MT. COOK, New Zealand — Mt. Cook and the surrounding mountain massif rose like yellow fangs above Lake Pukaki, which reflected the golden rays of the setting sun.
The icy incisors were a formidable redoubt, a landscape inhospitable to all but a hearty few secured to its flanks by ropes and the steel-toothed crampons.
The approach to this range brought a quiver to my stomach. Stowed away were skis, boots and other downhill gear. My goal was to ski the Tasman Glacier, one of the world's great ski descents.
But the only way ski planes would fly deep into these mountains to the roots of the Tasman would be if the winds were gentle and the forecast fair--and that happens, at best, 50% of the time.
New Zealand skiing is a different kind of experience. The resorts--open, treeless expanses--look down upon valleys and lakes below the snow line.
At places like Queenstown, skiers can enjoy powder skiing in the morning and jet boating and rafting in the afternoon.
But most New Zealand ski experiences pale next to skiing the Tasman Glacier. The 19-mile tongue of ice flows by the trunk of Mt. Cook and past a gallery of other mountain royalty.
Though helicopters may lift skiers to more challenging terrain, the Tasman Glacier remains New Zealand's classic and most famous ski run, easily Down Under's peak skiing experience.
By its reputation, skiers might assume the glacier would be cut by near-vertical head walls and choked with tottering ice pinnacles. This, in places, is spectacularly so, but guides find slithering routes around crevasses and safely away from potentially falling ice.
This classic is open to almost any skier from mid-July through October. Just be able to form a strong wedge turn, guides say, and routes down are available, past emerald crevasses along towering seracs and across gentle snowfields. The skiable section is about 3 miles long, and on the bottom quarter the terrain is gentle.
Good weather, basic ski knowledge and about $200 U.S. are all that are needed to partake in one of the most memorable ski experiences of a lifetime. And the adventure starts quickly.
Rocks and Ice
Ten minutes after the skis were tucked under the wing of a Mt. Cook Airlines plane at Mt. Cook Airport, the Tasman Glacier loomed thousands of feet below. Rocks studded and disclosed its icy skin, but the jaws of crevasses cracked the deceiving mask. To either side, moraines rose like crowds parted by a passing king.
Mt. Cook's triple-peaked summit and icy flanks rose from the east side of the Tasman. The Hochstetter Glacier toppled down Mt. Cook's west face. Chunks of ice the size of office buildings were suspended in the icy gel which oozes at a rate of a few feet a day to join the Tasman below.
Ahead, the string of ski planes climbing over the shoulder of Mt. Chudleigh looked more like mosquitoes than human creations. Around the corner lay the destination: the Tasman Saddle, a sweeping snowfield that bridges Mt. Abel and Mt. Aylmer.
In this land of ice and snow and rock, where distances are measured in thousands of feet, humans seemed like insignificant visitors. Our greatest creations seemed like they would be easily lost in the Gargantuan dimensions of the Tasman valley.
Twenty minutes into the flight, the pilot pumped a lever that lowered the skis over the tires, then eased the plane toward the expanse of snow. The engine slowed and the plane thumped down and rose a few times before gliding to a stop. Six more planes landed, unloaded skiers, then skimmed away.
The Tasman Glacier is a trophy for skiers who consider themselves well traveled. What makes the Tasman most significant is the scenery.
As we got off the plane, we saw ice- and snow-clad ramparts of Mts. Annan and Darwin and the Hochstetter Dome rising to each side of the glacier. Ahead, Mt. Tasman's pyramid summit signaled the direction of travel. In all directions, the peaks of New Zealand's Southern Alps appeared.
Light Breeze and Sunshine
Luck was with our group. The weather had cooperated: bright sunshine with only a gentle breeze. Fresh snow had smoothed the saddle; wind-formed ruts had closed the saddle to the best skiing for almost two weeks before our flight.
Guides divided the skiers by ability or their respective traveling partners. Before starting out, Daniel Martig, our guide, explained one major rule--follow the guide--then we were off.
The thin layer of wind-blown crust and the flatness of the initial slope made the skiing a bit tricky at first, but the guide disappeared over a lip and in store were 20 perfect turns down a steep slope. We glided, one after another, across a snowy shoulder and stopped next to crevasses.
Martig gave a lesson about the Tasman topography. The icy cracks and pinnacles were formed when the sheet flowed over a bump, he said.
He pointed out snowy depressions where crevasses awaited to gobble skiers and seracs that might topple on the unwary. We waited for the group below to move on, then skied to their spot for the next lecture.