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

Published
July 4, 2020
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ON the second of July, I hit the slopes at Coronet Peak: one of four Alpine (downhill) skifields near the tourist hub of Queenstown, which is also served by the Nordic (cross-country) skifield called Snow Farm.

Things in Covid-free New Zealand are pretty much back to normal, bar the small matters of a looming recession and a total absence of overseas tourist arrivals. And that new normal includes busy skifields, the lack of foreigners notwithstanding.

The author at Coronet Peak, 2 July 2020

Skiing has got more and more expensive in New Zealand, by about 10% a year, way above the general rate of inflation. The in-season price for an any-day adult season ticket at Mount Ruapehu’s gone up from NZ$599 in 2001 to the eye-watering sum of $1,499 today.

Coronet’s cheaper. But I still wonder why, in the middle of the present crisis, Coronet is charging adults NZ$116.10 for a casual day pass and $85.50 for an afternoon, and $999.00 for a three-peak season pass valid on Coronet Peak, Mt Hutt and the Remarkables.

The three fields did offer early-bird three-peak season passes for 2020, for NZ$699 (Super Early Bird), which then went up to $799 and then to the full price on the first of June. Also on offer were Early Bird Multi-Day Passes which sold for 4, 5 or 6 days skiing at $297, $396 and $495 respectively, the last two also offering night skiing. I nearly bought one of these, but the fact that they had to be used up within twelve days put me off.

Why not offer an in-season discount to shore up business? We’re in the season now: but it’s the Covid year after all. Mind you, the skifield was fairly busy on the second in spite of everything, so maybe that’s your answer.

Skiing first caught on in the region 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

Nuggets first noticed for what they were in 1862 by a chap named Thomas Arthur, who promptly stuffed his pockets, I imagine.

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 skifield, 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.

Inside the warm café

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

Coronet Peak is one of the lowest skifields in New Zealand. The mountain on which the skifield sits and from which it gets its name is only 1,649 metres above sea level, or 5,410 feet, at the very top. The base of the field is at 1229 metres, or just over four thousand feet.

Coronet Peak skifield by night, from an eastern suburb of Queenstown (2019)

Because it lies so low, Coronet has invested in 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, as of 2020, Coronet is said to boast the largest battery of snow cannons in the Southern Hemisphere. Which is just as well, as the natural snow cover has been a bit thin lately.

Coronet Peak’s snow-making machinery in action

In 2016, the manager of the skifield, 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 call this “landscape amnesia.” Old-timers pass on, and unless there was a detailed photographic record kept, we simply have no way of knowing what the landscape used to look like and should look like, coming instead to accept a kind of new normal of where the snowline lies and various other telltale parameters of that nature.

It also sounds like the original 1800s miners, who were the first in the region to get about on skis, must really have had it tough up there!

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