NZ Ski Season Under Way Today!

How good is that headline: the NZ 2021 ski season is under way, little Hanmer Springs Ski Area, formerly Amuri club field, fired up today. It’s looking good after the mega storm there.

But on this throwback Thursday we flick it back to the earliest big ski area opening in New Zealand we can remember, when Mt Hutt fired up on 11 May, 1991.

They had recently installed a big snowmaking system, but the early opening was still largely based on big early natural snowfalls.

Sorry about the quality: I found this scanned copy in the National Library digital archives – May 18, 1991 top of the old top t-bar © Owain Price

They were so excited they flew me over to tell Aussie snowlovers about it, and I did – skiing classics like Towers in the middle of May was pretty amazing at the time, and never repeated since!

This was the original caption for the pic, Mt Hutt last week: good natural snow cover ranging from 80cm on the main runs to well over a metre on the off-piste areas.

Pretty much the same spot – a 6 pac from the base is a lot quicker than 2 t-bar rides then © Owain Price

How good was Mt Hutt in mid-May?

I was sceptical before I went, but turned out I didn’t need to be. You won’t believe how cheap everything was either .. This is what I had to say in the Canberra Times

“The ski season has started! Yes folks, although your tomatoes may still be alive thanks to our mild May temperatures, there is plenty of good skiing available right now across the Tasman at Mt Hutt.

Their first ski report popped out of my fax on May 11, proclaiming opening day with an 80cm packed powder base plus up to a metre and a half on the ungroomed areas.

This all sounded wonderful, but the ingrained caution of a seasoned skier used to glowing reports not quite matching reality left me unconvinced. Let’s face it, the idea of great skiing in our corner of the Pacific in mid-May is a little hard to accept.

Skiing is believing however, and that sums up my reaction to Mt Hutt’s early start to the 1991 ski season after a flying visit there last week. When I arrived the word had obviously spread locally, with plenty of Christchurch skiers on the slopes.

By Tuesday there were more, and I met one guy already getting his fourth day’s skiing who said he would be ahead on the cost of his season pass by the end of May.

Looking down from the top of Mt Hutt’s main basin with plenty of options available, including all those longtime favourites of visiting Australian skiers like the Towers and the Virgin Mile, it was easy to see why the locals were there.

Snowboarder early season in Towers at Mt Hutt
Smashing through Towers early June 2017 © Owain Price /

The views are unique, out over the billiard-table flat green surface of the Canterbury Plains to the Pacific Ocean. From the Virgin Mile, the run around the northern rim of Mt Hutt’s main basin, you look straight down some 2000m to the Rakaia Gorge, before selecting from the numerous untracked steep slopes to ski back down to the base station.

Heading the other way from the summit T-bar takes you to the Towers, a spectacular rock formation offering even steeper chutes for experts.

Beyond this lies South Basin, Mt Hutt’s second mountain, an advanced-only area that offers some of New Zealand’s best lift-accessed powder skiing after a fall.

Unfortunately it was too icy for comfort, but some nice bumps from the summit and plenty of easier skiing on the long groomed runs made up for this. Apart from the good natural snow cover, ranging from 80cm average depth on the main runs to well over a metre on the off-piste areas, the extent and capacity of the snowmaking system was a revelation.

The 5-8cm average layer of new snow it churns out every cold night provides perfect skiing conditions on the groomed runs the next day, and by farming mounds of snow and pushing it around onto heavily trafficked areas a complete cover is maintained.

Mt Hutt General Manager Jim Collins is naturally pleased with the system, which is operating at full capacity for the first time this year following replacement of a faulty compressor.

Already it is living up to its promotional tag as the “Snowmaking Capital of theSouthern Hemisphere”, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this means limited skiing, because the red snow-making hydrants run from the main base station right to the summit of the top T-bar.

(Last time we were there early June 2017 it ran non-stop for 3 days and nights)

Hutt’s snowmaking was good in 1991; it’s awesome now ©

The difference this makes was evident on my last day, when following a midnight start the fresh snow was sufficient to provide near-perfect piste conditions, fast but forgiving.

After visiting New Zealand every season for several years in the mid-80s, when it went from being a relative bargain to quite expensive, I can happily report it is back to the relative-bargain range again. The Aussie dollar buys over $NZD 1.30, which makes a lift ticket at Mt Hutt around $AUD 33, considerably less than $49 at home.

Budget accommodation in Methven runs from around $12 per night in youth hostel-type bunkhouses to $65 for a double motel unit. Packages run from around $900 a week including airfares, lift tickets, accommodation and transfers.

While it is possible, with some effort, to do it yourself a little cheaper, the package trips ensure you maximise your ski time for a minimum of effort.”

These packages included flights, transfers, accommodation and lift passes! © Snow Action Archives

Mt Hutt is set up for the season with the base from the weekend storm system and the snowmaking cranking on top. Their shiny new 8 seater chair will make a huge difference too – 2 minute park laps, easy beginner/early intermediate slope access and less pressure on the 6-pac to the top. If you normally go to Queenstown it’s well worth a look for a change..

Hanmer Springs Ski Area first to open – pic June 2, 2021 © Hanmer Springs Ski Area