From issue: Winter 2004
by Paul Titus
Paul Titus follows in the tracks of the early New Zealand skiers.
Pioneers of skiing in New Zealand are figures often thought of as exemplars of the Kiwi spirit - intrepid adventurers, dedicated amateurs, innovative engineers and aspiring entrepreneurs. Like an avalanche, skiing developed slowly at first and then gathered undeniable momentum.
Rather than the downhill sport recognised today, skiing was initially utilitarian travel. The earliest recorded skiers in this country were Norwegian gold miners who used skis in the 1870s for winter access to their claims in Central Otago's Serpentine Valley. Beginning in the 1890s, early mountaineers in the Southern Alps improvised homemade skis to better cross snowfields and glaciers.
Skiing began in the North Island in July 1913, when William Mead and Bernard Drake ordered skis from Europe to explore Mt Ruapehu. Basing themselves at Waihohonu Hut on the eastern side of the mountain, Mead and Drake practised on nearby ridges and then made a trip to Whakapapa Valley. The experience must have enthralled them because they immediately posted a notice at the hut to announce formation of New Zealand's first club dedicated to the sport, the Ruapehu Ski Club.
This act was significant for two reasons. One is that the structures associated with early skiing faced a harsh environment so they were constantly up-graded and replaced, and few survive. Waihohonu Hut is a notable exception. Built in 1904 to accommodate tourists travelling by stagecoach, it consists of a totara wood frame that holds two layers of corrugated iron filled with pumice to serve as insulation. As well as headquarters of the ski club, Waihohonu Hut served as a trampers' hut and shearers' quarters. It was restored in 1998 and is a Category I historic place because of its cultural, architectural and historical value.
The other reason the formation of the Ruapehu Ski Club was a notable event is that ski clubs would become the vehicle for the development of the sport. Secretary of the Ski Areas Association of New Zealand Miles Davidson says clubs continue to operate today although commercial ski fields began to eclipse them in the 1970s and now scoop up more than 90 per cent of skier visits.
Davidson says the ski industry in North America developed at huge resorts where real estate was an important part of the commercial set up. The areas in Europe where skiing is important today already had infrastructure in place because many of them were spa villages, which people visited for their health.
"In New Zealand, almost all ski fields are on Crown land, and the early development of skiing was based on clubs," he says. "Ski clubs provided accommodation to their members at lodges near the ski fields. Some clubs now also operate ski fields."
Clubs are non-profit incorporated societies and any profits from generated revenues go to developing their lodges, lifts or roads, Davidson says. Some employ staff but weekend work parties of club members do such tasks as prepare lodges for winter, gather firewood and replace roofs.
Before ski lifts were introduced, skiing meant trudging to the top of a slope and skiing down. A good day was two or three runs. Not only were the ski fields accessible only by foot, often the lodges were, too.
The Christchurch Ski Club (now the Temple Basin Ski Club) was established in 1929, and operates the Temple Basin Ski Field in Arthur's Pass. Former club president Jan Kitson joined in 1937. He says that in those days everything, including the building material used to construct the club's hut, had to be carried in by hand.
"It was the junior male members' job to fetch water from the creek in four-gallon kerosene tins. On many occasions, the creek was two metres under the snow. The hut had three-storey bunks. The beds were made of cyclone wire and were very noisy. Generally, if one person turned over, all the other occupants closely followed because they had woken up, and this created a terrific din.
"With no ski lift, you had to walk up the slope carrying your skis, or wear the skis and side-step, herring bone or skin up. This latter meant strapping fur skins to the bottom of your skis. The fur pointed downhill and provided traction," Kitson says.
Not only did skiers have to rely on their own initiative to get to their ski runs, they had little back-up if they got into trouble. Retired Aucklander Dr Ellen Boot and her husband, Robert, formerly a dentist, used to get permission to stay in his mobile dental clinic at the Top o' the Bruce near Mt Ruapehu although the area was normally off-limits to campers. She believes the rules were bent because of her medical training; she could give first aid to injured skiers. "I just plastered them up and sent them on to Taumarunui for real treatment," she says.
The development of ski lifts began after the Second World War, and it also took on a local flavour. Kiwi icon Bill Hamilton, inventor of the jet boat, was commissioned to build a rope tow for Coronet Peak Ski Field near Queenstown in 1947. It was powered by a Bedford truck engine, ascended more than 100 vertical metres, and could handle 500 skiers an hour.
Andy Burn is a 40-year member of the Mt Cheeseman Ski Club, which runs one of the ski fields at Craigieburn Valley in Arthur's Pass. Burn says that, while rope tows overseas are generally found on beginners' slopes, those in New Zealand have followed the example of the Hamilton Tow and travel up long, often steep slopes quickly.
"New Zealand rope tows are known as nutcracker rope tows. They have a belt that loops around the skier's hips. They are quite high speed and there were a few accidents in the early days. Craigieburn Ski Field has three rope tows that cover 609 vertical metres; top to bottom; that's higher than Mt Hutt. And they provide access to some extreme skiing."
Bryan Todd, of Todd Petroleum, was a key figure behind the push to get ski lifts in Tongariro National Park. His enthusiasm for skiing (as well as his capital) led to the formation of a non-profit company, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, which developed ski lifts on the mountain. Edmund Hillary opened the first of them in 1954.
By the 1960s, the sport was gaining pace. Chair lifts, pomalifts, ski planes and helicopters brought more and more people to the mountains. Although some ski clubs kept up and built lifts themselves, the commercial fields overtook them.
Andy Burns says Mt Cheeseman Ski Club once had 1000 members; now it has 300. He believes ski clubs will enjoy a resurgence, however. With their smaller scale, shorter lift lines and tradition of shared effort, they offer a different experience than commercial ski fields.
Paul Titus is the principal in
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