Club skiing in NZ
Welcome to my information source about New Zealand's club fields. These are my own observations, experiences and opinions. I am a "clubbie" (club member) of Broken River Ski Club, which I joined after a few years of skiing all club fields and deciding which I liked the best. --JamesB 09:00, 28 October 2006 (EST)
What is a "club field" anyway?
A club field is a small skifield (ski area) which is owned and operated by a ski club. This is a traditional kiwi way of skiing, and a refreshing change from commercial resorts. A club field may be regarded as by some as rather quaint, when compared commercial ski resorts, but it's probably the most friendly ski scene you will find anywhere. Facilities might be described as basic, but they are perfectly adequate. There is not quite the same degree of luxury service that one finds at the larger commercial ski areas, but the cost is lower. If what matters the most to you is good fun and great skiing, read on.....
You do not need to be a member to ski at the club fields, but members get cheaper skiing in return for the effort they put into operating the skifield. The long-term strategic and financial management of a club field is usually handled by a committee of club members, and the day-to-day running of the skifield is in the hands of a mixture of volunteer members and a few professional staff employed by the ski club.
Some ski clubs began in the 1950s, but some began earlier in the pre-war years. These small club fields were operating before most of the larger commercial ski areas.
Some club fields are facing hard financial times as operating costs rise, and profit margins shrink or disappear, and it becomes more difficult to find members willing to give up their free time for voluntary work. Mount Robert, near Nelson Lakes had to close a couple of years ago, and others have faced hard times recently and come close to folding. As time has gone by, it is now often the children and grandchildren of the original founders who are running these ski clubs, maintaining the facilities through summer work parties and striving to keep the dream alive of the "steep, deep and cheap".
Where are the club fields?
There are two club fields in the North Island, Manganui (on Mount Egmont) and Tukino (on Mount Ruapehu). Most of the club fields are in the South Island. Temple Basin is near Arthur's Pass, 2 hours drive from Christchurch. Hanmer Springs Ski Area (previously known as Amuri) is near Hanmer Springs thermal resort in North Canterbury. The Craigieburn Range has 4 club fields: Craigieburn Valley, Broken River and Mount Cheeseman are off Highway 73. Mount Olympus is on the other side of the range, accessed via Windwhistle. Fox Peak is in South Canterbury near the town of Fairlie (see below). Awakino is situated in the St Marys Range above Kurow in the Waitaki Valley, which is about 4 hours drive from Christchurch, and 2 from Dunedin.
Driving from Christchurch, most of the club fields are on the road to Arthur's Pass (Highway 73, the West Coast Road)...
About 65km to Springfield, a small town on the plains, last petrol and last pub before the mountains. Another 10km to the top of Porter's Pass (about 940m elevation). Another 10km and you get to the Porters skifield road turn off. Another 15km further on the highway and you are at Castle Hill village. (i.e. a group of holiday houses, and one B+B, no "nightlife" or shops - and no petrol either.) (Total 100km Chch to Castle Hill Village.) Another 5km takes you to the Mt Cheeseman turn off. Another 10km takes you to the Broken River turn off. Another 1km takes you to the Craigieburn turn off. About another 80km beyond there to Arthur's Pass (the Main Divide) and Temple Basin ski area.
To get to Mount Olympus, turn off Highway 73 at Aylesbury and drive through Hororata, towards the Rakaia Gorge (as if you were going to Mount Hutt), but at Windwhistle, instead of turning left on the main road, go straight ahead and follow signs that point to Lake Coleridge. 20km on seal, then another 20km on increasingly "interesting" gravel road.
To get to Fox Peak, drive south through Geraldine on Highways 1 and 79 to Fairlie(approx 2 hours from Chch, on the route from Chch to Wanaka/Queenstown.) Both Fox Peak (a club field) and Mount Dobson (a small friendly commercial skifield good for intermediates), are about 30-35km from town. Fairlie (pop 700) has a motel, pub, restaurant, cafe, petrol etc.
To get to Awakino, you will need to travel to Kurow, which is on State Highway 83 between Oamaru and Omarama (a main route to Central Otago and the Mackenzie Country). Allow 4 hours from Christchurch or just over two hours from Dunedin. The road up to the skifield gets increasingly "interesting" the higher one gets, with 4WD vehicles recommended for the last bit.
How do club fields operate?
