A home in high places
For generations, club fields have provided access to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular backcountry.
At the end of a long farm road, Peter Wilson greeted me with a knuckle-crunching handshake, then swung open the access gate. “No matter where in the world you have skied, you’ve never seen anything like this,” he said, nodding up the big hill. He cast a practical eye over the business parts of my Land Cruiser, its high clearance and the predatory mud tyres. “Follow me. You should get up the track all right,” he said. “Just put her in low range and go quietly.”
Moments later, through a gushing ford and up a couple of steep hairpin turns, I could see why. This was the kind of track you’d negotiate when going tahr hunting, to camp under rock bivvies and melt snow for water. But at the end of the narrow and exposed switchbacks, Wilson assured me, was a well-appointed lodge—like an eyrie on a mountain—the ski club’s headquarters and an oasis of back-country luxury with a log burner, hot water and flushing toilets. And a spa pool on the deck overlooking the wide, green confluence of the Waitaki and Hakataramea valleys.
“We’d be sitting on the deck at the end of a day’s skiing and watch a car coming up the track,” said Wilson. “It would start off eagerly, then you’d see it getting slower and more hesitant, then doing a 10-point U-turn at one of the hairpins, and start heading back down—failing what we call the ‘Awakino Test’. One of us would have to go down and fetch them. Once people get up here, they love it, but keeping that access track open is our biggest headache and expense.”
It was early June. The snowline was only just coming down to below the summits of St Marys Range above us, and the long weekend was the last opportunity for the club’s major work party before winter proper and the much-anticipated ski season. The list of chores was long, and at the lodge and around the machinery shed four men in well-used overalls milled about purposefully, getting things done with quiet efficiency. The talk was not about skiing but about gear ratios, spare parts, strategic diesel stashes, the stubbornness of certain engines and that godsend of the new tow rope—a central part of the entire operation—replacing the old one, which had been procured from another club field for a bottle of whisky.
“One of our members owns a liquor store so he donated the whisky,” said David Campbell, wiping engine grease off his hands. “So the old rope didn’t cost us anything. We’ve managed to get a grant for the new rope from the local electricity company. That’s how things are done here: not on a budget, but with no budget at all.”
With only 15 members and the cashflow of a school-leaver, Awakino is the country’s smallest and one of the oldest ski-club fields, a one-of-a-kind relic from the old New Zealand. It’s open only on weekends and runs on traditional rather than economic values: enthusiasm, volunteer hours and classic Kiwi can-do attitude.
“Whatever we need, we either have to find for free or make ourselves, or both,” said Wilson. They scavenge and cannibalise spare parts from the entire Oamaru farming district: an old tractor for the rope-tow engine, a railway carriage around it as a housing, a $500 road grader that the previous owner never wanted to see again. The grader was a steal, said Jack Parkes, a farm mechanic who has been a key member of the club since 1972, but it took all summer to rebuild its massive engine, which was giving no end of trouble. “It’s still not quite right,” he said. “Maybe next summer I’ll get the bugger working properly.
“In our daily lives, we have desk jobs, work in IT and government agencies,” Wilson said, “but when we come up here on the weekends, we get to be pioneers. We build roads and huts, fix and drive heavy machinery, solve problems. Skiing is almost secondary.”
Wilson is an Otago Fish & Game planner, but also serves as vice-president of the Federated Mountain Clubs. A few years ago, he said, the Awakino Ski Club was in a state of despair. The change to a four-term school year had placed winter holidays at two ends of the ski season—too early and too late—and deprived the fields of Awakino and other clubs of their most reliable supporters: school camps and family groups. With no new recruitment and the proliferation of commercial ski fields, the membership hit an all-time low, as did the cashflow. The Awakino Snow Fields road signs had faded, erosion and floods began reclaiming the access track, rust set to consuming and immobilising the already-ancient machinery.
But then a new guard appeared—Wilson, Campbell and their friends, and a few more snow enthusiasts from Dunedin. “We saw the place for what it was—a national treasure—and we’ve resurrected it,” said Wilson. “It took an awful lot of work, still does, but we’ve started to turn the club around. We’ve even got a few locals among our members now, though most people from the district still prefer to go to the easy commercial fields. But we also get regulars coming to stay and ski from as far as Wanaka and Queenstown, the country’s main ski resorts. They want the club-field experience, they bring their dogs, their skidoos. So Awakino is a family place again. It’s like having your own ski mountain, and at a nominal cost. Where else in the world could you have that?”
At the end of the work weekend, Wilson was pleased with the progress. There was still plenty to do, but there always is members always pack their work overalls together with their skis. “All we need now is one more big snowfall and we’ll be able to open, hopefully in time for the school holidays,” he said.
