Head to Rainbow Ski Area to enjoy some fun in the snow

Matt Alcock.
BRADEN FASTIER

Matt Alcock.

Every winter thousands of people from Nelson and Marlborough head to the Rainbow Ski Area to enjoy some fun in the snow. 

With the ski field set to open again for the season on July 8, Admire talks to some of the people who love Rainbow.

EAT SLEEP SKI

Matt Alcock has been all over the world, working on fields of gloriously cold, white, powdery snow but it's Rainbow Ski Area which he says is "just like one big, giant family".

After 15 years working on the slopes of Turoa at Mt Ruapehu in the North Island, Matt says he was "looking for a change" when he took on the role of looking after the snow school, events and customer service at Rainbow last year.

This year, he'll be returning as the ski area manager, living on the mountain with about five other staff members who need to be there 24 hours a day.

Learning to ski on an artificial outdoor dry ski slope in North London when he was just seven, Matt would go away with his family at least once a year for a ski holiday. Growing up in the United Kingdom meant ski holidays in European chalets was the norm.

"It was a family thing that we did - mum, dad, me and my sister."

Matt, who now lives in Nelson, says though he was a keen skier, it wasn't an "active decision" to take it up as a career. His original career path was catering.

"Then from there, I kinda woke up one morning and I was like, 'there's gotta be more to life than this'. I was working in a really high end restaurant, there was a lot of hours worked a day and really unsociable."

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Starting out working and managing chalets in France, he says he really liked "the atmosphere and the work and being up in the mountains".

"It was great."

In 2001, Matt felt the pull of New Zealand, mainly from a friend who had come out in 2000. He says his friend wouldn't stop "politely harassing" him via emails to "put down the knives and come out".

Matt has called New Zealand home ever since. He says he's fallen in love with New Zealand, has become a permanent resident and calls Aotearoa "home".

That's not an all year round arrangement though, especially when he's going "snow to snow".

In the last couple of years, Matt says he's experienced more summers than he probably ever has.

For 14 years, he didn't see a summer. The snow calendar in New Zealand covers from mid-July to mid-October. With four weeks to recuperate, Matt would then head to Japan for the snow which would take him through to mid-April before more down time, starting the cycle all over again a few months later.

Matt has worked out he has done 38 winters globally since 1995 including 16 in New Zealand, 10 in France, seven in America, three in the United Kingdom and two in Japan.

Having been on small slopes and big commercial ski areas, Matt calls Rainbow "one of those up and coming fields".

"Technically it is a club field and will always be a club field, but just the opportunities that it has 'cos it's right on the cusp of going from something wonderful and fantastic to something two or three times what that is."

By 2002 Rainbow Ski Area was fighting for its survival. Starting out in the early 1980s, the ski field was thriving by the mid-1990s but after some lean seasons, the field was closed and the slopes were stripped, with only two handle lifts remaining. A committee was formed to save the ski area and with the successful use of media, councils, grants and businesses, Rainbow was re-opened on July 17, 2004.

Matt says Rainbow has great terrain to cater to anyone from beginners to advanced level snow bunnies.

"I'm a huge advocate for anything on snow. If anyone's never done it or it's always been on their to-do list, then come up and see us this season."

LOVING THE SLOPES

Like matching tracks weaving through powdered snow, retail and Rainbow Ski Area run parallel and intertwined through Greg Hall's life.

The Blenheim man has visited more than 15 ski areas around New Zealand during four decades on the slopes.

Incredibly, he has only suffered one bad injury - a dislocated shoulder at Mt Hutt last year.

"Instead of putting my arm out I thought I'd just roll with it and landed on sheet ice, which is like concrete - I've had some physio and it's not too bad these days."

While most avid snowboarders tend to list European or North American terrains as their top shredding locations, Greg's preferences remain closer to home.

"I'm a bit of a Kiwi fan to be honest - I've been retailing my whole life and you get a lot of foreigners coming in and rave about how beautiful New Zealand is, so I'm maybe brainwashed to think 'I don't need to go anywhere else, I've got paradise here'.

"We're lucky that we've got a lot of good ski fields and I'm very lucky to have Rainbow right on our back doorstep."

He rates the Rainbow Valley road that leads to the skifield as "by far" the most beautiful in the country.

"It's different because you're (driving) through the bush and it's like going for a tramp - it's so pretty, especially after it's snowed."

The ski field itself is "a wonderful asset for the top of the south community", he says.

