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Skiing

by  Andrew Troup

Skiing was brought to New Zealand in the 1860s by Norwegian gold miners, who used skis to get to their diggings. By the early 20th century skiing had become a sport. The country offers spectacular terrain for a variety of snow sports, including ski mountaineering, snowboarding and heli-skiing.


Skiing in New Zealand

Beginnings

People have used skis for hunting, transport and sport since the Stone Age. Advanced skiing techniques were developed in the mid-19th century in Norway. Norwegian emigrants then introduced skiing to other countries. Norwegian gold miners in New Zealand in the 1860s and 1870s used skis to get to their diggings in Central Otago. By the 1890s, a few mountaineers in the Southern Alps were making their own skis to travel across snow and glaciers.

Early polar explorers also used skis. Several early 20th-century Antarctic expeditions made New Zealand their last stop on the way south. The explorers’ glamorous reputation may have encouraged more New Zealanders to take up skiing.

Skiing as a sport

Skiing became established as a sport in New Zealand from around the First World War. Ski clubs were set up, and skiing enjoyed a boom in the 1930s. Commercial ski fields, however, did not develop until after the Second World War.

Danger on the slopes

The North Island's skiable mountains, Mt Ruapehu and Mt Taranaki/Egmont, are both volcanic. On 23 September 1995, Mt Ruapehu violently erupted. Although the ski fields had closed for the day, people were still on the lower slopes and in the carparks. Some left in a hurry, but others stayed to watch the spectacle.

Ski areas

New Zealand's main ski areas are at Mt Ruapehu in the North Island, in parts of the Southern Alps in Canterbury and South Canterbury, and in the mountains near Wānaka and Queenstown. There are also ski fields in Taranaki, Nelson, Blenheim, Kaikōura, and on the West Coast of the South Island. Since the 1970s Ohakune, Wānaka and Queenstown have become major tourist centres due to the economic impact of skiing.

Skiing in New Zealand takes place on open slopes above the treeline, rather than on marked trails through trees as it does in many other countries. Almost all ski fields – both club and commercial – are on leased public land.

Popular sport

Skiing is popular in New Zealand. A 2001 survey showed that it was the fifth most frequent sporting activity for women, and the 10th for men. The highest proportion of participants were aged 18–24 age group, but skiing attracts people of all ages. It is more popular with European New Zealanders than with Māori.

Weather

New Zealand's unpredictable climate sometimes thwarts skiers and the ski tourism industry. Cold nights are needed for snow-making, and regular snowfall is not dependable.

New Zealand skiing culture

Because New Zealand has a small population and few towns at high altitude, snow sports are a less established part of life than in North America and Europe. It is more expensive to buy equipment than in other countries, but accommodation and facilities are more affordable.

European ski fields have many bars and cafés, and socialising is an important part of a skiing trip. New Zealand skiers often focus more on improvement and achievement and less on conviviality – at least on the slopes. Socialising and accommodation in New Zealand, except at club fields, is at nearby towns.

Off the defined fields in Europe, there are often serviced mountain huts, spaced closely enough for guided trips carrying small loads. New Zealand’s sparse facilities and harsh mountain weather mean that off-field skiers need to be self-reliant. They may need to dig snow shelters in which to wait out a storm.


Club skiing

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.

Waihohonu Hut

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.

Facilities

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.

Trends

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.


Commercial ski fields

In 2006, there were 15 commercially operated ski and snowboard areas in New Zealand. Commercial ski fields were slow to develop, although top Austrian skier Ernst Skardarasy claimed in 1937 that New Zealand was potentially better than Australia for skiing.

Accommodation and transport

First, skiers needed suitable accommodation. Two tourist hotels were developed near skiing areas in the early 20th century. One was the Hermitage, at Aoraki/Mt Cook village, which had been established as a hostel in the 19th century. The other was New Zealand’s nearest equivalent to a European 'grand hotel’, the Chateau Tongariro, which opened at the foot of Mt Ruapehu in 1929.

