As we welcome the ski season for 2016, let’s consider how the ski-field came to be, as recalled by one of the veterans, Paddy Strain.
Before World War II and the first ski tow, local enthusiasts used to climb to the top of Coronet Peak using skins then ski down. Those who were less capable were left at the Skippers Saddle, side-stepping or herringbone stepping up the hills before skiing down. So the actual mileage of downhill skiing was very little for the whole day.
In 1939 Otto Santner from Austria was employed as instructor. Unfortunately when war was declared, the local policeman was meant to arrest him as an alien. However Otto went to see him with a bottle of whiskey after which the Southland Ski Club managed to get him on a boat leaving from Bluff for South America.
Then in 1947 this rope tow enabled New Zealand’s first commercial ski-field to open. Tourism pioneer Harry Wigley from the Mount Cook Company asked Bill Hamilton, inventor of the jet-boat, to build this rope tow. The timber for the shed came from an old hut on the Crown Range as timber was very scarce after the war. The engine to drive the tow came out of a bus for the winter season and was put back into the bus ready for the summer.
The Mount Cook bus which left Queenstown at 8am and returned at 4pm was driven by Snowy Hansen with his ever present sheepdog, Skip. All the keen skiers were on this bus as it generally got further up the road than all the other buses. Usually we had to walk from the saddle. Ski storage in those days was just sticking your skis into the snow and leaving them there until you returned.
The rope tow had its little foibles to watch out for, the worst being the continual twist of the rope. If you had any loose clothing or long hair, it could get caught in the rope and you had to extricate yourself before getting to the next pulley. I remember seeing a hunk of hair going round and round in the rope for the rest of the day. The tow would have to stop at times while they re-spliced the rope. Children who were too young to use the nutcracker tow belt had to just hold on with their hands and let go at the pulley, walk around and then grab hold again to continue on their way.
Missing from the photo is the iconic Pie Palace which sold pies and tinned tomato soup to the hungry skiers.
This first rope tow transformed Coronet Peak into a commercial ski-field. Queenstown became a ski resort, and skiing is now an activity for everyone thanks to those hardy, dedicated pioneers of the sport with their long wooden skis, tramping boots, bulky woollen clothing, and primitive rope tows.
Photos caption: First rope tow on Coronet Peak in 1947