As Queenstown’s Coronet Peak prepares to celebrate its 75th birthday next month as New Zealand’s first commercial skifield, PHILIP CHANDLER speaks to one of its long-time personalities, 78-year-old Jules Tapper.
Queenstowner Jules Tapper’s been involved with Coronet Peak in various guises for all but its first eight years as a commercial skifield.
Raised in Invercargill, he recalls first learning to ski on Coronet in ’55 during about a week-long Queenstown family holiday.
‘‘In my second year, a school teacher at [Invercargill’s] James Hargest took me under his wing — by the end of the first week I was able to travel across the slope and do a snow-plough stop and a snow-plough turn.
‘‘In ’57 I bought my first skis which I’ve kept for sentimental reasons’’ — 210 centimetre-long wooden skis with ‘rat-trap’ bindings.
‘‘I was always in awe of Nick Fulton, who was one of the first guys able to do stem christies then, later on, parallel turns — all of a sudden, these guys were dancing down the hill.’’
Tapper recalls the first rope tow, which went about two-thirds up the peak, before an
other one took you to the top — ‘‘it was a bit of a journey’’.
The access road was often ‘‘muddy as hell’’, he says.
He remembers the bus getting stuck and being asked to carry a tray of pies up to the ‘pie palace’, which then served as the base
‘‘I still remember thinking they could at least give you a free cup of tea or a pie voucher or something.’’
Still, he had nothing but admiration for the ‘‘tremendous vision’’ of Coronet’s founder, Mount Cook tourist company’s Harry (later Sir Henry) Wigley, whom he got to know personally when their two families holidayed at Ohau.
‘‘When I was a little fellow, there used to be a butcher and a baker and all that sort of stuff in the middle of [Queenstown], and all those people virtually would shut down or only open a day or two a week over winter.’’
Coronet gave those businesses ‘‘a second season’’, Tapper says.
In about ’63, he and Wigley’s daughter Paddy were asked to be ski instructors for a season, to fill a gap.
‘‘We just taught the people who were starting off.’’
In ’64, in a quantum leap, a Pomagalski two-seater fixed grip lift was added — ‘‘it moved people probably at double the speed’’.
‘‘But it came round that bull wheel pretty quick, it didn’t slow down.’’
Among the characters on the mountain, Tapper recalls mountain manager Sugar Robinson was Wigley’s ‘‘go-to man’’.
‘‘If a bus got stuck in the snow, he’d get a grader, clear a path and hook it on and pull it out.’’
As skier numbers increased, he says Mount Cook wisely opened a second field, The Remarkables, in the mid-’80s.
While Coronet remained the premier field, he admits it experienced some poor snow seasons.
By the early ’90s Tapper was not only a substantial Mount Cook shareholder but also the company’s regional boss, in charge of the skifields.
In his reign, he commissioned Coronet’s first detachable high-speed, four-seater lift and 48 snow guns.
The snowmaking was a credit to the expertise of Duncan Smith, he says — ‘‘even the initial snowmaking was sufficient to get the mountain opened in reasonable time’’.
In more recent times, he adds, Coronet’s benefited so much from owner Sir John Davies’ investment.
‘‘John’s put in a humongous amount of capital in, it would never have happened under Mount Cook — we’ve really got to be grateful for that.’’
Tapper remains a huge fan of Coronet, which he can see from his Lake Hayes home.
‘‘Once the snow settles down, you can ski anywhere on the mountain, and it’s so close to town.’’
He still loves skiing — ‘‘it’s a bit like flying and scuba diving, it’s the freedom of movement’’.
However, at 78, he tends to pick his days to go up the peak.
‘‘I do it to enjoy it — I get a free pass now, so it’s a hell of an incentive to go up.’’