Take me back to Tekapo

03:54, Aug 08 2011
REBORN: Owner/operator of the reopened and equiped Roundhill Ski Area, Christian Burtscher.

What kind of characters return to their home skifield in the South Island's alpine foothills, only to rebuild bigger and better? Meet the Burtschers of Tekapo - Christian, his older sister, Caroline, and her Swiss husband, Oscar Rieder (aka Oscar Burtscher).

My first memory of skiing Roundhill, near Tekapo, is of fanging down the cruisy main run in my home-made quilted skisuit and feeling like a hero on skis. I was probably six. Family friendly with mellow slopes, a sunny aspect and social car park, the Roundhill vibe has not changed an iota.

In the late 1980s, after three consecutive bad snow years plus health problems, Karl Burtscher (senior) and wife Audrey closed Roundhill ski area.

An Austrian immigrant who farmed the station below Roundhill, Karl had run Roundhill since the early 1970s. As the Burtscher kids began to return to the area after OEs and life elsewhere, Christian, 37, Caroline and Oscar (mid- 40s) banded together to bring Roundhill back to life in the early 2000s. Snowmaking in the cold, dry Mackenzie Country was the ticket to guaranteed opening.

In the words of Oscar: "We hoped to make something that shined before, shine again."

Taking family-friendly a step further, a new lift was installed for the 2010 season. The 1473-metre long Heritage Express rope tow opens up Australasia's longest vertical run. Cheekily named "Who's your Daddy", at 783 vertical metres it supersedes Porters' "Big Mama" by more than 100 vertical metres.


Psyched to try the new rope tow, I arrive at Roundhill on a day that seems nor'west, yet not a breeze stirs the car park. Christian greets me, garrulous despite seediness from a staff night. In a gravelly voice, he enthusiastically begins a passionate lowdown on his ski hill.

We meet business partner and brother-in-law Oscar in a low-key office below the cafe. The easy banter between them reveals their mutual respect for each other and Caroline. Although Christian is the spokesman (a self- described "loudmouth"), he sings the praises of his partners, their shared vision and skills in running the field.

I ask about the name of the rope tow. Oscar describes it as a p...-take because everyone seems to name lifts "express 'this or that'."

"Besides, ours is also a high-speed detachable."

They describe the installation of the Heritage rope tow as a massive labour of love - dragging the towers up the hill and digging them in by hand.

I can't wait to get up there but first a stop at the Von Brown hut. Named for a friend of Karl senior, Von Brown was a famous German ski instructor with a colourful past.

The hut is a tiny wood and corrugated iron shed sitting high on the piste. With incredible views of the Main Divide, I duck through the miniature door and am welcomed by Caroline amid the shot glasses and espresso.

A lady in ski boots sits knitting and pictures of local skiers through the past 60 years dot the walls.

We head for "The Wall" and the Heritage Express. An apt description, the lift appears to run up an alarming gradient. "Straight as a die," Christian tells me proudly.

The pride the staff have in this peculiar lift is truly excellent. I jump on. The ride is smooth and easy enough. Hopping off at the top, I'm awestruck by the view.

The nor'west cloud spills over the Divide yet reveals a hint of Aoraki peeping through. Icy blue Lake Tekapo gleams against the tans of the Mackenzie Country.

I follow Christian who, despite the hangover, skis with an easy grace that proves his Austrian heritage and that he grew up at the base of this mountain.

He talks about the place like an old friend: "This ski area likes being open again. It likes being a ski area. That's its character. We love skiing here. We love everything about it."

The Press