Waiting for Roy | the Sam Smoothy blog

an aerial photo taken above the tops of mountains in New Zealand - snow covered mountains, cloudy sky, cloud filling the valley, and a skier in orange walking a ridgeline.

Childhood dreams blend with reality for Sam Smoothy, as he recounts the June ’22 day the storm of the decade rolled back the years on the slopes of Mt Roy

Sam Smoothy’s last blog post for Fall Line published in last year’s Adventure issue of the magazine that deserves its place online. So dive in, enjoy and share…

JUNE 1989

Long before the sprawling subdivisions and super mansions, there was a quiet dirt road outside my gate at 97 Stone Street, Wanaka, New Zealand. Lined with pines, it ran alongside the cemetery, headstones sharp in the sun, sparse bouquets buried in snow, to Squash Court Hill.

Tiny Sorrel boots were strapped onto plastic skis and, hand-in-hand, my parents ran me down my first ski run. Pitched face first into the bank, dusted off and dragged back to the top. Again, and again. Mother, enthusiasm waning, retrieved an errant mitten while I slumped in a heap and stared through the dusted pines, up at Mt Roy, whose shadow crept across the sleepy town. I was almost three, rather soggy, and needed a nap.

From then the dreams started flowing, inspired and blended with reality. That now familiar feeling of floating through powder was so foreign it frightened my younger self. I thought I might simply float away, never to return. And at night I did. Midway down Treble Cone I would transform, morphing into a bird of prey, swooping off the side of the mountain. Joyously flying lines down tussock-clad ridges that plunged far below the snow line, the lines that never go. Night after night.

Mindlessly staring at the school book, year after year, the short June days dragged long towards opening day. To escape the clinging damp under the ever-present inversion cloud, to return to the sun in the blinding alpine. To soar.

More recently those opening days began to slide later, to shift around capricious early winter storms. The annual family tradition, skiing together for my early birthday, became unreliable, with opening days pushed back as the snow line crept higher. Those childhood days slipped further into the past. Snow, if it even fell in town, was gone before the morning coffee had cooled.

There had always been wandering chats about pre-dawn starts, for a magical June snowfall on Roy, that never seemed to come. Pipe dream discussions, of relocating the country a thousand kilometres south, or propping the town a thousand metres higher, of some cataclysmic event to return an ice age. All circled around finally coating the steep, spine-like grass ridges of Mt Roy with enough snow to ski. Every day I drove past the mountain to Treble Cone, I stared up at the brown walls above and hoped that day would come.

a skier on spines of a big, steep mountain, snow covering plenty of rock, under a yellowish, sepia light
Mt Roy | © Mark Clinton

JUNE 2022

The snow forecast made no sense. I pushed refresh again. Checked other forecasts again. It remained constant. Polar air colliding with a huge moisture cell. The storm of the decade had arrived.

At 5am I rolled out of town with local pals Mike Handford, Chris Dunn, Hamish McDougall and repeat visitor, photographer Mark Clinton. We drove through the dark, particular muffled calm of a snowed-in town, common overseas but so precious here at home. Out of the car park and over the fence stile, Mike grinned as he dropped his splitboard to the 5cm of snow covering the ground. “I’m skinning from the bottom.”

The rest of us carted our skis a few hundred metres higher before the depth increased and the real work began. The once drearily familiar hiking track was made anew, buried under two feet of snow. Native shrubs groaned under the unaccustomed weight as we skinned higher, one of the deepest tracks I’ve set in NZ.

Breaking through a layer in the clouds, headlamps flickered in and out of the mist below. We were not alone.

After a couple of hours breaking trail, we crested the ridge into a cold south wind; soon joined by more friends who had timed their ascent perfectly, taking an extra hour’s sleep while we plugged away. But it didn’t matter, excitement rippled through everyone, the pipe dream was really happening right now. We chatted options as we gazed out over the north ridge of Mt Roy, jutting a thousand metres above the two arms of Lake Wanaka.

a snowboarder or skier skis fresh, deep snow down a gulley towards a lake
Mt Roy | © Mark Clinton

Dropping off the western aspect, I laid turns down a smooth rib, descending towards the dark mirror waters of Glendhu Bay. Pulling up on a prow, the cold snow clung to my bewildered face. This was no longer a novelty ski. There were real quality turns to be had.

I skinned up towards the ridge, heading for a sub peak with some beautiful eastern ramps. Trying to gain the last steep 50 metres, I clicked out of my skis and sank up to my nipples. The fresh snow had fallen directly on large, alpine grasses and was so full of air at the base it was completely bottomless beyond the possible depth of snow. Using my poles, I heaved myself out and rolled unceremoniously to the downhill side. And was immediately stabbed in the leg by a buried speargrass. Wading uphill, I thrashed about barely able to move, just like I had on those first powder days many years before.

Finally on top, the wind was really ripping now as I shouted across at the crew further back on the ridge. Mark, resplendent in head-to-toe camouflage more suitable for this normally brown grassed landscape, hunted around for a fresh angle on New Zealand’s most Instagrammed mountain.

a line of ski tourers hike final stretch along flat top of a high mountain, lakes and clouds below them
Mt Roy | © Mark Clinton

Dropping into a nicely filled flute, the snow buffeted my face as I cranked turns, as small sluffs ran either side. What was going on, this was madness, this was Mt Roy?

Mike and Hamish had found another rib and slashed down it, perfectly backlit by the sun peeking through a hole in the upper bank of clouds. We regrouped under the face, snowy and satiated. The other groups hadn’t been so lucky with the conditions; a small change in aspect had already turned the snow on their lines heavy, but there were smiles all round.

… childhood dreams blended with reality, as the storm of the decade rolled back the years upon the slopes of Mt Roy

Numerous gangs of locals roamed around, popping past for a chat, skinning back up for another lap. A true social gathering of those who had patiently waited for this rare day to arrive.

We dropped into one last pitch en masse, whooping and popping over a barbed wire fence into a meadow, bouncing off barely covered tussock pillows as the snow steadily grew heavier. We clattered backdown the farm track, rocks grabbing at our skis, snow too thin to turn or brake, we skidded on giggling.

A group of school kids were touring up, late to the party but brimming with enthusiasm and a thumbs up as we passed.

Running out of snow, we finally ground to a halt, chucked the well-abused skis over our shoulders and trotted the last few hundred metres back to the car. Mike was only going to be three hours late for work, not too bad really.

silhouette of a single skier, pointing their pole, at the top of a mountain, looking over a huge vista of clouds filling the valley, high mountains in the backdrop, at dusk (judging on the light)
Mt Roy | © Mark Clinton

For days afterwards the town buzzed, the temperatures stayed low and the snow stayed put. Bars flowed with excited locals’ chatter. Talk of the storm of 1995, how the resorts are opening early, the next storms are rolling in, that just maybe this was that long-hoped-for all-time winter?

Sadly, it was not to be. But for that one glorious week, where childhood dreams blended with reality, as the storm of the decade rolled back the years upon the slopes of Mt Roy.