Although he deals more in skateboards than ski poles these days, as owner of Blenheim streetwear store Fresh, Greg was eight when his family bought a local ski shop Camping Sports and Clothing in town during the early 1980s.

About the same time 120km away, the fledgling Rainbow Skifield had also opened and the Halls were among the first to kit out the ski fraternity for their day on the piste.

"Right from the get-go the old man was selling skis, boots and running a ski hire and repair service - of course, back then it was new and no-one had any gear," he says.

With the 1760 metre-high mountain just a 90 minute drive from Blenheim, Greg soon began skiing regularly at Rainbow before taking up snowboarding when the new snow sport hit New Zealand a decade later.

"I remember being up at the field when there was probably only five of us on snowboards and everyone else was on skis, then over the years the numbers grew - it's probably about 50/50 now."

The good times were temporarily halted by Rainbow's closure in 2002.

At the same time, the emergence of online trading began to impact on Greg's retail business.

"People in the snow sports industry started going 'I can bring in ten snowboards from America and land them, not pay tax and sell them out of my boot'," he says.

When the skifield reopened in 2004, he no longer sold ski gear beyond the occasional pair of gloves or goggles.

"I think that's still quite prevalent today unless you go to places like Queenstown or Wanaka where the retail side of snow sports is really well catered for because they've got a captive market."

Greg estimates he still goes up to the mountain 12 times each season. Like everyone else who visits, however, it's never enough.

"The field's open for about three months.  You get days where the weather's not ideal when you are wanting to go, there are other days that you're working and just can't go - you'll get a few people that do 40-50 days a year, but they're the ones with too much money," he says.

"Maybe one day I'll get to that point."

Proving the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, his 13-year-old son Tom is also an avid snowboarder, having started skiing at Rainbow from the age of one.

Hall is also hopeful of getting his two-year-old daughter Hayley on skis this season.

"It's a good time to start - they're so cute when they're that age."

SKI SCHOOL

Every winter Nelson woman Jill Clendon can be found on the slopes of Rainbow Ski Area.

"It's kind of a second career for me," says JIll, who works part-time at Rainbow and also works at the Ministry of Health in Wellington, commuting to the capital on Monday mornings and back on Friday evenings.  

Jill says she started training to be a ski instructor after her children began skiing in the Rainbow development programme five years ago.

"I was just sorta skiing around, and got to know the ski school director at the time.  I asked if I went out and got my qualifications if he would give me a job.

"He said 'yes, absolutely', so I went out, got qualified and I've been teaching ever since."

Jill says she loves the variety that being a ski instructor brings.

"You never know what you're going to get from group to group.

"Last year I had the babies of the group if you like, the youngsters.  I had a really neat group of seven to 10-year-olds.

"I worked with them every Sunday morning for about 10 weeks.  You get to know the kids really well and help work with each individual kid on their own strength, help them develop.

"That's really nice.  It's a lot of fun as well. Of course you have the challenge of working with little kids."

Jill says her involvement with Rainbow had been "intense", starting a decade ago as a maintenance volunteer.

Teaching skiing to people never gets boring, says Jill, who can talk about it all day.

"It's just an amazing environment, just being up the mountains is fantastic."

The biggest benefit to skiing is being outdoors and building lots of self confidence, she says.

"They realise that they can do it - they're out there and they're skiing around.

"It's a real sport for life. You can start as soon as you can walk and ski right until you're still physically able.  I have seen skiers in their 80s."

Jill says one of the highlights of the past five years of teaching was working with her development group last year.

"Getting from skiing on beginners slopes to getting them skiing off piste, kind of in the backcountry with some support - that was really cool."

The worst moments of teaching are when the weather is horrible, she says.

"When it's rainy or it's bucketing down with snow, it sticks to everything and the kids are miserable.

"I've never had any injuries when I've been teaching.  Probably the only major injury was a long time ago when I was hit by a snowboarder while skiing and broke my hand."

Apart from her love for skiing, she says she loves the Rainbow Ski Area because it is not pretentious.

"You go to some of the big fields and it's all about what you wear and how you look, people throwing their cash around. Rainbow is not like that, it's about family friendly having fun.

"We don't care if you wear your Swanndri and plastic overalls up there. We don't care if you have skinny skis from the 1970s as long as they're safe.

"We just want people up there having a really good time. It's just a really nice place to spend your weekends."

For anyone wanting to learn how to ski, Jill has the following advice:

"Come up to Rainbow and have a lesson, because it's one thing to come up, hire skies and think you can do it all yourself.  You need to learn the basics and enjoy the snow."

 

 - The Marlborough Express

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