Mt Hutt ski boss James Urquhart reveals what it takes to run a skifield
James Urquhart strapped on his first pair of skis at Mt Hutt at the age of four. Now managing Mt Hutt's ski operation, he reckons he has the best job in the world.
As commutes go, James Urquhart's daily pre-dawn trek from Methven to Mt Hutt must surely be one of the most challenging. Over winter, he's hitting the access road about 4.45am, threading his way through icy darkness and snow flurries, just to get to the office.
It is a peculiar work environment. In the middle of the night, snowmakers,groomers and road-clearing teams are hard at work getting everything ready for the day ahead. De-icing of the lifts is a particularly white-knuckle job unfolding in the small hours. It involves people working up pylons in a changeable, high-risk alpine environment.
One of the first tasks for James, as Mt Hutt's general manager operations, is to touch base with everyone to make sure all is well.
"There are people working on the mountain at all hours of the night. For us, as the management team, we're always worrying about what's happening and thinking about staff wellbeing and all those people making snow, driving Ski-Doos around in blizzards and everything else."
The mountain can be perilous, yet it is also one of the most beautiful work places imaginable. James will often hitch a ride with a snow groomer to the summit in time to see the sunrise.
"I can work from my phone. I'll be doing snow reports from the top of the mountain. It's the coolest place to be at that hour. Then, I'll ski down."From 8am, the patrollers are out clearing the trails.
"The ski-field manager and I go out after that and make the final checks before the public arrive at 9am and everything takes off."
Methven is James' hometown. Along with his five siblings, he grew up spending most winter weekends and school holidays at Mt Hutt. The lure of the mountain was irresistible. Learning to ski was just part of what kids did at the local school.
As they got older, it was common practice for everyone to spend the first week of their May school holidays picking potatoes in order to buy a season pass.
"We'd go around the local farms in Methven doing that. I think we were paid something like $7 a bag. We'd spend the second week of the holidays skiing!"
The mountain continues to shape him today and he has put down permanent roots in Methven, where he lives with his wife, Arlene, and their German shepherd dog. "It is a nice community and Mt Hutt is a strong part of that."
Skiing has never been a competitive pastime for James. What he really enjoys is hanging out with his mates, having fun.
Now he sees his mates' children skiing on the mountain, too. "We're all still together, skiing together."
Without a doubt, it is the people – both staff and visitors – who keep James hooked on the alpine way of life. "We have a lot of laughs. It is a fun place to be. Every day I'm so thankful to be working where I do. I'm one of the lucky ones who wake up in the morning feeling excited about going to work."
When James left school, he headed to Christchurch to study marketing. Fate intervened when Canterbury's "Big Snow" of 1992 blanketed the region.
"Seeing that snow, all I wanted to do was return to Methven and go skiing. That's what I did and while I was at Mt Hutt, I was offered a job, so I never went back to Christchurch!"
His career in the industry includes a decade working for Ski Travel Australia and contract work for an Australian ski company.
"Then NZSki asked me to come and work for them doing sales and marketing. "That was in 2005, a great year for Mt Hutt that saw the installation of a high-speed six-seat lift and a magic carpet, plus relocation of the quad chair to become a dedicated novice lift. It paved the way for a massive rise in business at that time, largely because the process of learning to ski at the field had suddenly become a whole lot easier.
"Skis themselves were also changing and becoming more user-friendly.
In 2012, James progressed to Mt Hutt's general manager operations. Ironically,his return to Mt Hutt enabled him to eventually complete the marketing degree he had been considering back in 1992. "The company paid for me to go to the University of Otago to do a degree in business management with a double major in sales and marketing, and strategic business. I finally finished that four years ago."
As well as upskilling staff, Mt Hutt also puts a huge focus on safety and improving the visitor experience. This winter, seven new road barriers are going in on the access road, new snow-making guns are being installed, along with new ski trails and new earthworks.
"We have spent a lot of time and money to ensure we have one of the best terrain parks in Canterbury – it's a big wow factor. We are also putting in a new magic carpet lift for beginners and extending the beginners' terrain.
"Plus, we are extending the kitchens up there, so we can put more fryers in and get the food out faster."
