High on the side of Mt Pisa, 1000 m above the Crown Range road and across from the Cardrona ski resort, a crowd of career snowboarders, groupies, and spectators mill about the lodge in a miasma of sweat, fresh coffee and gangsta rap. The kids— there’s hardly anyone over 25—are txt’ing and pxt’ing, and uploading clips of their half-pipe stunts onto laptops.
This is the first day of the Burton Open, a kind of snowboarding Grand Slam event where the world’s best jostle for big prize money and a moment of fame. In this peculiar subculture of baggy pants, hoodies and goggles, John and Mary Lee blend in unnoticed. These (grand) parental figures own the place, have made this event possible and are ensuring that it all goes according to plan.
John’s sun-faded ski suit is scuffed with road dust, his hands blackened with soot—a telltale sign of a previous emergency. He’s 72 and has a staff of 90, yet his involvement in the family’s mini-empire remains hands-on. Yesterday a whole trailer-load of sponsor’s beer went off the icy mountain road taking the vehicle with it, and today, John was out before first light with bucketfuls of ash to dust the iciest hairpins, already gritted by the maintenance truck.
“What I didn’t realise was that we’d been burning demolition off-cuts and they were full of nails,” he says. “Of course, the wretched things froze to the road on contact with the ice and I spent most of the morning hacking them off with a hammer.”
In winter the Pisa Range—a high, extensive plateau which, softened with peat bogs and cushion plants, is the closest we get in this country to tundra—is a snowbound wonderland. You may have seen it as the background in the movie 10,000 BC, minus the digital mammoths.
John’s father Bob was granted this land in 1920 as a returning serviceman from WWI. He farmed it for 40 years before passing it to John who also farmed it for several decades, all the while wondering what else the family could do with such scenic but inhospitable land. A lot, as it turned out.
First, they put in New Zealand’s first and only cross-country ski field. After that they developed a testing ground for winter tyres and car brake systems with leading manufacturers where, under a thick veil of secrecy, pre-release models could be put through the paces on purpose-built winter roads. The infrastructure followed—cafes, lodges, backcountry huts, a conference centre, as did a host of peripheral activities—biathlons, multi-sport events, films and commercials, even dog sledding.
Then came the real hit—an idea of John’s son Sam—a designer-made terrain park for skiing and snowboarding stunts. A large skateboarding park on snow, it became an instant oasis. Here, safe from the scorn of other ski fields, snowboarders could strut their stuff: grind rails and fang down the half-pipe in death-defying zig-zags, stomping off lips and kickers, pulling big-air helis and grabs, sick and rad, all within the grandstand view from the cafe.
But the Lees didn’t stop there. Just as global warming has become the hottest of topics—and as other ski fields teeter on the brink of viability and the ever-ascending snow line—they proposed an entirely new snow resort; a miniature township at altitude with skiing, ice-skating and spas, and gondola access from the bottom of the hill.
A trifle grandiose? Maybe, but John Lee was the guy who conceived and constructed Cardrona, perhaps the best family-oriented ski resort in New Zealand. He was also one of the leading proponents of New Zealand hosting a Winter Olympics, though that bid was never officially lodged. (It transpired the Games could not be held in the Southern hemisphere as the television coverage would clash with that of the soccer World Cup.)
What drives the Lees? “He does,” Mary says, pointing at her husband.
He nods, smiling. Yes, he says, he’ll take the blame. “When I was growing up in the valley, New Zealand had one of the highest standards of living in the world,” John says. “Then things went downhill. Farming wasn’t good anymore, we lost the school bus, then the rural mail delivery. The local government was going to put a locked gate on the Crown Range road and turn us into a dead-end backwater. I guess I’ve made it my lifetime mission to change that.
“Of course just proving the pessimists wrong would be a shallow achievement,” he goes on. “At my age you begin to realise time is precious and there’s a limited amount of it for each of us. If I were to voice my reasons for doing it all it’d be in the form of an epitaph. Something like, ‘We’re glad he passed this way’.”
Many of John Lee’s visions have come to pass. The Crown Range road, now sealed and upgraded, has become a major artery connecting Wanaka and Queenstown, always busy with a steady stream of traffic, particularly in the winter. And Cardrona and the Snow Farm are a major contributor to the valley’s economy.
But, considering the changing climate and the increasingly fickle weather patterns, isn’t the idea of another winter resort, well, a little risky? If you believe some of the forecasters, couldn’t this new mountain village be left high and dry? Without any snow?
John Lee appears unfazed. “The technology is certainly keeping up with the challenge,” he says. “We can now make snow at plus eight degrees, we also collect the water run-off from the melting snow and pump it back up the hill to feed the snow guns, so having enough snow will not be a problem. We see a huge number of visitors even in summer. Snow or not, we can’t lose.”
Then, in a lull in the conversation, he slaps his knees and gets up: “Right, I’d better go and double-check on those nails,” he says. “If I’ve missed any they’d have melted out by now. Wouldn’t want people getting punctures on the way down.”
At the end of the day long convoys of cars make their way down the windy mountain road. The drivers should be grateful that, earlier today, John Lee passed this way.