Nelson Lakes – History, Whiskey and Spring Turns

Skinning under Julius summit in Mt Robert 3rd Basin
Skinning under Julius summit in Mt Robert 3rd Basin

Words and Photos by Tom Beaumont

My early morning drive from Christchurch to Nelson Lakes provided a bit of distraction as the Seaward Kaikoura Range, quickly followed by Mt Tapuaenuku, came into view. Nelson Lakes very nearly took a sideline, as I dreamt of lines which seem to finish in the sea.

Epic views of sea to mountains driving along the Kaikoura Coast from Christchurch
Epic views of sea to mountains driving along the Kaikoura Coast from Christchurch

However, I kept driving, and soon arrived at Blenheim Airport to pick up the North Island portion of the crew. We quickly hit the road, heading south to Nelson Lakes National Park.

Overview map - red square showing Mt Robert location. Image from topomap.co.nz

Mt Robert is a mountain with an important, but relatively untold, place in the history of skiing in New Zealand. Situated above the western shores of Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park, Mt Robert has a hulk like presence. Looking up its imposing north face I am always amazed at the hardiness of the women and men who pioneered skiing on Mt Robert.

North face of Mt Robert on left over Lake Rotoiti
North face of Mt Robert on left over Lake Rotoiti

Compared to the epic faced by early skiers – row over the lake, walk up from the lakeshore, carry heavy gear in wool and japara ‘ski’ gear, share an unlined biscuit tin hut with the mice, then ski on long wooden skis with low leather boots and bear trap bindings – the experience our party of 14, on an annual pilgrimage to drink whiskey and escape the daily grind, seemed almost trivial. To make up for the shorter walk, gortex, and carbon skis, we decided to make a fair challenge by loading up with copious amounts of liquid refreshments and fillet steak.

Team line up
Team line up

A couple of hours after leaving the car park, located about a third of the way up Mt Robert’s north face, we arrived at the ‘whistling pole’. This pole, which makes a low pitch whistling noise when it’s windy, was put in place during the days of the Mt Robert Ski Field, to serve as a goal for kids weary from the long walk. Once they reached the pole, lollies were distributed to provide energy for the final push into 2nd Basin. Several members of our party looked hopeful for a lollie handout before skiing down to our destination.

Guy and Dylan having finally reached the whistling pole
Guy and Dylan having finally reached the whistling pole
Hawkins winning the morning
Hawkins winning the day

Skiing on Mt Robert was started in the 1930s, usually in 1st Basin, by members of the Nelson Ski Club. Over the preceding 30 years, skiing was improved by way of portable rope tows, instructors, and forays further south along Mt Robert into 2nd, 3rd and 4th Basin’s. In the 1950-60s, the Mt Robert Ski Field was established in 2nd Basin; two lodges were built, and rope tows installed. The Ski Field no longer exists, but the lodges have been retained, and are now managed by the Mt Robert Foundation.

Christie Lodge in the morning sun
Christie Lodge in the morning sun

Arriving at the lodges is a bit like stepping into a timewarp. They are seriously full of character, and not much has changed since they were built. It didn’t take long to get a feed on, and climb into the whisky. We whiled away the evening to the slightly out-of-tune sounds of a piano which an obviously mad club member had lugged the whole way up.

Inside the Robert Lodge carb loading and drinking whisky
Inside the Robert Lodge carb loading and drinking whisky
Yarning the night away in the time warp that is the Mt Robert lodges
Yarning the night away in the time warp that is the Mt Robert lodges

As forecasted, the weather the next day was perfect bluebird. After breakfast and a coffee, the snow was starting to soften nicely. We got started on the easy skin (apparently a bit much for some…) to the top of the old ski field.
Part of the group stayed in 2nd Basin, while the rest of us went adventuring into 3rd. We found amazing spring snow, and much steeper, longer vert terrain than had been expected.

Starting the slog from Robert Lodge
Starting the slog from Robert Lodge
Skinning along the ridge to the north edge of Julius Summit in 3rd Basin
Skinning along the ridge to the north edge of Julius Summit in 3rd Basin
Mt Robert isn't all mellow terrain. We got some amazing spring skiing down onto the tarns and throughout this south side of 3rd Basin
Mt Robert isn’t all mellow terrain. We got some amazing spring skiing down onto the tarns and throughout this south side of 3rd Basin

After several epic laps of 3rd Basin, we headed back to the lodge and caught the last of the sun before a big feed and solid rehydration efforts. The next day brought the same amazing conditions and more fantastic skiing, followed by the long walk back down the hill, and pizza and beers at the Alpine Lodge in St Arnaud.

Dick getting his stoke on after some creamy corn turns
Dick getting his stoke on after some creamy corn turns
Tom getting some spring turns in August
Tom getting some spring turns in August

Mt Robert is a special place. It’s easy to see why skiers came here in the first place. The retention of the old Ski Club lodges, and their ongoing maintenance and management, is a massive asset to backcountry skiing in the area. It preserves the heritage of skiing in Nelson Lakes, and provides a perfect base for touring in the Mt Robert area. If you are interested in using the Lodges, please contact the Mt Robert Foundation – http://www.mtrobert.org.nz/contact/ – for bookings. Better yet, get involved in the Foundation by becoming a member.

Looking north from about halfway up Mt Robert
Looking north from about halfway up Mt Robert

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