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New Zealand's ski season takes flight in May

By Barbara HorngrenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 1980

Queenstown, N.Z.

It's a gray day, a surprisingly cold, autumnm day to someone used to May falling on the other side of the calendar. New Zealand is south of the equator; the seasons here are turned around.

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So on a late May day Queenstown is beginning to prepare for the ski season. Shops are giving prominent display to cold-weather gear -- down parkas and vests , firm-soled boots. And hotels, with which Queenstown abounds, are being refurbished.

Queenstown might well be a Swiss village. It nestles into the surrounding hills -- the Remarkables and Walter and Cecil Peaks -- like a cat settles into a sun-warmed cushion. Its houses and hotels tend to be chalet in style, steep-roofed and trimmed in gingerbread. They perch on the hillsides here just as their European counterparts do in the northern Alps.

Queenstown is in the southern Alps, mountains that are higher than those in Switzerland, from which they take their name. There are 17 of them above 10,000 feet, 33 top the 9,000-foot mark. On this low-ceilinged morning they are already turning white with winter.

Winter here -- at least as far as skiers are concerned -- begins about mid-June and runs through November. Skiing gets under way in earnest on New Zealand's South Island, where Queenstown is situated, the first of July. Just seven miles from this city is probably the country's best ski area -- Coronet Peak. In fact, Coronet Peak has been rated one of the top 25 areas in the world.

It has wide-open fields and gullies which allow skiers access to the whole mountain, not just one hill or basin. The peak rises 5,413 feet, but it is far enough inland to be protected from the effects of coastal weather. So skiing here is always comfortable.

There is a good road from Queenstown to Coronet Park, and during the season the ski area is served by regular bus service. Facilities include two chairlifts, three Pomas, and three Mighty Mite learners' lifts, with a total uphill capacity of 4,500 skiers per hour. That means short lift lines.

Skiing is one of the things that's putting New Zealand on the world tourism map. The Australians, of course, have been longtime visitors to the country's ski areas, and in recent years the Japanese have been arriving in large numbers. About 20 percent of the skiers on New Zealand's slopes in any given year are Americans. A variety of ski-tour packages are offered which make transportation and accommodations reasonable for just about everyone. For details, write the New Zealand Travel Commission, Suite 530, 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10020.

"There's no way we can match the ski developments in the US -- but we can offer something different," says Gavin Wills, general manager of the Alpine Guides. "You can ski on our glaciers while enjoying our Alpine scenery . . . and you can do it when there is warm weather -- and no skiing -- in your country."

Mr. Wills's company is headquartered at another of New Zealand's South Island ski areas, Mt. Cook. His guides work with skiers who want to add the kind of adventure to their skiing not readily available elsewhere in the world -- that provided by helicopters and ski planes and extensive glacial terrain.

There are no ski lifts at Mt. Cook. Skiers have to go up in the planes or whirlybirds.

"You have to be a reasonably good powder skier," Mr. Wills says, "although we do get a variance from deep powder to firm corn snow as winter progresses and as you come down the glacier."

The glacier he is talking about is Tasman, although the five-passenger Cessnas drop off skiers in the same spot for the shorter, steeper Murchison Glacier.

(The helicopters ferry skiers to about 20 runs in the Ben Ohau Range, bordering Mt. Cook National Park.)