Upside Down Summer: Exploring New Zealand through the photos and stories of Chris O’Connell
As seen in the February 2012 issue of FREESKIER.
Words and photos by Chris O'Connell.
The bottom jump at Snow Park is classic. It’s not super big or too small, between 60 and 80 feet. I never get tired of shooting it because the sunsets are so frickin' good down there. Every year the shots are kind of similar, but I still derive satisfaction from shooting that jump. The kids never get tired of hitting it because it’s not a ball-breaker 120-foot sketchy jump. We haven’t had a real glowey sunset like that in a couple years, so it was a great session.
Mike Hornbeck at Snow Park
I got back to New Zealand every summer. They have good mountains to ski. They have good parks. They have great people to hang out with. They can accommodate groups. The weather, in general, is fairly okay. It’s not sunny all the time, by any means. If you’re willing to go up and log your time you can get some really interesting peek-a-boos of light because the weather is so fast moving. It’s something about the Kiwi vibe and you make friends going there every year. It’s so awesome and fulfilling to see people in Wanaka every year for 10 years.
The Kiwis are getting behind the freestyle side of the sport. They’ve always been behind the mountain side of the sport with all the club fields and the heli operations with endless amounts of terrain. So you can ski the park when there’s no snow, then when it snows, the day after a storm you can book a heli and fly right out of Queenstown or Wanaka into the New Zealand Alps, which are incredible mountains.
Getting to New Zealand is not has hard as most people would think. From the West Coast, it’s just one flight into Auckland and then a short layover and a hop down to Queenstown. That flight into Queenstown is one of the most beautiful flights in the world. You’re flying over the Southern Alps, which is unbelievable with the lakes and the mountains and the greenery. Crazy scenic.
(Center) Queenstown from above
Queenstown is like the party town, a lot more going on, crowded and compact, where you run into raging drunk Australians on their stag parties. Wanaka is more the creedle town like an hour away where we always stay because it’s a bit closer to Snow Park, Cardrona and TC, the resorts we like to go to. Wanaka is where we go to get work done.
We always go to our buddy Angus Rowley’s farm. I wanted to take the team to a sheep farm and learn about it. I have no idea what goes on with sheep, I know we use their wool but I don’t know anything about it. A few years ago I asked around about a farm we could visit and someone told me about this guy Angus, that he’s a skier and he’s all hyped on Armada, he skis on Armada. Now every year we’ve been back there. He sets up obstacle courses in the fields to rally our rental cars around. This year his parents cooked us dinner at his house [seen below—the house at night with lights on] that they’ve lived in for a hundred years.
Angus Rowley gives the troops the full tour
All his sheep are merino wool, which is like the best wool in the world. It has to grow in a relatively high alpine environment and produces the best fibers. The Armada team is looking at the wool from one single sheep. It’s a massive amount of wool that they get from each sheep. You can pull off a piece of the wool, but you can’t take that wool and rip it with your hand. It’s impossible. The tensile strength is too great. It’s an amazing fabric. By the time they refine it, you can wear a merino wool base layer for two or three weeks and it will never smell. That’s why I’ve been wearing it for years.
We were in the heli and all fogged in. Seth just hiked up the ridge. This shot is my take on the Ordinary Skier. That’s why I like the shot. He’s such a solo guy, always a hundred yards away from the rest of the group.
It seems like everyone in New Zealand is overly friendly. It’s almost to the point where if they were in America, they’d probably get killed by serial killers ‘cause they’re just too nice and they assume everyone else is as friendly. Going there from southern California you wonder, “What do these people want from me?” But they don’t want anything. They’re just, by nature, such friendly and super nice people.
Gus Kenworthy and his pie
Pies are pretty famous in New Zealand, so as soon as we leave the airport we go to the shop at the BP gas station for pies. It looks like Gus has a beef pie, but I always get the chicken satay. They also have really good flat whites there. Flat whites are like the New Zealand, Australia coffee. They make a big distinction between a flat white and a latte. It has to do with the amount of foam, but after going there for 10 years I still really don’t know the difference. It’s the best coffee ever. I think we should have flat whites here.
Those are Angus’s dogs. He has about 30,000 sheep on 30 to 40 thousand acres. Those dogs are his number one most important tool on the farm. If he lost one of those dogs he’d be fucked. Each dog knows their own different whistles and some are vocal commands—turn left, turn right, go straight, come back and on and on—and they don’t pay attention to the other dogs’ commands. He can command the dogs and they control like 1,000 or 2,000 sheep in a field. They’re amazing dogs. I was asking if the dogs like what they’re doing and he said, “Ah mate, for these dogs to get out and chase sheep is like a powder day.”
He gets incrementally better every single day that I watch him ski. He shows more potential than any 16-year-old out there. You can see how big he goes. To watch Torin land on transition, to watch him carry speed—he lands on the vert 90 percent of the time—there’s not too many guys in the pipe world who can do that. The last person I saw his age going as big as he does was Simon Dumont 10 years ago. The Snow Park pipe this year was awesome. Traditionally they have a good pipe, but the last year or two Cardrona did a pretty good job with theirs. This year, Snow Park came back and just killed it. It wasn’t crowded because all the teams went to Cardrona, so we had these afternoon pipe sessions where Torin was literally the only person skiing in the pipe. This was probably taken at one in the afternoon. I’m sure with the Olympics coming around in the next two years this will never happen again in New Zealand.
Being partners with Seth at Retallack, I spend a lot of time free riding with him as well. Seth is a professional. He knows he’s got a job to do. He’s just funny to be around ‘cause no one can really figure him out. He’s got this dry sense of humor. I really dig going on trips with him. He’s a workhorse. He knows the camera and he knows the angles. He can make a great turn and he can make shit happen.
They called it the Storm of the Century. We got out there and it was like two feet of pow with areas of one foot. I guess it did snow a lot in places where it doesn’t snow, like it snowed a foot in Queenstown and it snowed in Christchurch, which is at sea level. That’s super unusual for New Zealand.
The road up to Treble Cone is one of the most iconic ski field approaches because of the views of Lake Wanaka and those crazy mounds. That’s the thing with New Zealand, the snow doesn’t go to the valley. If it did, if they had say a meter of base in the valley that stayed all year, it would be hands down better than Alaska. But it stops pretty high up the mountain so you have to drive about 25 minutes up these dirt roads to get from the highway to any ski field. They’re beautiful, but they’re kind of sketchy with ice and snow on them.
This was the very first day we arrived in New Zealand. By the time we got our rental cars it was about noon and we went straight to Snow Park after Simon had been travelling for a solid day. We shot three or four features this evening. We knew there was a big storm rolling in and we had to get a lot done, so this was sunset at the end of about six hours skiing. Overall Simon’s just gnarly. People kind of forget, ‘cause he’s been in the game so long, just how gnarly an athlete he is. I mean he was in the gym every day we were there for probably an hour and a half or two hours, pushing it, then going out and skiing all day.
(Left) Simon Dumont
They have really good parks in New Zealand and they keep getting better. Especially with Jossi and his family helping out at Cardrona. They put a lift on the side of the pipe so you don’t have to spin a long lap since there’s a rope tow right there. That’s monstrous. It’s just going to breed even better pipe skiers when you can get 15 or 20 runs in as opposed to eight or 10 in a morning.
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