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Skiing Seventy-Five Years On at Coronet Peak

Before Liz Greenslade could walk her father Orm would ski with her tucked into his haversack on his back then prop her up against the rocky outcrop on the summit of Coronet Peak while the family picnicked.

“That’s my earliest memory of Coronet which was just a stone’s throw from our high-country station,” she says. “ My parents and their friends initially had to hike up the slopes and ski down but by the time I began skiing a rope tow had been installed at Skippers Saddle.”

In 1947 Sir Harry Wigley, the son of Sir Rodolph Wigley who founded the Mount Cook Line, conceived the idea of a ski tow and contracted McKenzie country sheep farmer Bill Hamilton, of Hamilton jetboat fame, to design and build a single rope tow.

The 1000-metre long lift which climbed just over 100 vertical metres was powered by a Bedford motor and carried around 500 skiers an hour up the mountain from Skippers Saddle.

With the revolutionary breakthrough New Zealand’s first commercial ski field was launched. Buses transported skiers from Queenstown to Skippers Saddle, ski rental facilities were set up and an Austrian ski instructor was employed.

“ There were no ski queues in the 1950s and equipment was improvised, basically rough and ready,” says Liz. “Our whole family had ski fever and the local kids loved getting up on the mountain.”

“Riding the rope tow we wore a recycled canvas fire hose around our waists with heavy steel nutcrackers attached and we lost count of how many gloves and parkas we ruined on the fast-moving rope. Later a second rope tow was installed higher up to take skiers to the summit of Coronet Peak and this one used to swing our gang of kids completely off the ground as it travelled high above a deep valley between two ridges, leaving us clinging to our nutcrackers for dear life.”

Liz says the Mount Cook Company’s staff was small and turned their hand to anything in those early days.

“They sold the tickets, drove the buses which often got stuck in the mud, hired out ski gear and operated the tows. They served us scalding tea from a basic one-room hut called the Pie Palace, ran the ‘meat’ wagon and taught us local kids how to ski.”

In 1962 the first chairlift was installed and today as Coronet Peak marks its 75th anniversary it can lay claim to many firsts – including introducing snow machines in 1991 and introducing night skiing as a regular feature.

But above all, the launch of Coronet Peak as a commercial venture was the impetus for Queenstown’s development as a winter resort. Before skiing became popular the closed sign went up every winter and it is due to the foresight and pioneering spirit of Sir Harry and his family that Queenstown has such a prominent place on the international skiing map.