NEW ZEALAND has many Alpine ski fields, but only one Nordic ski field, called Snow Farm. It’s in the middle of the following aerial image of the Queenstown-to-Wānaka area of the South Island.
What is the difference? Well, one is on mostly steep slopes and the other is mostly on gentle slopes. Also, with Alpine skiing, you are firmly clipped onto the ski both at the heel and at the toe, whereas with Nordic skiing you are only clipped on at the toe and can lift the heel.
Nordic skiing is the original kind of skiing, dating back thousands of years. It is 90% walking, or striding, and only 10% downhill, and is therefore also known as cross-country skiing. You can always tell a Nordic skier; they will be striding along with the heels rising and falling.
Alpine skiing, 100% downhill with the boot clipped on at both ends, only came into vogue in the 1930s once rope tows became available. Early Alpine skiing was a bit of a daredevil sport. The early Alpine bindings often didn’t release in a fall, which resulted in sprains and fractures. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Alpine ski bindings became safe enough for the general public to be interested in the sport, with the old rope tows upgraded to chair lifts accordingly.
So, Nordic skiing was the only kind of skiing that existed for 99% of the history of the ski, right up to the 1930s, even though Alpine skiing is more familiar today.
I decided to give Nordic skiing a go at Snow Farm, a dedicated Nordic skiing facility not far from Queenstown and Arrowtown. Snow Farm is about 1,600 metres above sea level, in the mostly rather flat-topped and hummocky Pisa Range.
Snow Farm is the biggest Nordic skiing facility in the Southern Hemisphere, bigger than many in Europe. It is also right next to a facility called the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground, where cars can be tested for winter conditions in the northern summer, reducing development times.
Snow Farm was developed by John Lee CNZM, a highly entrepreneurial sheep farmer who also developed the Cardrona Ski Field and the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground, as well as one or two other venues. Better than digging ewes out of snowdrifts, I suppose! In 2016, a book about Lee and his family called The Snow Farmer was published by Random House. These days, Snow Farm is operated by the Pisa Alpine Charitable Trust, on land that has been vested with the local Queenstown Lakes District Council.
Snow Farm has four backcountry huts. These are Meadow Hut, the Bob Lee and Rosie Lee Huts which are right next to each other, Meadow Hut, and Musterer’s Hut, the newest hut, which was opened by the former Prime Minister, Helen Clark, in July 2022.
Snow Farm is often full up at the height of the season, so you have to book in advance then.
Snow Farm used to have an epic, science-fictional lodge on stilts, like something you would find at the South Pole, but it has since had to relinquish this to the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground and is now trying to build a new one. In the meantime, there are no café facilities at Snow Farm nor any accommodation other than in the huts.
Here is a photo of the old lodge, now part of the SHPG.
On the first day that I spent at Snow Farm, I arrived at 1.30 p.m. and took ski lessons straight away. Both ski instructors, Sarah and Hannah, were from northern Sweden.
First of all, you had to learn how to slide without poles. You had to learn how to fall over without hurting yourself and how to get up. I would need that knowledge the next day, my first day of serious Nordic skiing, when I fell over more than twenty times.
I had a sore shoulder at the time. I soon found that if I kept my speed down, I could fall over backward rather than onto my shoulder, and that if I was going faster I could often spot a bit of soft snow to land in. The main thing was that I had control, because on the Alpine ski fields, people kept crashing into me, often beginners on the intermediate slopes. A few years ago, I hired a French instructor at Coronet Peak, an Alpine skifield, and he stopped twelve people from colliding with me!
To get back up on the Nordic skis you put the skis at 45 degrees, get on your knees (which is possible with Nordic skis of course), and then stand up. That was simple really.
All the same, the overall technique took a while to learn. With Nordic skiing, you use the opposite arm to match the sliding on each ski, i.e. your opposite arm goes with it, presumably for better balance.
Going up a steep hill was not easy either. You had to use the herringbone technique with ski tips outward. Conversely when you go downhill to stop you put your skis into the snowplough position with the tips together. Of course, this is stuff any Alpine skier should be familiar with as well. The only difference is that there is more uphill work with Nordic skiing since it is more cross-country and ski lifts and tows aren’t generally employed.
When I was there, the old lodge was still in operation. I stayed at the lodge on the first night and the food was very good. I watched the rugby and met a teacher who was a coach. But I also wanted to get my pack ready for two nights in the huts.
To my surprise they could take your pack for you for a cost of $20 over two days, and that the huts had gas cookers. This was amazing! I was getting ready to take big heavy packs that included gas cookers, gas, and cooking implements, expecting to rough it in some kind of back-country hut both nights. But of course, as you can see from the appearance of the old lodge, Snow Farm wasn’t that sort of place.
So, I decided that they could very well take my packs (minus gas cookers and pots), as with a sore shoulder I wasn’t going to strain myself any more than necessary.
That night, as I watched the rugby, I met a coach from a team of Biathlon competitors, a classic Nordic-ski sport that combines shooting at targets with cross-country skiing to get from one target to the next.
The next day, I was headed for my own Nordic / cross-country adventures. I will relate these, plus a bit more skiing history, in Part Two.
If you liked this post, check out my new book about the South Island (2021)! It’s available for purchase from this website, a-maverick.com.
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