The Magic of Ohau
The U.S. Alpine Ski Team travels the globe, far and wide, to a myriad of majestic mountains, but one of the most magical of these mountains is without a doubt Ohau Snowfields in New Zealand. Recognized as one of the “9 Most Stunning Places to Ski on Earth” in 2015, Ohau (pronounced “oh-how”) is one of three locations that plays host to the men’s and women’s alpine ski teams as they return to snow each summer for their first prep period of the season. Lake Ohau Lodge is like summer camp on steroids—all of the good of summer camp mixed with a touch of luxury and fine dining…and a staff that rivals the best camp counselors from your childhood memories. But what is it, exactly, that makes Ohau’s magic so unmatched?
1. The Training
Few people actually grasp the amount of work that goes into creating an elite-level training experience for the best alpine ski racers in the world. The U.S. Ski Team coaching staff works understatedly, day in and day out, to create ideal training scenarios for athletes to get a jumpstart on the season. This summer, Ohau delivered the best of the best.
So, how’d the team forge this love affair?
The partnership with Ohau was born out of a chance encounter between Head Men’s Coach Sasha Rearick and a sign on the road that said “Snowmaking Here” that grabbed his attention. With Ohau, the Team is able to have full-length giant slalom training and total control over the lane's conditions. This year, six members of the staff—led by Rearick and Head Women’s Coach Paul Kristofic—traveled to Ohau on days off and after training to water the piste. After watering, it was time for Craig, who heads up operations on the ski field, and the groomers to do their job. (As it turns out, Craig also worked on the Jeongseon surface for the men’s Olympic test event last season.) The outcome of the process was a buttery-smooth, grippy, aggressive surface that hardly sustained a dent after two weeks of training. It was some of the best early season training athletes have experienced to date. Like magic. Off-piste skiing wasn’t too shabby either. In fact, it was so good that trustees like Steven Reid and Marc Philippon graced our presence to enjoy the spirit of the Southern Alps.
2. The Community
The people can make or break a lodging experience, and at Ohau they definitely make it. The owners, Mike and Louise Neilson—the magic-makers behind the ambiance—walk through and greet athletes with a grin and a “good morning!” The dining room staff (Ella, Alice, Jess and the crew)—who hail from all nooks of the globe—is always smiling. Outside, the ski field manager Craig waves. Up at the lodge on the mountain, Craig’s wife Jane serves up flat whites and good vibes. A liftie who calls himself “Shine” greets athletes with a “shalom” as they load the chairlift for their morning warm-ups and asks questions such as, “Where in the States do you take most of your breaths?” Coincidentally, the head ski patroller is from Alta, UT—just a quick jaunt away from the USSA Center of Excellence in Park City. His name is Tim and he takes care of the Team, smiling through his classic Chevron-style mustache while he posts signs along the lane to keep it Jerry-free. Back at the Lodge, Harry makes sure the team is hydrated for dinner. Rinse. Repeat.
3. The Location
Secluded and beautiful, Ohau is little known by its own countrymen, and it is the smallest commercial ski area in the country, according to the owners. Nestled between the Ohau Range—to the west is the Main Divide and the Ben Ohau range to the east—Ohau is a sight for sore eyes. Of course, New Zealand is in the middle of the ocean, so the Southern Alps of the South Island rise out of the sea and provide for majestic landscapes and stunning views on a good weather day. Lucky for the Team, the weather—which can at times be problematic—was superb at Ohau.
On a day off, Hooker Valley is just a short drive away for some hiking with a view of Mount Cook (“Aoraki” in Maori, meaning “cloud piercer”), where mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary prepared for his summit of Mount Everest. After your hike, grab a flat white and get schooled on the history of the mountain at The Old Mountaineer’s Caf nearby in Mount Cook Village. The ultra-adventurous can escape reality and find themselves with their heads literally above the clouds with a trek to the Mueller Hut. In the summer, jump on your bike and head to the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, which is the longest continuous ride in New Zealand. From Aoraki/Mount Cook, the trail descends over 2,000 feet and travels 300 km to the coastal town of Oamaru.
4. The Lake
The lake is a sight to behold. If you’re really lucky, you can witness the full moon rising over the mountains and above Lake Ohau while sitting in the hot tub at Lake Ohau Lodge. Athletes take advantage of a winter SUP session or—for the really brave—the occasional recovery cold plunge in the pristine blue waters of Lake Ohau after a day of training. A peaceful walk along the lake is sufficient to connect with nature and feel the spirit in the air.
5. The Lodge
What sets Ohau apart from other snow fields in New Zealand is the Lodge: a 72-room series of wings just off Lake Ohau. In the center of the dining room, guests and athletes congregated at the fireplace and comfy couches to write postcards, watch video, update Instagram accounts, chat and get cozy. In the TV room, athletes enjoyed the Rio Summer Olympics as they conversed with guests about the Olympic experience. In the game room, athletes played pingpong when they weren’t busy doing core or riding the training bike. Outside in the maintenance shed, ski servicemen poured hours into their athletes’ skis to find perfection and speed on the mountain. The Lodge, with Louise as the den mother at the helm, is a special place. It’d be a challenge to replicate its magic.