Southern Lakes Heliski in the Minarets
Arriving in New Zealand early June 2016, I had no idea what was in store for me. The streets looked strange, the houses foreign and here I was, passed out from jet lag in a funny little motel on the streets of Christchurch. That first day was filled with anticipation; a perplexing mix of stoke and trepidation. Where will this adventure take me? What will I do for work? Who will I meet?
I had just quit my full-time marketing job at Outdoor & Cycle concepts after immense cravings for winter, adventure and wider horizons, and was now alone on the other side of the world looking for a new life. The furthest from home I've ever been. As we flew in low over New Zealand's Southern Alps, I instantly knew that I'd made the right decision. Looking for a way to align what I love with how I live is something I strive for every day, and so have been pursuing a career in the ski and outdoor industries since I was 18. Coming to New Zealand, I never imagined I would be sitting here 2 years later, with a dreamy set up of an awesome job in an awesome spot.
That first winter here taught me a lot; trust in yourself, don't give up and put your all into life. I worked at a rental shop in Queenstown (something I thought I wouldn't do again after starting my career in marketing) and it turned out to be some of the happiest months of my life. I skied 5 times a week, had a solid crew of frothers and friends around me, enjoyed my work, adventured as often as possible and had time to think and work on StayStoked. And that's where I was introduced to Southern Lakes Heliski, a guiding company based out of Queenstown that served the area of the Southern Alps that surrounded Otago.
Becoming friends and colleagues with the guys at SLH through the shop I worked at opened up an incredible opportunity, and I was able to work on some projects with the guys to help with their digital marketing. I was lucky enough to jump into a spare seat for my first ever Heliski experience, and it's something I'll never forget...
Heading along what has to be one of the most stunning drives in New Zealand, our minibus bumbles around corner after corner of lakeside views until we reach our destination - a flat on the north side of Lake Wanaka opposite the Minarets range.
By this point tension is rising and the atmosphere is tangible - some nerves, some excitement and some impatience. Listening intently through our brief safety talk on using beacons, and managing avalanche risk, our group of 5 wait as the first group are picked up by the heli and are flown into the range.
Shortly after, our metal bird appears across the lake and the exciting hum of rotar blades whirring fills the air. We crouch low to the ground with our skis and boards in a pile as the chopper floats in precisely, landing a few meters from us. Our guide loads the basket and we're instructed to fill the aircraft one at a time in our allotted seats, and here i'm glad i skipped seconds on desert last night as i'm selected as light enough to sit up front with the pilot.
We lift off and hover for a few seconds; the ground falls away and we speed across the stretch of water that separates us from the uplift of terrain on the other side. We keep climbing, further and higher into the Minarets, and soon the lake is a mere splash in the backdrop as impressive chutes and ridges fill the horizon from every window. The dash panel of flicks and switches intrigue me momentarily, until once again the landscape views consume me and I cant take my eyes off the prize: lines. Tracing imaginary lines down the mountain faces, I feel the itch to be grounded again with spring corn beneath my skis.
Before I even have time to pull my mind back to the present, the pilot lands us skilfully on top of a ridge - balanced precariously on a flat hardly any bigger than the feet of the heli - and we jump out into the fresh mountain breeze. The heli lifts off to pick up the first group and we perch on the top ready to drop. I click into my skis with one switch punch, probably a little aggressively, but the stoke is building and i'm raring to go. Our group are a mix of seasonaires and holidaymakers, and so the ability of the group is variable.
I hang back and wait for everyone to almost disappear out of sight and then boost down the undulating faces of the Minarets. Springing between slushy corn turns and cruising over rollers, I unconsciously let out a squeal of excitement. There's something so exhilarating about being out in the mountains doing what you love. It's a feeling only adventurous skiers know, those who go beyond the boundaries and search for seclusion; no lifts, no crowds, no noise - just you and the mountain (...and just occasionally the heli in the sky).