With the Southern Alps backboning the length of the South Island, it is little wonder that the island is peppered with ski fields. From large, comprehensive resorts, such as Mt Hutt, to the smaller, less crowded club fields, exploring the South Island ski fields is a great reason for a seriously fun winter roadie.
Club fields, or Clubbies as they are affectionately known, tend to be smaller, less crowded and generally have a little less technology than their commercial counterparts. But if you’re ok with rope tows and the odd T-Bar, rather than chairlifts and the odd gondola, then you’ll find they tick lots of snow sport boxes. The small, intimate feel of club fields means the people you’ll meet are generally super friendly, tickets are reasonably priced and they often have access to awesome bowls and powder which maintain a relatively fresh feel simply because there are less bods shushing over the tracks than there would be on a bigger field. No matter whether you’re new to alpine sports or old hat speed demons, there are trails for all capabilities on most club fields. In fact if you are after advanced terrain, you’ll find surprisingly challenging terrain hidden in their back bowls - just waiting for you to pounce.
If you start in Nelson and head in a southerly direction you will come to Hanmer Springs, and just under 20kms away is Hanmer Springs Ski Area. Operating from a typically rugged high country location, the first thing you notice when you get to the top of the hill is the spectacular view across Molesworth Station, Mt St James and further afield to the Nelson Lakes National Park. However the view’s about as far as they go in terms of promoting eye candy. Hanmer is all about a great day on the snow, no matter whether you have the flashest gear or not.
It’s a pretty good day if you’re after intermediate level skiing, with 60% of the terrain catering for this skill level. 30% of the runs and back bowls are for advanced snow enthusiasts and there’s a groomed learners area at the base, for those new to alpine sports. But never fear, they have instructors who should help bump up your technique so you can take on the more challenging runs pretty quickly.
Hanmer covers about 52 hectares of ski field which is serviced by the longest Poma in the Southern Hemisphere, a nutcracker rope tow (you’ll be loving your biceps by the end of the day) and a fixed grip learners tow, over a 310m vertical.
Like it’s Clubbie peers, the tickets are well priced and there are a good range of runs, both groomed and off piste. And if the weather kicks in, or you simply need a chance to rest your weary tootsies, (don’t worry, we won’t tell) you can pop yourself down on the lounge at the day lodge and simply watch the fun for a while. The day lodge has self catering cooking facilities so you can make yourself a cup of tea to accompany your picnic, or heat up the lasagne from last night, whilst checking out your pals cruising the slopes.
Now you can always check into hotels in Hanmer, but we think part of the adventure with Clubbies is the on mountain accommodation, so that all you need to do at the end of the day is to ski to the lodge. Hanmers’ Robinson Lodge is a rustic wooden building which, whilst not luxurious, is warm and cosy and really cost effective. As the lodge is self catering you will need to bring all of your own food and drink and there’s no shop just around the corner, so remember sugar for your coffee and cream for your crumble. But don’t be too concerned, the car park is just below the lodge so you won’t have to haul your supplies for backbreaking distances. There are four family rooms and four bunkrooms, so you do need to be quick to book yourself in during busy periods, but once you’re there, take your snow boots off and chill out on their deck, waiting for the sun to set and the myriad of stars to come out.
Like a clucky group of chickens, the other 6 Clubbies huddle close together on the slopes of the Southern Alps, halfway between Greymouth and Christchurch, making the perfect alpine roadie. Set off from Christchurch heading in a north westerly direction and in next to no time you’ll reach Springfield (just past Darfield and the famous, in Darfield, Darfield pub). Make sure you stock up in Springfield as it’s the last petrol for a while and it’s a great place to replenish your roadie sweets and snacks.
Porters, only an hour or so from Christchurch on SH73, is the first of the brood to visit on this club field roadie. Whilst slightly bigger than it's neighbours, Porters is a great way to bridge the gap between big commercial fields and smaller, simpler fields.
With a dedicated learners area, a broad range of runs for intermediate levels and loads of advanced runs all serviced by the Easy Rider chairlift and three T-bars on the upper slopes of the hill, this is an alpine thrill seekers paradise. And if you’re more into freestyling than downhill, then the Porters Mountain Park is where you need to head, whether you’re just starting or you’re a park rat.
If you are new to the slopes, the Porters rental department will kit you out and the ski school will have you briefed on which way is up, and more importantly, which is down. The "lifties" at Porters are a cheery bunch, so if you're struggling with the t-bars or the slightly quick chairlift, they'll be more than happy to assist.
And if you don’t want to brave the gravel access road and go all the way down to Springfield or Castle Hill if you’ve rented a house), then you can always book yourself into the Porters Lodge for the night. With a restaurant/cafe that’s open all year round (catering for the mountain bikers who get their thrills on the awesome tussock trails in the summer and shoulder months), the lodge also has shared and private rooms so depending on your budget, there’s somewhere for every road tripper to lay their weary heads. The restaurant is cosy and the views across the valley are superb. So relax on the sofa's in front the of fire with your beer, glass of wine and burger. (And don't worry, there are lots of vegan options and they cater for most dietary requirements as well.)
