New Zealand’s first ski club was formed in 1913 by two ski mountaineers at Ruapehu, the only place 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 ski fields.
When clubs were first set up, members often had to walk for one or more hours 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 registered 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 on a commercial ski field.
Slopes are not usually groomed at a club field, and skiing down them is physically demanding. Uphill transport is also challenging. In the early days, skiers had to first 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 holds on to the tow rope using 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 commercial ski fields, it made skiing possible for people of modest income during much of the 20th century.
In the early 21st century, around 90% of skiers use commercial ski fields. 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. However, the better-known commercial ski fields are more expensive, so skiing is no longer seen as a sport available to all.