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Changing Times at Coronet Peak: From a cosy ski club to commercialism and having to make their own snow

Published
July 8, 2023
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SPECTACULARLY VISIBLE from Queenstown on a clear winter night, Coronet Peak is one of the lowest ski fields in New Zealand.

Coronet Peak ski field by night, from an eastern suburb of Queenstown

And so, it is a litmus indicator for climate change. I went up there in the first week of July this year, and there wasn’t much snow to be seen apart from what was being made by more than 200 snow-making projectors.

The first ones went in almost thirty years ago it seems, and the system was greatly expanded in 2009–2010. In fact, Coronet is said to boast the largest battery of snow cannons in the Southern Hemisphere.

Coronet Peak’s snow-making machinery in action

This is just as well, as the natural snow cover has indeed been getting a bit thin lately. In 2016, the manager of the ski field, Ross Copland, said that climate change was a “grim reality” at Coronet Peak. Indeed, it may have been a grim reality for some decades. In a letter to the editor of the Otago Daily Times dated 23 July 2019, headlined ‘Snow joke to think of Wakatipu with no white’, a woman named Nola Harris of Abbortsford, Dunedin, recalls that:

“THIRTY years ago, when I was walking down Stanley St in Queenstown, I stopped to chat with an elderly lady leaning over the gate by her letterbox. . .
“I didn’t know then that I was talking to the late Molly Anderson, widow of a renowned Queenstown identity, Dr William Anderson . . .
“Mrs Anderson reminisced about the Queenstown of her childhood, saying that she remembered a time when there was snow on Coronet Peak all year round. That is now over 100 years ago.
“We parted somewhat soberly after coming to the obvious conclusion, that one day, there would be no snow on the mountain. . . .”

They only have about one good natural snow year in five, now.

Coronet Peak is one of four Alpine (downhill) ski fields near the tourist hub of Queenstown, which is also served by the Nordic (cross-country) ski field called Snow Farm.

The author at Coronet Peak

Skiing first caught on in the Queenstown area in the 1800s, as a method of locomotion among miners who harvested gold in the mountains above Queenstown, Arrowtown and Lake Wakatipu.

The latter all sit in a hollow or hole surrounded by mineral-rich mountains, a hollow known in the 1860s as ‘The Promised Land of Rees’ after the sheep-farmer and Queenstown founder William Gilbert Rees.

Plaque at the summit of the Crown Range Road, north of Queenstown and its habitable hollow

It was a promised land, because it was surrounded by freezing mountains and plateaux for miles, in nearly every direction.

Video pan from a lookout on the Crown Range Road, at a point nearer to Queenstown

At a rather picturesque locality called Arthurs Point on the Shotover River, near Queenstown, gold nuggets once lay.

Arthurs Point: The Edith Cavell Bridge over the Shotover River

Later on, the Shotover River became a popular jetboating route. You can see the Shotover River and the iconic Edith Cavell Bridge, in the photo above, in the following 1960s tourism ad for the Australian airline Qantas.

Before they came in contact with Europeans, the Māori knew of the existence of gold but did not esteem it to be a substance of any great worth. It seems that the first person to take a different view of the gold of the Shotover was a settler named Thomas Arthur in 1862, who promptly stuffed his pockets, I imagine.

And that is how Arthurs Point got its name. The farmers, followers of Rees, descended into their promised land. But the followers of Arthur went uphill to find the mother lodes of what was in the river.

And so, the prospectors had a freezing time of it. First introduced by Norwegian immigrants, apparently, skis were indeed the most practical means of transportation for much of the year in the upper reaches.

The practice seems to have died out after a while. But it got a new round of publicity when the city of Christchurch was blacked out in a June 1918 snowstorm. The skies eventually cleared. But as the telephone lines were down, there was no way to send official word to the operators at the city’s main hydroelectic power station at Lake Coleridge, 100km away in the mountains, that everything had been checked and that it was now safe to re-connect the power.

A Belarusian immigrant named Boris Daniels offered to ski from Christchurch to the inland town of Hororata, where the lines to Lake Coleridge were probably still intact. After a fruitless search for a suitable pair of skis in ordinary use, the authorities allowed Daniels to borrow a pair of the late, legendary Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s skis from the local Canterbury Museum.

Taking care not to ding the relics on his feet, Daniels duly shuffled his way to Hororata. And pretty soon the power was back on!

After a while, people started to make a sport out of their former necessity. The Wakatipu Ski Club, founded in 1939, established Coronet Peak as a club field in 1947.

Skiers at Coronet Peak in 1949. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-21243-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22823436

The original Coronet Peak club house in 1950. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-25353-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23236690

The Coronet Peak Rope Tow in 1950. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-25536-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23146255

Some twenty years after its humble rope-tow beginnings, Coronet Peak was quite well established, complete with tour buses and chairlifts, when the next photo was taken in 1970. It was during the 1970s that Coronet shifted from being a club field to a commercial ski field, New Zealand’s first.

‘Ski-ing at Coronet Peak, Queenstown’, photo by W. Cleal, August 1970. Photo reference R24768596 AAQT 6539 W3537 105 / A94437 via Archives New Zealand Flickr account, CC-BY-2.0.

These days, Coronet Peak is even more developed (and totally commercial!), with a huge café facility from which you can look down on the Promised Land in comfort. The flip side is that, what with the 200+ snow cannons to fend off climate change, and everything else, it is a lot more costly these days.

Inside the warm café

Looking down toward Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu, in the far distance behind low hills

This post was first published in an earlier form in 2020. It was slightly updated on 19 August 2022 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Coronet Peak ski field, and substantially revised and republished on 8 July 2023.

If you liked the post above, check out my book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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