…for such a time as this

Stories about the adventure that is Peace Corps Tonga

Keep your seatbelt on until the helicopter lands please…..

Living in Tonga as a Peace Corps volunteer has given me a new sense of adventurism. Never before have I camped on the beach, walked to an uninhabited island, scaled fish, taken bucket baths, taught high school, been in a cyclone or been bit by strange exotic creatures. When a fellow volunteer in Tonga decided to join our ski/snowboard trip to New Zealand, he insisted that him and I heli-ski.

What is heli-skiing/boarding you ask?

No, I did not jump out of a helicopter; I stepped out of one, several times at 5000 feet. Harris Mountain Heli-ski specializes in taking intermediate (and up) skiers and boarders to top of many of the peaks on the South Island in New Zealand. (http://www.heliski.co.nz/) Toru (Japanese volunteer living in Tonga) had flown with them before, so he made all of the arrangements. We were booked to fly on Monday. That morning, we got the call that it was too windy to fly, we decided to ski somewhere else. So, Tuesday was our day. We got the call and an hour later, we were picked up by Russel.

Russel has worked as a heli-ski guide for Harris for 31 years. In fact, Toru was lead by him 11 years ago when he did this before. Russel took us to pick up our gear (special boards and skis for powder, different than the ones we had been using) from a rental shop in town. We then drove about 15 minutes to Queenstown Airport where we tied our skis and boards up, laced up our boots and hopped on our helicopter. I had never been in a helicopter. Toru and I sat in the front seat with the pilot. We got some great views of Queenstown and the surrounding small mountain towns. I was a little nervous. (Note: Toru lives in Nagano, the city where the winter Olympics were held in 1998, let’s just say that he was a ski instructor…a little better than me—understatement of the year. With the language barrier, I wasn’t totally sure if he understood my level of boarding or if he had accurately communicated that to Harris…but I was in the helicopter, no going back now)
We landed (I love that we flew there!) at the staging site. There were 10 other clients and 2 more guides there waiting. We were split into ability groups. You take a survey when you book the trip, it asks questions about your comfort on the mountain. I had been placed in Heli-2 (1-4). In my group, there were two guys originally from Bolivia now living in Sydny and a radiologist from England who now lives in Auckland. I noticed that of the 12 people, there were only 2 girls, me and a Japanese girl. Toru later told me that this is because I am tough. (Please imagine this being said by someone who is struggling to learn and use English…priceless) I had decided to take 3 runs (each at about a half hour each), Toru bought the full on package, 7 runs.

So my group waited as the two other groups were flown to their first runs. While waiting, Russel (my guide) showed us how to use our avalanche transponders. Basically, you turn the little device on that is worn like a holster on your chest. In the event of an avalanche (which does happen), you may be buried. If you are, you are to take your right arm and grab the left collar of your jacket to give yourself a “chance” to breathe. You only have about 18 minutes once buried to be rescued. The transponder gives off a signal that gives the other people in the group a chance to dig you out. The guide and one of the members of our group (the doctor-very apropos) had the shovel and probe. Let’s just say that I was getting more nervous at this point!
It was finally our turn! We were instructed that each time the chopper came to pick us up; we needed to kneel at the guides backpack. Our boards and skis were tied together close to us. Any gloves and hats needed to be on or tucked into our jackets because the force of wind from the chopper. It felt like the chopper was going to land on our heads! And yes, it was rather windy. Once the chopper landed, we waited for the guide to open the door and the signal to jump in. We were told before that we had to wear our seatbelts…this is tough while wearing gloves and heavy snow gear. We got it done.


The 10 minute ride to the top of the first run was glorious. I was speechless. White powder topped peaks, not a person in sight, clear skies, no wind and only 5 of us headed to an untouched peak. During the flight, the guide and the pilot were talking about the best place to take us. I was thinking…”how is this helicopter going to land on the top of a mountain?” Well, I learned that a chopper doesn’t need much space to land at all. They found a spot and we got out of the helicopter. We stepped into powder and looked around, perfect.

Our first run was a little icy. It had rained the night before and hardened with the cold temps. It was still fun though, I had the whole side of a mountain to myself! The guide went down first, finding the best snow and we followed each about 30 meters behind the other. Pretty spectacular views.
We got to the “bottom” of the run, waited a few minutes and the chopper came to pick us up. Our guide decided to go higher to try to get some better snow. We got in again (this time I remembered to have my camera out) and we went to the top of another mountain. This one belongs to Shania Twain, she bought it and her estate for a cheap $8 mill. Harris pays Shania a per person charge to take people down her mountain. (Note: she doesn’t ski…go figure) This run was PERFECT! 2-3 feet of powder, wide open space, some fun bumps (which are great because it didn’t hurt when I plowed into them!) and a valley that I rode like a half-pipe. When we got to the bottom, a pleantiful lunch of soup, sandwiches, quiche and sweets was already prepared. I took the board off and ate!
One more run :(. We decided to do the same one again. We hopped into the chopper and got dropped off one more time. Same great snow…touched only by us on the previous run. A once in a lifetime experience. We waited at the bottom for the chopper while Russel told us stories of avalanches. While we were laughing, one of the other guides came through on the radio and said that they experienced a 1.5 avalanche. (1 covers a car, 3 a house, 4 the side of the mountain comes down) Just when you think all is right in the world….someone was knocked over, but no one was hurt. We basked in the warm sun for about 20 minutes before being flown back over Queenstown to the airport.

It was a close to perfect day. I was reminded while up on top who created all this!

Amos 4:13 says “He who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, he who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth— the LORD God Almighty is his name.”

I am continually humbled by these experiences.

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2 Comments»

  Luke wrote @

Wow, TOO awesome! I’m so glad you got some pictures to share for the rest of us. (c:

  Heidi wrote @

SOOO COOL!


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