Pavel Sotskov is a recent Dartmouth College graduate who is training and working in New Zealand for the summer at the Snowfarm. He has been in New Zealand since mid June and will be returning to Presque Isle, ME to race for MWSC this coming winter. He has sent several updates on his experiences.
Since I’ve been raving about the New Zealand weather in my previous posts, I feel obligated to start by reporting on the noteworthy meteorological events occurring here at the Snow Farm from the past few weeks. While I have been waking up most mornings to rain and fog here in Wanaka, the trails 1200 meters above the town have seen new snow almost every night. In New England, there is a saying that if you don’t like the weather, just wait 30 minutes. Here in New Zealand, the time to wait for changes in weather is closer to 8 minutes. A perfect example of this happened early last week as we made our way out of the valley and up to the Snowfarm. The clouds and fog were hanging directly at the level of the lodge and trails, making it almost impossible to stay on the access road, let alone take in the normally breathtaking scenery of the mountains. A kilometer from the lodge, we had to stop and guess which side to overtake the edge markers on the road ahead, an important decision since the access road is flanked by a 50-foot drop on one side, and large boulders on the other. Having navigated into the parking lot in front of the lodge the adventure was not over, since it was still necessary to actually find the lodge in the fog and driving winds.
That morning, I had planned on doing a distance skate workout, and undeterred by the almost total white-out, my training partner, Nat Englem (NZL), and I set out directly behind the groomer to get the freshest tracks possible. The weather conditions on the trails were no better than on the road – the groomer got lost a few times on a 3km loop, and a quite annoyed Kris Freeman cut short his early attempts to ski, saying that it was unproductive to ski in that fog. Within 20 minutes of setting out however, Nat and I began to see some clearing ahead, and in another 5 minutes we were forced to reach for our sunglasses – the fog had been blown away by a strong breeze, and the sun shined in the cloudless sky. While Nat continued to ski for another 3 or so hours, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to carve some nice tele turns in the 12 inches of new snow that had accumulated overnight.
Kiwis explained that this type of phenomenon occurs often on their small island which stand open in the Pacific Ocean. These are the conditions that so often catch hikers (the local term being trampers) off guard and cause deaths meters from huts and shelters. Last year, the Prime Minister’s close aide died in just such an event while their party was backcountry skiing deep in the Southern Alps.
If fog and rapidly changing conditions are not enough to convince you that the weather here in New Zealand really is more wild and unpredictable than that of the standard North American location, I have to add that all the new snow that has fallen in the past two weeks has made the area quite prone to avalanche conditions. I know what you are thinking, but yes, even cross country areas see sliding chunks of snow and ice. While the slides at the Snowfarm were not nearly as large as the ones that claimed the lives of two skiers this week on Coronet Peak (a alpine resort just 45 minutes away), we have seen at least 4 smaller slides around the trails, some with the potential to cover a distracted sit-skier, or a toddler skiing too close to the inside edge of the trail. In fact, one slide that did not quite break off completely was about seven feet deep and would have covered even the tallest skier if it ever decided to tumble onto the track.
It’s not all extreme conditions here however, as the all too familiar spring begins to show its face both in town and on the trails. In Wanaka, cherry trees are beginning to blossom, the grass has started to become green again, and the yacht club is launching boats at a frantic pace. On the mountain, the need for 4-wheel-drive vehicles is becoming more apparent as the road surface becomes 5 inches of spring mud. It reminds me of the Distance National Championships held 4 years ago at Fort Kent, ME when our team almost lost a wheel off the Vermont Academy wax trailer trying to get to the race venue. The snow too has started melting significantly, with the past two days being the first two of the season when I had to reach to the bottom of the wax box and pull out the klister and torch. Not that I am complaining – we’ve been skiing on multi-grade for the whole season. Now, it seems like Star’s red klister is the wax of choice with Swix users need not apply – no product from the Norwegian wax gurus gave any indication of working today.
As the teams here prepare for Winter Games action in one week, more and more world-class athletes are arriving to the training mecca of nordic skiing. In addition to the Koreans, Japanese, Canadian and New Zealand teams already cruising around the trails of the Snowfarm, the past few days saw the arrival of a junior group from the western US, and several more dedicated New England athletes hoping to show-off their talent in the racing action to come.
One final experience that I’ve had since the last time we spoke involves not the Snowfarm, but an actual farm, albeit New Zealand-style. Last tuesday I was fortunate enough to score a trip to the home of New Zealand’s only male biathlete, Ben Falconer. Ben manages his family’s 1300 acre farm about 100km from Wanaka in an equally small town near Alexandra. The farm is home to approximately 5,000 sheep, along with a number of cows, dogs, and other animals commonly found on such an estate. In addition to the animals however, the land was also the set for 10,000 BC, and the second Lord of the Rings movie. Film lovers and tourists wishing to see the familiar sites arrive by plane directly to the farm via the 1.2km dirt runway which, according to Ben, can land a Boeing 737. I was interested in seeing the whole farm, so we drove up to the far corners of the property and did some rabbit shooting along the way. My hunting consisted of taking the riffle, and before even firing having the dogs bring me a freshly killed rabbit.
I guess it’s a more economical way of doing it since I counted two kills without having fired one round, but it was a little embarrassing that the dogs were able to catch do all the work without my help. Ben also showed me the only forest on land of that elevation (planted by his father), and the gold-mining operation that is currently in progress on his land. The land is also home to the over 100-year-old gold miner’s ghost town that consists of stone huts spread around the farm. He hopes to soon host guests that are interested in the historical village in the huts and even let them pan for gold in the hills around them.
To test this scheme, we agreed to cook dinner and stay the night in one of the stone huts. Cooking by candle-light over a wood fire was quite an incredible experience, to which I added just a bit of additional flavor when in the shadowy conditions of our preparation table I accidentally seasoned the venison with coffee instead of pepper and spices. Thankfully the accident added to the flavor, and I think even master-chef and former teammate Mikey Sinnott would approve of the change in ingredients.