Southern ski slopes celebrate fresh snow as season preparations begin
South Island ski fields are celebrating snowfall that is setting them up well for the start of the season.
The snow has also sparked a warning to adventurers heading into the backcountry that the risk of larger avalanches is expected to be higher this season.
Twenty centimetres of snow fell on Coronet Peak, the Remarkables and Mount Hutt over the long weekend.
NZSki chief executive Paul Anderson said they managed 24 to 48 hours of snow making on top of that so the trails were building up nicely.
He was excited for the season ahead.
"Even last year, we actually eclipsed pre-pandemic levels. Last year was a really busy year for the Southern Lakes mountains so the four mountains down here, including our friends over in Wānaka, eclipsed a million skier visits for the very first time, and I think it will be like that again this year."
Applications for seasonal roles were back at pre-pandemic levels following the return of working holiday visa holders and skilled workers.
The main challenge has been finding enough accommodation for them in Queenstown and Methven.
"Last year, we actually rented premises. This year, we've bought premises in Queenstown, so we've really just replaced that.
"It's about as hard as we've seen it. There's been a lot of previously tenanted properties that have preferred to go to Airbnb for various reasons so that's taken it away from the reach of seasonal workers."
He was predicting a decent season with good turnout from New Zealanders and strong demand from Australia with a lot of pre-bookings.
Ski operators had been putting a lot of money towards upgrading their snow making equipment and making it more efficient.
"That means it can make more snow in lesser time and use less energy and less water so it's really important we keep that investment going so we can make sure we get snow on the ground when we get the opportunity."
Cardrona and Treble Cone Experiences general manager Laura Hedley said both fields received 15 to 25cm of snow over the weekend, but they needed a bit more before opening.
"We are definitely seeing that demand out of Australia again this year as well so forward bookings are all looking pretty positive."
They were putting plans in place so skiers could avoid long lines and large crowds on the field this season, she said.
"We've actually worked on limiting the amount of passes we can sell on any given day and really pushing people to go online and check out times that it's quieter, and managing it through that sort of way.
"So hopefully we can get that balance right. But we will still be learning in that space and we definitely want to listen to people's feedback."
Warning of bigger avalanches
While skiers and snowboarders were expected to hit the resorts in their droves this season, others will be looking to explore the backcountry.
Mountain Safety Council chief executive Mike Daisley said a lot of people access the backcountry through the ski fields.
"If you're used to those sorts of ski fields, it might not look that much different when you get to the top and you start looking into the backcountry, into the wild hills behind the ski fields. But what you might not be aware of is that everything within that ski field boundary has been really well managed by the ski field."
He urged people heading into the backcountry to check the avalanche advisory forecast, go with someone experienced if they were new, have the right equipment and know how to use it.
"It's simply colour-coded and it's got a simple scale that you can easily follow. The bit of trap there can be is 'low doesn't mean no'. It's a bit of a phrase you can remember. A low avalanche risk or hazard does not mean there is no avalanche hazard."
The council was preparing for a more extreme avalanche season than usual with much of last month's snow sticking around.
"What we're expecting is avalanches in places that we typically haven't seen. We've anticipating because of different weather systems and a snowpack that's well established already, when avalanches are going to be released, we're predicting a lot of them could be a lot bigger this year than we have seen."
Mount Hutt is set to open on Friday with the other South Island ski fields following suit later this month.
Main image (Facebook via Mt Hutt/Nicole Hawke): Mt Hutt ski field pictured in May, 2023.