Mt Dobson owner Peter Foote steps aside
After 36 years running Mt Dobson, Peter Foote plans to make this his final season. Nick Truebridge reports.
If you ask Peter Foote what has kept him running Mt Dobson what you'll get is a list, a long one.
The Mt Dobson ski area owner-operator plans to step down at the end of this season - 36 years after the skifield opened.
But what has kept Foote going? It's not his personal thirst for skiing - he concedes he has never been a gun on the slopes.
Instead, Foote says, it is "everything", from the mountain itself right down to the pies in cafeteria.
"It's everything. Look at the view, the environment. That in itself and being up here in the summertime in the mountains. Where else would you want to be? You can sit out there and have your lunch and look at the view.
"Also the variety. You're running about four or five businesses. There's the cafeteria, the ski rental, you've got the earthmoving. The people themselves, you get a big kick out of seeing them getting pleasure out of something you've created.
"All these things have got to be made and skis have to be repaired. So it's more the variety and satisfaction. If somebody comes along and wants to sit here and have a yarn well you can and if you want to piss off and go jet boating in the summertime you can.
"It's all of it. The whole thing. I mean right down to the pies."
Paper cuttings on the walls of Dobson's cafeteria pay tribute to 36 years of hard work to make the ski area what it is today.
Beating the "bastards" back in the day was also a driving force. Foote says there were plenty of supporters back then, but also plenty of naysayers.
"I remember my mother saying 'I'll believe it when I see it'. But, no, there was tremendous support.
"A lot of people said, no, you won't do it. The catchment board, they were convinced I wasn't going to do it. But that made me more bloody determined than ever. I was going to beat those bastards," he asserts.
It becomes almost immediately clear, Mt Dobson stands as is today through Foote's hard yakka.
Officially, the field opened in 1979, but the groundwork started well before then.
"It probably starts with my boy scout days. We did a ski trip back in 1959 up to the Ball Hut and then through the boy scouts we decided to climb Fox's Peak, this is way back in 1962, and anyhow we went up and climbed it.
"We came across these fellas up at Fox's Peak who were working away there and asked 'do you want a hand'. So the next week we went back and helped them and then next thing you're on the committee. I was involved in putting the tows in up at Fox's Peak.
"Being a motor mechanic I was introduced to earthmoving machinery through working for the international harvesting people and the introduction to heavy machinery sort of opened a door. Me and another fella bought a bulldozer and built the road at Fox's Peak.
"We proved it could work. Trying to get long-term security there was not an easy situation when you had freehold land and I was a third party," Foote said.
Cutting the Fox's Peak road proved, to Foote, a job of that size could be done. Eventually he decided "well I'm out of here, I've got to get my own".
The hunt was on. Foote went on a mission to find his own field.
"By this time I've accumulated a bit of knowledge, so I had to go finding a place. In those days we were getting quite a considerable number of followers with our skiing and so we did research and we went all along the range here.
"We found probably four or five basins that had potential, but I was quite keen to get access off the main road. So I approached the cocky and he was sports-minded. He was very good," Foote recalls.
Things started rolling, sort of, in 1972. But Foote expressed frustration in having to deal with "20 different organisations" to make Mt Dobson ski area a reality.
Mt Dobson ski area.
"We applied to lands and survey to put the skifield in. In fact we were going to put it around on the front face. But then, during the four years of bureaucracy and the 20 different organisations, we decided to investigate what was around here.
"We flew over with a friend and it looked a bit more sheltered and the snow looked a bit more reliable. So we walked up there one winter and I thought 'oh well we can build extra road to get up to where it is."
In 1976, after loading up by buying another dozer, building the road up to Dobson proceeded. But, as Foote recalls, there was plenty of "bullshit" to push through on the way up the mountain.
"It took three years of building the road - there was a whole lot of bureaucratic bullshit. The biggest enemy was the catchment board at the time. They had bylaws and they were breathing down our neck when we were going over culverts and so-fourth.
"If we were up against the Resource Management Act, as we are today, you wouldn't have even got started."
Today it takes roughly 20 minutes to reach the Mt Dobson carpark on a good day - cutting the road took about 10,000 hours "on dozers".
On top of that, Foote and his team had to prove they could finance each section. He got creative about getting the ski area up and running.
While cutting the road, Foote was still doing tractor repairs and picked up "a couple of contracts" laying telephone cables.
"We'd go away and do a contract, earn some money, and keep going.
"We bought two old dozers. We wrecked two for parts to keep one going. We picked up the one dozer for $500 and I think we paid $1000 for the other one. We wrecked them and used the parts to keep one machine going."
He makes it clear completing the road was a team effort. His late wife, Shirley, made 700 culvert pipes for the 70 culverts discovered on the road.
On completion of the road, the sale of a bulldozer gave him and his team a "few dollars" to install a rope tow.
Mt Dobson ski area finally opened in September 1979, but within ten years was almost snowed under.
"Our first full year was 1980. And then in 1983 we borrowed a lot of money from what was the Development Finance Corporation. We put in the lift up on the learners slope, we put in the T-bar, and they were robbing us 26 and a half per cent interest.
"In 1987 we had a poor snow year, and 1988. That just about put us out the back door. Financially I had to pump the fuel out of the tanks and sell it to transport people to try and pay the bills," Foote recalls.
But Foote ploughed onwards and recalls 1989 being one helluva year, with Dobson cashing in thanks to a lack of powder further south.
"All these Aucklanders had flown to Queenstown and were driving back up here. They drove up from Queenstown and drove back to Queenstown each night.
Foote cutting the road up to Mt Dobson in 1976.
"That year was a record year. We managed to pay out DFC and I thought 'I'm never borrowing money again after that performance'."
Since Dobson's record year, which still stands as 1989, Foote says times have been "pretty steady since".
"There's good years and then there's not so good years. It's all snow related."
As for memories, Foote confirms 36 years makes room for plenty of those.
"We had one or two horrific storms with huge amounts of snow to clear off the road. We had an FIS here which was about 1996. FIS is the Federation of International Skiing. It was a world event, we had 13 different countries racing.
"We had one storm about three years ago. The snow was up to six metres deep on the road, that was a major. You're always looking for development, and when we put the chairlift in, in 2001, that was pretty major in terms of financing it and then finding one and then my sons built the towers.
"If it wasn't for my boys and my wife we couldn't have done it. I've got three sons and they did a great job of doing their part in it.
"You get about three months off. You could do all the maintenance in one month if you put more manpower into it, but when you're by yourself it's obviously going to take a lot longer. When the boys are here they help. You've got to do your maintenance, if you don't do your maintenance you'll have things during the season that'll go wrong," Foote says.
So after all those years why is Foote looking to pass the field onto his sons, Richard, Allan and Bruce, now?
"Well it's a bit of a combination. I lost my wife to cancer 14 years ago. My present partner has not been involved, she's got cancer now. I'm coming up 73, at what point do you have to step aside? I'm not doing all those things I spoke of before. A lot of them I'm not doing properly. If you're not doing them properly sooner or later one of them will bite you in the bum.
"At my age, at some stage you've got to step aside. It's a young man's game really."
But one thing is for sure.
After 36 years, Foote knows a good day on the slopes when he sees one, and the personal thrill of a good day on Dobson lives on.
"That's what it's all about is having nice weather, good snow coverage, happy customers, groomed runs, lifts all running well and at the end of the day you usually sit down and go 'that was a good day'. Then you might have a drink or something to celebrate it.
"The trouble is then you've got to think 'oh I've got another day tomorrow, I can't go out and have a hard night because I've got to be up at 5.30am in the morning."