Skiing New Zealand Through the Eyes of Sam Smoothy

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Out for a walk with two friends in his home mountains, Sam drops into a mellow afternoon line.

New Zealand, being a very young country, has a really young ski scene, which started with people just walking up snowy hills to ski, then little ski clubs evolved with the first being on the live volcano Mt Ruapehu in the North Island in 1913. Skiing boomed in the 1920's but the first commercial field, Coronet Peak in Queenstown, wasn’t created until 1947.

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People started using planes to ski the glaciers around Mt Cook in 1955, utilising the mountaineering hut system for accomodation. It's a very small but passionate community and I think some of that comes out of that frontier style isolation, back then if you wanted to make something happen way down here you probably had to set the whole thing up yourself. So people just went out there and did. Hardy folk.

The Clubfields and Ski Competitions:

I think one of the greatest things about the New Zealand ski scene is the clubfields, like Mount Olympus and Temple Basin. Real DIY kiwi-style skiing; the original huts were carried into the mountains on foot. The only 'lifts' are nutcracker drag lifts, basically a tractor engine that run ropes up the hill over pulleys. You wear a little belt with a metal nutcracker device that you drop onto the rope and it drags you up. Violently. It's got great terrain and the best vibe of no ego, everyone helping everyone out, a really unique ski community. For some, like Temple, you still have to walk in, so that bit of extra effort means anyone there is a true skier or boarder. The touring you can do from the clubbies is pretty immense, you can even link a few up with multi day tours.

The Kiwi ski scene has bred some serious talent. Smoothy hanging with his best buds at a FWT event. Sam Smoothy photo.

The comp scene out here was and still is a savage, ripsnorter of a beast. Despite being an isolated, small community of skiers, the level is so high and people strap their gnarly boots on regardless of conditions. Back in the day, everyone did everything, it was much less specialised as it is now, so I competed in pipe and park as well. My one claim to fame was being beating Jossi Wells in a pipe comp! He may have been half my size and technically a child but i’ll take it.

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It was also really supportive, with the older guys happy to have little toe rags chase them round and learn, even helping us out overseas to get in touch with photogs and sponsors. And now it’s my turn to help those younger guys out and I get so much satisfaction from seeing them succeed. Im incredibly proud of our little ski community and what its achieved on the global stage.

Exploring Beyond the Boundaries

Aoraki/Mt. Cook is the highest peak in the Southern Alps and is surrounded by Chamonix-style gnar lines, large jagged glaciers and some pretty basic huts. The glaciers have receded, making access even more difficult. Being the highest point for thousands of kilometers in the Southern Pacific means the weather turns scarily quick. It’s true adventure skiing, with some descents taking days of effort to get to, up, down and home from. Aoraki/Mt Cook rises 10,000 feet straight from the valley floor and is one savage Henry of a mountain, huge ramps, dramatic ridges and faces that look barely skiable. The area has incredible power and mana that draws me to it. I see myself developing my skiing, climbing and person there for a long time. I hope we can be friends.

Big lines like these are what ski mountaineering in NZ are all about, and Smoothy has taken full advantage of his backyard. Sam Smoothy photo.

I want to share a quick anecdote of getting into the gnar up there. On top of the East Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook, after a 7 hour ascent, I was dealing with the radio logistics of coordinating the riders with the helicopter filming us as we raced against the fading light as a storm approaches. The other riders Xavier de le Rue, Nadine Wallner and Fraser McDougall were enjoying the view of the West and East Coasts of New Zealand, taking a little break, nibbling a sandwich and getting ready for the descent. And I was getting kicked off channel after channel by the local tourism operators. I was making wild, unrealistic promises and pleading with them to just give me five minutes of airtime to talk to my ship so we don’t screw up filming the greatest descent of my life. No dice.

At the same time I was changing over from crampons and axes to ski mode, standing on top of diagonal line of 3500 feet and 50 degrees with only one two-meter exit and 200-foot ice seracs everywhere. Naturally I was keeping my cool...Or was pleading with an inanimate object, it was hard to recall.

The countdown to drop was barely audible over the tourist chatter but I stuffed the radio away and chased Xavier into the pitch, ripping full-speed massive turns in unison down fall you die as the heli chased us, sluff pouring off the seracs at the bottom. We reached the halfway point and the heli ship peeled back to the top to film Fraser and Nadine while Xav and I rested on an ice ledge. And remember, we had the only working radio. Genius. It all worked out in the end.

Airing one out over the home mountains. Sam Smoothy photo.

Why I Call It Home

The crazy range of landscapes and activities you encounter in a short time in New Zealand is ludicrous. It’s got everything from dry arid plains, to rolling green farmland and rainforest-covered mountains that transition seamlessly into serac-clad glaciers and mountains. The people there are my family and their love for adventuring in our islands makes it like no other for me. In one day in Wanaka we can go skiing, climbing, biking and wrap it up with a river wave surf. It’s so silly. Like where does that happen!?!

There is such a love of exploring here too, of just giving something a go, walking up a valley to see what’s up there, to see if it’s even possible to ski. That I really value. As much as I love travelling, there is so much here for me to explore, I wish there were more months in the year for me to stay home! I honestly can't picture living anywhere else.

The ability to go for long exploratory walks with friends is exactly what keeps Smoothy coming home. Sam Smoothy photo.

If anyone is interested in checking out what a winter in New Zealand is like, keep your eyes peeled for my latest film with CoLab Creative called "The Sky Piercer" about climbing and skiing Aoraki/Mt Cook and all the incredible New Zealand adventures we got up to while waiting for the weather: cold water surfing in the south, rock climbing around Wanaka. It’s pretty much an homage to my home and all the amazing adventures you can have here. Last winter was my favourite one because of this project, which is really been a turning point for my life and this is what I'm all about now.

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