I've Found Myself Lost in the Clubbies by Krista Dixon
When I phoned Stu in the beginning of March, I had a LOT of questions about this incredible Chill Pass I’d heard so much about. “So it goes to TWELVE mountains? And there are no limits to how many days I ride at each ski field? And I want to live in my car for the winter, what is the feasibility of that?”
To which Stu replied, “Yes. Exactly. And if you want to live in your car, you’ll want to start with a really nice pillow. I can recommend coming up here to Christchurch and hitting Briscoes. But only when there’s a sale on, otherwise the pillows are far too expensive.”
While I couldn’t tell if Stu was “taking the piss” or not, I quickly discovered his passion for the clubbies as we chatted for over half an hour. He not only answered all of my questions, but gave me the best local advice possible. By the end of the conversation, I had transferred my money to Chill and was lucky enough to catch the final day of “Keen As” prices, saving me $300 from the in-season pass price.
Then it was time to wait. And wait. And quit my job. And wait a little bit more. And wait for my pass to arrive in the mail, which is hard to do without an address or P.O. Box. (P.O. Box little white cube van-car-thing, Everywhere, NZ). Then it all finally came together, and I boosted up to Mt.Lyford for some post-opening-day shinanigans. What I soon realized about the clubbies, is the lack of anything nearby. So when I pulled into Mt.Lyford Lodge, after driving around the Lyford area for awhile trying to find “town,” I was happy to see a roaring fire and most welcoming hosts to greet me. From here, I was able to hitch up to the ski field and enjoy two incredible sunny days, riding wind-blown veins of powder. It only took me three attempts to get to the top of my first rope tow! I linked up with others to hike around the easily-accessed sidecountry, and was blown away by the beauty of the Southern Alps from so far North.
The next mission was to catch opening day at Porters, so I headed South and found a late-night camping spot in Springfield. In the morning when I arrived at Porters, I finally had the opportunity to meet Stu, and several other locals. I was adopted by a large wolfpack of Porters shredders, and got into some lines that I would’ve otherwise missed-- including a sidecountry ridge run down to the access road. Although the coverage was pretty low, I was having an amazing time romping around this new ski field, riding t-bars with strangers, and basking in the mountain-top sunshine.
The next day, I was fortunate enough to catch another bluebird opening day at Broken River. The walk through the native bush got me warmed up and fully stoked, as I saw the other unbreakable smiles from my fellow trampers. Although I managed to nail the access tow up to Palmer Lodge, I was struggling to make it up my first lefty tow. I tried flicking my nutcracker onto the rope, without success. I tried riding switch and facing the rope, without success. The line was building up, the sunny pow was being shredded up, and I continued to remain at the bottom of the tow. So I went back to the lodge, back over to the access tow, and was thinking I’d just take some lower mountain laps. I was pretty disappointed in myself as I watched the upper powder field slowly become more and more tracked. But then I remembered an old ski club back home, with a lefty tow, and realized that I knew exactly how to ride this Broken River tow. (Yes, we do have rope tows in the States, they just don’t have pulleys and we don’t use nutcrackers). With all the confidence I could muster, I got back in the main tow line, got my opportunity, and went right to the top. I doubled up and hit the ridge tow to the top on my first attempt. The rest of the day was spent farming powder-filled chutes with a perma-smile on my face.
There I was, four days into my first NZ winter, and I was (and still am) beyond stoked. For the months leading up to this, I had heard time and time again about the differences between NZ and North American winters. What I was expecting was poor quality snow, lots of wind, and a significantly smaller amount of powder. In the last 6 weeks, I’ve experienced some of that, but have mostly found my time in the clubbies to be filled with high quality riding.
From that first opening week, the winter has melted away into countless days of high stoke and major exploration. I happened to make it down to Dobson for some sunny groomer laps. I checked out both Cheeseman and Craigieburn for some socked-in and high-wind fun one week, and for some Tarn Basin turns and Kea Chute shinanigans another week. I made it back to Broken River a few more times, and fell in love with Alan’s Basin. I seem to have prioritized opening days, which have been some of my best, and made it to both Mt.Olympus and Temple Basin for theirs.
Olympus was first, and I felt spoiled with the lack of attendance and abundance of pow in the back run. I fell in love with Olympus lodge, and have no qualms with saying it’s the best lodge I’ve been to. Although other lodges will claim to have the best food of the clubbies, Olympus actually does. Their chefs are professionals that leave you drooling at first sight (or smell). I can’t wait to get back up to Olympus for an evening of hot tubbing, disco boogying, and bonding with a group of amazing people.