Mount Olympus is a wee detour or an alternative when you get to the crossroads that take you to Porters and on to the other clucky Clubbies, so if you have lots of time or just want to do this field, then take the left hand option onto Lyndon Road when you get to the West Coast Road intersection. It’s a windy wee road, but when you reach Mount Olympus, you’ll be stoked by this clam shell shaped, south facing field, which is often overladen from the bountiful powder dumps that the mighty southerly bestows on areas of the Canterbury region. Wrap this generous bowl with tall ridges on all three other sides, and you get a ski field that holds its white bounty often longer than its peers.
Named after the 2,000 metre peak that presides over the ski field, Mt Olympus Ski Field covers 60 hectares of pure sugar, particularly appealing to those backcountry enthusiasts of you who love to get off piste. They often can boast a foot or more of dry champagne powder, more commonly found in American fields, and the protected south facing field enjoys extended seasons - in fact most years they’re skiing well into October.
Proudly groomer free, Mt Olympus embodies a friendly club feel. The runs are accessed by 4 high capacity rope tows - and a short hike to most of the sweet spots. And if your thighs are up for it then you can take some longer hikes and ski tours to Olympus’ summit and over into the 403 hectare Ryton Valley, which opens you up to almost a kilometre of leg searing vertical. The trails cater for all skill levels with 10% being suitable for beginners, 55% for intermediate level alpine adventurers and 35% is for the speed demons and adrenaline junkies.
And like all good clubbies, Mt Olympus has great on mountain accommodation for 52 guests, in 6 shared bunkrooms in their Top Hut. Or slightly cheaper is the accommodation in the 12 bunk, Bottom Hut obviously situated at the base of the mountain. If you’re there for the day, then their day lodge is a great place to chill out in front of the fire, use the facilities in their commercial kitchen, kick back in the hot tub ($5 for day trippers), or grab a beer from the Far Canal Road Bar.
If you’re not so keen on double backing then stick to the West Coast Road and after Porters head off in a northerly direction until you get to the Mt Cheeseman Ski Field Road, just before Cave Stream Scenic Reserve. With slightly more facilities than other clubbies, Cheeseman has been voted the best small ski area for a number of years. The access road takes you right to the base of the lifts and they have a rental facility plus ski and boarding lessons. There’s a cafe to grab a flat white, or a beer on a sunny day, groomed runs, and all without huge crowds to jostle amongst.
If you’re into club fields for the off-piste then Cheeseman Ski Field won’t disappoint as the views across Craigieburn Range and access to back country are awesome. Plan a day trip on Mt Cockayne to find some pretty gnarly spots to cut up some ground breaking tracks. You can access the back country from the top of the Ridge T-bar, but do remember there’s no ski patrol out beyond the field boundaries so do let someone know where you and your crew are off to, and when you’re likely to be back. (And do take the usual safety gear with you as you want to make certain you’re prepared for all eventualities.)
For the alpine sports lovers who prefer a slightly more sedate pace, make sure you find a possie on the sunny day lodge deck. Pick up an espresso from the cafe, or better still grab a drop of pinot noir.
And because no club field experience is complete without on mountain lodge accommodation, do make sure you’re booked into Mt Cheeseman’s Snowline Lodge. Reflecting the slightly more comprehensive nature of the field, the lodge accommodation comes with all meals catered, so at least you don’t have to remember bring your Mama’s lasagne recipe with you. But if that feels too chic, then you can always book into the communal Forest Lodge, a self catered lodge a wee drive from the mountain.
Back on the West Coast Road after an adrenaline packed Mt Cheeseman adventure make sure you head in a northerly direction as your next stop is Broken River Ski Field.
You know you’re in for something special as access to the field is on a tram system through beautiful, snow clad forest. Pack up all your gear, jump in the tram and hit the green up button and sit back as this is a ride you’re going to love.
There’s a bit of a walk up from the tram to the field, past the ski lodges, but your best bet is to consider it a warm up for your thigh muscles in preparation for your ski field antics. Also, it’s a really pretty walk, especially after a big dump of snow, as the steps meander (that could possibly be a tiny understatement) through yet more picturesque beech forest. So we reckon rather than rush up, take it easy and enjoy, comfortable in the knowledge that you won’t have to fight with large crowds when you do make it to the field.
Broken River has 5 tows - 3 high capacity and 2 learners tows - to access all areas of the field. The terrain is a little bit oriented to the experienced with only 5% for newbies, 50% intermediate and 45% for advanced Hell seekers. This is spread over 175 hectares of groomed slopes on a 500m vertical. There is regular night skiing and whilst they do rent nut-crackers and harnesses for the rope tows, there is no other snow gear rental on the mountain. There is however a day lodge with a kitchen and a BBQ if you want to bring up some snags and they sell snacks and drinks at lunch time, so you can top up if your picnic doesn’t quite match the amount of energy you’ve expended on the slopes.
Broken River might only be small but it packs a big punch when it comes to off-piste skiing and snowboarding. The ski area comprises of two main bowls, Broken River Basin and Allan’s Basin, and the wind lips across these bowls create natural terrain parks within each.
