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 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.
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.
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.
New Zealand’s first ski club was formed in 1913 by two ski mountaineers at Ruapehu, the only mountain in the North Island that has permanent snow. Mt Egmont Alpine Club was set up in 1928, and the Canterbury Winter Sports Club in 1929.
In 2006 there were 73 ski clubs in New Zealand. Some simply provide accommodation at commercial ski areas. However, unlike ski clubs elsewhere in the world, 11 New Zealand clubs, mainly in the South Island, run entire skifields.
When clubs were first set up, members often had to walk for an hour or more to reach the fields, carrying equipment, food and fuel. Without transport or machinery, building tows and huts and clearing snow was tough work. Most clubs still expect members to help maintain facilities. Overseas visitors have commented on how hard-working New Zealand ski club members are.
Because of the harsh environment, many early ski-club structures deteriorated quickly, and few survive today. One exception is Waihohonu Hut, the first headquarters of the Ruapehu Ski Club. Restored in 1998, it is now listed as a historic place.
Ski club members stay in huts, usually built on the mountain. Cooking and cleaning is generally done by hut guests, so the club skiing experience is quite different from that at a commercial skifield.
Slopes are not usually groomed at a club field, and skiing down them is physically demanding. Returning uphill can also be challenging. In the early days, skiers had to climb a slope before they could ski down it. Rope tows were introduced to club fields from 1948, and are often still used. A skier is fastened to the tow rope by a ‘nutcracker’ clamp attached to their belt.
Ski clubs have done much to establish the sport in New Zealand. Because club skiing is cheaper than using commercial skifields, skiing was feasible for people of modest income for much of the 20th century.
In the early 21st century, around 90% of skiers use commercial skifields. Some ski clubs are now struggling to maintain numbers and viability. They still offer a cheaper option because of their non-profit basis, cheaper uphill transport, and reliance on unpaid labour by members.
In 2006, there were 15 commercially operated ski and snowboard areas in New Zealand. Commercial skifields were slow to develop, although top Austrian skier Ernst Skardarasy asserted in 1937 that New Zealand was potentially better than Australia for skiing.
First, skiers needed suitable accommodation. Two tourist hotels were developed near skiing areas in the early 20th century. One was the Hermitage, at Aoraki/Mt Cook village, which had been established as a hostel in the 19th century. The other was New Zealand’s nearest equivalent to a European 'grand hotel’, the Chateau Tongariro, which opened underneath Mt Ruapehu in 1929.
Both hotels, however, were several kilometres from skiing slopes. In Europe, ski resorts were typically established near high-alpine settlements, built centuries earlier. People could reach the skifields using extensions of existing transport networks. In New Zealand, transport often did not exist. Skiers had to walk or climb to the slopes, often far away. There were no rack railways or cablecars, which predated skiing in the European Alps. A basic ski tow was trialled briefly at Mt Ruapehu in 1938, but others were not built until after the Second World War.
Ski instruction was an important factor in the development of commercial fields. Ruapehu, for example, became more popular when ski schools were set up there. Top Austrian skier Ernst Skardarasy started teaching the sport in 1938, and was succeeded by Swiss instructor Walter Haensli in 1949. Haensli proposed the first commercial chairlift, which was installed at Ruapehu in 1954.
In 1947 a rope ski tow, designed by inventor Bill Hamilton, was installed at Coronet Peak – the first of a number built at different skifields. The first chairlift was opened in 1954, and the first Pomalski drag lift in 1961, both at Ruapehu. T-bar lifts were gradually introduced on some commercial and club fields. Skiplanes were modified in New Zealand for landing on the large glaciers. The first skiplane flew from Mt Cook village in 1955. Skiplanes turned the Tasman Glacier into a ski run, and are still popular in this region.
These innovations, and the development of the tourism industry after the Second World War, fostered the growth of commercial ski areas. By the 1970s they had begun to dominate skiing in New Zealand. In the early 21st century the main areas were:
These commercial skifields compare well internationally. Facilities have been upgraded in recent decades, and snow-making and snow-grooming is carried out regularly.
A number of snow sports have developed out of or alongside conventional skiing. They take place on club and commercial skifields and elsewhere.
Snowboarding began in New Zealand in the early 1980s, and appeals mainly to young people. A board, halfway between a skateboard and a surfboard in size, is used instead of skis. The rider’s boots are attached one in front of the other, and the stance is side-on rather than forward-facing.
The skiing industry was slow to adapt to the new sport, but most commercial skifields have now allocated areas for it, and for freeskiers, who use shorter, wider skis to perform tricks and jumps. Club fields cater more to ‘freeriders’, who enjoy the challenge of unmodified terrain. Freeriders often walk to adjacent snowfields to find fresh slopes.
Off-piste areas are skiable slopes that lie outside the boundaries of a ski area, but can be accessed using that area’s road or lifts. Some ski areas will sell a single-ride ticket on their lifts. An off-piste skier might travel to the top of the ski area, and then embark on a trip, perhaps along the adjacent range. Alternatively the off-piste area may be treated as an extension of the ski area. Off-piste skiing has become very popular at some club fields.
