[Updated with further comment from NZTA and corrections to remove the words ‘every time it snows’ and that those from the West Coast travelling for urgent business would be ‘banned’]
Natural hazards aren’t the biggest obstacles getting across the South Island’s main route to the West Coast – it’s the NZ Transport Agency.
In the interests of “safety” it plans to close the road when it snows heavily, but this is worrying the five skifields, every business, and the settlements including Arthurs Pass. They are concerned there will more closures than previously, and the snow clearing will take longer.
West Coasters heading across to Christchurch for urgent business like medical appointments will also be affected. Most of these motorists own four-wheel-drive vehicles, have chains, and extensive experience traversing alpine roads. State Highway 73 is a wide open, silky doddle compared with the local ski field roads.
Winter road users believe NZTA has effectively declared war on them and it is no surprise a petition quickly sprang up, attracting 17,000 signatures in the first two days.
Uli Dinsenbacher, who ran Porters ski field for 38 years, says the ski seasons are short enough for operators without this added burden.
“It’s a real threat to the ski industry if they start closing the roads when they feel like it.”
He says NZTA is poor at communicating, and some of the staff now used by their contractors to oversee the roads have no idea what they are doing.
“They don’t know the difference between two-wheel-drives and four-wheel-drives.
“We had to help one of their grader drivers fit chains once because he didn’t know how to do it.”
Dinsenbacher says the way NZTA is now running things could cause more problems than it’s fixing.
“Imagine if there’s a big powder day and a crowd’s come and then at 1pm it dumps [and] they decide to shut the road.
“Then everyone’s trapped … what are the ski fields going to do?”
Petition organiser Ross Thomas will definitely be one of those skiing on a powder day.
“My motivation was purely selfish really, I want to be able to go skiing when it snows and I don’t want the road to be closed.”
He’s delighted with the response, saying “it’s clearly it’s hit a bit of a nerve with some people”.
NZTA’s timing could not have been worse. Just as the country came out of lockdown and back to Level 1, many feel they are imposing a heavy hand on the Canterbury high country motorists.
The community is angry. Very angry.
Former broadcaster John Dunne lives at Castle Hill Village, on the way between Christchurch and Greymouth.
The keen skier and outdoorsman says:
“The road was closed last weekend. There was not a bloody snowflake to be seen.
“Nanny state strikes again, it’s in effect.”
Castle Hill residents have a public meeting scheduled for next Wednesday.
Arthur’s Pass Cafe and Store owner Sean Moran said the first weekend of snow had been “a complete disaster”, with business down 80 percent.
Grey district mayor Tania Gibson attacked NZTA for not consulting with businesses or the council.
“I think their communication needs to be kicked up a notch,” she said.
As for the ski fields on the route – Porters, Mt Cheeseman, Broken River, Craigieburn, and further along Temple Basin – it was a struggle for them to survive even before New Zealand’s borders were shut.
Most Porters staff are based at Springfield and have to travel up Porters Pass to get to the ski field about 40 minutes’ drive away.
While they’re used to driving in snowy conditions, under the NZTA plan for snow clearing they’ll be stopped at the block just outside the township until the highway is reopened.
Transit says it is keeping consistent and has the same policy for all alpine passes when snow is on the road.
In previous years, drivers have been able to use chains, but this year the roads will be closed until they have been gritted or de-iced.
John Dunne responds: “They’ve been doing it on the Lewis Pass, which is pretty much all DoC land until Maruia Springs and Springs Junction.
“State Highway 73’s different, it’s got lots of little settlements – Castle Hill Village, Arthur’s Pass, Otira and the ski fields plus it’s important access for the coast.
“This is a complete and utter balls-up.”
NZTA is rejecting the idea that it will close State Highway 73 more often, and says the main reason for the lengthy closure last weekend was extremely dangerous black ice, not snow.
It admits there should have been more consultation with ski field operators and residents, and late this week met with ski field representatives and have scheduled a meeting with residents for next week.
“What we’re aiming to do here is make it safer. We don’t want to stop tourists getting across to the West Coast,” says NZTA’s South Island media manager Frances Adank.
The same “Open/Closed” system has been used on Lewis Pass since 2017 and NZTA claims delays for road users there have been shorter. Road crews were able to focus on clearing and treating snow and ice to make driving safer, instead of rescuing stuck vehicles.
*Jeff Hampton is currently putting together Series 02 of Demolition NZ as well as other projects. He is a keen skier and has enjoyed the slopes of the Craigieburn Range alongside State Highway 73 for more than 40 years.