Broken River Basin is the home of the Day Lodge so is a great place to base yourself, navigating the bowl’s slopes on the 5 tows located within.
Nestled up beside Broken River Basin sits Allan’s Basin. And this is the backcountry blast you’ve been looking forward to, but with the bonus of ski patrol - just in case you find yourself in a seriously gnarly face plant. There are no tows in Allan’s Basin, just long powder runs that are accessed by the Ridge Tow.
And like all of our favourite Clubbies, you have the option of communal on mountain accommodation, so that at the end of the day, all you need to do is ski in, and then start recounting your war stories! Fully catered accommodation is offered at Lyndon Lodge or at Broken River Lodge - with it’s awesome views over the mountains and Castle Hill Basin. But for those more budget conscious you can book yourselves into the retro, self catered White Star Chalet.
If you are an advanced skier or boarder, then tackling The Big One at Craigieburn is your holy grail! But if you are an intermediate skier, Craigieburn is a superb place to push yourself and taste some pretty awesome powder. The good folk at Craigieburn proudly warn the uninitiated that the field thrives without groomers, chairlifts, snow making or golf courses, but they are also pretty confident that their alpine experience is without doubt one of the finest to be had on a club field.
The backcountry experience is the business here and you couldn’t ask for easier access to off piste skiing. The ski area stretches across two ridge lines so you have two choices of valleys to carve in, and like our other Clubbies, rope tows are the mode of transport here. Craigieburn has three high capacity rope tows - so you can further your nutcracker flicking expertise on their 500 m vertical. The big draw card at Craigieburn is Middle Basin with it’s awesome 600m blood pumping vertical descent which many have likened to an environmentally friendly taste of heli skiing.
We do have to warn you to be prepared as there’s no rental facility so make sure you have your gloves, goggles and in your rush to get up here, you didn’t leave your boots behind! But, like it’s club field peers, ticket prices are reasonable as everyone is there for the pure thrill of skiing rather than making a profit.
On mountain accommodation is again the bomb, with the two club lodges nestled in amongst the bush. They can comfortably fit 65 people and you have the option of private twinshare or shared bunkrooms (so do make sure you book early if you have a preference.) Whilst you will need to chip in and help with one job each day, (none of the jobs are too onerous, so they won’t chip into your skiing or chilling time) the club has a resident chef and a licenced bar, so your breakfast and dinner are covered and you won’t need to carry heavy, fragile bottles of wine up to the lodge.
Given they are so blessed to have access to this piece of alpine paradise the team at Craigieburn are super keen on minimising their footprint. This means that whilst your club house is warm and toasty, they encourage guests to turn lights off and be responsible to ensure they conserve the electricity their combo of hydro, solar and diesel creates.
The last of our posse of club fields is Temple Basin, just up over Arthurs Pass. And if you’re not hard core, then TB might not be quite your cup of tea and you might want to contemplate staying and hanging out for an extra day on one of the other club fields. Arthurs Pass, however, is a great place to stop and explore, especially if you are keen on a spot of tramping. But as our focus is on skiing, make sure you come back another time and explore Arthurs Pass’ array of walks in the glorious bush. When you passing Arthurs Pass, you will get to meet the endangered and completely delightful kea - a native NZ alpine parrot with a huge sense of humour, magnificent green hued plumage and a penchant for rubber (so make sure you don’t leave any rubber bungies on your roof rack.) Whilst they are a bit cheeky, they mean no harm and are wonderfully entertaining so take a bit of time to just watch them. But please do not feed them, as human food can make them really sick and they can become dependant on humans for food which stops natural foraging behaviours. And please be careful around these special birds and don’t drive too fast in this area as they can be on the side of the road and you don’t want to hit one!
Temple Basin Ski Field is definitely for the dedicated. Just past Arthurs Pass Village, Temple gives you a pre-ski warm up by way of the 40-50 minute walk to the ski lodges - as there is no direct vehicular access. However, don’t despair the views on the walk are killer, so make sure you take your time to stop and turn around! And better still, the goods lift on the western side of the carpark will ferry all your gear up for you (though a good plan is to keep your poles for a spot of Nordic walking which should make your ascent slightly easier.) As this is not an easy access field the other recommendation is to wear hiking boots and to call up to the mountain, just in case snowfall means that crampons are needed… (This should answer any queries you may have had about whether you’re dedicated enough.)
Once on the mountain you’ll arrive at the lodge - a combination of shared bunkrooms which sleep from four to ten people - with an inhouse chef, a licenced bar with local wines and beers and a canteen stocked to the brim with snacks and munchies.
And on to the terrain. Temple Basin has trails for all skill levels - from first timers to the more advanced where you face off steep, rocky terrain. Like all clubbies Temple prides itself on the big mountain experience and there are no groomers so trails are all pure as the driven (excuse the pun) but they make for grand off piste riding. So whilst it’s a bit of a trek to get here, if you’re into pure mountain, then once you’re here you should be sweet!