Skiing at Mt. Robert
Skiing is not just a sport, it's a lifestyle. Ever since 1944 Mount Robert was filled with skiers enjoying the great outdoors. They were members of the Nelson Ski Club. Traditions, rituals and fun activities took place that one cannot imagine without having experienced it. The club was one giant family, living communally far away from the buzz of city life. They shared, they enjoyed and they will always remember their days up the mountain. Yet the saddest part is that this amazing lifestyle cannot be experienced again. The ski field was closed in 2003, due to lack of snow and change to the school year. Now, children in years to come cannot experience the life up the mountain and that is a great shame. The Nelson community lost an era that cannot be replaced on the slopes of the commercial Rainbow field that remains today. The era is gone, but it will not be forgotten as we recall the life at Mt Robert.
Sitting in the junction of the Wairau, Motupiko and Buller valleys, Mt Robert had remained physically untouched for years; until 1860, when Julius van Haast first climbed Mt Robert and discovered its beauty and potential. He recalled obtaining 'a magnificent view over the whole of the country.'1
Formation of the Club
In 1929 a young Nelson man, Eric Chittenden, skied Mt Robert. Instantly he was besotted with the natural, fascinating wonders that snow provided and eagerly tried to convince friends that this wonderful sport was worth looking into. He and a few friends settled on Mt Robert as the best place to build huts and ski locally. In 1933-34 the Kea Hut was built for the first skiers and from then on the Mt Robert area flourished for Nelson skiers of all ages and abilities.
In August 1944 the Nelson Ski Club was formed: "To encourage ski running in all its forms."2 Thus began a thriving relationship between Mt Robert and the Nelson Ski Club. Although club membership only began at 80 people, it flourished and became a popular activity, with membership sometimes pushing 700 members. Now the mountain had a club with passion and drive. Mt Robert was showing its true potential, all thanks to the discovery and initial ideas from some pioneering men.
The early days of skiing
Skiing at Mt Robert in the early days was quite different to the sport in more recent times. As times changed, so did fashions, equipment and accessibility. Initially the pioneers sometimes had to row in a grossly overloaded 12 ft dinghy across Lake Rotoiti to get to the base of the mountain. Eric Chittenden recalled once hearing the tinkling around the oars of the thin ice forming over the lake. It was a miracle that no-one was ever killed. Once you had crossed the lake, the skiiers made their way (usually in the dark) up the steep windy mountain, sometimes in fog. The tedious walk usually took between 2-5 hours because you had to carry all the gear. In extreme cases it would take over 6 hours because of bad weather. Eric also recalls once taking a young woman up the mountain and, as she was walking up, she suddenly lay on the ground sobbing and holding onto the ground saying "I am going to fall, I am going to fall!"3 She believed she was on the edge of a cliff and through the thick fog she simply couldn't tell where she was. It must have been terrifying, although not many questioned the long plodding journey up on a Friday night.
Fortunately, in more recent times, the path up to Mt Robert was improved and helicopter transport was used more frequently. Equipment used in the early days (circa 1940-1960) was untested and amateur. Most people used ordinary tramping boots with fine wire rope and a snap buckle with a good spring that fitted up into the heel - they could transform an ordinary boot into a skiing boot. Yet they were very uncomfortable and always ended up soggy with wet snow. Mothers often made wind and water parkas and knitted mittens and gloves. Flash clothing was not required as no-one thought anything of judging each other's gear for amateur skiing. The Club plans were about improving and furthering skiing as a community venture. We can now see how the achievements of the early skiers on Mt Robert set the path for the times to come.
Ski Schools and family weeks
As the Nelson Ski Club grew with Mt Robert as its base, different opportunities arose for the community; such as Ski schools or family weeks. Ski schools were held for four weeks during the school holidays, where parents would send up their children (of at least age 6) to a skiing week, staying on the mountain. Family weeks were always the most popular, with at least twice as many applicants as there were vacancies. During a ski school, intense ski training took place as well as certain traditions and other activities. One memorable tradition was that of the initiation - these took place every ski school for any new member or first time applicant. It was mostly light-hearted teasing and entertaining, but at the child's expense.
