwards across the slope. Before you know it you've reached the top of the ridge and you're gazing across to the Southern Alps and absorbing the inspiring views of Mt Cook and its neighbours.
And to come down? What if you can't ski? Once again skilful track-making by the guide allows beginners to traverse slopes in zig-zag fashion, stopping to do a stationary kick-turn at each corner. Those who can already ski receive tuition on how to perform the Telemark turn, which inevitably causes some initial hilarity. It takes good skiers only a few hours of practice under the guide's patient tuition to master the Telemark turn, then the boundaries of a skifield can no longer stop them.
Back at the hut
After the day's exertions bodies appreciate the warmth and comfort of the pot belly stove in Rex Simpson Hut, Alpine Recreation’s base in the Two Thumb Range. With some apres-ski Glühwein and a three-course dinner prepared by the guides the scene is set for a convivial evening. Participants are usually New Zealanders or Australians with a tramping, skiing or climbing background, but there's often a "peppering" of French, Swiss, German, Canadian or Japanese amongst the group.
The next morning
The crackle of the fire breaks the morning quiet, enticing us out of our sleeping bag cocoons. After a civilised breakfast it's time to put on ski boots, nicely warmed in the drying rack above the fire, and step out the hut door straight onto the skis.
Nordic skis and boots are surprisingly light compared to downhill ski equipment and allow far more freedom of movement, which can be rather disconcerting at first for experienced skiers. The group splits into two, as the fitter skiers opt for the Royal Hut Round Trip with Gary, the second guide; and the beginners take off along the terraces overlooking Lake Tekapo, a flatter, shorter tour.
And cruisy it is as we slide and glide along, covering a surprising distance in a short time. There are only a couple of "sit-downs" as we round the corner and the terrain steepens. We come upon a rusty old musterers' hut. Sixty years it's been weathering the high country climate, according to the old dog collar pinned to the door. Old labels on tins and Auckland Weekly lined walls take us back to another era, reminiscent of Scott's hut in Antarctica.
Returning to the snowy world outside - no sledge-hauling for us - just a light daypack - we sit beside the gurgling stream to consume a leisurely lunch. Someone else has been here before us. By the look of all the pawprints in the snow the local hares have held a party here the evening before.
The meandering brook leads us through a gully and back to a saddle above the hut. Now comes the challenging part - the downhill. With patience and good humour we steer the sticks stuck to our feet across the slope, willing them to go where we want them to, zig zag down to the bottom. Surprise, surprise - no falls this time. Not that a fall hurts - the snow's so soft - it's more the pride that's hurt.
After hot tea and carrot cake we hear whoops of delight as the telemarkers hit the same slope above the hut. No big traverses for them - it's straight down the fall-line in elegant curves through the powder snow.
Our group of ten re-united, the camaderie grows as we exchange experiences:
- "This really does spoil you for skifield skiing - no more boring lifts or queues for me!"
- "My body's been ravaged but the soul has been soothed."
- "Keep it like this...unspoiled without any machine noise."
- "Thank you for dripfeeding me vital instructions at the right moment."
The satisfaction from time spent in the outdoors and a good physical workout in a beautiful setting have made a successful weekend, and this in the middle of winter, when you thought we couldn’t go walking in the hills!
Nordic skiing is one of the healthiest forms of exercise there are, giving a total body workout with both arm and leg stretching, breathing in clean mountain air and taking in beautiful scenery on the way.