Wild and Woolly: Riding New Zealand’s club “ski fields”

They say sheep far outnumber people (Kiwis) in New Zealand. This flock alone could exceed the population of Wanaka.

By Bruce Edgerly

When people think of classic skiing destinations with huge tradition, what’s the first country that comes to mind: Switzerland? Austria? I say “baaaah, humbug,” New Zealand is where it’s at. This enchanted sheep-farming country at the bottom of the world is a must-hit for anyone that values the skiing lifestyle—and wants to make some turns in the off-season. After two weeks on New Zealand’s mountainous South Island, I have a huge spot in my heart for this place—especially the barebones “club fields” surrounding the South Island’s largest city, Christchurch.

It took 24 years of lobbying from our longtime Kiwi distributor, Ivan Jones, to get me, my family, and my still-swollen bunions out of my Tevas and on to a plane to the southern hemisphere. “If I’m going that far,” I remember telling him on several occasions, “then I want to experience a completely different culture, not just a different accent.” What I neglected to consider, though, was ski culture. As it turns out, parts of “N-Zed” have some of the richest skiing vibes in the world, untainted by the commercialism that has overtaken the sport in Europe and North America. And as a skier, that actually means more to me than experiencing different languages, foods, and arts.

We spent the first few days of September riding the “commercial” (as opposed to “club”) ski fields around Queenstown and Wanaka, two dreamy, exotic—and burgeoning–recreational meccas so surreal that the Hobbit trilogy was filmed in this region. The first thing that hit us was the tortuous approaches required just to get to the base of the ski areas. The snow line in NZ is almost always several thousand feet above the population centers—and separated by vast farmlands teeming with sheep. Not only are these roads narrow and extremely windy, but in this country people drive on the left side of the road. In fact, our first driving adventure–right off the airplane–up to The Remarkables, was so intimidating that I picked up the first hitchhiker I could find and told him he had to drive the car.

The roads to Cardrona and Treble Cone were equally as nervewracking, but a least they’re maintained by paid heavy equipment operators. The “club fields” up north are operated by non-profit ski clubs, so volunteers maintain the roads. So, you can only imagine the driving conditions.

At Remarkables and later at Mt. Olympus, it became clear how strong freeriding is in New Zealand. Kiwis are particularly adventurous and have no aversion to earning their turns and riding in rowdy terrain. We caught freeride competitions at The Remarkables, where Kiwis swept the podium, despite a heavy international field (including our son, Stu, who placed 11th). And we caught the tail end of the FIS World Cup Big Air competition at Cardrona, where Wanaka local Finn Bilous took third.

Another casual backy from “Stu-S-A,” Treble Cone, NZ

 

After six days of springlike skiing (but in the fall) on the south part of the island, it was time to move north toward the legendary club fields. On the way north we hit Ohau, an isolated ski field with outrageous views of Mt. Cook and the classic Lake Ohau Lodge at the bottom of the winding access road. This historic lodge was hopping with families from all over the country. The ski terrain was vast and, like most N-Zed ski fields, the hike-to terrain surrounding it was virtually unlimited, with a very progressive out-of-bounds policy.

Stu takes in the view from Ohau toward Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak.

A spectacular drive north from Ohau toward Christchurch led us to the core of it all: the club fields. We only hit two of the “clubbies:” Craigieburn and Mt. Olympus. But these are arguably the finest for those interested in technical terrain.

The club ski fields are located one to three hours from Christchurch and were first developed by diehard mountaineers and sheep farmers from the Christchurch area— including the University of Canterbury, where Stu was on exchange for the semester. That university even has its own lodge at the Temple Basin club field. The base area here is still a 45-minute hike uphill from where you park!

The “clubbies” are financially self-supported, so their budgets for lift and road maintenance are minimal. That’s why they mainly have rope tows instead of chairlifts, T-bars, and trams. But these are no ordinary rope tows. They move really fast, and they go up really steep terrain. There’s no way you could hold on to a traditional rope for that long, even with the forearms of a sheep farmer. So you grip the rope with a steel clamping device commonly referred to as a “nutcracker.” This has nothing to do with the location of the harness you wear, but it refers to the clamping action of the device around the rope, similar to how you use a wooden nutcracker to grip and break open a walnut.

Nutcrackers ready for the taking at the bottom of Mt. Olympus.

Nutcracker in use at Craigieburn. Ski right through that pulley: no flinching, mate!

The trick is to slowly grip the rope with one hand, increasing the friction until it pulls you forward. Then you flip the nutcracker around the rope and grab it with both hands—hopefully well before you get to the first pulley. If your hands are in the right place, they’ll end up about six inches from the pulley when the rope goes over it. However, the rope is constantly getting derailed by newbies like us that try to avoid getting their fingers pinched in the pulley or whacking it with their hip. If you make it to the top, the next crux move is to get the nutcracker off the rope before you end up going through the mini bullwheel. A prominent, handwritten sign at the top of the Mt. Olympus tow reads, “The tow ends real soon, bro!”

We found Olympus to be the rawest, hardest-core ski area we’ve ever visited–including Silverton Mountain (CO), which is modeled after the NZ club fields. The nutcrackers at Olympus are fast and steep, and the terrain is huge and rowdy—and almost always requires a solid hike. The road is so dicey, they advise calling to the top by radio to make sure nobody’s coming down when you start heading up.

Typical boot-accessed terrain at Mt. Olympus. Like the road sign says, “chains and courage” are required.

Karen Edgerly passes inspection at the Beacon Checker at Craigieburn, NZ. This was installed by BCA distributor Ivan Jones, a longtime Craigieburn member.

At all club lodges, the guests are expected to chip in on cooking and cleaning, as seen on the Craigieburn “duties roster.”

In addition to dinner prep, Karen was asked to deliver lunch to the day lodge up on the hill. These sandwiches became hot “toasties” on the wood stove up there.

We spent one night each at the Craigieburn and Mt. Olympus lodges, and they are a study in contrasts. At Craigieburn, we were two of only four guests—in fact, we were substantially outnumbered by employees, including patrol director/bartender Carter Spencer, a Colorado cat guide in the winter. At Olympus, which Craigieburners call a “drinking club with a skiing problem,” we were immersed in a sweaty mob of freeriders about to compete in the MOFO—the Mt. Olympus Freeride Open which, like The Remarkables event, was swept by the honed locals. Actually, the lodge was so full, I ended up sleeping in the fragrant, but warm boot-drying room.

Another Benjamin pump sighting! Carter Spencer, Victoria Caffrey & the Craigieburn crew offer refills at the bar–on Speight’s Lagers and Float cylinders.

MOFO riders congratulate event winner Matt Sweet outside the Mt. Olympus lodge. The grand prizes: Völkl Skis and a Make Ape surfboard.

Kiwi surfers are equally as burly as the skiers—and many do both since the ski fields are only an hour or two from some substantial surf breaks. Stu and I caught a day of head-high, 50-degree surf at Sumner bay, outside Christchurch, before flying back home to Colorado. Try finding that in Switzerland or Austria.

If you’re looking for an off-season adventure with incredible scenery, world-class action sports, really “keen” people–and yes, culture–New Zealand is the place, mate!

We were pretty jazzed about New Zealand after nine days of skiing and a great day of surfing. Yes, this street name in Sumner is for real.