Into The Wild - Skiing New Zealand's Backcountry

1 March 2015

New Zealand offers skiers and snowboarders some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the southern hemisphere – but to really experience the best the country has to offer, go beyond the chairlifts into New Zealand’s pristine backcountry.

Whether it’s by helicopter, your own two legs, a rope tow or via a ski field with a major difference, there’s many ways to access the best backcountry ski and boarding conditions in New Zealand.

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The Club Fields Of Canterbury

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Bet you didn’t know that some of the planet’s best ski backcountry is sitting virtually untouched most of winter – and it’s barely two hours drive from where you’ll land at Christchurch Airport.

The club fields of Canterbury are New Zealand’s best kept secret, though if you’re a fan of fancy lattes and three-course lunches, don’t even think about coming.

 The Canterbury Club field - New Zealand's best kept secret

There’s four club fields dotted in among the Craigieburn Ranges west of Christchurch – Broken River, Mt Olympus, Temple Basin and Craigieburn. Most of the time you’ll need to ride ‘nut-cracker’ rope-tows to get to the top of the mountains.

These aren’t for the faint of heart. You’ll be given a steel nut-cracker to wrap around a thick wire that pulls you quickly to the top. But when you make it there you’ll find some of New Zealand’s best backcountry – mountains over 2,000 metres high with metres of fresh snow - often entirely to yourself.

If you’re at least an intermediate skier or boarder you’ll manage and you’ll save yourself an absolute packet – and some club fields offer simple but rustic mountain accommodation.

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Right Off The Beaten Track

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If you want some creature comforts mixed in with your backcountry, then do we have the place for you.

Take a detour out of Wanaka (it’s half-way between Wanaka and Methven) into McKenzie Country and come to a ski mountain run by a former mechanic and his wife who bought a couple of bulldozers and made a ski field.

Ohau Snow Fields have attracted some of the world’s biggest snow stars for its challenging but ridiculously picturesque backcountry (ever seen a ski or snowboard mag? Well… maybe you’ve visited Ohau already then).

 It's not too hard to ski safely in solitude

Mike Neilson and his wife Louise installed a couple of ski lifts on their mountain, but it’s the backcountry just a short hike away that makes Ohau what it is – this is where Kiwis come after a fresh dump of snow (on a clear day it feels like you could see all the way to both coasts).

But it’s when you’re done that’s just as memorable. There’s an element of a bygone era you’ll feel when staying at Ohau - at the guesthouse beside stunning Lake Ohau guests are forced to dine together whether they want to or not. Many a lifelong friendship has been forged at Ohau - people like to bond over powder snow experiences.

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A Heli-Ski Experience All To Yourself

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If you really want to get some powder snow filled backcountry to yourself, the safest way to know it’s going to happen is by coming to Methven and skiing with Kevin.

Kevin Boekholt pioneered heli-skiing in NZ and he runs the only heli-skiing operation in town. So while heli-ski operators around Queenstown and Wanaka will get you into some of the best backcountry on the planet – Methven Heli can do all that too but with not another soul around.

 Heli-skiing is a great way to find that special backcountry

Here you’ll have three mountain ranges – the Arrowsmith, Ragged and Palmer Ranges – to yourself. That’s over 250 possible runs, and from here you can see all the way from NZ’s east coast to its west. These mountains catch every winter storm giving them NZ heli-skiing’s most consistent snow.

Some mountains here are 2,500 metres high, some runs three kilometres long with 1,200 metres of vertical skiing.

But it’s the views around there that are as good as the skiing – you’ll be flown across glacier-fed rivers and high country sheep farms, travelling up ravines to the best runs in the mountains.

You’ll also get plenty of perfect powder runs around Queenstown and Wanaka – there’s 8,500 square kilometres of terrain across 11 different mountain ranges with a choice of over 600 runs to choose from.


Want more Queenstown ski options? Queenstown Has All The Variety You Need This Ski Season

There's more to do in Methven. A Night in Methven


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Sweating For Your Powder

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Want to earn your turns? (as they say in the ski touring business). There’s no better way to access New Zealand’s most pristine backcountry than with a back-country ski touring operator.

Aspiring Guides are based in Wanaka and you can choose how hard you want your backcountry skiing or boarding to be. They can take you to local ski resort, Treble Cone, where you’ll ride the lifts then ski the resort’s backcountry on a day tour … or you can go way beyond.

You won’t find better snow anywhere than flying by helicopter from Wanaka to a tiny mountain hut in the middle of the snow that sleeps just six.

 Aspiring guides know the way to go

You’ll skim through the heart of the Harris Mountains, finding the best possible backcountry runs along the way, before retreating to your hut with its views across to Treble Cone and Mt Aspiring.

Or why not attempt the granddaddy of them all – a five-day Summit To Sea ski tour across the Southern Alps to NZ’s wild West Coast, sleeping in remote backcountry huts along the way?

Craig Tansley

A Polynesian tragic, Tansley blames his parents for having him in Rarotonga for why he can't stay away from there for more than a few months at a time. Give him a coconut and a lagoon and he'll be happy.