Heli-skiing New Zealand's Southern Alps

Take in the physics of it and skiing is a simple negotiation with gravity: it has to be defied on the way up the mountain and exploited on the way down.

For the going up component, there are two options – climb under your own steam or catch a ride on a ski lift of one variety or another. Leaving aside teleporting, the helicopter has to be the fastest and most versatile ski lift of all.

Apart from providing the most spectacular of ascents, it gives unmatched flexibility in the locations and aspects for the descent.

"Skiing is kind of like farming," says Andy Cole, a guide for Southern Lakes Heliski in New Zealand's South Island, "when you get fresh snow, you harvest it. The bigger the farm, the better the harvest."

He isn't over-selling it. Southern Lakes has access to more than 700 designated runs on 16 different mountain ranges in New Zealand's Southern Alps, including glacial country and peaks up to 2585 metres.

Andy's first job for the day is to do the pick-ups around Wanaka; collect what turns out to be a van full of eager skiers and snowboarders from near (a young couple from Nelson on the South Island, he a physio, she a vet) and far (a Japanese snowboarder who has had this on his list for years) and all parts in between.

The destination, chosen for snow cover and the likely wind and weather, is the slopes above Minaret Station; a high country sheep, deer and cattle run rising up from the shores of Lake Wanaka.

The first group are packed into the helicopter and taken to their new reality, from lakeside car park to snowy mountain peak.

The rest of us pile into a speed boat and are taken across the lake to the staging area at the station, boarding the helicopter when it returns from its first drop. Lifting up from the lake in this scenic bubble is like being on a massive camera boom, the landscape transforming on the rise, from lakes and pastures to snowy ridges and mountain peaks.


All of a sudden, the helicopter delivers us to a perch near one of those peaks. We step out, crouch beside it until the guide has unloaded skis and boards, then give the pilot the thumbs-up to lift the machine away, the beating fury of the rotors fading into the distance, replaced by the silence of the snow and the immediate isolation.

I don't know who named the runs we skied, but it isn't hard to pin down their taste and timing, nor their disregard for gravity. First-up is ET and it is extra-terrestrial in its own way, a massive open slope with light powder snow covering its ridges and gullies, running all the way to a creek in the valley way below.

We pull up on a shoulder above that creek, pile back into the machine and are deposited on a ridge-top to next ski Jabberwocky. It is a no-nonsense run, despite the name, with the same kind of terrain and snow quality as ET.

All the four different groups gather for lunch at the top of Jabberwocky – drinks, soup, rolls, salads and sweets – spread on a table made of snow with views stretching all the way to Mount Aspiring, the Matterhorn of the south, standing tall in the distance.

The guides gather to talk logistics for the afternoon – we could ski Dr Who, but Out There comes next and we finish the day with another run on Jabberwocky, leaving in the helicopter as we came, but this time plunging down the valley back to the lake.

There are three parts to a heli-ski day – the helicopter ride, the immersion in the remote mountains and the skiing itself. I'm not sure which of the parts I favour the most, but the sum of them makes for a wonderful harvest, as Andy Cole would say.



Air New Zealand, Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia all have direct flights from Australia to Queenstown. Wanaka is about an hour's drive from Queenstown.


The Edgewater, on Wanaka's Lakefront, has a mix of rooms including self-contained suites from $NZ349 in peak winter season. See edgewater.co.nz


Southern Lakes Heliski operates from Wanaka and Queenstown. A heli-ski day, including transfers, safety equipment, guided skiing and lunch starts at $NZ975. See heliskinz.com




Jim Darby was a guest of Southern Lakes Heliski and Lake Wanaka Tourism, see lakewanaka.co.nz