No Ski Lift Ever Dies in New Zealand

NZ has arguably the World’s most egalitarian skiing, with their awesome network of club ski fields, and when it comes to lifts they are the kings of recycling the bottom line seems to be no ski lift ever dies in New Zealand!

With so many small club fields relying on volunteers plus some small commercial areas with very limited resources, that’s not surprising. Every lift is precious. Toss in the Kiwis’ ingrained ability to make do with anything to come up with something, built up over years of isolation, and you have some lifts with serious history behind them.

We have been skiing NZ for long enough to have experienced some of these moves for ourselves. As far as we know the double chair now at Ohau holds the record for 3 installations at 3 different ski fields. Maybe someone reading this can supply an example of a lift that has had 4 different mountain homes, but otherwise this takes the cake.

The Double chair at Lake Tekapo in the 1980s
Original incarnation: the double chair at Tekapo in the 1980s © Tekapo/Snowblind International Ski Guides

We first rode it in back in 1987 at pretty Lake Tekapo Ski Area in the heart of the South Island, while researching our ‘Skiing New Zealand – A Complete Guide’ book published in 1988.

Then Tekapo closed, hit by some lean snow seasons and a recession. Tekapo is quite low altitude and in the rain shadow lee of Aoraki/Mt Cook with magnificent views of NZ’s highest peak.

“Unlike most Kiwi ski fields which consist of mountain basins set amidst towering peaks and ranges, Tekapo is more a rounded hill with wide open runs leading down from the summit” says our 1988 guide book.

Presciently enough, the area was reborn as Roundhill a few years later, a t-bar replacing the double chair in the main area. With the addition of an amazing long, fast rope tow accessing a huge amount of back and side country on the range behind it has become a freeride mecca for those who know it’s there these days. We rated it the 2nd best soul lift in the Southern Hemisphere, only pipped by Portillo’s Roca Jack.

But that was later. In the meantime the original chairlift was sold to Rainbow Ski Area.

Never heard of it? Most people haven’t. It’s a magic little area further north near Nelson at the top of the South Island. It’s well off the beaten track for international visitors, most of whom only ever hit the Christchurch, Wanaka and Queenstown areas. But it’s well worth the detour if you want to get off grid. Beautiful antarctic beech forests, pristine lakes, few people, and great wineries add to the attraction.

For Rainbow the double chair was a quantum leap from their existing twin rope tows.

But Rainbow Sports Club were struggling, reliant then and now on donations and memberships. So to keep skiing alive there they sold the double chair to Ohau, picking up Ohau’s long t-bar in return, then billed as the longest in the Southern Hemisphere, as part of the deal.

The t-bar works fine for Rainbow, including on days when wind would have shut the double chair anyway.

The Tekapo double chairlift at Rainbow Ski Area in the 1990s
Born again: the Tekapo double at Rainbow in the 1990s © Rainbow Ski Area

I didn’t think of it at the time, but in 2017 we were back riding the same chair again there, 30 years after first riding it at Tekapo. No doubt many cany tell similar stories riding re-purposed lifts there.

Mike Neilsen and his team at Ohau installed it, along with an $8 million snowmaking system helped by funding from the US ski team, that combined to give Ohau it’s biggest ever upgrade in the noughties.

Ohau is a must do detour off the highway for anyone heading south between Christchurch/Mt Hutt and Wanaka/Queenstown.

A day trip is good, but staying a couple of nights at the beautiful lakeside Ohau Lodge is even better.

The drive up is worth it for the views alone. If our old JUCY Toyota Hi-Ace made it, your vehicle likely will..

The Tekapo double chair now at Ohau
Funny to think we rode this lift 30 years and 2 installations prior at Tekapo! © Owain Price / snowaction.com.au

After Cardrona replaced their White Star double with an express quad in 2013 Mike also picked that up. They plan to expand Ohau’s terrain options, increase the vertical right up to the ridgeline (now a short but well worth it hike), and double the lift capacity. It will also allow a longer season without the need to have snow all the way to the base.

But delays with the neccessary approvals and the economic hit from COVID have stalled those plans. Rest assured the lift is not dead though, it’s just resting between gigs.

Another former chair from Cardrona, the McDougal’s Quad (which was replaced by their chondola in 2017) comes back to life as the Willow Quad in 2021, opening up lift accessed skiing off Cardrona’s backside Soho Basin.

Cardrona’s investments illustrate the flipside of New Zealand ski lift infrastructure: their main commercial ski areas lead the Southern Hemisphere for investment, leaving Australia, Argentina and Chile way behind.

The 2021 winter sees Mt Hutt open the country’s first 8 seater chair.

Last year The Remarkables opened the Sugar Bowl sextuple, Coronet Peak updated their main lift with a $NZD 20 million Leitner ‘Telemix’ (gondola/chair combo) in 2019, Whakapa put in their Sky Whaka Gondola etc.

These have all been massive improvements, and as soon as the Aussie market can flock back to NZ their full value will be truly appreciated in keeping things moving at peak times.

But recycled lifts have been having the same impact on the small local hills for decades. For example, Amuri Hanmer Springs club field got a long poma off Mt Ruapehu (that was already not young) in the early 80s that is still going strong. The club ski area is a beautiful but not too steep drive from the popular hot springs town around 90 minutes north of Christchurch.

Another classic tale from Griz Rowland, a Canadian who worked at Cheeseman, concerns another poma from Ruapehu that two club areas divided between them:

“Mt. Cheeseman and Craigeburn bought a Poma from Turoa and split the mechanicals between them. Helped put the finishes touches on the one at Cheeseman. Craigeburn was never able to get the one they erected to run and was forced to take it down. Mt Cheeseman later converted the Poma to Doppelmayer running gear to change from platter to t-bar and still going strong.”

“It was from Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, (RAL), of Whakapapa who after some negotiations with Mt. Cheeseman sold it to them at a very reasonable price to ‘Help a club field’. There were a lot of teething problems at first but the ‘Club Mentality’ of hard work and ingenuity paid off and it opened up easier access to the upper mountain. Lots of great turns from there and over the back side as well.”

The lifts are still relatively so good at Cheeseman we rate it the King of Club Fields – and quite a few Aussie families know and love the place too. Hopefully they can get back soon!

Long may that Kiwi tradition continue. We would love to hear your stories on reborn lifts there, especially if you can tell us about a lift that has worked at more than 3 different ski areas – some prizes available!

Rainbow Ski Area Trail Map
Over the Rainbow, now served by Ohau’s former t-bar © Rainbow Ski Area