I found the same vibe when visiting Temple Basin a few days later. I knew everyone riding the hill those days from drinking beers with them the nights before. Besides staff, there were 8 of us lapping the best snow I’d seen all season. The best part about Temple Basin, besides the natural lame-person-buffer zone that is the walk up, is the amazing community that this ski field attracts. As soon as you arrive at Temple, you feel like you’re part of it. And you want to be part of it-- there’s a sense of ownership you receive from staying there. If you’re not scrubbing toilets and showers, you’re washing dishes from lunch. Once you’re done with chores, you’ll find more ways to help out. Then you’re heading back out to dig the walking track to Downhill Basin, and setting a bootpack up Elevator (If Willy hasn’t beaten you there already). What I’ve discovered is that Temple Basin is hard work, and all of the hard work pays off. Nobody wants to leave, and I’ve met several people that have already gotten “stuck” there-- because where else do you want to go anyway? Pro-tip for TB: bring a pouch of tobacco and your favorite bottle of liquor to share with the crew. They deserve it.
I also have found a home-away-from-home in Forest Lodge at Cheeseman. Having crashed in my van there for a major amount of the winter, I’m stoked to be greeted warmly every time I arrive. With warm hugs and warm showers and a warm drying room and an immensely warm fireplace. When the annual Ski the Clubbies winter party happened a few weeks ago, it was amazing to see the place come alive. Walking around the beautifully-lit forest, I was in awe of the transformation for this special event. I couldn’t believe all the hard work that went into bringing cross-clubbie neighbors together. Again, this was a moment where I felt like I was truly a part of the clubbie community, and I loved interacting with all the people I’d met throughout the month beforehand. The Porters crew was shredding ice hockey, Jimmy was putting together a farm-to-table style dinner for 250 people, and everybody was having a rip-roarin’ good time. As the weekend continued and the homies stuck around, I found myself jamming ukulele with the event’s opening artist, putting away geometric domes and marquees, and continuing to Ride the Vibe that the club fields offer.
There are two things I love most about skiing the clubbies, the first being the community of the club fields. I met people my first week Chilling that I’ve seen time and time again, all over the Craigieburns. There’s a cohort of van dwellers out there just like me, and we tend to show up in the same places without any communication of the event. There’s people I’ve met at Porters that remembered me at Cheeseman and then we met up and went to Broken River and now I’m occasionally sleeping on their couch. There’s people who strip naked and traverse the main beam above the Temple Basin common room during a 2-man dancy folk concert. There’s countless people who have cooked me hot breakfast, offered me a place to stay, and kept in touch with me to go out for an epic day in the mountains. The people I’ve met in the last two months have made my NZ winter.
The second thing I love most about club fields is the club fields themselves. I couldn’t have found a more unique and radical winter experience anywhere else, I’m sure. There’s an old-school energy in the clubbies-- you’ve got to know what you’re doing, or learn quick, and people work together to get things done. Watching little shredder grooms nutcrackering up the Broken River access tow will always blow my mind. In the clubbies, you learn from a young age to be a badass, but also to be polite and helpful. And the most amazing thing is that there’s all of this badass terrain in the clubbies, and there’s a select few of us that are dedicated enough to get to it. And maybe that’s what club fields all boil down to-- dedication.
I mentioned before how it’s easy to get stuck at a club field, and it’s true for each one I’ve visited. Whether it’s the groomers at Porters who make the annual migration; or a Broken River volunteer who quit his job in Christchurch and moved to the mountains; or Cheeseman patrollers who return to stare at Mt.Wall for another season; or the stewards of Alan’s Hut who’d rather live in the woods than anywhere near a paved road; or a tent-dwelling Canadian who decided he’d volunteer to work his way up in the ranks at Temple Basin… the list goes on and on. The people I’ve met, and the places I’ve seen are saturated with dedication. There has been a lot of effort from across the board to make sure these places stay alive, and I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this special environment.
As I continue my last few weeks in the clubbies, I can only hope to gain more and more darn good times to fill my memory bank. Leaving in early September, I know I’ll be missing out on an epic month of sliderboarding the clubbies, but it’s left me wanting more. I’m already planning my return for a second Chill season next year, because I can’t get enough of the kiwi clubbie vibe. The only question still lingering is, “which clubbie should I join, or can I join them all?” Notes for next year: don’t miss September, bring an ice axe, and always have chocolate. To all my mookies out there, see you next time!