All the club fields have accommodation on snow. This is either true ski-in-ski-out, or within a few minutes walk from the lifts, so there is no need to get into a car in the morning to go skiing. Most of the accommodation is "club style", meaning that you BYO sleeping bag and sleep in a dormitory of up to a dozen people (ear plugs can be a good idea!). Food is included in the accommodation cost but you have to help out with chores, e.g. preparing dinner, washing up, cleaning etc on a roster basis. Some of the club fields have the option of fully catered accommodation with a professional chef preparing the meals and staff doing the washing, cleaning, and bed linen laundry, for an extra fee. Apres-ski entertainment is what you make it. If you have had a solid day skiing there is usually not the energy to party hard, but a few quiet beers with your ski buddies goes down well. Some have a licensed bar to buy drinks, and in others it is BYO alcohol. The club fields have a ski patrol made of one or two professionals, and a core of volunteer ski patrollers, who know their ski area well and are always in touch via radio to deal with any emergency. The club fields also usually employ one or two professional ski or snowboard instructors too.
The terrain tends to be intermediate to advanced, with a good percentage of expert terrain, and ungroomed. A couple of the club fields have a small snow groomer to prepare the beginners' area, but most of the terrain is too steep to groom easily, and generally grooming is frowned upon by the members, who prefer to ski the snow in its natural state. Most of the club fields use nutcracker rope tow lifts, although Mt Cheeseman has T-bar lifts. See below for notes about riding the rope tows. One of the main features of a club field is that there are very few people who ski there. Despite the lower cost, and excellent terrain, the extra effort required puts many people off. Hence when the snow does fall, there are fresh tracks all day for everyone, (a typical day might be 50 skiers or fewer). Usually fresh tracks all tomorrow too, so there is no mad rush to get the powder first, there is a co-operative spirit with everyone having a ball. More snow per person, for a lower cost. Sound good? Read on....
The ski clubs traditionally work on a basis of "ski weeks", selling all-inclusive packages of accommodation, food, skiing and instruction for a discounted price. These normally need to be booked, and often attract a discount if paid for in advance, but if you feel the urge to stay at short notice, there are often beds available. Weekend packages can also be bought, or a day trip without accommodation. Non-members have always been welcomed on a casual basis, and are encouraged to join if they like what they find. If you like what you find when you ski there, ask about membership. Membership gives discounted skiing and accommodation rates, and a great fun network of like-minded mates to ski with. Not all members are local residents. The famous American extreme skier Glen Plake loved what he saw at Craigieburn Valley so much, he joined the club.
Can I go backcountry skiing from the club fields?
Absolutely! The sort of people who ski at club fields tend to enjoy backcountry skiing or boarding also. There are well known "back basins", handy to the skifield which are frequently visited, mainly using altitude gained from the rope tows with only a short walk on either end of an untracked run. The club fields all have backcountry avalanche risk boards (like forest fire danger boards) and if unsure of conditions you can always ask the friendly ski patrol. Longer trips can be done along the Craigieburn Range, crossing between the ski areas and back again. See notes about backcountry skiing in the Craigieburns.
Are there combined lift passes to all the club fields?
Yes, See the Chill Pass website. They have a variety of options. This can be good if you are doing a road trip and want to ski all the club fields. Chill have a great web site with heaps of information about the club fields.
Is there off-mountain accommodation?
A few options, depending on budget, etc. You will need a vehicle for transport to and from the ski areas. On the other hand, staying off mountain allows you to choose the best one on the day, and try them all in a week.
Flock Hill lodge has a variety of 1-2 brm motel units, cottages and backpacker accommodation a few kms from the bottom of the Craigieburn and Broken River access roads. You can self-cater in the units, or eat at their restaurant. This can be really good value for two couples willing to share a unit and vehicle hire, and self-cater their food (brought from a supermarket in Christchurch).
Backpackers or motel accommodation at Springfield. Springfield is about halfway betwen Christchurch and BR/Craigieburn, (i.e. 30-45 mins from the skifield carparks) and a similar distance from Mount Hutt, in a different direction.
Also there is Bed+Breakfast at Castle Hill Village (about 20 mins from BR or Craigieburn carparks).
Castle Hill Village is a collection of approx 70 private houses (and one B+B) just off highway 73. Some are available for hire, and can be a good option for families and groups. Note that you must self-cater, and all food must be brought from supermarkets in Christchurch, there are no service shops in the village, and no petrol (though leaving Chch with a full tank of gas is plenty for the return journey, and a week of to-ing and fro-ing to the skifields).
Or you can even tent/vehicle camp for free at the bottom of the BR access road (brrrrr...) where there is a 3-sided public shelter to cook in, a stream to get drinking water from, and a long drop toilet in the bush.
