I first heard about New Zealand’s club fields after too many late night martinis in a bar in the country’s carrot capital (and gateway town to Turoa ski field) of Ohakune.

A multi-generational member of Craigieburn club field on the South Island was waxing lyrical about nutcracker rope tows and tractors with bricks for wheels that sat stationary while pulling a cable up an ungroomed slope. I began to wonder if we had imbibed absinthe instead of vodka.

Either way, come dawn I had pledged to accompany said member on my first club fields trip later that season. What followed was my virgin foray into the magic of communal skiing, chores boards, bunk beds, dress up boxes and steep and deep terrain usually found with only a helicopter.

New Zealand’s club fields are unique, offering basic on snow accommodation (bring your own linen) and a pitch-in attitude where everyone gets a turn at washing up. There’s no lift queues, plenty of fresh tracks once you conquer the nutcracker (see below), lift tickets half the price of their commercial rivals and even a funicular at Broken River.

They’re also intrepid, and either accessed by hair raising drives through steep fields of scree (hello Mt Olympus) or by a 45 minute hike up a mountain to get to a base lodge (I’m looking at you Temple Basin).  Trust us, they’re worth it, for the tales to be told for decades alone.

Let’s just say I got out of my chores on one trip to Craigieburn by offering two Bledisloe Cup tickets to whomever was willing to do them.

I’ve never had so many men rummage across tables at dinner to offer their services first.

Then there was the time we went curling at Mt Olympus on a mid-mountain frozen pond after dark when locals poured kerosene onto the ice, lit it and voila, extreme curling. The makeshift ice bar was manned by a ski patroller in a kilt and a wig and we returned to base skiing by head lamp. As you do.

Or that one time we took Kiwi freeskier, Sam Smoothy, to Temple Basin (in the rain) and met the New Zealand Air Force there in training for Antarctica. We put them to work building a kicker, filled a drum with cardboard and set it alight and then sent Sam over the kicker and fire drum after dark. The photos made the cover of the magazine we were there for.

Things happen at Kiwi club fields that just wouldn’t happen anywhere else.

Here’s three of our favourites.

Craigieburn, New Zealand

Craigieburn terrain and the village in the woods. Photo: Craigieburn

I’ve hit up Craigieburn Valley Ski Area, not far from Christchurch, in both powder snow and in blue ice, you could say it has it all. I’ve been snowed in at the mid mountain day lodge waiting out avalanche relief, danced on tables in the club bar, skied the finger chutes and met three generations of the one family skiing on the same day.

This is where I first conquered the nutcracker, on three different rope tows that get you to the top. The last one was the hardest and I fell, a lot. When I finally made it to the top without falling or letting go, I was given a standing ovation by the crew enjoying sunshine and local venison BBQ on the mid-mountain deck.

I wonder if Craigieburn devotee, the legendary Glen Plake, was given the same.

You have to be fit to ski here, especially to hike to the best stuff, if you’re a boarder you have to be brave to get on the nutcracker which is not kind to snowboarders. Either way you better be an advanced level.

Expect over 500 metres of vertical and 400 hectares of skiable terrain and then some as the field connects with neighbouring Broken River club field, if you’re prepared to hike a little.

How much? Adult lift tickets from NZD$50 for adult member/NZD $90 for non member, dinner bed and breakfast from $70 for adult member/NZD $140 non member.  Membership costs from $150 per annum.

Temple Basin, New Zealand

The goods lift at Temple Basin. Photo credit: Camilla Rutherford Photography

You may want to swap places with your bags and skis in the goods lift halfway up the 45 minute hike to the Temple Basin base lodge when it would appear your backpack got the better half of the deal. The one time we did it, it was raining, so extra kudos points to us.

The crew from Canterbury Uni had set up digs (Temple Basin is their Snowsports Club), so there was plenty of antics to be had in the mess hall once we unpacked in our bunk rooms and waited for the rain to turn to snow.

When it snows here, it snows a lot so you’ll want your hiking thighs with you to get to the dreamy terrain accessed first via three nutcracker rope tows.

You’ll find Temple Basin two hours from Christchurch just past Arthur’s Pass Village.

How much?  One day lift pass NZD$50 member/NZD$85 non member. Stay from NZD$119 per night fully catered.

Mt Olympus, New Zealand

If you must do just one field, then make it Mt Olympus. Though be warned, if you don’t like heights then get someone else to drive the access road and hold on tight with your eyes closed.

This club field has official cult status.

The “playground of the gods” is home to a high altitude hot tub that becomes human soup come après time. It’s also home to open bowl skiing plus chutes and tons of ski touring options.

Olympus is handy to both Methven (90 minutes away) and Christchurch (2 hours away) and offers shared accommodation in the Top Hut with in house chef, bar, hot showers and the hot tub and self contained at the bottom hut.

Mt Olympus has been run by the Windwhistle Winter Sports Club since 1932. If you want to stay you’ll need to book in for a ski week, mini break mid-week, a ski weekend or a single overnight.

Ski weeks here go by the names of Frothers Week, Senior MOFO, Final Frontier and the like.

Lift passes from NZD$30 member rate/$90 full pass and from NZD$99 accommodation per night including bed, dinner, breakfast, lunch and dress up box.

All about the nutcracker

Nutcracker belts for the rope tow. Photo credit: Camilla Rutherford Photography

Believe everything you hear, these are terrifying, to start. They’ll bruise your ego and humiliate the most experienced skier or boarder. You “wear” a leather belt with a nutcracker style tool attached to a rope attached to the belt. Approach a moving cable that’s connected by pulleys and grab the cable with your gloved hand while throwing the nutcracker over it to clamp down and be dragged up. Trust us it gets better the more you get you used to it. Our tip? Wear hardy gloves from a hardware store and tie your hair back.

The Chill 30 Pass

Can’t decide which resort? For NZ$900 you can spend up to 30 days skiing 13 club style fields and their friends on the South Island with the Chill 30 Pass – Porters, Cheeseman, Broken River, Craigieburn*, Temple Basin, Mt Olympus, Rainbow, Hanmer Springs, Mt Lyford, Fox Peak, Mt Dobson, Awakino, and Tukino.

The Craigieburn Haute Route

Craigieburn Haute Route. Photo: chill.co.nz

Get a taster of the Craigieburn Range with a four night, five day ski tour taking in the Craigieburn Haute Route. The tour starts at Craigieburn ski area and travels via some legendary basins to Mt Olympus. You’ll hit up the famed Allan’s Basin, Yukon bowl, Mt Wall, Tarn Basin, Waterfall basin, and some secret stashes and stay at Broken River, Cheeseman and Mt Olympus. NZD$2545 per person including guiding and accommodation.

Thanks to Camilla Rutherford for additional photography.

This article first featured in our 84 page FREE e-mag, The Southern Issue. Read it here. 
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