History of Arthurs Pass Skiing

6 ESCAPE Monday, August 6, 2012 THE PRESS, Christchurch

In 1929, skiing in the
Arthur’s Pass area
blossomed with the
arrival of Oscar
Coberger and the
founding of the
Christchurch Ski Club.
Flashback: Oscar and Dagmar Coberger skiing at Arthur’s Pass township, July, 1931.
Rich vein of ski history
Across the valley: View of Mt
Rolleston through the doorway of the
Christchurch Ski Club’s hut at Temple
Basin, September, 1933.
Anna Keeling

Everyone who can
should visit Temple
Basin ski area above
Arthur’s Pass. Temple
Basin is one of the
most exotic and historic New
Zealand skifields, starting with
the one-hour/500-vertical-metre
alpine tramp to get to the base
The atmosphere in the
lodges, easy bowl skiing and
amazing steeps, breathtaking
views across the valley to Mt
Rolleston and the sometimes
horrendous Main Divide
weather all add up to an
unforgettable experience.
Overseas, mountain
highways frequently provide
access to skiing. In New
Zealand, only Arthur’s Pass
holds this distinction – thus
offering a rich history in
mountain sports. Although
Maori used Arthur’s Pass at
times to access pounamu
(greenstone) on the West Coast,
the route had fallen out of
favour by the time of European
A more circuitous, but no
less challenging route via
Harper Pass to the Taramakau
River was preferred. In 1864,
Canterbury’s chief surveyor,
Thomas Cass, sent Arthur
Dobson looking for a quicker
approach to the West Coast.
In March 1864, Dobson and
his younger brother, Edward,
ventured to the pass connecting
the Bealey and Otira rivers.
Within a year a road –
considered ‘‘an outstanding feat
of colonial engineering’’ – was
forged through to Hokitika.
In 1929 Arthur’s Pass became
New Zealand’s third national
park. In the same year, skiing in
the area blossomed with the
arrival of Oscar Coberger as
well as the founding of the
Christchurch Ski Club.
Skiing had been introduced
to the area two years earlier by
Guy Butler, who owned the
hostel in Arthur’s Pass village.
Butler bought eight pairs of
Norwegian hickory skis (the
entire stock of both
Christchurch and Dunedin), but
was away when the skis arrived.
Grace Adams in her book
Jack’s Hut mentions in Butler’s
absence, ‘‘Lady guests at the
hostel in long black skirts and
cloche hats were soon sliding
cautiously over the snow.’’
German immigrant Coberger
arrived after six months of ski
instructing at Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Realising the benefit of train
access from Christchurch,
Coberger and his wife, Dagmar
(an Estonian) made Arthur’s
Pass village their base to sell
skis and mountaineering
equipment imported from
According to son Anton,
Coberger was versed in the new
Hans Schneider ‘‘alberg’’
technique of skiing. Seeking a
better outdoor life than in
Germany, Coberger knew New
Zealand had mountains and
therefore potential for skiing.
He effectively introduced the
profession of ski instructing to
this country.
The Christchurch Ski Club
(now Temple Basin Ski Club)
was founded in 1929. The
national park board was
approached for permission to
build a ski hut at Temple Basin,
and women members were
grudgingly accepted.
Hardy, motivated skiers from
Christchurch would arrive by
train on Friday nights.
Tramping up the road to the
Pass and onwards to Temple
Basin, they would often arrive
at the huts after midnight.
Everything was carried up the
Anton Coberger and his
siblings took school lessons by
correspondence and were
members of the ski club from
the age of five. Anton’s first trip
to Temple Basin was in 1944,
aged seven, on wooden skis with
no metal edge and a fixed steel
In 1948, a Hamilton ski tow
was finally constructed when
the Temple Basin and
Canterbury University ski clubs
joined forces. It was the second
rope tow in the South Island.
The goods lift was not installed
until 1959-60. For a few years in
the late 1940s another ski tow
existed beside the old Carroll
Hut on the Kelly Range above
It’s easy now. Driving right to
the goods lift, a skifield worker
loads equipment into the basket.
A scenic, albeit steep one-hour
walk takes you within sight of
the lodges. The lodges are ski-in,
ski-out and a chef prepares
hearty meals. There’s ski hire,
wi-fi and a good stereo system.
Spare a thought for those
early skiers making the long
trek from Christchurch for the
weekend, carrying their food,
ski gear and sleeping bags from
the Arthur’s Pass railway
station to the skifield. Think of
the hut builders who endured
massive storms during
And give a shout out to those,
who in 1948, painstakingly
hauled the original ski tow up
the rough track over four days.
The rope tow that in essence
still exists today.