Nutcracker Sweet: riding NZ’s iconic Club Fields

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Get the hang of the notorious lift system and southern skiing doesn’t get much better than the kiwi clubbies, like mighty Mt Olympus, shown here, or Broken River. Dave Windsor hit both with ‘the human Swiss army knife’, aka Brett Evans, from Black Diamond Safaris in Methven.

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The best day trip I’ve ever had started out with an 8:30 pick-up from our hotel, Abisko Lodge, by Brett from Black Diamond Safaris. Brett’s 4.2 litre diesel Nissan Safari more closely resembles a monster truck than 4WD. An unstoppable jacked up brute, with rut busting tyres, spotties, CB radios, antennae, snorkel, roof box and bull bars. I bags shotgun seat.

A super serious ride deserves some super serious treatment, and our 55 minute mission to Mt Olympus is worth the price of admission alone. The bitumen eventually gives way to dirt roads, cattle grids, opening and closing gates, as we bounce through the Canterbury high country past merino and cattle stations and the beautiful Lakes Coleridge, Georgina and Evelyn. Boys being boys, this leads to a spot of bush bashing, a couple of impromptu crossings of the Ryton River, and our eventual arrival at the base of Mt Olympus. Leave your Navman and Garmin at home as apparently they’ve got no idea how to get here.
Ahead of us a couple of French freeriders in a rented people mover loaded up with all their gear, clothes, food and supplies are heading up the track. Brett grimaces and quickly puts 20 kilos of heavy duty chains on all four wheels. He tells us to “wait here and look around” as he races up the hill in hot pursuit of the “tourists”. Clearly they didn’t read the sign, “Chains and courage required at all times”. Twenty minutes later, Brett, Gabe, Christophe, Virgile and I pile into the Safari and head up towards the top car park. It quickly becomes apparent that the signs and chains aren’t just for show, and a chorus of “Merci, merci!” rings out from the back seat.
NZ is renowned for its gnarly roads, but this one makes the rest look like 6 lane autobahns. Three point turns round razor sharp switchbacks, even an old train carriage serving as a bridge at Coach Corner, and we pound through fresh snow all the way to the top car park. Brett parks his beast exactly 11 paces to the first rope tow, adjacent a dirty big yellow bulldozer sitting at the ready (more on this bad boy later).
Having almost mastered nut crackers at Broken River (see opposite) we venture forth up the Access Tow. Awaiting us are no lifties, no groomers, no people, just the Main Tow, followed by one more at the very top – the ingeniously named Top Tow, that peaks out at 1,880m. Despite the drab lift names, the names of some of the runs are more beguiling, like The Dark Side, Shithouse, Doom Shoot, Porno for Parsons (an awesome heli-type run off the back of Parsons), International Wife Swappers (allegedly back in the day some kids didn’t know who their real fathers were – ah, club life), Doctor Bad Fields, and Rum Rock, the last spot on the hill to receive sun and thus worthy of a late afternoon traverse with a bottle of rum.

