Throwback Thursday at Ohau

Written by on August 23, 2018 in INTERVIEWS, New Zealand - Comments Off on Throwback Thursday at Ohau

Ohau Ski Field & Ohau Lodge are Kiwi classics – both the field and the lodge enjoy a spectacular wild setting only a short drive off the main route south from Christchurch to Queenstown. For nearly 70 years they have been well worth the minor detour. It’s always #throwbackthursday here. SnowAction caught up with owners Mike and Louise Neilson for a chat about why it’s different. And what happened to Plan A – sell up after 18 months a mere 27 years ago..

snwoboarding Ohau with a view to Mt Cook

Going the charge over the back of Ohau with a view to Aoraki/Mt Cook © Owain Price


When did you start here Mike, you would have been a pretty young fella back then?
We bought it in 1985, but the story starts before there, because as a 13 year old boy I had my first day skiing here. The Mt. Cook company owned it originally. In 1951 they built the lodge, and in 1956 they put in the first rope tow on the snow field.
In the 70s we used to come here from university.
Then as a young family in the 80s we used to come down here with other families from Christchurch, just as you see in the lodge now. It’s always been popular with families.
It had always been a lodge and a ski field, and that gave it financial stability. But there was a big tourism crash in the early 80s, and the summer business was wiped out. That impacted on the lodge business, so the owners at that time decided to sell off the ski field to keep things going. They sold it to Radio Avon, who sold shares to the public.
But the two businesses are interdependent. As I say, the ski field is a cost centre, it’s not a profit centre. It attracts people here, like the lake and the views do.

Ohau owners Mike and Louise Neilson

Ohau owners Mike & Lousie Neilson – 28 years and counting © Ohau


We were coming here as a family and we could see its demise. Both businesses, the lodge and the ski field, were suffering and failing.
So we noted this, and thought lets get involved as a group and buy into both entities, then put them back together and then sell them on.
That process took three or four years, so we came down here to live in 1990 eventually. I promised Louise we’d only be here for 18 months before we found a nice family to take it over. And as you know that was 27 years ago, and 32 since we were involved.
When did you start snowboarding, you were one of the first Kiwi boarders right?
I started snowboarding in the 80s. In fact on the Snowstick as it was called, which Burton developed initially. It was just this wooden shaped thing, I had a go on that.
The one with the reins?
Yes. I wasn’t very successful. It’s the sort of thing that needs a lot of powder, so it wasn’t much use on the groomed trails.
But coming from a surfing background I was intrigued. Then they put edges on it and started using the same materials as skis in the construction and it developed.
Boarding seemed to take off almost as quick in New Zealand as anywhere. You must have been one of the first ski resort owners or managers to board back when it was still not allowed most places.
I don’t know if it was super fast here, but we got involved with some keen boarders and we started a competition, a boardercross, which was the first boardercross competition in New Zealand.
And you guys had the longest t-bar in New Zealand before the double chair. You would have to be keen boarders to ride that!
Yes it was over a kilometre long. There are a lot of stories about people trying to get on the t-bar with snowboards, plenty of funny things happened.
We started snowboarding events and ran those for a few years, but as snowboarding took off – initially the bigger areas were quite reactionary, “oh, we can’t have snowboards on our field” and that sort of thing. But then they opened up to it. So our event was overwhelmed by the big races and everything else so we dropped it.
You’ve been chipping away making improvements steadily over the years – like the snowmaking is a pretty big difference from my last visit.
Yes, there have been some big developments. The first one was the chairlift in 2004. That was massive for us relative to the size of our business. Then in 2008 we put in the snowmaking, which was a massive investment for us as well.
Which year did you have the big avalanche that took out the t-bar bottom station. I remember going past heading south one year and it was shut.
That was 1986, our first season. We had been open for 13 days before the season was wiped out. Fortunately we did have it insured, and we were able to reinstall it the next season.
What’s your average total snowfall for the season?
It’s around 2 metres, 2 and a half metres in a big season. There’s snow before and after, but generally it doesn’t form part of the snowpack. We got 52cm from this storm over the weekend. We only get 2 or 3 of those a year, the rest is in dribs and drabs.
Are you in a rain shadow area?
Well yes and no, on the sharp end of the mountain it’s just on the snow side of the shadow if you like. That’s the key thing. When there’s a föhn, or northwesterly weather system, which is most active within about 60km either side of Mt. Cook, while the rest of New Zealand, especially the east coast of the South Island, is experiencing unseasonably warm temperatures it’s snowing heavily here. So we look for 2 or 3 of those big systems a year and they are good years.
Plus the snowmaking let’s you get your main runs open.
Yes, the snowmaking gives us reliability obviously, and this opening weekend is an example where we are able to capitalise on a snowfall which wasn’t really forecast till a day before it happened.

ski New Zealand Ohau

The main basin at Ohau © Owain Price


Roundhill and Dobson both decided to pull the pin on opening because they didn’t see it coming, and they don’t have enough snowmaking to get trails open. Whereas we had the trails covered with snow because we were planning to open – we set our opening date based on opening a week before the school holidays.
It must be tough to get the operation up to speed when you hit the go button. How many staff have you got? Do many come back each year?
Between the lodge and the ski field there are 57. There are 29 up on the field. I guess about 50% are returns.
The snowmaking is a big investment, it’s pretty extensive for a small area.
It is. We haven’t paid back on that one yet. It had to be top-to-bottom, and it had to include enough good runs so that people would still come. It’s of no value for us to have half a system, like places that use it to top up hard wearing traffic areas at the bottom or something.
You get the cold weather if it’s a dry year too.
We get the cold temperatures and we get very dry air, so it’s easier to make quality snow consistently.
I can’t believe how good it was. It was raining buckets and too warm when we left Wanaka this morning. Then powder and sunshine here! Amazing what a difference a couple of hour’s drive makes.
That’s what happens with these systems, always check the snow reports.
Ohau offers great value packages with delicious meals. It’s a complete get away experience, where you get to meet other guests and truly relax. There’s some spectacular backcountry too. Book/info Roundhill and Dobson both decided to pull the pin on opening because they didn’t see it coming, and they don’t have enough snowmaking to get trails open. Whereas we had the trails covered with snow because we were planning to open – we set our opening date based on opening a week before the school holidays. It must be tough to get the operation up to speed when you hit the go button. How many staff have you got? Do many come back each year? Between the lodge and the ski field there are 57. There are 29 up on the field. I guess about 50% are returns.
The snowmaking is a big investment, it’s pretty extensive for a small area.
It is. We haven’t paid back on that one yet. It had to be top-to-bottom, and it had to include enough good runs so that people would still come. It’s of no value for us to have half a system, like places that use it to top up hard wearing traffic areas at the bottom or something. You get the cold weather if it’s a dry year too. We get the cold temperatures and we get very dry air, so it’s easier to make quality snow consistently. I can’t believe how good it was. It was raining buckets and too warm when we left Wanaka this morning. Then powder and sunshine here! Amazing what a difference a couple of hour’s drive makes. That’s what happens with these systems, always check the snow reports.

Ohau offers great value packages with delicious meals. It’s a complete get away experience, where you get to meet other guests and truly relax. There’s some spectacular backcountry too around the rims of the main basin and over the back where you look across to Aoraki/Mt Cook. For bookings and info click here.

Breakfast with a view Ohau Lodge

Breakfast with a view Ohau Lodge © Owain Price

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