In the early days it was difficult and expensive to import skis, so many people made their own. These were wooden, with metal and leather bindings that often came adrift. Until the late 1920s, skiers carried only one pole, which they dragged in the snow like a rudder to help with steering. Skiing technique was as basic as the equipment. Most skiers aimed simply to glide down a gentle slope in a straight line. Now light boots and skis made of fibreglass and plastic make all kinds of manoeuvres possible.
Telemark skiing harks back to the early method of skiing, using narrow skis and boots fastened to the ski only at the toe.
Telemark skiers in New Zealand tend to favour club field skiing, or backcountry ski touring. Mountain contours in New Zealand are often steep, so telemark skiing is more physically demanding than in other countries.
Activities and events are organised by the skiers themselves. While small in number, they form a strong subculture within the skiing community.
Nordic (cross-country) skiing uses lighter equipment than Telemark skiing. It takes place on flat terrain away from established skifields. This type of terrain is in short supply in New Zealand.
This activity combines skiing and climbing. People ski across snow country to reach climbing opportunities, or climb to the top of skiable slopes, far from the busier snowfields.
Ski mountaineers attach ‘skins’ underneath the skis to prevent them sliding backwards when travelling up moderate slopes. On steeper slopes, they carry the skis while using climbing techniques and equipment.
Much of the Southern Alps is well suited to ski mountaineering. Many such trips are based around the large glaciers, of which the Tasman, Fox and Franz Josef are best known. Guided trips are available for people of different skill levels and aspirations.
Skiers and snowboarders have another option to reach uncrowded and untracked terrain: aircraft. Helicopters in particular operate on commercial fields and in every skiable area of New Zealand.
Helicopters also frequently carry parties of ski mountaineers. They can quickly reach high-altitude huts to take advantage of brief spells of clear weather.
The first ski races took place in New Zealand in the 1920s. Racing events became an important means of contact between ski clubs in early years. The first nationwide ski championships were held at Ruapehu in 1929, and competitions between New Zealand and Australia began in the 1930s. Federated Mountain Clubs set up a ski sub-committee in 1931 and then a Ski Council in 1932 to organise these events. An independent New Zealand Ski Council was established in 1954. National and Australia–New Zealand competitions are now managed by its successor organisation, Snow Sports New Zealand.
The main informal opportunities for competitive skiing are interschool and Masters events. Masters skiing is a nationwide programme in which adult competitors can measure their results (adjusted for age) against a standard.
Major international skiing events are not held in New Zealand, mainly because the country lacks the infrastructure for large competitions.
Because there was no local circuit at élite level, skiers who wanted to compete individually had to attach themselves to an overseas team. This became possible from the 1960s as overseas national teams trained in New Zealand in their off-season. New Zealand’s winter months are from June to August.
Ski racing in New Zealand, as elsewhere, has been dominated by descendants of ski-racing families from Europe. Annelise Coberger, of German ancestry, was the first New Zealander to gain international attention when she won a World Cup race in 1992. The same year she won a silver medal in the slalom event at the Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France.
Austrian-born New Zealander Claudia Riegler also achieved World Cup successes, and skied at the 1994, 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. She retired in 2003 after nine years on the World Cup slalom ski circuit.
An exception to the pattern was Simon Wi Rutene, of Māori descent. New Zealand national skiing champion from 1986 to 1995, he competed in four Winter Olympics in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 2019/20, teenager Alice Robinson won two World Cup giant slalom races and was sharing the lead in the standings when the season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
German immigrant Oscar Coberger began teaching skiing at the Hermitage, Aoraki/Mt Cook, in 1926. Seeing the potential of Arthur’s Pass as a skifield that could be reached by train from Christchurch, he set up a shop there to sell skiing equipment – one of the few such enterprises in New Zealand. His granddaughter, Annelise, became New Zealand’s first Olympic skiing medallist.
The New Zealand Disabled Ski Team has been attending the Winter Paralympics since 1980. It won New Zealand’s first medals in international skiing in 1984 at Innsbruck, Austria, and has had notable success since then. Up to 2018, multiple gold medallists have been Patrick Cooper (four), Rachael Battersby and Mathew Butson (three each), and Adam Hall and Vivienne Martin (two).
Since the early 2000s, a national representative ski team has competed at international events, notably the Winter Olympics.
McClure, Margaret. The wonder country: making New Zealand tourism. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004.
Power, Gerry. White gold: the Mount Hutt story. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2002.
Rich, Margaret. 75 years on Cockayne: Mt. Cheesman Ski Club. Christchurch: Wilson Scott, 2004.
Shears, Richard, and Isobelle Gidley. A skier’s guide to Australia and New Zealand. Auckland: Reed, 1983.
Titus, Paul. ‘Ski industry based on pioneer spirit.' New Zealand Heritage (Winter 2004): 12–17.
Williams, Karen, and Dave Bamford. Skiing on the volcano: historical images of skiing on Mount Ruapehu. Wellington: Ruapehu Alpine Lifts and Tourism Resource Consultants, 1987.