By Irene Henninger Big Sky Weekly Contributor
Porters Ski Area, on New Zealand’s South Island, had been closed for two full days. We’d gotten three feet of snow, and there were eight-foot drifts on the highway. The road was closed and the nine staff remaining, myself included, were completely isolated in the staff housing halfway down the access road.
Our plow driver was unable to reach us, so the snow cat operator started working on clearing the road with the groomer, making his way from the staff housing down to the highway.
By the afternoon, two patrollers had reached us from where they lived in Castle Hill Village, six miles away. We rode the snow cat up the road to do some preliminary avalanche control with explosives on the chutes above the access road. One slide path ran farther than it ever had before, according to records.
At Porters, the base area sits beneath several large avalanche paths. When a big storm comes in, it’s unsafe to access the base area due to the avalanche hazard. The road is only safe to just above the staff housing. Though the storm was beginning to die down, we could only continue clearing the lower road, still unable to reach the base area.
My partner, Doug, manager of Broken River Ski Area a little to the north, had other concerns. Broken River’s avalanche terrain is more easily accessible, so patrol was able to do control work and keep the rope tows spinning for guests already there, but the road was not passable with three feet of snow on it. One of the lodges didn’t have heat for three days. Doug’s solution was to keep the guests skiing hard all day, have dinner at the day lodge, and they’d be ready to happily crawl into bed upon return.
Although no one could drive on the highway, a Broken River club member who was staying in Castle Hill Village with his toddler-aged daughter got bored, being stuck in the village, and ski toured 10 miles up the road to Broken River with his daughter on his back, arriving there at 10 p.m., completely unannounced.
By Thursday, weather was improving and the roads were opening. With clear skies forecast for Friday, we were hoping for a good window to conduct avalanche control on the main mountain and open up for the weekend.
Waking up the next day to clear, calm weather, we were excited to get the ski area ready to open. We bombed all morning, and then shoveled the base area out all afternoon.
Porters finally opened on Saturday, just in time for a beautiful weekend powder day, the locals anxiously waiting to get up to the ski fields.
Irene Henninger is a ski patroller at the Yellowstone Club and is Assistant Snow Safety Director at Porters Ski Area in New Zealand. She is a Friend of Kingswood Skis, made by a local skier in New Zealand, and usually isn’t seen skiing without them on her feet. Since being in New Zealand is the closest thing to summer she’s got, you’ll oftentimes see her patrolling in a bikini at Porters.