Nicole Parr and her three sisters were regular participants for most of their childhood and teenage years. Nicole vividly recalls being initiated. She was blindfolded and led through an obstacle course in one of the huts. Someone was giving her instructions on where to go and in the end she was told to take a huge jump forward, which led to Nicole landing in a large bucket of water. These pranks were repeated year after year and although they might seem silly and immature now, children were often terrified of being initiated while the others longed to watch the antics. Sarah Parr, a sister was also initiated - including being blindfolded and putting her hand in a plate, which was (unknowingly to Sarah) filled with soot, and she was told to draw a slalom ski course on her face. This left the other children in hysterics and Sarah, with her dirty face, totally bewildered for what had occurred.
Many other fun traditions took place. Nicole Parr remembers that most teenagers had their first kiss in the drying rooms of one of the huts. Also the teenagers used to answer the telephone with questionable responses. Once every ski week or weekend, everyone was drilled on avalanches, fire escapes and hyperthermia. Children played many games at nights when they couldn't ski, including 500, snap, blackjack and speed. Entertainment for family weeks was delivered by the initiations, dress-up night, skit night and the concert. This was loved by young and old. Inter-house rivalry existed between Christie and Robert Huts. Alan Esrick recalls having a ‘sleeping bag thieving competition' between the huts. Similar jokes were played on the ski instructors, such as Garry Askew. Lots of noise would be made when he needed sleep for his long days of instructing. To cause a fuss, children and childish adults would swing between the rafters of the huts. It seemed ‘not touching the floor' was a popular game for all ages. All of these traditions and games were much of what made the Mt Robert time so memorable - everyone had fun and felt part of an incredibly strong community.
Click image to enlarge
Not only did the teens and children have their traditions, many adults had strict regimes for going up the mountain and then fun at nights after the skiing. Jackie Peacey (a child at Mt Robert) remembers some adult hanky panky at night when the kids were supposed to be asleep. Although she admits her memories may not be what actually took place, it was known that adults often had 5pm drinks at the top of the tows and watched the sunset. Alongside the drinks some skiing would take place under the full moon at night. Adults also liked to stop at the Korere Hotel on their travels home for a "few rums and a hot meal"4. The adults had set regimes when organising the committee and leadership behind the club. AGM's were only 15 minutes long as the decisions were already made and well communicated. After the meeting another episode of well deserved drinks would take place.
There were particular traditions for skiing and walking up to Mt Robert. The long walk was tedious and tiring for the younger children. Philippa Askew, who has several children, recalls having to sing songs on the walk up to entice the children onward. Similarly, Martin Hay recalls feeding his three children energy chocolate on the corners of the track so they could keep going. Although now grown up Andrew Hay refused to admit they were encouraged by food! During the walk, children would place a rock at a certain point on the track and over time the mound of rocks grew. It can still be seen today. Sometimes when walking in atrocious conditions you could not make out the path in front of you. For these instances Whistling Willie was put in - a large pole that whistled when the wind blew so that if you could not see the path you could hear the sound to keep on course.
Some skiing traditions developed - everyone had their own last run of the day on the tow which they enjoyed the most. But the tows did not have to close at a certain time, unlike commercial fields. Brendon McGrath noted "everyone skied until their legs couldn't ski anymore"5. The time of day was never a factor in stopping skiing. Once, Brendon recalls there being enough snow to ski onto the top of Robert Hut and ski over it back to the ground. The levels of snow varied significantly between seasons and you really just had to ski the snow when it came, otherwise you might miss out.