That big snowfall, a 25-year polar blast of a storm, was already brewing in the deep south of the Southern Ocean. When it hit, just a couple of days later, it caused widespread damage: power cuts, flooding and road closures. It blanketed much of the South Island with uncommonly deep snow, cutting off towns and communities, causing headaches for farmers and heart flutters for the snow enthusiasts who ventured out en masse. There were fresh ski tracks to be had on the steep streets of Dunedin, most gardens sported a snowman and, in parts of Southland, Otago and Canterbury, teams of sled dogs plied the frozen landscape.
Alas, for Awakino, the dump was too much of a good thing. Prone to southerly snowdrifts, the field was buried by the storm, its lower parts scoured by floods. The access track alone, Wilson told me, took two solid weekends to repair. But then, all was ready again, the national treasure dug up and rescued once more. “Come on up for a ski,” Wilson emailed. “The place has never looked better.”
Awakino may seem like a passionately restored anachronism from a bygone era, but when you explore the ski-club scene in New Zealand, it appears to be as strong as ever. Though overshadowed by the marketing glitz and budgets of commercial ski fields, club skiing is resilient.
“What makes New Zealand club fields so unique and appealing is that they are communities, not businesses,” says Race Louden of Torpedo7, a major snow-sports equipment retailer.
“They make skiing an adventure, a sharing of passion with like-minded people, and that’s something you can’t buy in the commercial world. The clubs are grassroots and quintessentially Kiwi, and they run on the same DIY ethos on which this country was built.”
In the beginning, of course, all skiing in New Zealand was club skiing. The Ruapehu Ski Club was formed in 1913, the first in the country, and others soon followed: in Otago, inland Canterbury, even on the slopes of Mt Taranaki. Typically a club would first establish a mountain base, a hut near the snowline which served as a focal point for all activities and a shelter from storms. There were no lifts, so skiing was a pedestrian affair. There was no instruction and no equipment either, only inspirational books by Norwegian polar explorers such as Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen.
In Snow Business, a memoir of his 60 years of skiing in New Zealand, Ralph Markby recalled how, unable to buy proper skis anywhere in the country, he made his own from English ash, with hand-chiselled ridge tops for better performance and leather straps for bindings. The skis were long and heavy and the bindings, which soon evolved into wire cable lock-downs known as ‘rat traps’, didn’t have safety releases, discouraging anything but the most benign falls and spills.
With a handful of fellow aficionados, Markby would hitch a night ride on the goods train or the back of a truck from Dunedin to the snowfields of the Rock and Pillar Range, overnight in a stockman’s hut, then hike up the mountain at first light for a few precious runs. Later, the arrival of motorbikes made skiing more accessible, but it still entailed night riding over icy Otago roads with a backpack and two-metre skis, avoiding snow drifts, and frequent stops to thaw out at the inns. Passionless People? Hardly.
In 1947, the Mount Cook Tourist Company—owned by the Wigley family, who pioneered much of the country’s earlytourism—opened the first commercial field on Coronet Peak near Queenstown, with a large rope tow designed and built by Bill Hamilton of jet-boat fame. Next came skiing on the Ball Pass and Tasman Glacier in Mt Cook National Park itself. Today, the Ball Hut is a basic backcountry shelter, but its predecessor—long since claimed by the glacier—could accommodate around 100 people and had its own bus service, with the last few kilometres of the moraine road covered by a crawler tractor and trailer.
Snow skiing then was still something of a national novelty, but that was changing fast. Within a couple of decades, a constellation of commercial ski fields appeared on New Zealand’s winter landscape Whakapapa, Mt Hutt, Cardrona, Treble Cone and the Remarkables—shining bright and loud, winning over local and international snow tourists with the ease of road access and fast chair lifts, a wide range of accommodation and gear rentals, and après-ski nightlife. No more obligatory summer work parties, no more rope burns on gloves and engine grease on your ski pants, no kitchen and housekeeping duties while you were on ski holidays. And no more rope tows with the dreaded nutcrackers—personal rope clamps commonly used on club fields, which rattled over metal pulleys that guided the tow rope with finger-amputating efficiency.
Add to it the unpredictability of New Zealand’s maritime weather, the powder burials and the lean times, the yo-yoing of freezing levels and frequent high winds, and by all accounts the commercialisation of snow sports in this country should have brought about the demise of the club scene, making it irrelevant and obsolete. Instead, the opposite happened.
Inland from Christchurch, in the steep scree-slope foothills of the Southern Alps, you will find the highest concentration of club ski fields in the country: Mt Cheeseman, Broken River and Craigieburn side by side, Temple Basin further west, and Mt Olympus, visible from here but accessed via the Lake Coleridge road or by a day-long ski tour along the tops.
