Riding the slippery slope to a tourism icon

Innovator: Sir Henry Wigley and wife Lady Isabella ride a Coronet chairlift in the early 1970s PICTURE: LAKES DISTRICT MUSEUM

When the Wigley men started New Zealand’s first commercial skifield at Queenstown’s 
Coronet Peak it’s a fair bet they didn’t anticipate what would follow. Seventy years on and millions of dollars later, the skifield welcomes about a quarter of a million people in just over 100 days a year, writes Tracey Roxburgh

Ultimately, it was a single rope tow using a Bedford truck for power that turned Queenstown from a sleepy winter town to a snowsports mecca and winter playground.

The Mount Cook Company’s decision in 1945 to introduce commercial skiing at Coronet Peak – officially opened in 1947 – was one of the most important tourism developments in the resort’s history.

The wheels started spinning when Tourism Department officer-in-charge Captain George Herbert tasked Rodolph Wigley and his sons, Sandy and Harry – later Sir Henry – to develop skiing in the resort.

Rodolph founded the Mount Cook Company.

And when Sandy became the company’s Queenstown manager he noticed two things pretty quickly: the town virtually closed in winter and skiing had huge potential.

So the Wigleys looked for viable options.

The Crown Range was one, skiing from the summit into the range of the Cardrona valley.

The other was around Lake Johnson.

In for a pound: Skiers could buy tickets for £1 in the early days

It took one year – and a mild winter – for them to settle on Coronet Peak.

Harry teed up Bill Hamilton – later Sir William, of the Hamilton jetboat engine – to design and build a single rope tow.

Hamilton built the 1000-metre-long lift, which cost install, to ascend just over 100 vertical metres.

It was a New Zealand-first.

Powered by the Bedford, it moved at 10 miles an hour – about 16kmh – and could carry up to 500 skiers every 60 minutes, shortening the climb from about half an hour to two minutes.

Skiers had to attach a “nut cracker” to the rope which clamped down and pulled them up the slope.

Skiers were freed from the clamp at the top – that is, unless the nut cracker went on the wrong way, earning the skier a black eye.

You weren’t allowed to use the tow with loose scarves, undone jackets or long, untied hair.

The change was made after a woman lost a chunk of her locks when her hair caught in the turning wire.

As the ski area’s popularity increased, more facilities were added.

The ‘Pie Palace’ provided tomato soup and, obviously pies.

Olaf Rodegard was employed as an instructor. Base facilities were improved and a second tow added.

Over the next 70 years, the growth wouldn’t stop.

NZSki chairman Sir John Davies tells Mountain Scene from London you’d be “100 per cent correct” to attribute Queenstown’s winter tourism industry to Coronet.

Coronet stimulated existing business and created oppor-tunities for new ones – in the resort and the South Island.

That includes flights from Melbourne to Christchurch, starting in 1951, and air services from Christchurch to Queens-town which began in 1964.

Davies: “It’s been an amazing thing for Queenstown.

“Queenstown started to grow in the winter. It has been the driving force behind Queenstown getting to where it is.”

The only constant at Coronet has been investment – first by Mount Cook, then Air New Zealand and, since 2002, NZSki.

Davies has a simple business philosophy: “Get the product right.

“You’ve got to spend a lot of money, whether it’s skiing or, in our case, the Hermitage Hotel … pouring money into it to give people a pleasurable experience.”

As far as future investment’s concerned, the company hasn’t got any big plans because of the threat of global warming.

“Coronet Peak, at the top, is the height of the base building at The Remarkables,” Davies says.

“In 10 to 15 years we’ll be able to make snow longer [at Remark-ables] and there’s less risk, comm-ercially, on the Remarkables than there is at Coronet Peak.”

What can be controlled at Coronet Peak, though, is ensuring everything from the grooming to the snow-making, instructors and food and beverage, is “right”, Davies says.

“We want to make sure that everybody that sets foot on Coronet Peak goes away with a satisfied and very happy feeling.”