Last year, Mt Hutt was voted New Zealand's best ski resort at the World Ski Awards. While the earthquakes slowed visitor numbers for several years, the latest accolade is tipped to bring people back in droves, particularly with the sweetener of a lower-cost season pass for many. The projected growth in visitor numbers could fuel future developments, such as sealing the access road, more road barriers and more lifts.Inevitably, Mt Hutt has also had its dark days. Every so often, someone falls off the mountain or drives off the access road. There have been a handful of fatalities since 2010.
Rare wild-card natural events can sometimes sweep through, disrupting the field. In September 2010, more than 1200 people spent the night on the mountain due to bad weather. In 2013, the triple-chair return station was destroyed by an avalanche.
"Every time something happens, we learn from it. We try to eliminate risks and keep it as safe as possible," James says. "With things like avalanches, we have a snow-safety officer on patrol who reports to me. We very rarely see uncontrolled avalanches."
For James, maintaining safety also hinges on timely snow reports, meticulous preparation and planning, and staying in close touch with key staff members. Some have worked on the mountain for several decades. Experienced hands are recognised for their service at key anniversaries.
James' job description is extensive, but boils down to being an effective organiser and being adaptable. A myriad of issues can and do crop up, such as ice causing a hazard in the car park, Eftpos machines going offline, and people losing gloves and skis.
"Some may not have invested in getting lessons and are skiing outside their ability. They will go to the top with their mates and then get stuck up there, so we have to get them down in a Ski-Doo.
"You need to be able to think on your feet. The weather can change in five minutes. It's about being properly prepared and planning for it. Anything that can happen will happen."
James' responsibilities continue year-round. At the end of this season, planning and budgeting will begin for winter 2017.
A full round of maintenance and repairs will keep the team busy through to Christmas. Then the focus will turn to getting development work completed on schedule.
As well as sharing ideas with other ski areas, Mt Hutt also works closely with Christchurch Airport and Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism, along with Experience Mid Canterbury, to discuss growing the Australian and domestic market. The latest A$500,000 campaign, rolled out in conjunction with Tourism New Zealand and Air New Zealand, is targeted at luring more skiers and boarders to Canterbury.
Canterbury's winter playground will soon be in full swing.
James' alarm is set for 4.20am ahead of another season of adventure on the mountain.
AT A GLANCE
How many people work at Mt Hutt over winter?
We usually employ about 250, but depending on the season, it may go as high as 300, counting all the part-timers and snow-sports instructors.
Snow sport is our biggest department, with up to 120 staff. We have a lift crew of 40 and a food and beverage crew of 40.
Then there are 15 maintenance/groomers and 15 snowmakers. It all adds up. We have staff working here 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on the 100 to 110 days that we are open.
What are the different nationalities working on the mountain?
About 60 per cent are Kiwis and Australians. The rest are professional snow chasers from many different countries – snow-sports instructors, trained park staff, and others who travel the world working from winter to winter.
How much investment goes into grooming and snowmaking?
Most of the plant is bought in the United States or Europe. A groomer costs around $600,000. We have four of them and we replace them every five years or so.
We have about 78 or 79 snowmaking guns and we are currently investing in automation. It's the future of snowmaking. An automated snowmaker will start working as soon as the temperature is right; it is all done by computer.
One fully automatic TechnoAlpin T10 gun costs $80,000 or $90,000. It can make a tonne of snow in just two minutes. We would love to have 100 of them, but we have to prioritise.
How many visitors does the mountain attract on an average weekend day in winter?
We would usually have 2500 to 3500 people. Seventy per cent of our business is from New Zealand and a high proportion of that is from Canterbury.
We get 20 to 25 per cent from Australia and another 5 per cent from all over.
We're a real locals' mountain. A large number of schools have ski trips with us, too, with 18,000 to 19,000 school kids coming through over winter.
What is the percentage of ski beginners versus guns at Mt Hutt? And skiers versus snowboarders?
About 75 per cent of the market is beginners or intermediate level, compared with 25 per cent high-end intermediate to advanced.
We're all about the beginner. We used to have a 50/50 split between skiers and boarders, but now the ratio is 70 per cent skiers and 30 per cent boarders. It is just the current trend.
What areas are most popular at Mt Hutt?
The summit six chair lift is really popular, because you can go from the bottom to the top and look at the views. People also love the wide open space and consistency of our well-groomed runs.
How many chips are eaten at Mt Hutt over winter?
Chips and wedges – 10.5 tonnes. Then there's two tonnes of chicken, 250km of toilet paper and 43,133 espresso coffees.
- The Press