Demise of Canterbury club ski fields greatly exaggerated

Keeping the 'Clubbie' ski fields going is worth the effort. Photo: Thomas Bywater
Keeping the 'Clubbie' ski fields going is worth the effort. Photo: Thomas Bywater
With warming winters and shrinking snowlines, it would be easy to be pessimistic about the future of club ski fields, but not for those that know them best.

"How long before there's no such thing as a New Zealand natural winter? How long is a piece of string?"

Sam Timbrell, mountain manager for Mt Cheeseman is getting ready for the 2021 opening in high spirits. In the face of increasingly warm winters, the arrival of fresh snow has banished memories of last year.

Walking was the only way up to the snowline until access roads were fixed this week. Photo:...
Walking was the only way up to the snowline until access roads were fixed this week. Photo: Thomas Bywater
There are a lot of questions club ski fields were left asking at the end of last winter. Before committing to extensive - and expensive - road repairs to reconnect to the snowline, everyone is asking what the future will look like a few decades from now.

The Craigieburn 'Clubbies' in Canterbury are unique to New Zealand. They are a range of smaller fields, with a collection of loyally devoted supporters who continue to ski on an increasingly precious substance: natural snow.

Mt Olympus, Broken River and Cheeseman around an hour and a half outside of Christchurch offer a skiing experience you'll find nowhere else in the world.

Unlike the larger, commercial areas with access to snowmaking machines, they are at the mercy of whatever falls over the season.

Which, last year, was not a lot.

"People were absolutely stoked to be able to ski for the nine-days of opening for the 2020 season," said Timbrell.

Mt Olympus faced $50000 of repair works after the Canterbury floods. Photo / Supplied
Mt Olympus faced $50000 of repair works after the Canterbury floods. Photo / Supplied
Mt Olympus had a missed year due to low snow and a Covid-addled season. Add to that the $50,000 bill it was landed with in June to repair storm-damaged roads, the outlook for this year was bleak.

There's hardly a club field that wasn't affected by the recent floods.

However, yhe fact that Olympus' crowdfunding campaign raised almost double what they are asked for is a sign of the club fields' enduring appeal. Olympus aims to be open next week, and Cheeseman will be welcoming guests from Saturday morning.

Still early in the season, there's the feeling this could be the bumper year they need.

The only way you can guarantee a skiing is with snowmaking, says Timbrell.

"That's going to be way more prevalent in 5 years time. You're going to definitely need it."

Mt Cheeseman is the oldest field in the South Island with an impressive 92 seasons under its belt. It has seen four generations of skiers coming back to the slopes, year after year. It has also seen a huge change in the snowfall.

In the century since people first started skiing here the annual temperature has risen 0.7 degrees. That may sound like a lot but it is a noticeable amount, according to Dr Jono Conway a Hydrological Forecaster for NIWA.

"Fortunately, it's not like a glacier which needs a base of snow. Snow level varies year by year, but change is most noticeable around the 1500m mark."

Cheeseman: Perfect snow conditions are a reason to drop everything and head to the mountains....
Cheeseman: Perfect snow conditions are a reason to drop everything and head to the mountains. Photo: Thomas Bywater
Cheeseman sits comfortably at 1540m. In a warm year club skiers are used to having to walk up the lifts to catch a tow. The redundant bottom T-bar station is a reminder of where the snowline had been until just recently.

If the current rate of warming continues, NIWA says we could see the loss of another 200m over the next century.

"Over the next hundred years, you could end up having to go to 1700m to get the same level of skiing you do now," says Conway.

It may not be a lot - or enough to dent the skiing - but it is a worrying direction of travel.

"Is the snow receding? Absolutely," says Timbrell.

"We could move our lodge 100 metres up the hill, but would that help?"

However, NIWA's modelling has shown that the disaster scenarios of bald mountains and extinct ski fields are greatly overplayed.

Tour skiers walk up to the snowline in the Cheeseman Ski Area. Photo: Thomas Bywater
Tour skiers walk up to the snowline in the Cheeseman Ski Area. Photo: Thomas Bywater
Snow loss is inevitable - but New Zealand's ski fields are in a much better place than those in the base Alps in Europe and the US. Working off models done back when these worries first emerged, natural snow will be increasingly scarce but the clubbies will still be skiing well into the next century.

Under mid-range climate change - now looking the most likely scenario - by 2040 there will be on average between 93% and 79% of the 2010s now depth. By 2090 this could be as much as 80% to 54%.

The ski field says there will come a time for thinking about snow fencing like other resorts to keep as much natural snow as possible.

There is no such thing as a guaranteed season in the club fields - which makes a fresh dump of snow all the more of an excuse to drop all plans and head to the mountains.

Last year may be a blip, and according to Timbrell the three weekends skiing they had was well worth opening.

"The road will be open from Saturday morning ready for customers and guests and everyone to come up and enjoy."

The Canterbury Chill Pass

The Canterbury Club fields run a multi-day pass, usable on any one of 11 fields.

Available as 5,7,10 and season passes, they cover Mt Lyford, Hanmer Springs, Porters, Cheeseman, Mt Olympus, Broken River, Craigieburn Temple Basin, Fox Peak, Mt Dobson, Awakino.

Find out more at chillout.co.nz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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