Mount Ruapehu has been a special place for Liz French since she was a child and she has spent some of the happiest times of her life skiing there.
My father was a skier. I am not sure when he started but his war diary mentions his regiment being allowed to take a day off from pushing back the Germans during the Second World War to go skiing at a small field in Italy. Photos taken after the war show him and his cousins lined up on Ruapehu dressed a bit like Hillary when he conquered Everest and wearing plank like skis. No sign of a chair lift in the late 1940s. It wasn’t much later when he started taking his young family to the mountain. It was about three hours drive from our Feilding farm then, via windy roads which are now smooth highways.
We spent lots of time playing in the snow at Whakapapa as children. Later we joined Summit Skiers, a Manawatu-based ski club with a lodge just above Iwikau Village. It was not nearly as far to walk as many of the lodges dotted on the mountain but as a child seemed a real slog on snowy paths, often in moonlight or no light.
Happy Valley was our happy place. We never had a ski lesson, just persevered on our own. Laughter dominates my memories of those times. We fell a lot and laughed so much we could not get up. Then giggled some more and fell again. Those were the days when long narrow skis were the thing. We were still on wooden skis when I was a teenager, my sister and I old enough to find parents a huge embarrassment. So, imagine our mortification when Dad took to his long skis, chopped off the ends and reshaped them as short skis. “This is so much easier,” he said sailing off down the slope while we pretended we were orphans. If only he’d lived to see how ahead of his time he was.
It became a family tradition to have one weekend at The Chateau Tongariro each season. We would be collected from boarding school in Wanganui and driven up for a couple of fun days at the grand old lady. I can’t recall much of the skiing but do remember tearing exuberantly about the hotel and some boys we’d met on the mountain climbing in our window.
My younger brother became the best skier in the family executing perfect parallels on his Head 209s. We were soon old enough to drive ourselves to the mountain. My Morris 1100 did some fairly hairy trips north of Taihape on icy roads, one complete spin saw me teetering at the edge of a cliff. My sister had a boyfriend who would drive up with her in her Skoda which broke down nearly every trip. I let him borrow my skis one weekend. He brought one back; the other had slid to obscurity down a ravine.
Watch out, here comes Liz!
In my 20s skiing took a back seat to a two-year OE and starting a career. When working in Wellington I hooked up with a bloke fresh from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) who wanted to learn to ski. We drove up regularly, staying in a caravan at the Ohakune camping ground or with friends in a bach at Pukawa on Lake Taupō. I took to skiing again with gusto, too much gusto according to my ski mates, “Watch out, here comes Liz!” the constant cry. While I thought I was a gun skier I had never learnt to turn. I would fly straight down the slope and arrest myself with a dashing side slip.
Marriage to a non-skier and running a business created another hiatus in my romance with Ruapehu. It took one return visit with my sister’s family to remind me how much I loved it. I was about 35 and I’ve not missed a season since. I am now 69.
My first ski lessons, at Steamboat Springs in Colorado, changed my ski life. The instructor called my style “scary” and vowed to have me turning properly by the end of the week. Despite the slight drop in adrenalin levels, control on skis was a revelation to me, a relief to my fellow skiers.
One of the best things about moving to Tauranga was the reduction in distance to go skiing. When I changed career to sell real estate, one bonus was the flexibility to miss the crowds by mid-week skiing. Tauranga-owned club, Ski 150, with a lodge in National Park, became my second home and people I have skied with over the years have become friends for life. I’ve loved skiing with families, until the extreme teens left us behind.
One of the best things about my marriage ending was meeting a man who enjoyed the alpine environment as much as the snowboarding he took up so he could keep up with me. Twenty years later he’s still trying!
Can’t beat Ruapehu on a good day
While my passion for skiing has taken me to Europe, North America, Canada and Japan I still claim you can’t beat Ruapehu on a good day, when the snow is crisp, the sky is blue and the view stretches to Taranaki. It’s pretty special, that last ski down the longest way after a great day, with the setting sun streaking the now silent slopes.
My advice to people wanting to take up skiing or snowboarding at Ruapehu is to have lessons. The instructors are excellent. You will be amazed at your progress. Ruapehu will reward you richly. Your ski competence will get you off the groomed pistes and open up a mountain where it is impossible to be bored. And if you can conquer Ruapehu you can ski pretty much anywhere else in the world. At Copper Mountain, Colorado, skiing with a group of very fast Americans, I was asked, “Where did you learn to ski like that?” Proudly, I replied, “Mount Ruapehu in New Zealand.”