Above the band of forest, which clings to the lower slopes and demarcates the snowline, the hills appear blinding white against a thin veil of cloud as I turn off the main highway and head up the Broken River road, a prodigal ski son returning home.
I learnt to ski at Broken River. Twenty-something years ago, I signed up for one of the club’s all-inclusive ski weeks, then another, and so began a life-long fascination with skiing all kinds of snow in all terrain.
“We’re going hiking up Hamilton Peak,” Claire Newell welcomes me. “Want to join us?” And we’re off, riding a couple of rope tows I remember well, then a new one along the ridge top which has an on-demand self-timer to save power. Then, with skis strapped A-frame-style to our day packs, we continue on foot, along a windy and exposed ridge, towards the prominent peak that marks the boundary with the Craigieburn club field. Somehow, along the way, we’ve picked up a few more club members and a bunch of kids as well, young guns eager to jump some rocks near the summit.
“The kids here ski even before they are born—in their mothers’ wombs,” Newell tells me. “Then they’re in chest harnesses and backpacks, and as soon as they can walk well they get their first skis. So they grow up strong and competent skiers, able to handle any terrain in any snow.” A daughter of the club’s founder and first president, Newell herself is the proof of that, having skied more than 40 seasons here.
“You’ll find that the kids who come through the club rarely get into city trouble like boy-racing, gangs, drugs or hanging around malls,” she says. “They have better things to do. They’ve got good mates and they’re used to looking out for each other. They’ve learnt about sharing responsibilities, they are comfortable relating and engaging with a wide range of people, with adults from all walks of life, because that’s part of the club scene too.”
From the summit, the kids jump rocks and take pictures with wide-angle lenses that make them look as if they are flying clear across the valley. Then we all ski down in a posse, a long backcountry run with our skis scribing the pattern of our descent on the untracked slope.
“Sorry about the snow,” Newell shrugs as we look back up at our lines. “It was knee-deep powder a week ago but with all the rain and frosts we’ve had since, well, it’s not at its best any more.” In that morning’s snow report, she described it as having the consistency of “white chocolate”—yummy if you could get your teeth, or edges, into it.
Back at the day lodge, we are engulfed by a friendly hubbub, offered hot drinks, food, places to sit. With the snow hard and icy, and not softening due to cold overcast, the club coterie changes gears from outdoor adventure to a cosy social gathering, turning the usually brief and business-like lunch break into an extended indoor picnic.
“When I go skiing on a commercial field, though the snow may be good and the lifts are fast and comfortable, there is always something missing there for me,” says Newell. “You can ski there all day and not talk to anyone. Like in a big city, people are in their own bubbles of privacy. This wouldn’t happen at a club field like this one. Here, we’re like a big family, a ski whanau.”
One thing that strikes me is not just the ease of social engagement here, but the depth of it too. These people have known each other for years, on and off the field. There’s no need for polite small talk, even with strangers like me.
I find myself engrossed in a conversation about the role of kea in the propagation of alpine forests, finer points of ‘leave no trace’ outdoor adventure ethics, the Zen of woodworking with non-mechanical tools, the importance of silences in musical compositions, and of course, skiing.
Tour ideas, missions, nuances of technique and gear. Skiing as art, with white mountain slopes for canvas, the shapes of ski lines as a way of creative expression. These are my kind of people, I think to myself in a moment of respite. My kind of family.
Christchurch lawyer and current club president Ian Hunt, for example, put himself through law school by teaching skiing and working as a snow patroller. He went on to give skiing instruction and guide tours in some of the most iconic locations in the skiing world—Aspen, Verbier, Val d’Isère—yet he insists his best skiing happened right here, at Broken River.
“Walking up the mountain in the dark, in 60 centimetres of fresh powder, waiting at the top for the sunrise with a bunch of good friends and knowing there are as many good runs ahead as you have in your legs it just doesn’t get any better than that,” he says.
The realities of running a club are a worthwhile challenge too. “We’re not a business, but we still need to run like one and offer the same level of service, because the non-member users contribute significantly to our cashflow and, in a way, subsidise the skiing for the club members,” says Hunt. “So we have a professional level of snow safety and the most qualified ski instructors you can find. We run avalanche awareness courses and specialty weeks and weekends. We employ a chef, and brew our own brand of beer. But it’s all run on volunteer effort.”
Hunt credits the club’s well-rounded appearance and smooth running to the diverse pool of skills and expertise contributed by its 350 members. “We’ve got accountants, engineers, mechanics and tradesmen, we’re fully self-sufficient with anything we need to do. The club is a big part of people’s life. There’s as much activity happening off the field as there is up here.”