How do I ride a rope tow?
Nutcracker rope tows are the standard lift at club fields. They are efficient ways of getting up the hill, and are a level of technology that a club of volunteers can operate, maintain and repair. They can go up steep slopes, they can operate in high winds and all sorts of snow conditions, and are self-loading, reducing staff requirements. For those who are new to nutcrackers, the lifts are fast and intimidating at first. It is a steep learning curve to get used to riding them. Arm strength and co-ordination are necessary. Most people get the hang of it after about half a day. Ski patrollers are there to help, and club members are usually very willing to assist if you are having trouble.
Basically, you grab the moving rope with one hand, and tighten your grip until you are moving at the same speed as the rope and it it no longer slipping through your hand. Then with the other hand you flip a nutcracker-shaped metal clamp around the rope which grips the rope for the remainder of your ride. You hold the clamp shut, and are dragged up by a cord tied between the nutcracker and a belt you wear. Keep hands and body parts away from the rope, which runs over pulleys on its way up the hill. All loose clothing must be tucked away and and long hair must be tied back, so this does not catch in the pulleys.
- This Link contains a slow-motion demonstration.
The rope tows murder gloves. Do not grab the rope with your flash new $200 Gore-Tex gloves or you will be sorry. The club fields sell glove protectors (leather covers you slip over the glove) for about $15, or hire for $5 per day.
A better alternative is to wear rigger's gloves, or rough leather gardening gloves ($4 from Mitre 10), which are particularly good at gripping the rope and last all season. With the addition of thin liner gloves for warmth, they do the job very well. At that price a spare pair or two can be carried in case the first pair gets wet (so who needs Gore-Tex anyway?)
Nutcrackers and tow belts can be hired from the ticket office. Alternatively buy your own nutcracker from a ski shop in town and connect it to an old climbing harness (not your nice new one) with about 15cm of strong cord (i.e. 5-6mm prusik cord or tubular webbing). The climbing harness is much more comfortable than a traditional tow belt in my opinion. Club members use a variety of harnesses according to their preference (e.g. windsurfing harnesses).
Snowboarders tend to have more problems on the tows than skiers, since they must go up facing sideways and do not have the same edge control to cope with the side slope. Generally we recommend rope tows to "intermediate skiers and above", and "advanced snowboarders and above."
What gear should I bring?
You will find members skiing on all sorts of snowboards and skis, from skinny straights to telemarks to powder fats. Fat skis are popular, but most people are on "all-mountain" carvers. Staff and club members commonly ski with AT boots and bindings, with skins in the pocket for backcountry trips.
Am I good enough?
You don't need to be a ski god to ski at club fields. But it's fair to say (especially in the case of BR and Craigieburn) that the better you ski or ride, the more you will enjoy it. We do like to see people having a good time. Useful attributes are strength, aerobic fitness, co-ordination and determination. A keen intermediate will do fine. You will find 7 year olds and 70 year olds skiing the pow and riding the rope tows, so you have no excuse for not being able to!!
The main slopes are not extreme stuff, i.e. blue to black gradient. Always ungroomed snow though, so you will have to ski anything from powder to ice to slush. Riding the lifts is the biggest challenge for most people, but persevere and you will improve both uphill and downhill. Consider it a learning experience. A ski week at any club field will make you a much stronger skier. Private lessons are $40 per hour at Broken River, and if you stay at BR you get a free group lesson on the ski days between your accom nights - groups are small of course, so it's like a private anyway. It is probably a similar story at other club fields.
Is it scarey and dangerous?
Any mountain environment has a few hazards, but the staff do their best to minimize these. A qualified patroller makes avalanche assessments on an ongoing basis, and the inbounds hazard is controlled before the skifield is ever opened to the public. Most locals who ski the club fields ski with avalanche transceivers on at all times, and many carry shovels and probes to be fully set up in case they want to go out back at any stage. The rope tows account for bumps and bruises, and possibly a fracture if your elbow or thumb meets a pulley. Ride the tow as directed and this will not happen. Rocks and bumps exist all over any ski area, but the ski patrol mark most of them so you can avoid them. Ski in control at all times and expect the unexpected.
Anything else to be aware of?
