NORTH ISLAND, New Zealand — The wind sang in my hair. The snow crunched softly underfoot. The winter sun shone congenially and warmed my tanned arms.
To my left filed the almost empty lifts of the National Downhill run. To my right rose the smoking, nearly perfectly symmetrical cone of snow-covered and active Ngaurahoe.
Far, far off to the west rose the aspiring summit of Mt. Taranaki, an iceberg of mist in a sea of white clouds. Beneath my skis the snow slipped away, like the air trailing some magic carpet, yet I did not enjoy the feeling.
I couldn't stop.
Knees In, Eyes Out
Downhill, people shifted uncomfortably in line. They recognized the beginner's stance: knees in, eyes out, feet spread beyond shoulder length, arms waving wildly overhead. They'd been bowled over before like tenpins, probably just minutes ago, and were as adept at maneuvering out of the way as I was at stopping.
I continued to lose elevation. The tips of my skis locked onto their target, a trajectory all of their own. I flew across small moguls and dips, skimming just over the surface like a human cruise missile.
I closed my eyes. When I reopened them I found I'd managed to avoid all the others and was headed straight for the metal sign that ominously said: "Lift Line Forms Here."
I assumed the crash position. The sign broke my fall (and nearly my nose) but not my descent. I flipped over the top feet first and landed like a baby in his mother's lap atop an attractive but controlled female lift operator.
'Worth the Price'
"You know, ski lessons are worth the price," she said in a very restrained voice.
I'd broken no bones and fractured only my pride, but deeper progressive symptoms were already beginning to show.
Here I became hooked. Skiing the volcanoes of New Zealand's North Island can only be described as incredible, a land where fire and ice mix harmoniously. At the time I arrived, in May, the hot crater lake atop Mt. Ruapehu, the main skiing mountain, began boiling, sending up clouds of steam visible 50 miles away, and geologists feared a major eruption (the last was in 1967).
But the testy peak soon settled down with a huff and the ski season opened July 4. It continues to the end of October.
The fact that these are active volcanoes is a notion that can't be ignored. An extensive warning system dots the landscape, giving eight minutes' notice before an eruption of boiling mud and red-hot stones, which happens about every 10 years.
Escape routes are marked on signs and most buildings; maps show the location of higher, safer ridges off the expected path of flow.
The ski fields atop 2,797-meter Mt. Ruapehu are on only one of three volcanic peaks comprising 78,651-hectare Tongariro National Park, one of the first national parks in the world. Established in 1887 when Te Heu Heu Tukino IV, a Maori chieftain, gave them as a gift to all the people forever, the park is 364 kilometers from Auckland, about a five-hour drive from the airport.
Being an isolated peak on an island, it creates its own unpredictable weather that can change by the hour, and does. Overcast skies are common in mid-winter, adding a new dimension to the word vertigo.
At such times the otherwise white snow mirrors the gray of the sky, making it near-impossible to distinguish between up or down. I mastered my first steep intermediate slope in such poor visibility, only to have all that confidence vaporize under the blue skies of the next day when I could see what I had skied.
Two Major Resorts
There are two major resorts on the volcanoes, Whakapapa and Turoa, plus the third smaller field of Tukino. Whakapapa, New Zealand's first and foremost ski field, and the place I chose to spend my winter, was formally opened in 1954 in a ceremony officiated by Sir Edmund Hillary, a native New Zealander and first man to scale Mt. Everest.
From its humble beginnings of one single lift, Whakapapa has grown to international proportions. The field boasts three double and one single chairlift, six T-bars, four platters and four rope tows accommodating an uphill capacity of nearly 14,000 skiers a hour.
Of its 250 patroled hectares, about 25% have been classed as beginner's level, 50% intermediate and 25% as advanced, with every gradation of slope in between, making this the most varied and accessible terrain in New Zealand.
Four apres-ski cafeterias and canteens are located strategically so one need never leave the slopes for a bite.
In New Zealand dollars (53 cents U.S.), a full-day lift ticket costs $17 per adult and $12 for children under 15, with half-day rates going at $12 for all ages.
Starting last year Whakapapa initiated a midweek ski discount. A three-consecutive-day midweek lift pass costs $40, a five-consecutive-day pass $55. A day's parking pass goes for $4.
On any of the fields, chains should be used, as the winding dirt roads become treacherous when covered with ice and may be closed to all vehicles without them.