New Zealand’s first ski club was formed in 1913 by two ski mountaineers at Ruapehu, the only mountain in the North Island that has permanent snow. Mt Egmont Alpine Club was set up in 1928, and the Canterbury Winter Sports Club in 1929.
In 2006 there were 73 ski clubs in New Zealand. Some simply provide accommodation at commercial ski areas. However, unlike ski clubs elsewhere in the world, 11 New Zealand clubs, mainly in the South Island, run entire skifields.
When clubs were first set up, members often had to walk for an hour or more to reach the fields, carrying equipment, food and fuel. Without transport or machinery, building tows and huts and clearing snow was tough work. Most clubs still expect members to help maintain facilities. Overseas visitors have commented on how hard-working New Zealand ski club members are.
Because of the harsh environment, many early ski-club structures deteriorated quickly, and few survive today. One exception is Waihohonu Hut, the first headquarters of the Ruapehu Ski Club. Restored in 1998, it is now listed as a historic place.
Ski club members stay in huts, usually built on the mountain. Cooking and cleaning is generally done by hut guests, so the club skiing experience is quite different from that at a commercial skifield.
Slopes are not usually groomed at a club field, and skiing down them is physically demanding. Returning uphill can also be challenging. In the early days, skiers had to climb a slope before they could ski down it. Rope tows were introduced to club fields from 1948, and are often still used. A skier is fastened to the tow rope by a ‘nutcracker’ clamp attached to their belt.
Ski clubs have done much to establish the sport in New Zealand. Because club skiing is cheaper than using commercial skifields, skiing was feasible for people of modest income for much of the 20th century.
In the early 21st century, around 90% of skiers use commercial skifields. Some ski clubs are now struggling to maintain numbers and viability. They still offer a cheaper option because of their non-profit basis, cheaper uphill transport, and reliance on unpaid labour by members.