Both hotels, however, were several kilometres from skiing slopes. In Europe, ski resorts were typically established near high-alpine settlements, built centuries earlier. People could reach the ski fields using extensions from existing transport networks. In New Zealand, transport often did not exist. Skiers had to walk or climb to the slopes, often far away. There were no rack railways or cablecars, which predated skiing in the European Alps. The first basic ski tow was trialled briefly at Mt Ruapehu in 1938, but others were not built until after the Second World War.

Learning to ski

Ski instruction is offered on commercial fields, and was an important factor in their development. Ruapehu, for example, became more popular when ski schools were set up there. Top Austrian skier Ernst Skardarasy started teaching the sport in 1938, and was succeeded by Swiss instructor Walter Haensli in 1949. Haensli proposed the first commercial chairlift, installed at Ruapehu in 1954.

Post-war transport

In 1947 a rope ski tow, designed by inventor Bill Hamilton, was installed at Coronet Peak – the first of a number built at different ski fields. The first chairlift was opened in 1954, and the first Pomalski drag lift in 1961, both at Ruapehu. T-bar lifts were gradually introduced on some commercial and club fields. Ski planes were modified in New Zealand for landing on the large glaciers. The first ski plane flew from Mt Cook village in 1955. Ski planes turned the Tasman glacier into a ski run, and are still popular in this region.

Major commercial ski fields

These innovations, and the development of the tourism industry after the Second World War, fostered the growth of commercial ski areas. By the 1970s they had begun to dominate skiing in New Zealand. In 2007 the main areas were:

  • Coronet Peak, near Queenstown, the first commercial field, opened in 1947. This is the nearest to a European-style resort in New Zealand, but its relatively low altitude means there is not always enough snow.
  • Mt Hutt in Canterbury, opened in 1973. Slightly higher than southern areas, it has a long season. Transport problems were solved by building an access road – at that time the longest and highest at any New Zealand ski field.
  • The Whakapapa (1953) and Tūroa (1979) fields at Mt Ruapehu. Ruapehu has the largest ski area in the southern hemisphere.
  • Treble Cone, near Lake Wānaka, opened in 1976 and was later extended. This field attracts both overseas tourists and New Zealanders.
  • Cardrona, between Wānaka and Queenstown, opened in 1977. This area has a good range of slopes for all levels of ability.
  • The Remarkables, near Queenstown, opened in 1985. This was developed to a world-class standard from the start.

These commercial ski fields compare well internationally. Facilities have been upgraded in recent decades, and snow-making and snow-grooming is carried out regularly.


Alternative snow sports

A number of snow sports have developed out of or alongside conventional skiing. They take place on club and commercial ski fields and elsewhere.

Snowboarding

Snowboarding began in New Zealand in the early 1980s, and appeals mainly to young people. A board, halfway between a skateboard and a surfboard in size, is used instead of skis. The rider’s boots are attached one ahead of the other, and the stance is side-on rather than forward-facing.

The skiing industry was slow to adapt to the new sport, but most commercial ski fields have now allocated areas for it, and for freeskiers, who use shorter, wider skis to perform tricks and jumps. Club fields cater more to ‘freeriders’, who enjoy the challenge of unmodified terrain. Freeriders often walk to adjacent snow fields to find fresh slopes.

Off-piste skiing

Off-piste areas are skiable slopes that lie outside the boundaries of a ski area, but can be accessed using that area’s road or lifts. Some ski areas will sell a single-ride ticket on their lifts. An off-piste skier might travel to the top of the ski area, and then embark on a trip, perhaps along the adjacent range. Alternatively the off-piste area may be treated as an extension of the ski area. Off-piste skiing has become very popular at some club fields.

The right gear

In the early days it was difficult and expensive to import skis, so many people made their own. These were wooden, with metal and leather bindings that often came adrift. Until the late 1920s, skiers carried only one pole, which they dragged in the snow like a rudder to help with steering. Skiing technique was as basic as the equipment. Most skiers aimed simply to glide down a gentle slope in a straight line. Now light boots and skis made of fibreglass and plastic make all kinds of manoeuvres possible.

Telemark skiing

Telemark skiing harks back to the early method of skiing, using narrow skis and boots fastened to the ski only at the toe.

