NZSki is taking the radical step of banning public access to The Remarkables skifield access road for safety reasons.
The closure, from January 5, comes after several near misses with heavy vehicle traffic servicing construction of a new base building.
The Queenstown skifield operator will close the winding, gravel road above the four kilometre sealed section for months, and possibly until the start of the ski season.
Apart from construction vehicles, the only road users allowed will be concession holders like mountain guides, schools and recreation associations.
In an email to interested parties last week, skifield boss Ross Lawrence said the heavy traffic and alpine road conditions had resulted in a number of ‘near miss’ incidents, mostly because public vehicles were on the wrong side of the road and stopping on blind corners.
NZSki chief executive Paul Anderson adds: “It’s just not the kind of thing we want to take a risk on.”
Local mountaineer Dave McLeod says NZSki’s entitled to close the road but denying public access will be ”very unsettling” for many, including sightseers and climbers.
Anderson says the company was obliged to listen to concerns raised by its lead contractor.
The road closure stems solely from its concerns over “the health and safety of our contractors and the health and safety of the other persons that are using the road”.
Anderson says the company delayed the closure till the end of the busy Christmas/New Year holidays.
But construction traffic would increase from January 5 as building work ramps up, including double shifts.
Anderson predicts 100 to 200 heavy vehicles a month, like concrete trucks and reticulated panel trailers, will be using the road – “that’s far too many for us to be comfortable [about allowing public access].”
He’s not sure if the closure will last till the start of the ski season when the base building’s due for completion.
“It might be that prior to the start of the season, as the construction traffic wanes a bit, we might be able to open it up again.”
He says NZSki might open the road during Easter.
Lawrence’s email says access at the four-kilometre mark, at Windy Point, will be controlled by a locked gate and signage.
“The gate will be locked overnight, between the hours of 6pm to 7am – or as contracting staff exit and enter the site.”
Mountaineer McLeod, one of about 15 concession holders, says NZSki’s Department of Conservation easement means it’s entitled to close the road.
But he questions the need to do so.
Road conditions are “way worse” in winter, he says.
In 1999, when scenes for the Vertical Limit film were shot on the mountain, “we were up and down that road regularly from dawn to dusk with big trucks and it was never a problem”.
McLeod adds: “They talk about ‘near misses’.
“In my experience of driving up and down that road it’s the trucks that drive too fast and in the centre of the road, not the general public.”
Anderson replies that all the contractors have been briefed and are expected to drive with care, so any cases of unsafe driving should be reported.
McLeod’s unhappy NZSki didn’t consult with a new Remarkables road user group, comprising concessionaires and representatives from the climbing and skiing fraternities.
The group was set up, he says, after concessionaires as well as the general public were banned from driving up the road on occasions during winter when the skifield carpark was full.