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They say 35% of the terrain is advanced, while 55% is intermediate. The numbers don’t lie, Mt Olympus is a glorious south facing basin in the Craigieburn Range chock full of ungroomed powder. Skiing here is like skiing heli, without the expense. There are exponential rewards at the end of every tow, fresh turns in knee deep dry, either solo or with no more than a handful of others. Chutes, steeps, cliffs, rollers, take your pick. This is 150 acres of back country skiing inbounds, without the slog.
It’s rare and wild, yet oh so civilized. The ski-in ski-out lodge at 1,630m is a killer multi-level abode, with a variety of refurbished bunk rooms and amenities, a massive drying room, dining hall, comfy lounges and one hell of a party. Lunch comprised a variety of homemade pizzas, salad and a cold beer.
But this was just the beginning. After skiing ourselves silly, linking consecutive rope tows like a true clubber and basically exhausting our remaining energies, Brett rhetorically asks “who wants a spa?”.
So we grab a scotch from Rus the barkeep, change into boardies and head out to the hut tub to meet the locals. Smiles, stories and warm wishes welcome us – though we’re sort of sworn to secrecy and told to tell everyone back home, “It’s terrible – don’t even think about coming!”
Truth is though, this place rocks, big time (sorry guys).
Whilst enjoying the setting sun soaking in the 38°C tub word arrives that the road’s been taken out by an avalanche, in four spots! Remember the dirty big yellow bulldozer? If all else fails we’re told that there’s plenty to eat, the bar is stocked, they’ll find some spare beds, and we’re welcome to stay the night. I cross my fingers that the bulldozer doesn’t start and grab another single malt. Gabe, being the gun skier that he is, opts to ski some more. Our intrepid guide Brett, a Mt Olympus member and human Swiss army knife, has a date with the dozer.
Pre-dinner drinks by the fire sees books and magazines come out, guitars start strumming, corks start popping, members and day trippers share tales, and merriment prevails. A tribe of kids are fed in quick succession before they head out for a spot of night skiing – where those groms were all day I have no idea.
A magnificent roast dinner with all the trimmings is served and out comes the red. We eat, we drink and we’re merry. The good news: the night is young. The bad news: the road’s been cleared. In the moonlight down we ski, sort of, to the car park, and climb into the Safari for the journey back to Methtropolis.
After hitting the clubbies, and especially Mt Olympus, I feel like a real skier. It’s back to basics. Sensational skiing. Partying hard. The only downside, all good things come to an end, as is laconically noted on a sign on the road out – Back to reality.
The clubbies are essentially not for profit, operated by dedicated members who welcome like-minded guests and provide a laid back atmosphere where everyone can ski fresh lines most of the day (there is no grooming). You can book in for a couple of days, or weeks, at great value rates.
But if time is short and you’re on a mission to see the them hassle free they are easily accessed from Methven with the crew from Black Diamond Safaris. Proprietors Brett and Renee share their passion and love for the mountains with predominantly Aussie and Japanese clients, such as 65 year old Naoko, who’s been coming out for 7 years.
BDS picked us up and drove us out, provided avi beacons, tow belts, glove protectors and the dreaded nut cracker that’s used to ride the rope tows up the hill (see sidebar).
Brett explains that the clubbies each have different aspects and will present different conditions on any given day. Our initiation will be Broken River, which is apparently the best clubbie on a stormy day as it is quite protected. NZ’s only inclinator carries us up from the car park through a fairy tale beech forest to the ticket window and accommodation lodges. From here we climb stairs and tracks to get to the action. Mildly pooped, perspiring and parched, we take a breather while Brett recaps and runs through rope tow technique.

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To be honest, much of the day is a blur – I remember steep and deep fresh in Broken River Basin, double black chutes from 1,820m off Nervous Knob and an on-mountain lunch comprising a pie and beer in the lively Palmer Lodge, complete with sun-deck, billiard table, jackets, gloves and layers hanging from a makeshift clothes line above the wood heater while little kids nap on the floor.
Conquering the cracker was my dominant objective. Every single tow leads to a remote run offering boot, shin or knee deep powder. With 175 tranquil hectares, 50% intermediate / 45% advanced, my determination was spurred by my almost instant conversion to clubfield skiing. There’s the back country buzz, without the hiking. It’s heli-terrain without the dollars. The outstanding conditions, isolated environment, friendly folk and the simple pleasure of a non-commercial community is so laid back, refreshing and unique. I know in an instant that I’ll be back for more, and this damn rope tow isn’t going to get the better of me.
We ski with Japanese, Norwegians, Irish and Kiwis, and we all have an awesome and exhausting day. On the scenic drive home Brett sums up the Clubbies nicely with his brilliant philosophy, “Keep an open mind, stay enthusiastic and as long as you have a smile on your face you’re skiing correctly”.

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THE NUTCRACKER:
Fortunately the name “nut cracker” describes its shape and function, rather than the more painful image that i was conjuring in my head. The technique of catching a rope tow was explained by our guide, and though the theory sounds fine, the practicality of it is something else. Ski to the rope, grab hold with one hand, travel at the same speed, position the cracker, let it fall onto the rope, it’ll catch and clamp, hold onto it, let go of the rope and away you go. oh, and don’t let your fingers get squashed by the pulleys – simple really. By the end of the day the process was streamlined to ski, grab, flick, go. To get a picture of what it’s like, cast your mind back to the first time you ever used a t-bar, then double the degree of difficulty. After a couple of false starts and Brett slowing down the motor, we wrangled the rope and headed up up and away.

More:
To stay at Olympus or Broken River check club sites, or for the awesome Safari trips get on to Black Diamond.
Staying in Methven try Abisko Lodge www.abisko.co.nz
www.blackdiamondsafaris.co.nz
www.mtolympus.co.nz
www.brokenriver.co.nz