A Winter’s Tale

Winter but where is the snow

The weather forecast may not have received the memo, but according to the calendar, winter is now upon us. Usually such a season would be heralded by bone chilling temperatures and soul warming Mid Winter dinners to celebrate the solstice. In Methven there is another way to tell the season, without resorting to a thermometer or the date. The amount of gaudy Gore-Tex on display is a prime indicator of the highly scientific ‘ski index’ – the more saturated the town is in Burton snow clothing, the surer you can be that it must be winter.

Methven is a seasonal town, and that’s one of the things that makes it stand out for me as something different. Auckland is a clock city, where the days tick by and collect into months and years without any major milestones to mark the seasons. Sure, it rains more in winter, but as for snow… well, the one occasion when a flurry of flakes almost landed on the CBD is now related in the hushed tones of myth.

Here, snow is the lifeblood. When people talk about ‘the mountain’ no one needs to clarify which peak is in question. The first time we visited Methven, we arrived in the midst of the winter bustle. There were people on the streets, the takeaway joints were open until 8:30 at night, and the locals were grumpy. They had to queue for their groceries and were not guaranteed a park right outside the shop. Coming from Auckland, we didn’t know what the fuss was about. Having to wait behind 2 people at Supervalue was nothing compared to rush hour at any inner city supermarket.

This year, I think I finally understand. Having over-summered in Methven, I am more attuned to the seasonal changes in the town. As the days grow shorter, the queues do grow longer, and the cosmopolitan mix of the region becomes more audible. Visitors bring their skis and enthusiasm, but also their own cultural expectations, and it can take a while to adjust. For the first time I was alert to the moment when dress codes shift, and wearing gumboots to the pub (even if they are fancy, styled, neoprene gumboots) puts you in the minority. People in fluffy huts and ski jackets start trickling in one by one, until one Thursday the balance is tipped in favour of neon parkas. From there, if you’ll forgive the pun, things just snowball.

Don’t get me wrong, as soon as those Antarctic blasts start playing ball and deliver some fresh powder to the hills I’ll be up there with the best of the beanie wearers. Still, it’s been interesting to watch a seasonal town wake up as it ramps up towards the snow. Now all we need is for the white stuff to take heed of the ‘ski index’, and then there will be no question that winter is indeed upon us, once and for all.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Advertisements

Riding the Mountain

Picture 21

Living in Methven has meant that I’ve got up close and personal with an awful lot more pieces of large machinery than I ever did up in Auckland, from sitting in the cab of a rutbuster to parading behind a traction engine. Last weekend was no exception, although the machines were bigger than most and the event was celebrated with fireworks, just for effect. We were up Mt Hutt to celebrate the skifield turning the big four-oh, and while the skiing was good fun, the rides at the end of the day were the icing on the cake.

First up was the Hägglunds, a machine native to Sweden and commonly found in snowy habitats. ‘Hägglunds’ is also an antonym for comfort, and one loop around the carpark was quite enough contact with a hard board seat for one day. While the yellow beast was capable of conquering impressive gradients, it harboured no pretensions of ever being promoted to lazy-boy status. Nevertheless, waving at cars as they departed and eliciting smiles from weary skiers was a great prelude to the grins that followed.

The Husky dogs were a great hit, but we had our sights set on a more modern mode of Antarctic transport – the skidoos. Complete with working headlight and ample opportunities to toss one’s hair in the wind, these snowmobiles offered the ultimate opportunity to be at one with nature through by virtue of windchill and throttle. The transformation on my friends’ faces was remarkable, from downright terrified at the beginning to smiles so beaming you could be forgiven for thinking that that fireworks had already begun to illuminate the mountainside. Whether those smiles remained frozen in place because of delight or frostbite I’m not sure, because my attention had turned to the biggest machines of all – the groomers.

As soon as the red behemoths appeared, no one had eyes for anything else, and I was no exception. Gazing up at the towering ‘Pistonbully’ lettering on the side of the machine, I felt like a seven year old whose elaborate meccano creations have suddenly sprung to life. Mum’s Volvo may be built like a tank, but a quirk that makes the speedo needle have a fit and oscillate violently between zero and 120km/h upon starting the parked vehicle just doesn’t compare to a cab with a movie screen sized window and multiple moving parts manoeuvred by what resembles an xbox control stick. It was like climbing into a 3D version of the film ‘avatar’, only with fewer blue people and more snow. It was also the only machine I’ve been in that has its own inbuilt abseiling system. Power, style and a sense of adventure… if it were to place an advert in the lonely hearts column, that groomer would be snapped up in no time.

Post rides and light show came the obligatory chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’, and while I have to admit that it was the only time I’ve ever sung greetings to a geological feature, it was also the best birthday party for a mountain that I’ve ever been to. Bring on the next decade’s worth of skifield engineering!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

The Big Four-Oh

312387_10100581704541841_1690224568_n

It’s not all that often that you get the chance to sing Happy Birthday to a geological feature and not get sideways looks and have people give you a wide berth. This weekend Mt Hutt Skifield celebrated 40 years in business, and the spectacle of a balcony of people addressing a mountain in harmony paled in comparison to some of the more bizarre rituals that took place for our collective entertainment.

First up, but last show of the night, were the fireworks. In most other places it would be deemed somewhat unwise to set off powerful explosive charges halfway up a mountain that is covered in snow, solely for the amusement of those in the saddle and thus right in the path of any potential avalanches triggered by the sparkling booms. A few mulled wines later, it seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to be doing, and the danger factor associated with doing a backwards flip on skis through a burning hoop of fire put everything in perspective.

The fireworks did provide a new perspective on the mountain, with the greens and pinks lighting up the whole ski area like an 80s disco party. Many of the outfits matched, with the weekend’s ‘retro’ theme luring a whole range of lurid one piece ski suits in neon pinks and greens out from the depths of the wardrobe. Whether or not they should have just stayed put is debatable, but the emergence of so many fluorescent throwbacks made my own highlighter salmon suit with inbuilt pockets for ‘lip balm’ and ‘credit cards’ feel quite at home.

Skiing down from the top of Mt Hutt for the first time gave me a different perspective on the town I now call ‘home’.  Gazing out to the East, Methven was a cluster of embroidered abodes set within a quilt of paddocks that stretched, as the cliché goes, ‘from the mountains to the sea’. Seeing the town from aloft was impressive, but it was the view across to the West that really took my breath away. Mountains, folded tight against each other like well worn smile lines round a grandmother’s eyes, and all white on white on white. To think I live so close to such breath taking scenery was a realization that made me giddier than any lack of oxygen.

Lack is a word that was absent from this weekend, which has been full instead of firsts. First ride in a snow groomer, first run down an entire mountain, first time I found myself sliding headfirst and upsidedown down a mountainside. It’s also the first time I’ve been to a mountain’s birthday party, but if this one is anything to go by, they sure do know how to put on a knees up. Happy Birthday Mt Hutt – If life begins at forty, as they say, then I can’t wait to see what you’ve got in store for us over the coming weeks!