There were definite traditions around food at Mt Robert and over time the food rarely changed. For weekends everyone was told to bring a carrot, onion, 2 potatoes, some meat, some beans and some fruit. All the vegetables were then thrown into the pot with the meat to make the famous Mt Robert stew. This was served every Saturday dinner and sometimes the leftovers were even served for Sunday lunch. Food for a ski school was slightly different. A few hut mothers would prepare the food which had to include peanut butter, jams, raisins, cheese, toffee and lollipops. This was sometimes helicoptered in, but usually members had to walk it up. The meat for ski weeks was harder to organise. It was ordered from a Nelson shop wrapped into daily portions and collected by a club member. To stop it spoiling, the meat was stored on the mountain in purpose-built snow caves. The local keas often fought to get their beaks on the delicious meat. At least once a kea was seen dragging a string of saveloys from the caves.
Life on Mt Robert was very much about sharing, responsibility and teamwork. Everyone, regardless of age had jobs and chores to do. These ranged from cleaning toilets to preparing dinner. Children learnt that by working harmoniously things could run smoothly and there was more time for skiing. Things generally did run smoothly at Mt Robert. Everything was very democratic and club members were very dependent on each other - they simply couldn't make it run alone. People of all skills were required - businessmen, builders, hands-on workers, planners, chefs and ski instructors. All children and adults had to share rooms and live communally and this influenced many children's values as they were exposed to different concepts and experiences.
Up Mt Robert, skiing was not just a sport or an activity but more of a lifestyle for the family. Everyone enjoyed themselves, had great memories and fantastic experiences. Once Mt Robert members were asked how they would split their experiences between skiing and social connections, with one member answering that it was only 30% about the skiing. The children's experiences were so profound that many returned to be ski instructors for the next generations. Due to spending exciting winter seasons together, families became close friends as well as closer bonds forming within families. Nicole Parr can remember her parents never being stressed about organising the weekends up to Mt Robert, despite having to manage four young daughters. Philippa Askew and her family were heavily involved and she admits both her children were brought up around the snow - "skiing was our winter thing and that's what we did, and that's what they did"6. Jackie Peacey reflected that youth of today often refuse to participate in family type activities from quite an early age and this just was not possible for Mt Robert families. This is possibly the greatest loss for today's skiers. Without the club behind the skiing, the family experience is not as strong. Brendon McGrath mourns the loss of this family-friendly environment at Mt Robert where kids not only learnt skiing but life skills - "It is the biggest disappointment that the kids nowadays can't get this same experience in their teenage years."7
Throughout the time Mt Robert ski field was open, bids to expand and commercialise were brought forward. In the early days, rowing across Lake Rotoiti for access was dangerous. It was proposed that an over-bridge be constructed over the Buller River so rowing wasn't required. The bridge was built and since then skiers increased due to improved access. Over time, to accommodate the increased membership, Christie and Robert huts had to be expanded, with the help of summer working parties. A larger bid for a road up to Mt Robert came from the Club. This would mean the field was completely accessible by vehicle and members would no longer be required to walk up and down each weekend. The road proposal was approved by the Lakes Park Board in 1974. The club assisted with finding a route that suited all parties and considered helping with the finance as "this road would allow skiers more time to actually ski"8. It would also allow better access for mountain rescue, should it be necessary. Despite all the positive aspects of the proposed road, it was decided in 1980 that the road was not in the best interests of the Nelson Lakes National Park. Brendon McGrath believes that if the road had been built, Mt Robert ski-field would still be operating today.
Closure and Rainbow Ski Field
Because of multiple factors, Mt Robert ski-field had to close. In its final seasons only 2-3 weeks of the year had been available, due to a lack of snow. Also the schooling year changed from 3 to 4 terms and this affected the ability to run ski schools and family weeks. Without the income from these weeks, the club could not survive. A few years earlier, the Rainbow ski-field had been formed. It sat at a higher altitude than Mt Robert and therefore had more snow. Rainbow was accessible by road so better for younger families and children. During the time that Mt Robert lacked snow, Rainbow lacked funds. Both ski fields closed. But the club members at Mt Robert believed in skiing and considered purchasing Rainbow, needing $400,000 to be raised. After some careful financial decisions, Rainbow ski-field was bought and reinstated - but run as a commercial field, unlike Mt Robert. Despite trying their best to keep a club feel to Rainbow, the lifestyles and traditions associated with Mt Robert were gone. Many believe that it was a great shame to lose the community spirit that Mt Robert developed. The club era was gone in Nelson.
