Confessions of a lapsed skier
They describe it in religious terms - and it's not a bad comparison. Like a disillusioned churchgoer, you wander away from the snow at various breakpoints in your life, and then wonder whether it's worth the bother of going back.
The "lapsed skier" quits when they leave school, and find themselves suddenly paying for their own lift passes when their mates are more interested in drinking; when they meet their wife/husband and realise they are a non-skier; or when they have kids and find their leisure time seriously curtailed.
There's a bit of all three in why I found myself atop the Turoa skifield last month, adding up how many days of snow I'd had in more than a decade living this side of the world - and came up with just four (one at Whistler, Canada, two at Perisher in Australia and one in Queenstown).
In my case, snow snobbery also played a part. Having grown up with school trips to the giant skifields of central Europe (and been sorely disappointed by Perisher), mental pictures of gentle, meandering slopes with two or three runs and a ragged rope tow dissuaded me from the drive south to Mt Ruapehu.
Of course, I was wrong. Turoa, it turns out, is a sophisticated, surprisingly big operation with all the tricks to get the lapsed skier hooked again (and take a 9-year-old novice along as well).
So they prepare for the "but I haven't got any gear any more" bit by producing not just the skis, boots and poles but also the jacket and pants. Next, any fear of failure is diminished by the arrival of Lesley, who was, it emerged, the instructor who instructs the instructors. An hour's private lesson later and I was skiing competently (if not beautifully) again and could understand how she's forged the impressive lifestyle of six months here, six months in southern France (where both the real money and her home are).
The "what about the kids" bit was solved by the arrival of the first of a string of endlessly cheerful and resolute instructors who bore off 9-year-old Eamon for his own private lessons.
And all the annoying, half-remembered niggles seem to be absent as well - the bad food, long lift queues, crappy snow, parking halfway down the hill (or needing snowchains to get up it). For some of that, Turoa can thank this mild winter - usually they lose about the third of each season to bad weather, but when we arrived, they were deep into a record-breaking run of 40-odd uninterrupted days of open slopes. Yes, the highest peaks were a touch icy and the lowest runs a bit chopped up, but this was well-groomed, well-kept snow and when the sun popped out, it was glorious.
Scale helps too. I didn't expect them to be so large, but there are 43 runs with a good spread of black and double-blacks and some very modern chairs to get you there. On a weekend, they've been cracking 6000 skiers but seen maximum wait times of five minutes for the chair lifts. We were there midweek with a couple of thousand on the slopes, got a parking spot a snowball from the main chair and waited for nothing except a lunchtime table in the cafe. The food at the cafe at the bottom, by the way, isn't bad either (although the burgers at the place halfway up weren't flash).
Once you're there, it all seems relatively easy. Within half an hour of unbuckling our skis, we were back soaking in the spa pool at Rocky Mountain Chalets. It's a new development in Ohakune, the nearest town - 20 minutes down the mountain road from Turoa - clearly designed for skiers: our two-bed self-contained chalet had a full kitchen, washer, drier, heatpump, ski cupboard and a big-screen TV on which to play any of the 200-odd DVDs they have to loan out.
Food in Ohakune - in season, anyway - is pretty good and I imagine the nightlife for those there without kids would go all right too. Night one was ribs for him and pork belly for me beside an open log fire at Suitcase in Ohakune Junction; night two was chicken nuggets (him) and steak (me) at Bearing Point in the main town.
On day one, after Lesley got me started again, I spent the afternoon with Eamon on the beginner slope (and discovered another new invention since I last skiied: magic carpets, ie, no more of those damn rope tows) until the rain set in and sapped his enthusiasm.
Day two, we again divided off for private lessons, and after going to the top of the hill with Lesley, where she tried to smooth out my turns, I was amazed to see Eamon heading up on the chair to the next lift - he had already exhausted the beginner trail. They quickly squeezed him into a group session of eight kids to capitalise on his rapid progress, so by the time we were reunited for the afternoon, we could ski together comfortably and we both got plenty out of it; to the extent we were timing our last run to grab the final chair of the day at 4pm.
I won't pretend. None of this is cheap. The best deals come when you buy a package: an Explorer pass, which includes a day pass, a 2-hour group lesson and skis, boots and poles is $155, $105 for kids; a Discover pass for novices is $110, and a three-day Rocket pass, which also includes a private lesson costs $365, and gives you 50 per cent off a season pass for this year or next. Standalone private lessons, which were excellent, set you back $130 but the increased enjoyment the lapsed skier would get from a guided reintroduction could make it well worth it. Group lessons are $60, and with the groups often quite small and the instructors so enthusiastic, I didn't feel that Eamon was at all neglected.
"We want to make it as easy as possible for families to ski and snowboard with us - particularly the lapsed skier who used to ski or board and has had a couple of years off to raise a family," says Turoa's customer relations manager, Annah Dowsett. "The Discover package is perfect for the kids' first time and the Explorer is a great refresher for the adults. Taking lessons is the key thing to do - you will be amazed after a couple of lessons how it all comes back to you and the kids start catching you."
And, of course, it's quite addictive stuff, when you remember why you loved skiing so much in the first place. Doubly so when you're accompanied by a newly hooked novice. By day two, Eamon was schussing along singing David Bowie songs to himself, smiling widely. On the way home to Auckland (via the near-compulsory stop at the great hotpools at Tokaanu, an hour or so north on the southern shores of Lake Taupo), he looked mournful. After a long silence, eventually he asked: Can we move to Ohakune?
Steve Kilgallon travelled courtesy of Ruapehu Alpine Lifts.
Sunday Star Times