Only fools and dreamers

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 10 minutes

More than sixty years ago, Southland entrepreneur Wilson Cameron Campbell conceived an idea that had it been successful, could’ve transformed Te Anau into a ski resort similar to Queenstown or Wanaka. Alina Suchanski talked to his sons, Barry and Vaughan Campbell, about their father’s vision.

I’m plodding up Mt Luxmore, walking poles anchoring me to the frozen ground. There is a good snow cover on the mountain this year. Fiordland looks fabulous at any time, but snow on the peaks is the proverbial icing on the cake. However, only fools and dreamers would climb a mountain carrying skis and boots on their shoulders. My skis are digging into my collar bone, but I’m determined to follow in Wilson Campbell’s footsteps and try to ski on Mt Luxmore. Had Wilson had his way more than half a century ago, I could’ve been zooming up the slope in a ski lift.

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 10 minutes

More than sixty years ago, Southland entrepreneur Wilson Cameron Campbell conceived an idea that had it been successful, could’ve transformed Te Anau into a ski resort similar to Queenstown or Wanaka. Alina Suchanski talked to his sons, Barry and Vaughan Campbell, about their father’s vision.

I’m plodding up Mt Luxmore, walking poles anchoring me to the frozen ground. There is a good snow cover on the mountain this year. Fiordland looks fabulous at any time, but snow on the peaks is the proverbial icing on the cake. However, only fools and dreamers would climb a mountain carrying skis and boots on their shoulders. My skis are digging into my collar bone, but I’m determined to follow in Wilson Campbell’s footsteps and try to ski on Mt Luxmore. Had Wilson had his way more than half a century ago, I could’ve been zooming up the slope in a ski lift.

At 1472m, Mt Luxmore is just 177m lower than Coronet Peak, New Zealand’s first commercial skifield which opened in 1947 with a single rope tow. The gentle slopes to the south and east of Mt Luxmore would make good ski runs with magnificent views. Located in Fiordland National Park, the mountain overlooks Lake Te Anau and the surrounding ranges of the Southern Alps – a large part of the Kepler Track and one of New Zealand’s ten Great Walks.

According to his son, Barry, Wilson Campbell was always an enthusiastic promoter of tourism in New Zealand, and Fiordland in particular. Although born in South Otago and living a large chunk of his life in Gore, including four years as mayor (1956-59), he became passionate about Fiordland and spent his later years in Te Anau.

Barry Campbell getting up Mt Luxmore using the tow he constructed (1958).
Photo supplied by Barry Campbell

Always on the lookout for ideas to bring more tourists to Fiordland, he became interested in the possibility of skiing on Mt Luxmore. In winter 1958, Wilson and his then 17-year-old son, Barry, trialled the skiing conditions on the mountain. Using a large tent set up as their base in the native forest below the peak, they skied most weekends that season.

The next year, Wilson was granted permission to build a hut on the mountain. This was constructed in his garage in Gore, disassembled, packed into 100kg bundles, and sent to Te Anau to be airdropped from a Cessna aircraft onto the mountain. Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan and only half of the bundles arrived intact at the right place. Two loads were dropped three kilometres away from the intended hut site, and one rolled down the mountain breaking into splinters. Despite this initial setback, the hut was built before the snow arrived, ready for the new ski season.

Skiing in those early days could hardly be classified as a leisure activity. For Barry, who at that time lived in Invercargill, it meant driving to Te Anau on Fridays after work, taking a boat trip across the lake to Brod Bay, and walking for two to three hours up to the hut. The weekend would be spent skiing on the mountain. Naturally, skiing down would only take a fraction of the time it took to climb up again, skis on your shoulder.

From left: Vaughan Campbell (left), with his father Wilson Campbell and two friends skiing on Mt Luxmore (1960).
Photo supplied by Barry Campbell

Barry’s younger brother, Vaughan Campbell, remembers walking up the mountain in the dark with his father, brother and sometimes a friend or two, using Tilley lanterns for light.

“Mum made my big, baggy ski pants out of woollen fabric that snow used to stick to, and Dad made my first wooden skis. They didn’t have metal edges like modern skis do, which made it really difficult to turn,” Vaughan remembers.

Barry Campbell Checking the wind turbine he constructed to supply electricity to the ski hut visible below (c. 1962).
Photo supplied by Barry Campbell

The following summer, the hut was extended by another two metres and a potbelly stove was installed. Later, Barry built a wind turbine to supply electricity to the hut.

A rusty rope tow pulley is all that’s left from a would-be skifield on Mt Luxmore. The roof of Mt Luxmore Hut is visible on far left below the tarn.
Photo: Peter Jackson of Te Anau

As more people became interested in trying out the skifield, it became apparent that a ski tow was necessary if this was to become a commercial venture. Barry set out to build one using his engineering skills and some of the “useful junk” from his shed. With the help of friends and family carrying heavy loads up the mountain, the tow was erected on the ridge overlooking the South Basin and powered by an old James motorcycle engine coupled with a small gearbox from a Second World War Valentine tank. This, Barry admits, proved to be an “absolute disaster due to design shortcomings and insufficient snow coverage that year”. After another year they dismantled it.

However, Wilson Campbell was not ready to give up yet. In September 1969, he called a public meeting to discuss options for attracting more tourists to Fiordland in the winter season. As a result of this, a public company, Alpine Developments Ltd, was formed. “The Mt Cook Company gave us the surplus learners’ tow from Coronet Peak, which I reconditioned before it was heli-lifted to Mt Luxmore in 1970. This was to enable us to evaluate the field to see if it would be suitable for development,” Barry recalls.

The tow worked well, but during the week, while not in use, the rope would get buried in the snow – sometimes two metres deep – and it would take a whole day to dig it out. Despite that, the Campbells believed that the skifield idea was commercially viable as long as there was good access to the mountain. The main obstacle was Mt Luxmore’s location in Fiordland National Park.

Many meetings with the Fiordland National Park Board followed to discuss the construction of either a road, a railway, or a gondola. However, these ideas were turned down due to concerns about the impact on the environment.

In 1974, sixteen years after they first trialled skiing on Mt Luxmore, Wilson Campbell and his sons decided to abandon the idea as just too difficult. They disassembled the tow and returned the parts to Coronet Peak. The old ski hut was later removed by DOC and a large, modern hut was built further up the mountain to cater for the Kepler Track walkers.

In the early 1980s, two Te Anau locals, Tony Gibson and Jeff Ludemann, tried to run a heli-skiing operation using a semi-portable ski lift, but this idea didn’t fly either and was abandoned after only one season.

Today the snow-covered peaks surrounding Lake Te Anau remain inaccessible to skiers and most people walking up Mt Luxmore have no idea that over 60 years ago a man had a vision of turning Te Anau into a ski resort. One exception is the Fiordland Tramping & Outdoor Recreation Club, which runs annual mid-winter moonlight cross-country ski trips on Mt Luxmore.

It takes me three hours to walk to the Luxmore Hut (the first hut on the Kepler Track above Lake Te Anau), then an hour and a half to get to the snow. I climb on top of a knoll and put my skis on slowly, cherishing the moment.

There are no other people around; no ski tracks in the snow. I point the tips of my skis down and slide off. The run downhill takes less than 5 minutes, but I have no energy left to climb up again for another, although it’s the views and not the skiing that take my breath away. I leave with the conflicting desires to have a skifield at my doorstep or to retain and protect the natural environment of this amazing place.

 

Sources: 1. Mt Luxmore; 2. Coronet Peak, Wikipedia 3. Kepler Track, Department of Conservation

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