Keas are native mountain parrots which are very intelligent and curious. They will not attack you, and they will not approach closer than a couple of metres from you, if they know you are watching. In their search for food they will steal your rubbish, leftovers, gloves, goggles and anything they can get their beaks on. Do not leave items unguarded outside, and pick up your litter. Also never leave a window open unguarded or the keas will literally destroy the inside of the building. They are notorious for doing damage to rubber bits of cars in the South Island skifield carparks. Do not feed the keas, it only encourages them. Never harm a kea, even if it has just ripped big holes in your brand new ski jacket. They are a protected species and harming them is a criminal offence. Locally, keas are all affectionately called "Harry".
What are the roads like?
The roads are rough gravel roads, generally more suited to 4WD vehicles, but often negotiable in 2WD with care. Always carry chains, and have a low threshold for putting them on. You will not be popular if you slide sideways and block the road, preventing other people getting up there on a powder day. It could take a while to pull you free, and involve a few dents and scratches in the process. Get chains on before you need them. "Chains required" signs are usually put out when the road is icy, but absence of a sign does not mean it is 100% safe - use your brain and be conservative. There is no hurry to get up there, with no queues you will get more skiing time in the day than you legs can cope with. Overall, considering the roads were built by club members on work parties, (and are maintained by club members to this day), they are amazingly good. Be grateful that they are there at all.
So how do I book my ski week or weekend at a club field?
Log onto the websites listed in the write-ups below, and follow instructions, or contact the clubs direct by phone. (Note: most clubs are in "hibernation" mode over the summer and you may not get much response to your enquiries until May, but try anyway.)
How do I get there without a car?
From Christchurch to any of the Craigieburn Range ski areas, contact Black Diamond Safaris, the club field specialists. This is another good website with lots of information about the club fields.
Or Snowork Tours.
Both these tour companies have good 4WD vehicles and chains to safely negotiate the roads, and guides who know plenty of hints and tips to make sure your first day on a club field works out well.
When is the best time to go?
We ski what snow mother nature sends down, when it is sent down. There are no guarantees in this business. Todo es posible, nada es seguro. Over the years, experience has shown that the first half of August tends to have the most reliable quantity and quality of snow. But seasons vary a lot. At Broken River, 2004 was great July to October; 2005 was a poor snow year (closing early Sept); 2006 was excellent early on (June/July/August), but tailed off a bit in September and closed mid October; 2007 began badly with very little snow in July, and we did not open to the general public until July 31, but August improved and Sept/Oct had some brilliant skiing, closing Nov 4th, the last ski area open in the southern hemisphere. 2008 and 2009 were both years of great snow, starting with good early snowfalls and with frequent powder top-ups.
FYI: the NZ school holidays are the last two weeks of July, and the last week Sept & first week October. full details on terms
A few personal notes on some selected club fields.
Perched up on the top of the main divide, this is a tremendous place to be on a sunny day. The views of Mount Rolleston across the Otira Valley are unbeatable, and from Temple Col, a few metres above the top of the upper rope tow, the Tasman Sea can be seen gleaming in the sun. Temple gets its snow from the North West storms which dump enormous amounts of precipitation onto the main divide. It is a bit of an effort to get there. A full 2 hours drive from Christchurch to Arthur's Pass, and then about an hour walking up a steep rocky track to reach the ski area and accommodation lodges. There is a goods lift to haul your skis and packs (and six packs!) Because of the effort involved getting there, there is a high snow-to-skier ratio: i.e. fresh tracks for days after the dump. There is some radical terrain through Bill's Basin out the side of the ski area, or drop over the back into the Mingha Basin for more backcountry fun. (The lower tow is toe-side for a natural rider, and the upper tow is heel side.) It makes a lot of sense to stay up there a few days. The accommodation lodges are large and comfortable. They are a couple of minutes walk from the rope tow in the morning, and you can ski to the door in the evening. With the involvement of the Canterbury University Ski Club in the operation of the skifield, there is a good social atmosphere up there. Avalanche instruction courses are held at Temple every year.
Craigieburn ValleyCraigieburn Valley ski area enjoys a reputation as "The Big One". Three steep rope tow lifts take you up to Siberia Basin. The terrain is upper intermediate to expert. As their motto goes "Craigieburn offers something for everyone - except beginners."
Middle Basin, a big "back basin", is accessible from the top of the lifts, and offers about 2000 vertical feet of skiing down to the access road, where 20 minutes walking and another ride of the three rope tow lifts takes you up to do it all over again. It's helicopter quality skiing at a rope tow price. (All tows are toe-side for a natural rider.)
