Tue, Jul 13, 2021 4:00 PM

Rainbow Ski Area open for business

Photos: Barry Whitnall / Shuttersport

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A lack of snow last year led to the Top of the South’s shortest ski season on record. Those in charge of the Rainbow Ski Area have been praying since March for snow clouds to gather. This year, they might get their wish, with the season opening on 10 July. Tracy Neal reports.


The St Arnaud mountain range marks the apex of the Golden Triangle that is Te Tauihu - Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough. Among the peaks and valleys of its eastern slopes lies Rainbow Ski Area.

It is flanked by the Nelson Lakes National Park; is technically within Marlborough but is close enough to Tasman District that all sides like to stake a claim.

For years, families and individuals have rugged up and trundled up the icy shingle road to the ski field, via the same road that leads to Rainbow Station.

But it was different last year - a warm winter cut the number of days the ski field was open from an average of 72, to 23 days.

Rainbow Ski Area committee chair Mark Unwin says they’re not hoping for a repeat, which meant dipping into reserve funds to cover last season’s costs. He is counting on science, and luck to help them this time.

“We use a couple of indicators to predict our season. We look at the NIWA long-range forecast and what is happening in the Northern Hemisphere, which had a great winter season.

“We also look at the ground temperature, which has been colder for us up at Rainbow and we’ve had a couple of dustings of snow, but ground temperature is really important.

“If it remains cold the snow will hold, and that will make it easier for snow making.”

A snowboarder relaxes with a view at Rainbow Ski Area. Photo: Barry Whitnall/Shuttersport.
A snowboarder relaxes with a view at Rainbow Ski Area. Photo: Barry Whitnall/Shuttersport.

As this article was being drafted, mountain manager Tom Harry was driving two snow makers to Rainbow from down south. He says they are key pieces of machinery that will allow the field to open as planned for the July school holidays.

“It’s a very big investment but we’re pretty excited about what it will mean for us to open on time.”

Tom says boosting their snow-making capability will mean snow cover for Rainbow’s entire central run.

“Snow making has become more frequent over the past years. We’re lucky we can do that; it guarantees cover, and all fields are doing it.”

Rainbow is run as a commercial operation, but the club owns the assets on the field, and has a licence to operate from the Department of Conservation.

“We’re a club operation that runs a commercial field and with the support of our members and our partners, we’re good to open.

“Christmas pre-sales and support were good, and we’ve had new customers sign up for season passes.”

The club has about 150 members, and Mark credits last season’s dedicated beginners for helping it through by signing up to learn to ski.

“We had a lot more beginners because it was a lesser product, so we did cheaper deals and got a lot of new people interested in skiing and snow board riding. That has translated into sales this year.”

Rainbow is classed as a small ski field, and while it caters to intermediate and advanced skiers and board riders, its strength is its base for novices.

Tasman tourism and hospitality business owner Nic Roland is one of the ski area’s biggest fans. Nic and his wife Manuela Fuhrimann run The Playhouse in Mapua.

“Rainbow is my happy place. I love going up there and it’s where I met my wife.”

Nic says Rainbow has a “good family vibe”, and if you can get there on a good powder day during the week, he says it’s probably one of the best ski fields in the country because there’s no one there.

“During the week you pretty much have the place to yourself. Anywhere else in the country, by 10am the whole place is tracked out – you can’t find any fresh snow anywhere.

“At Rainbow you can still find fresh snow at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Nic, a keen snowboarder who learned the art on the slopes of Cardrona, says neither are there any queues for the lift or tow at Rainbow, except at the weekends but they are nothing like those on fields elsewhere.

“Try going to Tūroa (Mt Ruapehu) on a Saturday. It’s like, oh my God, downtown Auckland traffic.

“Rainbow’s smallness makes it nice in lots of ways and also the number of sunny days there.”

Nic says it is also significant that for many of us, we have a ski slope just over an hour’s drive from the ocean.

“There are certain places where you can go up and over the ridge and you can see the Abel Tasman National Park from there.

“If you put that in perspective you are driving from Nelson or Marlborough, hiking to the top of a mountain, looking down the valley and you can see the ocean, which is actually incredible.”

Photo: Barry Whitnall/Shuttersport. 
Photo: Barry Whitnall/Shuttersport. 

For a place of such grandeur and beauty, the name Rainbow does conjure images of gently rolling land steeped in milk and honey. Its name is linked to the Rainbow high country station, which a former lease holder Tom Sturgess says is named after the Rainbow River, which joins the Wairau just past Hell’s Gate, near the border with Molesworth.

There is also a mythical connection. The tallest mountain in New Zealand outside the Southern Alps is head and shoulders above the cluster of peaks in the north-east corner of the South Island.

Tapuae-o-Uenuku, formerly Mount Tapuaenuku, translates as "footprint of the rainbow", and is clearly visible east from the ridgeline above the ski area.

Rainbow Ski Area has recently created a commemorative history to mark its 40th year. The origins of the name span what researchers Helen Rance and Katherine Vadura describe as urban myths, including that the valley was named after a shepherd called Rainbow (ref: Footprints JNW Newport) to the origins of the early explorers and their Māori guides.

Travers, Lock, Maling and Oldham wrote a description of their journey during an 1855 exploration of the Upper Wairau.

With the guidance of local Māori, they wrote “Te Kopi o Uenuku (the Rainbow River) had its source in the mountains above Lake Rotoroa”.

Mark Unwin says Rainbow is like all other ski fields, including those in the deep south, in that it is planning for a future on the mountain with less natural snow.

“We want to do more to create access to the mountain, year-round. We have been working with the Department of Conservation to try and open or provide different products so more people can use the mountain. It would be good to get school groups there, to do things like mountain safety training.”

He says diversity is needed to support maintenance of the huts and other gear.

"It's absolutely something we need to look at - that, and our investment in snow-making are the two key things for Rainbow, long-term.”

In the meantime, Mark says they’re looking forward to a white winter, and to welcoming more people on to the slopes.

Written for Nelson Magazine