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Mt Hutt Coronet Peak

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"Climate change is real. We recognise that. We are the canary in the coalmine," says David Ovendale, sales and marketing manager for Southern Alpine Recreation, the biggest skifield operator.

"Where the snowline sat 20 years ago and where the snowline sits today, there's your canary.

"We are doing everything we can to mitigate. Technology is improving and the window for snowmaking is widening in terms of temperature, and snowmaking guns are getting smarter."

But it is not just snowmaking equipment Southern is spending on. It owns the Coronet Peak, Mt Hutt and The Remarkables fields and it is spending $30 million at its flagship Coronet field and $5 million on the other two.

It has demolished the Coronet base facilities and is building a $20 million complex that Ovendale says is a world-leading facility. Architect Michael Wyatt has used natural stone and wood with wall-to-ceiling windows to construct an alpine building in the classic style.

Indoor seating has been doubled to 160 and the 1800 sq m deck is four times what it used to be. With full underfloor heating on the deck, the experience of skidding in your ski boots with a tray of food and drinks should be a thing of the past.

There's one restaurant serving fast food and another with brasserie style fare.

Ovendale says that in the modern era of snow sports, people spend less time on the snow because of high-speed lifts, and that's why the base facilities are so important. "As the population ages we tend to spend a bit more time over lunch."

Opening day for the complex is planned for June 7.

Having spent that much, Southern, owned by seven South Island businessmen, had to look at the possibility of what happens if it doesn't snow.

They decided to condense their five-year snowmaking programme into six months.

Water storage facilities were expanded and the number of automatic snow guns was doubled to 204.

"With 10 days of snowmaking we will be able to put 1.1m of snow over the entire trail network."

Ovendale said the decision to spend heavily on Coronet was straightforward - it is most popular field in terms of skier days in the South Island.

Though Mt Hutt is close to Christchurch, it doesn't have the same pulling power for North Island, Australian and other foreign visitors as Queenstown.

Mt Hutt had $12 million spent on it in 2005 when a six-seater detachable chairlift was put in to replace the T-bars. This year it is getting 25 new snow guns to try to circumvent last year's problems of late start and early finish for the natural fluffy stuff.

Ovendale says Southern plans to put in one more lift at Coronet, possibly next year, depending how this season goes, to complete that field's development for some years. Next season the focus will be on the The Remarkables.

This season, though, that field is getting a new beginner terrain park to try and build on its marketing position as the youth action place.

Southern has also joined forces with snowboard maker Burton International. They have integrated the new park into the whole field using the natural topography from top to bottom. The concept has been tried at Avoriaz in France and Lake Tahoe in California but it is the first in the southern hemisphere.

The Remarkables is also getting two new magic carpet learner lifts to add to the one already there, plus it has commissioned four four-wheel-drive 47-seat buses to take customers up the slopes.

All up, Southern will have spent $65 million on the three fields since the businessmen bought them five years ago.

Although it doesn't reveal its financial figures, Ovendale said last year was a strong revenue year despite the slow start.

But all that spending has to be paid for. Adult day passes at Coronet go up to $93 from $89 and youth passes from $47 to $49. Earlybird season passes for Coronet, The Remarkables and nearby Ohau (which must have been purchased by now) rose to $699 from $649.

Mt Hutt adult passes rise to $89 from $84 and the earlybird season pass to $579 from $549.

Ovendale said Southern was mindful of keeping it real for customers but said compared with a jet boat ride or bungy "it's remarkably cheap".

The other big spender in the South Island this year has been Cardrona.

It is revamping the Captain's Basin to the tune of $8 million-$9 million. The centrepiece is a new $5 million, detachable, high-speed quad chairlift which will get skiers and boarders up the slopes two-and-a-half times quicker. Cardrona now has two detachable quads and one fixed quad.

The field is also upgrading snowmaking in the Captain's Basin and the cafe there, extending it to a pizzeria with two-and-a-half times the seats.

Cardrona has done extensive earthworks on its advanced terrain park to enhance the triple jump line and put new trails down "Scum Valley", down the middle of the field.

Its adult day pass has risen to $81 from $77 while the youth rate is up to $40 from $39.

Cardrona sales and marketing manager Bruce McGechan said last season was bizarre because the snow came "seriously late". Despite that, Cardrona had a good year.

Treble Cone at Wanaka has had a relatively quiet time in terms of capital spending. The main item has been the South Ridge trail enhancement - widening it and altering the tilt so it is more south-facing and will hold the snow more so the groomers don't break through into the tussock as they did rather too early in the season last year.

Burton International has been busy at Treble Cone too, helping set up learn-to-ride equipment and programmes specially designed for beginner snow boarders.

It has held its lift prices - $89 for an adult, $59 for students and $40 for children - and acting marketing manager Sam Williams said it wasn't due to price resistance.

Treble Cone, possibly the most challenging field in the country and a favourite with hotshots, copped flak last year for hiking its season pass from $999 to $1500 and introducing a peak season day pass price of $99 for July and August when most North Islanders want to visit.

Last year, Treble Cone, which normally gets good snow, had an erratic season, with some of the best dumps coming three weeks after it had closed.

Cardrona's McGechan says that after 20 years in the business he can say there is no such thing as a normal season.

"There is absolutely no pattern to what's going on. How well we do at the end of the year seems to be independent of what snow conditions are like at any time of the year."

Safety first
Given Mt Ruapehu and other New Zealand ski fields have more rocks protruding through the snow (although no trees), a new study showing the benefits of wearing helmets in reducing head injuries may be even more pertinent.

The US study has shown the risk of head injuries on the slopes is 15 per cent lower if you wear a ski helmet.

Norwegian and Canadian studies done earlier put the reduction at up to 60 per cent.

All the studies found ski helmets reduced head injuries, according to Professor Peter Cummings of the University of Washington in Seattle. Writing in the Epidemiology medical journal, his studies showed a 15 per cent drop in injury, while the Canadian and Norwegian studies put the reduction at 29 and 60 per cent respectively.

The US study conducted from 2000 to 2005 in three western resorts examined 4224 head, face, or neck injuries. About 21, 25, and 24 per cent of those who suffered head, face, and neck injuries, respectively, wore helmets.

Professor Cummings noted that wearing a helmet reduced the risk of head injury by about 15 per cent among all skiers and snowboarders.
The study found no particular bias among beginners, males or any other sub-group.
There was no evidence in his study or others that wearing a helmet increased the risk of neck injury.