Skiing at Mt Robert will remain in the hearts of many as being a life-changing experience. The fun traditions and activities that occurred were unique. Families bonded and children were taught life skills. The strong relationship between Mt Robert and its skiers still remains. It will never be forgotten as an exceptional place to ski and the old huts remain in the ownership of children of the original families.
Lucy Gray, Nelson College for Girls, 2011. Updated May 2020
Sources used in this story
- Nelson Ski Club (1994) Nelson Ski Club: Celebrating 50 years of skiing at Mt Robert 1944 - 1994, Nelson Ski Club: Nelson, New Zealand. p. 6
- Nelson Ski Club: Celebrating 50 years of skiing at Mt Robert 1944 - 1994. p.3
- Nelson Ski Club: Celebrating 50 years of skiing at Mt Robert 1944 - 1994, p.8
- Nelson Ski Club: Celebrating 50 years of skiing at Mt Robert 1944 - 1994, p.13
- Interview with McGrath, B, Richmond Ave, Nelson, 31 May 2011
- Interview with Askew, G and P, Brook St, Nelson, 22 May 2011
- Interview with McGrath, B, Richmond Ave, Nelson, 31 May 2011
- Mt Robert road approved by Lakes Park Board(1974, 24 October) The Nelson Evening Mail.
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Further sources - Skiing at Mt. Robert
- Chittenden, E. (1992) Skiing on Mount Robert. In In Dungan, E. (ed) Rotoiti Recollections. St. Arnaud Community Association (Tasman District, N.Z.), p.33
- Potton, C. (1984) The Story of Nelson Lakes National Park, [Nelson, N.Z.] : Nelson Lakes National Park : Auckland, N.Z. : Cobb-Horwood Publications, distributors.
- Nelson Ski Club (1994) Nelson Ski Club: Celebrating 50 years of skiing at Mt Robert 1944 - 1994, Nelson Ski Club: Nelson, New Zealand.
- National Parks Authority (1976) Nelson Lakes National Park, Christchurch, N.Z. : Bascands.
- The Nelson Evening Mail, photography only, Milligan, Roy, page 1, 14 August 1980
- The Nelson Evening Mail, Thrills and spills in a winter wonderland, Milligan, Roy, unknown page, 16 August 1980. (only used photography)
- The Nelson Evening Mail, Tripping the light fantastic on Mt Robert, Milligan, Roy, unknown page, 16 August 1980 (only used photography)
- The Nelson Evening Mail, advertisement only, Unknown author, unknown page, 10 October 1968
- The Nelson Evening Mail, Improving Ski Facilities, Unknown author, page 13, 12 June 1969
- The Nelson Evening Mail, Tow Rope Tangled In Skier's Clothing, Unknown author, unknown page, 3 August 1970
- The Nelson Evening Mail, Mt Robert road approved by Lakes Park Board, unknown author, unknown page, 24 October 1974
- The Nelson Evening Mail, ‘Killer Wind' forces skiers back, unknown author, page 1, 22 August 1979
- The Nelson Evening Mail, Ski Road ‘Not in best interests', Unknown author, page 4, 30 September 1980.
- Askew, G and P, Brook St, Nelson, 22 May 2011
- Crosby, H, via Email correspondence, 26 May 2011
- Hay, Martin, Shelbourne St, Nelson, 25 May 2011
- Hoffman (Peacey), J, Richmond Ave, Nelson, 14 June 2011
- McGrath, B, Richmond Ave, Nelson, 31 May 2011
- Parr, N, Rutherford St, Nelson, 9 June 2011
- Parr, N, via Email correspondence, 12 June 2011
- Mount Robert Foundation. Retrieved 22 September 2011: