kōrero ā tātou
The story of Stratford Mountain Club begins way back in the late 1800’s. It was then that a group of keen trampers began cutting tracks and building huts on the mountain...
A club was formed in 1910 and in February 1914, the original Stratford Mountain Club (SMC) was formed. It disbanded soon after because of World War One, and wasn’t revived till 1928. Initially, the club revolved entirely around tramping and climbing. The first skiing on Taranaki occurred in 1917, when a local man, a certain Mr R. Tyler, took a pair of home-made skis up to the snow.
It’s likely that this sort of skiing continued sporadically until 1929 when two SMC members, Vic Williams and Alf Brustad (a Norwegian, who also played a role in the formation of the Tasman SkiClub on Fox Peak) cleared a ‘ski track’ on the Curtis Ridge not far from the Plateau. Later in the 1929 season, members Frank Addis, John Carryer, Neville Johnson and Ron Moss skied in the Ngarara Gully. Addis, when reflecting on his home-made skis, remarked that ‘they lacked stability in all directions. In fact, they were possessed of the devil!’
In the 1930 season, most skiers used the Ngarara Gully, which was considered a more exciting slope. On 3rd August, a climbing accident occurred in the vicinity of the ski slopes, and a club member, Lance Gibson, died of hypothermia during rescue operations. Consequently, the club met with the Park Board and it was decided that some sort of shelter was required on that part of the mountain. Work on the new hut began in 1931, with the Park Board East Committee agreeing to contribute £25 towards the building of a hut, with the matter of size, site and materials left in the hands of the club. It was a club hut, but had to be made available to the public as a shelter in times of need.
The clubs first ‘working bee’ was on 26 April and the ‘Manganui Hut’ was completed in June. At that time, the road went only as far as the Mountain House, an hour’s walk to Ngarara Gully, so a start was also made on extending the road to the Plateau. That same year, with more people trying the new sport, SMC purchased and hired some skis for members.
However, there weren’t enough and, in 1932, Brian McMillian and John Carryer began importing ash and hickory, and manufacturing skis in McMillian’s father’s engineering shop (native woods couldn’t be bent into shape and tended to warp). With these new skis and the road completed, making it only a 30 minute walk, skiing at Manganui really took off. The first club champs were held in August 1932. By 1935, skiing on the Policeman slopes above Ngarara Gully was becoming more common as member’s skills improved. On 13 October, Carryer, McMillian, and two others made the first full ski descent from Taranaki’s summit, down the eastern face.
With the outbreak of World War Two, a large number of members went abroad on duty. At one stage, SMC was reduced to 16 members. Very little skiing occurred, but the remaining members made sure those overseas received club newsletters.
In 1946, things started picking up again and, in 1947 SMC came of age with the completion of the first ski tow to operate in NZ (just a few days ahead of Coronet Peak), in time for the NZ Champs, held later the same year. Manganui at this time lead the country in new ski lift technology, drawing upon the local farming and machinery expertise. This was at a time when all manufacturing was done locally. While tramping and climbing continued to be the club’s main activities, skiing was fast gaining in popularity.
In 1952, due to the generosity of former NZ Ski Champion, Roy McKenzie, the Policeman Tow or ‘Top Tow’, was erected, making Manganui one of the most challenging ski areas in NZ. With average slopes of 26degrees, approaching 30degrees at the top.
In 1958, increasing use of the ski area by day-trippers led to the construction of a public shelter near the hut. In 1959, the flying fox goods lift over the Manganui Gorge was put in
The provision of a motorised Flying Fox across the Manganui Gorge and the construction of the access road from the Plateau to the head of the Gorge, in 1961-62, greatly improved the access to Manganui. The North Island Ski Champs wer again held at Manganui on 1962.
Throughout the 1960’s SMC skiers continued to retain their prominence in ski racing, several being selected in the NZ team for inter-dominion competitions with Australia. A learners tow was installed in 1964, and construction of Manganui Lodge (which began in 1961) was finished in June 1968, replacing the old hut.
In 1971, the learners tow was upgraded. The lower rope tow was replaced with a T-bar in 1974. Club Membership had grown to 650! With the increased membership it was found necessary to employ a chartered accountant; this arrangement continued until the mid-1980s.
In 1977 a portable tow was lent from the NZ Ski Association, as back up for the NI Junior Championships. This tow was set up in the No.3 valley, but was used for only one ski weekend before being buried under a heavy fall of snow. In 1978 another portable tow, constructed locally, was installed in No.3 valley. It was not able to be used till the 1979 season. With drive problems, it was removed after one season.
This was a strong family time for the club, and social activities were well attended and successful.
The 1980’s got off to a bad start when tragedy struck during the 1980 North Island Junior Ski Champs held at Manganui. On August 24th, thirteen year old Nicola Hayes, an experienced Ruapehu skier, slipped when dismounting the Top Tow, slid under the rope and over a bluff into the Manganui Gorge, and died as a result of her injuries. The following summer safety fences erected beside the tow line were substantially upgraded by the combined efforts of the club and the Park Board.
In 1981 the lift workshop building was completed. By midseason SMC membership had reached 788, and a total of fifty days of excellent skiing was had on the lower slopes between July and September.
In 1982 the new Park Board Public Shelter building opened.
In 1983 another attempt was made to establish a lift in the Number three ski valley, a self-propelled rope tow borrowed from Mount Egmont Alpine Club. As with earlier attempts, the tow proved unsuitable for the job. It was removed in 1986.
In 1984 the T-bar was upgraded to increase its capacity from 939 to 1385 per hour. The upgraded lift was in operation for the 1985 season.
In 1987, the lift workshop building was used as the base for the construction of a new amenities building. Named the ‘Warwick Brown’ in memory of a club member, who died from serious head injuries in 1983, when a boulder fell from the side of the Erewhon Skifield road, smashing the rear window of the car in which he was a passenger.
In 1989, snowboarding was first introduced to Manganui when Lars Binsbergen and Dave Mason began with Snostix and Burton Air boards, well before any shops in the major centres stocked snowboarding gear. By 1995 boarding had really taken off at Manganui.
By the early 1990’s attention shifted to the need to improve the rope tow on the Policeman Slopes. After considering several options, the decision was made to upgrade the existing ‘Top Tow’ rather than install a new T-bar or Platter lift at considerably greater expense. In 1992, Stage 1 was complete with installation of new towers, new upgraded rope pulleys, and return bull wheel. Stage 2 was completed during summer 1993. a new building, located downhill from the old tow shed site, was designed to be compact and form part of the loading ramp. A short access tow was installed between the top of the T-bar and the new tow shed, and with electrification of the Top Tow, the project was complete. The safety fence was also replaced and extended to the top of the tow.
In 1997 as the season started, the Regional Conservator of the Dept of Conservation (DoC) wrote to SMC directing it to cease skifield operations, as several DoC structures on the gorge track were considered unsafe (a consequence of the Cave Creek tragedy; on the 28th April 1995, 17 members of a Polytechnic course from Greymouth, South Island, and the manager of the DoC’s Punakaiki Field Centre fell about 30 metres from the Cave Creek viewing platform as it collapsed. As a result fourteen young people lost their lives and another four were injured). Over the summer of 1997/98 members had limited access to the skifield while contractors were working on a new tunnel on the Manganui Gorge entrance.
The new Millennium to the present has bought mixed fortune to SMC. In 2002, SMC celebrated 50 years skiing on the Top-tow. However these celebrations were short lived when the news circulated that the 34 year old Manganui Ski Lodge burnt to the ground in an overnight blaze, caused by an electrical fault in the kitchen area. Early 2003 was spent demolishing the burnt remains of the lodge. This took 9 helicopter loads of material. Deborah Boon at what's left of the oven, after the fire burnt the lodge to the groundThe old concrete block walls were also demolished, and the foundations revealed and deemed unusable.
To generate well needed funds, the committee decided to adopt a season pass for members. Purchased pre-season, these guaranteed SMC cashflow up-front, as well as rewarding SMC members who had stuck with the club through some lean snow for years.
2003 was an ‘average’ year, with 20 T-bar and 45 Top Tow days what was left of the old Manganui Lodgeoperation. Almost all those days were in early July. Good as school holiday skiing generated good cash flow, bad in that a long fine spell through late July and August meant no further snow falls . Late August the snow returned. Some classic days on the Top tow but the snow never made it to the T-bar consistently.
The Lodge rebuild committee, headed by Roger Jones, was committed to the reinstatement of a club lodge on the ski area. Funding was applied for, to TET Trust and TSB Community Trust. A Building permit was applied for, and consent given from the district councils, and approval sought from DoC. Public support was overwhelming, with major contributions from the TSB Community Trust and the Taranaki Electricity Trust. Beck Helicopters also gave a sizable donation.
Through all the rebuild committee’s planning, the new lodge became a reality. Once the design, approval and consents granted, costings completed, and a contractor ('Bruce the Builder’ Neale) was appointed, it was all go! Summer 2003/2004 was the big summer for the new Lodge rebuild.
2004 saw Manganui ski area claim the ‘first to open’ status, on Sunday 6th June. Membership was on the increase again; once the word was out that the new Manganui Lodge was comfortable, warm and dry. The opening of the new Lodge occurred on 26 June. This coincided with SMC’s 75th Jubilee at Labour Weekend. A great occasion celebrated by SMC members past and present.
After such a great year for the club, 2005 was the opposite. A poor snow season Nationwide saw the club operate the T-bar for 1 day and the Top Tow for 7 commercial days. The low snow year saw SMC review compliance issues for operating on the mountain. SMC’s Ski Area Safety Plan was formulated by president Keith Plummer. Terms of the plan saw snow pack monitoring and avalanche monitoring of the Manganui Gorge implemented. A tripartite agreement with the NZ Mountain Safety Council and DoC was formed to enhance safety of members and the public. Through MSC the Avalanche Advisory was created for the mountain, Manganui Ski Area and it’s access from the Plateau.
2006 was a totally different snow season, breaking records in snowfall, accumulation, and skier numbers. The snow started falling early in June and didn’t stop for a month. Epic top to bottom skiing on dry powder and packed powder was had, all from mid June! The snow pack was plentiful and long-lived, 9 weather patterns instead of the usual 2-3, ensuring lots of southerly snow, cold dry evenings and big gaps of fine cool weather between. It all meant for a great long season. Ski Safety and Operations staff were employed for the duration of the season, with Todd Cations-Velvin leading up the team. Memories were revived of the last time it was like this (’94 and ’95). New spring boxes for the t-bar were purchased and installed. The SMC Club Champs were run for the first time since 1994…
2007 was once again a fickle season, similar in ways to 2005. Approximately 150 lift tickets were sold, with T-bar days totalling just 3. Though the top tow had some great skiing, albeit from the rollover, above the bottom get on ramp. SMC purchased a Metservice Weatherstation, and it was installed at $5 hut (Dave's Hut) at the top of the top tow. With wind anemometers riming up, it's service becoming intermittant, it was to be relocated the following year to the Top Tow Shed, and the instrumentation replaced with a new heated sensor, with no moving parts. Phil Powell resigned from the Machinery position after 12 stellar years of voluntary service.
2008 there was plenty of great skiing/riding to be had for those that sought it, from mid-June to mid-October. Some days the place was definately humming; a record cash flow day was had, as well as a record snowfall event in August (interestingly, from the North West). Some huge rain events were interspersed, stripping the lower mountain of great bases that had built up. The Top Tow had a fantastic base all season, that resisted the heavy rain events well, and was regularly topped up with fresh snow - more often than not the healthy precipitation received falling as snow on the upper mountain. Monday 18 August was an all-time powder day by all accounts. The Naki Pri/Int and Sec Schools Champs were able to be held in late August, in great snow conditions.
2009 although being a lower snow season, plenty of operating days were available to those who got there when it was on. We had a great start to the season, being the first NZ area to open on May 12! The following day we were the subject of a TVNZ article, reporter Michael Holland paying a visit 'to the little ski field that could open early'...That was to follow by a lean spell till mid-June, with a whammy at the tail end of the season. We got going in October for a short stint. Brad Carpenter from Moonlight Basin Montana was our level 2 Mountain Manager; Brad moved onto Porter Heights (where as at 2016 he still leads their Snow Safety team).
In 2010 the season was a north island season of lower snowfall, with the snow we have received falling mostly above 1600-1800m, with rain below that level. The Warwick Brown building underwent a re-roof and re-clad. ..thanks to 'Bruce the Builder' and his team, Mike Reeve of Central Roofing, Lars and Kev, and TSB Community Trust, Taranaki Electricity Trust, NZ Community Trust for funding the major cost. The ski area experienced on-going power outages through the season of up to 10 days down. The faults involved either the main breakers tripping at the Egmont National Parks gate or pole fuses blowing further up the mountain for our 11kV supply. This was to lead to Powerco, with volunteer help from SMC, upgrading the power cable from the Mountain House to the Plateau in 2011. In 2011 the Stratford Mountain House, on the road to Manganui Ski Area, underwent new ownership, Iwi Ngati Ruanui having invested in a substantial upmarket retrofit. The iconic facilities were transformed, with a new entranceway, remodelled lounge, cafe and dining area, and updated rooms.
We experienced a once in a lifetime weather event, the 'polar vortex' of 15 August, with snow falling in New Plymouth, even settling at Fitzroy Beach! The skiing around that time was memorable, with views from the ski area mimicking a true alpine area; not a coastal maritime province like ours!
Bezi Freinademetz was our mountain manager, and his enthusiasm, social media updates, and photography was well appreciated by all. SMC upgraded their ski-doo to a new Skandic, with the help of Pub Charity.
2012 bought great snow conditions for the July School Holidays, a pattern that was repeated in 2013, 2014 and 2015! It was however a yo-yo snow-no-snow season, as President Rhys Williams put it. The Naki Pri/Intermediate, and Sec Schools Ski/Board champs were able to be held on these years as well, after a long absence due to unfavourable snow...
The summer of 2012-2013 members were busy with the T-bar towers refurbishment project. This involved the towers being removed off the mountain, inspected, and stripped, galvanised and painted, with tower 4 requiring replacement. A massive thanks went to the TSB Community Trust & TET for providing the funding. This enabled to club to help towards future-proofing the T-Bar for the next generation to enjoy.
2014 working bee period saw the Top Tow Shed get some weather sealing attention. The season was again well participated, after a mild June lead in, with a great July Holidays operating period, followed by operational periods of skiing the whole field in September, and then again in November! New T-bar Tower Pads were installed thanks to NZCT. New trophies were given out to the winners of the Naki Pri/Int and Sec Schools categories.
Funding was granted from NZCT for a replacement quad bike, for summer maintenance activities. The new machine arrived on the hill in 2015; a brand new 2 person engine braked 4wd state of the art bike.
The 2015 working bee period involved more top tow maintenance, as well as the T-bar tee catcher being replaced (Thanks to Timberco) ...installation of new webcams, to integrate with this new website! As well as funding applications being worked on for SMC's next major project, the T-bar drive tower and controls refurbishment, involving the fox tower refurbishment also. SMC hopes to tackle this project in the 2016-2017 summer maintenance period.
In spite of the ongoing efforts of the Taranaki skiing/riding 'anti-marketing' team, the mountain continues to gain regional awareness. Today, skier/boarder (especially boarder!) visits are climbing steadily as skiers and riders search out an alternative, cheaper option to the larger resorts. Ski Area expansion plans for the future are modest and will only come with the hard work of SMC, and a close relationship with DoC. The beauty and reputation of Manganui Ski Area’s charm will be closely guarded.
…These days, Manganui attracts boarders and skiers from throughout the North Island. It would easily have the highest ratio of boarders to skiers of any field in NZ, drawing from one of NZ's surfing dominated provinces. Naturally, its strongest followers are "The Naki" locals, who, with the solitary mountain towering above them, feel constantly drawn to its slopes.
Sources: Manganui: A history of the Stratford Mountain Club, Bob and Nancie Stokes; A Guide to the Ski Areas of New Zealand, Marty Sharpe; SMC Newsletters, Mark Braddock, Justin Keenan. Pictures: Bob Stokes, Steve Barham, Justin Keenan, Rhys Williams.