It's late afternoon in the mountains of New Zealand's South Island and my new ski buddy Judith and I are trying to stop skiing. Only it's too good to stop especially now that the day visitors have left and it's just us, the last two skiers on the mountain, doing fast runs on beautiful snow with no lift queues.
Eventually, our weary legs make the call for us and as we start down the cat track that leads to the back door of the only accommodation on the mountain a small lodge where the lights have come on now; the lifts magically grind to a halt.
It seems the ski patrollers on duty have been letting us have our fun before shutting down the diesel generators that power the lifts and heading indoors themselves. It's 5.30pm, an hour later than the usual closing time.
Can you imagine this happening at a commercial ski resort? Our long and glorious day at the club ski field of Mt Cheeseman, 90 minutes west of Christchurch, has been the perfect introduction to a totally different concept in skiing.
What exactly is a club ski field?
If you've never heard of Cheeseman or even New Zealand's club ski fields, you're not alone. Unlike the ever-popular but often crowded commercial ski fields (such as Mt Hutt, Treble Cone, Mt Ruapehu in the North Island and Coronet Peak), club fields promise an alpine experience unlike any other.
They're essentially small ski areas owned and operated by ski clubs and their main aim is to offer affordable skiing for members who pay an annual fee, participate in voluntary "work parties" every summer and help out during the ski season.
But non-members are increasingly getting wind of club fields, seeing them as a low-cost, more authentic, alternative to the rising costs of skiing at the commercial fields.
"The club fields of New Zealand, non-profit ski areas with limited infrastructure and unlimited spirit, are an anomaly in the modern, fast-paced ski industry," says John Mletschnig, originally from Utah, who worked at Mt Cheeseman as the mountain's Snow Safety Officer last winter. He was so deeply affected by his first club field experience, he's returning to work in NZ's South Island this winter. "The skiing is wild [at the club fields]," he says. "It's really untapped and no-holds-barred."
In the beginning
The first club fields were established in the mountains just west of Christchurch in New Zealand's South Island, in 1929. There were no access roads back then, so a day of skiing generally began with a long hike. Of course, you had to carry your own skis and bring everything you needed in a backpack. Lunch would be a picnic under a tree along the way, and whenever you wanted to ski down a hill, you had to climb it first.
Eventually, these hardy pioneer skiers banded together to form clubs, which then built roads, huts (that later became lodges) and rope tows to haul them up the mountains and the club field movement began.
Club skiing today
There are now 10 club ski fields in New Zealand, most of them in the South Island. Two are in the North Island: Manganui (on Mt Taranaki) and Tukino (on Mt Ruapehu). The other eight are in the South Island: Mt Cheeseman, Broken River, Craigieburn, Mt Olympus, Temple Basin, Fox Peak and Hanmer Springs Ski Area (which are all within a two-hour drive of Christchurch) and Rainbow Ski Area, near Nelson at the top of the South Island.
They vary in terms of terrain and facilities but the one thing all club fields have in common is they offer no-frills skiing.
The accommodation generally consists of bunk rooms (though some fields are upping the comfort factor with double rooms and ensuites), and the dining is communal. You wash your own dishes and help with the cooking and the chores around the lodge, although most clubs have paid staff such as a chef, ski instructors, ski patrollers and a manager as well.
Everyone socialises and skis together. And it's often all-hands-on-deck when a lift is derailed or the groomer breaks down.
The simple things in life
Sure, getting there can be a challenge: access roads are gravel, chains mandatory and some fields, like Temple Basin, involve a rather long walk from the car park to the lodge (there's a goods lift to transport your skis and luggage up the hill).
Another unique feature of club fields is that most of them use rope tows, which can be tricky for the uninitiated. Some fields, such as Cheeseman, have T-bars but none of them has anything as fancy as a chairlift.
There's a certain novelty in wearing a tow-belt alarmingly nicknamed a "nutcracker" (for the guys, anyway) to help you stay attached to a moving rope that pulls you up the hill, and leather rigging gloves to protect your hands and keep your Gore-Tex gloves clean.
If all this sounds rather primitive, you've understood the concept of club skiing perfectly. They have stripped skiing back to its roots: simple, friendly and inexpensive. You could even say that club skiing takes you back to a time when skiing didn't have anything to do with wealth or status or the kind of gear you had; it was, and is, about sliding around on the snow, having fun with people who love the mountains as much as you do.
Want to join the club?
Membership at Mt Cheeseman Ski Club (www.mtcheeseman.com
) costs NZD$275pp per year, which includes a season pass and discounted accommodation (including meals and ski/boarding lessons).
you don't have to be a ski club member to ski a club field. Lift tickets for non-members cost about NZD$60 per day much cheaper than a commercial field such as Mt Hutt (NZD$87 per day) or Thredbo in NSW ($97). A seven-day CHILL pass (www.chillout.co.nz
) will give you access to 11 South Island ski areas, including seven club fields, for NZD$345.
for the lowdown on New Zealand's 10 club ski fields.
Five great reasons to go club skiing
- 1. They're affordable: even with airfares from Australia, especially for families.
- 2. They're uncrowded: because you're staying on the mountain, you can often get fresh tracks and last run of the day (as I did).
- 3. They're friendly: since everyone stays in the same lodge and skis/boards the same mountain day after day, there's a sense of community.
- 4. It's an authentic mountain experience: because you're living on the mountain, you get to experience it in all its moods, night and day.
- 5. There's something for everyone: from family-friendly fields, to race weeks, to backcountry skiing between certain fields, including hard core clubs such as Craigieburn and Mt Olympus (which actually discourages families because the runs are steep and rope tows difficult for kids to manage).