The modern Whakamaru day lodge overlooks Middle Basin. Lunch food and drinks can be bought there. Accommodation is club style in a lodge within 5-10 minutes walk of the lifts, and 5 minutes walk from the carpark. The lodge has a bar in a mezzanine floor. There is also catered accommodation and double rooms in the smaller Matui Lodge nearby. Craigieburn and Broken River connect easily via Hamilton Col in the ridge between, to make a huge "off-piste" ski area.
This is my ski club, which I joined after a few years skiing all the clubs and deciding which I liked the best. Good times and great skiing are always guaranteed.
Broken River (BR) gets some of the most consistently good snow on the Craigieburn Range in its main basin due to local climatic conditions. The accommodation lodges are at the top of the beech forest with views over the whole Castle Hill region.
An inclinator lift takes you and your gear from the carpark, up through the native beech forest to the accommodation lodges up in the snow.
Three lodges offer separate grades of accommodation: backpacker (i.e. BYO food and self-cater), club style (i.e. food provided, but you help with chores) and catered (i.e. bed linen provided, a chef assists with dinner prep and staff clean the toilets, etc.) The prices reflect the standard of service. Catered is the most popular.
5-10 minutes walk beyond the lodges takes you to the bottom of the access tow, which lifts you into the main basin. (The lower tow is toe-side for a natural rider, and the main upper tow is heel-side.)
BR's main basin faces South East, and catches snow from North-Westerly storms to perfection. For days after the storm, winds from that quarter continue to blow in fresh snow from over the back of the ridge i.e. God's own natural snowmaking machine. The terrain is mostly intermediate to advanced, with some wicked expert chutes.
At the bottom of the main basin is Palmer Lodge (see photo above), where you can grab a cup of tea or coffee and buy snacks and even a beer. Palmer has a sunny deck where you can chill out, with a great view of the whole of the main basin. A small learners' area is right in front of Palmer, where the next generation of BR skiers learn to turn. The club members are very welcoming and keen to make sure that all visitors have a good time. Allan's Basin is a "back basin" located between BR and Craigieburn Valley, which offers up to 2000 vertical feet skiing down to the carpark. Magic on a powder day. You can go over to Craigieburn for a few runs (Craigieburn honour BR lift tickets, and vice versa) and return easily. A good base for touring, there is access further down the range to Mount Cheeseman, which is only about 90 minutes to 2 hours ski travel along the ridge.
This is a long established ski club of Christchurch. Skiing began here in 1929. The club has moved on from the days of rope tows to now operate two T-bars. The terrain is mostly intermediate with some advanced, and with a good learners' area near the base. The car park is about 5 minutes walk from the lower T-bar. The club has a groomer, and grooms all the intermediate areas. There are steeper slopes under Mount Cockayne, reached by a short walk or traverse from the upper T-bar. To the South of the skifield is Tarn Basin, a popular back basin easily accessed from the top of the upper T-bar. On-snow accommodation is in a comfortable club lodge right beside the base of the lower T-bar, (ski-in, ski-out) and there is another lodge down in the forest, part-way up the access road. This club field is more suitable for beginners and intermediates than BR or Craigieburn, and it is a popular choice for families, but there is enough to keep advanced skiers happy for a couple of days. Despite the ease of access, and broad appeal for all grades of skiers and boarders, there is hardly ever a queue. This club field deserves to be more popular with the general public than it is at present. In my opinion Mount Cheeseman is a good alternative to Mount Hutt for Christchurch skiers and visitors to Canterbury.
Playground of the Gods. This is situated in a south-facing bowl with awesome terrain. When it catches the powder snow, there are few places better South of the Equator. Road access is via Windwhistle, and up a long rough road better suited to 4WD. (A sign says "Carry chains and courage.") An access tow leads up to the main ski area, where the main accommodation lodge is located. This means riding the rope tow with your pack on your back. Once you are up there, living right in the centre of the skifield is fabulous. This is genuine ski-in, ski-out accommodation, with a real sense of isolation. The main rope tow is close to the lodge. (The access tow is toe-side for natural riders, and the main upper tow is heel-side.) From the top of the main tow there is a tremendous variety of rolling terrain and steep chutes to choose from, mostly intermediate to advanced grade. This skifield is never crowded and always fun to be at. The after-ski parties can be as full-on as the skiing is. From the top of the skifield there is backcountry access to the Ryton Valley, one of mid Canterbury's best backcountry skiing areas. The locals will point you in the right direction. Driving back from Mount Olympus, as you went back to town there used to be a sign which said "Welcome Back to Reality", which just about sums up this unreal ski area.