Telemark skiers in New Zealand tend to favour club field skiing, or back-country ski touring. Mountain contours in New Zealand tend to be steep, so telemark skiing is more physically demanding than in other countries.

Activities and events are organised by the skiers themselves. While small in number, they form a strong subculture within the skiing community.

Nordic skiing

Nordic (or cross-country) skiing uses lighter equipment than Telemark skiing. It takes place on flat terrain away from established ski fields. This type of terrain is, however, in short supply in New Zealand.

Ski mountaineering

This activity combines skiing and climbing. People ski across snow country to reach climbing opportunities, or climb to the top of skiable slopes, far from the busier snow fields.

Ski mountaineers attach ‘skins’ underneath the skis to prevent them sliding backwards when travelling up moderate slopes. On steeper slopes, they carry the skis while using climbing methods and equipment.

Much of the Southern Alps is well suited to ski mountaineering. Many such trips are based around the large glaciers, of which the Tasman, Fox and Franz Josef are best known. Guided trips are available for people of different skill levels and aspirations.

Heli-skiing

Skiers and snowboarders have another option to reach uncrowded and untracked terrain: aircraft. Helicopters in particular operate on commercial fields and in every skiable territory throughout New Zealand.

Helicopters also frequently carry parties of ski mountaineers. They can quickly reach high-altitude huts, taking advantage of brief spells of clear weather.


Ski racing

The first ski races took place in New Zealand in the 1920s. Racing events became an important means of contact between the ski clubs in early years. The first nationwide ski championships were held at Ruapehu in 1929, and competitions between New Zealand and Australia began in the 1930s. Federated Mountain Clubs set up a ski sub-committee in 1931 and then a Ski Council in 1932 to organise these events. An independent New Zealand Ski Council was established in 1954. National and Australia-New Zealand competitions are now managed by its successor organisation, Snow Sports New Zealand.

The main informal opportunities for competitive skiing are interschool and Masters events. Masters skiing is a nationwide programme in which adult competitors can measure their results (adjusted for age) against a standard.

International events

Major international skiing events are not held in New Zealand. This is largely because there is no infrastructure for such large competitions.

Because there was no local circuit at élite level, skiers who wanted to compete individually once had to attach themselves to an overseas team. This was made possible from the 1960s by overseas national teams training in New Zealand in their off season. New Zealand’s winter months are from June to August.

New Zealand ski champions

Ski racing in New Zealand, as elsewhere, has been dominated by descendants of ski-racing families from Europe. Annelise Coberger, of German ancestry, was the first New Zealander to achieve international skiing fame when she won a top-level World Cup race in 1992. The same year she won a silver medal in the slalom event at the Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France.

Austrian-born New Zealander Claudia Riegler also achieved World Cup successes, and skied at the 1994, 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. She retired in 2003 after nine years on the World Cup slalom ski circuit.

An exception to the pattern was Simon Wi Rutene, of Māori descent. New Zealand national skiing champion from 1986 to 1995, he competed in four Winter Olympic games in the 1980s and 1990s.

A skiing family

German immigrant Oscar Coberger began teaching skiing at the Hermitage, Aoraki/Mt Cook, in 1926. He saw the potential of Arthur’s Pass as a ski field that could be reached by train from Christchurch. He set up a shop there to sell skiing equipment – one of the few such places in New Zealand. His granddaughter, Annelise, went on to become New Zealand’s first Olympic skiing medallist.

National representative teams

The New Zealand Disabled Ski Team has been attending the Winter Paralympics since 1980. It won New Zealand’s first medals in international skiing in 1984 at Innsbruck, Austria, and has had notable success since then. Up to 2018, multiple gold medallists have been Patrick Cooper (four), Rachael Battersby and Mathew Butson (three), and Adam Hall and Vivienne Martin (two).

Since the early 2000s, a national representative ski team has competed at international events, notably the Winter Olympics.


Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Andrew Troup, 'Skiing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/skiing/print (accessed 21 October 2019)

Story by Andrew Troup, published 24 Sep 2007