The “Facebook generation” are more mobile and reluctant to commit to one particular mountain, he says. They prefer to roam the country looking for the best snow and most action, but overall the club has no trouble with recruitment, with its mainstay support, as always, coming from families with strong outdoor traditions.
“Skiing is one of those rare activities which an entire family can do together,” says Hunt. “Up here, it’s not uncommon to see three generations enjoying the snow, grandparents racing the grandkids while mum and dad sneak out for a run into the backcountry. Besides, our greatest advantage is that we are not tied to rigid schedules like the commercial fields. We can be open whenever there is snow, in May or November.”
Last year, he says, October was the best month for snow. Broken River was full to capacity while other fields were already closed for the season. “As long as people want to ski we keep the lifts running, daylight or moonlight, and we have floodlights as well. At the end of it all you have a comfortable lodge to come back to, to rest and recharge and do it again the next day. It’s our home on the mountain. Our mountain. A place where we can belong.”
Although the common evolution of a ski field in New Zealand would be from a club to a commercial venture—most of our fields were initiated by groups of enthusiasts before becoming business entities—recently we have seen the first reversal of this trend: a community fundraising to buy out a commercial ski field and make it into a club.
The Snow Farm, high on the Pisa Range between Wanaka and Queenstown, is a place like no other, New Zealand’s only cross-country ski field set in a wide-open, frosty and silent landscape that is our own miniature version of the Arctic. For two decades, Mary and John Lee (who also pioneered the nearby Cardrona Alpine Resort) have been running it as a family business on the family farm. Mary, especially, had been instrumental in establishing cross-country skiing in New Zealand.
She imported specialised gear, brought in expert trainers from overseas, extolled and championed the health and fitness benefits of the sport. The words of Nansen, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who first crossed Greenland on skis and was an inspiration for early New Zealand skiing, could have made a good motto for her lifetime’s work: “Nothing hardens the muscles and makes the body so strong and elastic. Nothing gives better presence of mind and nimbleness, nothing steels the will power… as cross-country skiing.”
Though the Snow Farm was a commercial operation, the Lees had always run it more like a club, with volunteer ‘ski friends’ ready to help out beginners, show them the trails, the gear and how to take the first steps on skis that seem as narrow as classroom rulers. But approaching retirement, the Lees felt they had done their dash and suggested that someone else needed to take over, lest all their work go to waste.
The idea of losing the only venue for their sport galvanised a group of cross-country enthusiasts. They formed a non-profit trust, brainstormed solutions, and scraped up funds to buy the Lees out. The negotiations were lengthy and delicate, but in the end, the trust purchased the Snow Farm, then passed the ownership of the land to the local council to be held in perpetuity as a recreational reserve. The Lees got their retirement money, the trust took over management of the field, and everyone gets to ski there as before. On the surface, little has changed—but only on the surface.
“The Snow Farm is an outstanding national resource,” said John Alexander, the trust’s former secretary. “Even if you don’t ski you can go snow-shoeing or ride with the team of huskies. Last year, we had over 1000 kids up here, building igloos and learning about the snow in a realistic environment.”
“Last season was the transition,” a trustee, John Hogg, told me as we readied for the trails. “Our main focus is to get enough members and season-pass holders so that their subscriptions can pay for the trail grooming and maintenance, and the more members we can have, the cheaper the skiing will be. Then we can concentrate on opening up more country.”
One of the most popular assets of the Snow Farm are its backcountry huts, connected by a network of ski trails, furnished with log burners and the option of having all your overnight gear and food shuttled in by a skidoo. Adjacent to the Snow Farm is the Pisa Conservation Area, 20 times the size of the farm and with untold potential for new cross-country trails.
“With time, and if we get enough support from the community, we’d like to establish a few more backcountry huts out there and link them into a kind of Great Walk on skis,” said Hogg.
Beyond the névés of Mt Cook and Westland National Parks, skiing in New Zealand has always been a challenging proposition—the brief periods of wintry abundance often followed by long snow droughts, the industry itself caught on a seasonal rollercoaster of hope and despair, never too far from the edge of economic viability.
Responding to the increasingly volatile and unpredictable climate, and in an effort to control the uncontrollable and guarantee a product, our snow industry has invested heavily in snow-making machinery, which has further increased the costs of skiing in New Zealand, already one of the most expensive places to ski in the world.
To this the clubs—casual, unpretentious and based on family and community values—offer a flexible and enduring alternative. Their biggest assets are not the high-tech machinery, shareholders’ stakes and seasonal turnover, but something of intangible yet immeasurable value: passion, friendships and tradition. Whatever the future holds for snow sports in New Zealand, club fields will have a place in it. After all, skiing is only part of the reason for their existence.