NZ club fields struggling to stay afloat

Camilla Rutherford

New Zealand's Mount Olympus club field has yet to open for the winter due to lack of snow.

I swept floors during chore hour and poached my eggs in a murky pot of communal water during a 2008 visit to Craigieburn Valley, a club ski field on New Zealand's South Island. The funky old lodge invited games and warm conversation during downtime, and the mountain provided challenge, risk and reward -- and that was just getting to the top.

In more than 80 mph winds, the nutcracker rope tow, a metal tool that temporarily affixes to the rope like a handle, befuddled me. But after a few tries I latched on, whipping through the pulleys with a loud clank, ascending into the fog.

The skiing delivered tight chutes and open bowls. A thick deposit of rain-infused snow had plastered the 1,500 feet of groomer-free vertical, and only a few dozen other snow sliders braved the wind. It was like a time machine to a no-frills past, back before Gore-Tex, high-speed lifts and $15 hamburgers.

Such is the beauty of the New Zealand club fields: the 11 ski co-ops, or tiny resorts where members and the public get to ski for cheap in exchange for volunteering to maintain the hill and its amenities.

"Club fields bring us back to the basics and force us to really appreciate the power of nature," said Charlotte Berry, the mountain manager at Temple Basin. "Clubbies are keeping it real."

The club fields in New Zealand are all open for public use and operate a nonprofit structure under the management of their respective ski club. The majority of the clubbies offer bunk-style lodging, communal meals and some of the most affordable lift ticket packages you can find anywhere. Here, there's no snowmaking and very limited grooming. During their stay, visitors are required to contribute to chores, from cooking to cleaning to shoveling.

And while all of that is great for visitors looking for a low-cost alternative to glitzy resorts with high-dollar prices, it's not so great for the bottom line. Club fields have been a mainstay in New Zealand's ski and snowboard culture for decades, but due to lackluster snowfall in recent winters and dwindling visitor numbers, they could be facing their most challenging winter yet.

Ode to New Zealand's club fields

The club fields rely on volunteers, a bare-bones staff and low operational costs to survive each winter. As such, club field visits accounted for only 2.5 percent of the 1.3 million New Zealand skier visits in 2013, according to the Ski Area Association of New Zealand.

While their business model may not demand high-volume visitation, they are still threatened -- much like resorts in the U.S., which, thanks to a drought on the West Coast, experienced the second-lowest number of resort visits during the 2013-14 season since 1978 -- by erratic snow years, competition from modern resorts and increasing expenses.

"Club fields are viable, but we need to be open for the two school holiday periods. We can be totally screwed if we aren't open for school holidays," said Ben Savill, a third-generation club field manager, lifelong club field skier and the current president of Hanmer Springs.

July brought the first holiday period, and though some club fields are slated to have openings this weekend, an early-season drought in New Zealand has zero fields open so far this year.

New Zealand winters generally provide for about three months of skiing and riding. Treble Cone, a larger resort that gets the most reported annual snowfall in the country, averages just under 250 inches per year. This can make an off winter an almost nonexistent one.

"We are seeing larger snow events that are further spread apart. We aren't getting the consistent 10- to 15-centimeter events," said Savill, who also cites stagnating membership and keeping up with the expenses of compliance with safety code as a challenge to Hanmer Springs.

Modern conveniences also clearly favor the larger, more commercial operations, like Treble Cone and the Remarkables. "It is easier to take the family to a commercial field," said Grant Keeley, the club president of Fox Peak.

But a direct comparison to commercial resorts misses what the club fields offer. "There is freedom and there aren't many rules," said Keeley. "If the full moon is out, a decision can be made to crank up a lift and do some moonlight skiing. You can't do that at a commercial field at 10 p.m."

Some also see club fields as a draw for the more adventurous, off-piste rider. "More people are realizing ungroomed snow is the next logical step in their skiing and the club fields provide more of this with less skiers than anywhere this side of a helicopter," said Simon Guild, a committee member for the Mount Olympus club field.

While some level of modernization may be in store, such as Temple Basin moving into summer operations, the wild, wooly, old-school draw remains at the soul of the clubbies.

"All the money of club fields goes back into bettering the place," said Savill. "The commercial, economic growth aspect just isn't there."

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