People have used skis for hunting, transport and sport since the Stone Age. Advanced skiing techniques were developed in the mid-19th century in Norway. Norwegian emigrants then introduced skiing to other countries. Norwegian gold miners in New Zealand in the 1860s and 1870s used skis to get to the diggings in Central Otago. By the 1890s, a few mountaineers in the Southern Alps were making their own skis to travel across snow and glaciers.
Early polar explorers also used skis. Several early 20th-century Antarctic expeditions made New Zealand their last stop on the way south. The explorers’ glamorous reputation may have encouraged more New Zealanders to take up skiing.
Skiing as a sport
Skiing became established as a sport in New Zealand from around the First World War. Ski clubs were set up, and skiing enjoyed a boom in the 1930s. Commercial skifields, however, did not develop until after the Second World War.
Danger on the slopes
The North Island's skiable mountains, Mt Ruapehu and Mt Taranaki/Egmont, are both volcanic. On 23 September 1995, Mt Ruapehu erupted violently. Although the skifields had closed for the day, people were still on the lower slopes and in the carparks. Some left in a hurry, but others stayed to watch the spectacle.
New Zealand's main ski areas are at Mt Ruapehu in the North Island, in parts of the Southern Alps in Canterbury and South Canterbury, and in the mountains near Wānaka and Queenstown. There are also skifields in Taranaki, Nelson, Marlborough, Kaikōura, and on the West Coast of the South Island. Since the 1970s Ohakune, Wānaka and Queenstown have become major tourist centres due to skiing.
Skiing in New Zealand takes place on open slopes above the treeline, rather than on marked trails through trees as it does in many other countries. Almost all skifields – both club and commercial – are on leased public land.
Skiing is popular in New Zealand. A 2001 survey showed that it was the fifth most frequent sporting activity for women, and the 10th for men. The 18–24 age group had the highest proportion of participants, but skiing attracts people of all ages. It is more popular with European New Zealanders than with Māori.
New Zealand's unpredictable climate sometimes thwarts skiers and the ski tourism industry. Cold nights are needed for snow-making, and regular snowfall is not dependable.
New Zealand skiing culture
Because New Zealand has a small population and no towns at high altitude, snow sports are a less established part of life than in North America and Europe. It is more expensive to buy equipment than in other countries, but accommodation and facilities are more affordable.
European skifields have many bars and cafés, and socialising is an important part of a skiing trip. New Zealand skiers often focus more on improvement and achievement and less on conviviality – at least on the slopes. Socialising and accommodation, except at club fields, is in nearby towns.
Off the defined fields in Europe, there are often serviced mountain huts, spaced closely enough for guided trips carrying small loads. New Zealand’s sparse facilities and harsh mountain weather mean that off-field skiers need to be self-reliant. They may need to dig snow shelters in which to wait out a storm.