Club Field Skiing in New Zealand

They don't make it easy down south.

Molly Baker touring up the Ridge at Ohau. PHOTO CAMILLA STODDART

Sliding on snow doesn’t come easy in New Zealand. You’ve really got to love it. A typical season is barely three months long. Snow is minimal. The approach is scary. It’s not the steezy runway stroll to KT-22 on a powder morning. Or a Whistler après scene. It’s definitely not a heated gondola. Skiing in New Zealand is a different animal. And it’s rather uncivilized.

Sure, Treble Cone, The Remarkables, Snow Park, and a few others have a chairlift or two. But that’s not the standard. Instead, at most ski areas, or club fields in New Zealand, you’ll learn about nutcrackers, a metal device used to get up the rope tows. If you don’t, you won’t ski. And if you’re not experienced with the nutcracker, it’s common to burn holes through your gloves, or worse.

I arrived at the Ohau club field with a sheep farmer, the editor of NZ Skier Magazine, and Camilla Stoddart, a Kiwi photographer. Ohau, pronounced “Oh How,” is a one-and-a-half hour drive north of Wanaka. On an island of only 1 million people that drive puts you on the extreme side of rural.

The nearly single-lane dirt road to Ohau climbs from the valley floor, winding back and forth for about 3,000 feet. Snow tires aren’t common in New Zealand, so chains are always required. Seat belts are not recommended in case your vehicle slides off the road and over the edge. The Kiwis reckon that in this situation, riding sans seatbelt will allow passengers to jump out of the vehicle in time.

We made it safely to the base area. Twenty or so diesel vans and Subaru station wagons filled the parking lot. Booting up in the lot, you can see Lake Ohau and Mount Cook in the distance. It is iconic New Zealand scenery: mountains, lakes, and snow dusting just the tops of the surrounding peaks. In gravel and mud, we made our way to the tiny base camp. Reggae poured from a loud speaker. A bunch of kids with huge muppet—the Kiwi version of gaper—gaps and mutton pie on their faces ran around the lodge. We bought tickets, a ginger beer, meat pie, and skied down to the only chairlift.

At the top we chose the one bootpack. The other option was the one groomer. Topping off on the hike, we decided to ski in the sun, hoping it would soften the otherwise firm surface sprinkled with a millimeter of sparkling hoar.

Finding some turns at Ohau. PHOTO: CAMILLA STODDART

New Zealand skiers are keen no matter what the conditions. Whiteouts, rain, dirt patches, or powder—they’ll take any version of a ski day they can get. To travel so far, drive the insane dirt roads, and get your nuts cracked on the way to a hard packed surface of mixed snow, ice, and rock, it has to be about something else. Maybe it fuels dreams of a trip to Whistler or Jackson? It makes a short winter shorter? It helps you meet girls?

Whatever the reason, Kiwi skiers make the rest of us look spoiled. We are spoiled. Our tram laps, paved roads with snow tires, and post-powder day après are skiing luxury. I’ve never had a powder day in New Zealand, but I’ll keep going back if I can, because one day at a clubbie will remind you that everyday on skis should have you thinking, “Oh, how I love to ski.”

Photos: Camilla Stoddart

Add a comment

  • Simon

    NZ actually gets quite a few good powder days per season. You just got to know the weather and be ready to drop everything for that “big dump” which happens about twice a season. I can understand how a travelling skier may come and get no powder and think the way you do, but once you have had a good NZ powder day, as someone who has skiid; whistler, banf, revelstoke, vail, jackson, big sky, heavenly, Vail, beaver creek, keystone, steamboat, aspen, park city etc etc and had most of them on powder days, (I have had Colorado as good as it ever gets according to locals.) I still rate a good day in NZ right up there. Infact the Heli skiing is some of the best in the world.

  • Cameron

    and that is one of the more civilized fields…

  • Angela

    This is a grossly inaccurate article. Firstly Ohau is not a club field. It is privately owned and operated by the Neilson family, and not a nutcracker in sight. 90% of Kiwi skiers have probably never used a nutcracker before, they are certainly not the ‘norm’ as inferred by this article. I will be the first to admit that skiing in NZ is ‘rustic’ when compared to northern hemisphere ski resorts, however there are plenty of commercial fields in NZ whose terrain can rival any of the major resorts in North America or Europe – Treble Cone and Mt Ruapehu being two of the best (imagine skiing next to a crater lake on an active volcano). The roads are tricky for sure, although I have never had to put on chains at Ohau and I make the trip (2 hours, not 1.5) once a week from Wanaka throughout the winter season. I have never seen Mt Cook from the carpark, there is a massive ridgeline in the way, although you can certainly see it from the top of the ridge after hiking off the chair. Not once in my 20 odd years of skiing in NZ have I heard of a muppet gap…punter gap maybe! Perhaps a fact check might be in order before writing or publishing further articles like this?

  • bakerski

    I can’t wait to have a legitimate pow day in NZ, Simon! I’ll just keep coming back until I do. It’s always hard to time things just right when traveling, no matter where you go. But, honestly, the conditions aren’t what make it a destination for me…I love the people, mountains, and general attitude in NZ.

  • bakerski

    Ohau is not a club field, but does maintain a certain atmosphere that resembles the other small, club field operations in NZ–an ambiance that I (and other skiers) particularly enjoy. As for the muppet gap lingo, chains, and driving time, I guess it depends on who you’re hanging with and who’s driving. Grossly inaccurate? It depends on whether or not you were looking for a “guide to skiing in NZ” or an opinion piece. My piece reflects on the experience I had at Ohau, which was inspirational, refreshing, and reinforced all the reasons I choose to ski. There is nothing grossly inaccurate in that sentiment. Thanks Ohau, privately owned or not, my day skiing your area made my trip to NZ!!!!!

  • pow pow

    weak! Ha ha. But thanks, keeps all the types of people kiwis don’t like to see back safe and sound in the big resorts of North America (etc). Spread the word. Please.

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