canterbury’s own lifestyle magazine / a great local read

For anyone blessed to ski at Mt Dobson Ski Area, they already know it’s a mountainous utopia – bluebird skies, vast valleys of natural snow, an authentically family-friendly atmosphere and terrain that provides variation and challenge to meet the ability of all snow devotees

However, what most people don’t see is a backyard in Fairlie – a yard just like any other yard throughout New Zealand, except this one has snow groomers, drums of old skis, a snow mobile and large picnic tables awaiting repair, last spotted in the car park on the mountain. It’s the yard of Peter Foote, founding director of Mt Dobson Ski Area, and the yard where he and his family built the ski field 40 years ago and continue to maintain it today

A motor mechanic by trade, Peter’s foray into the world of developing ski fields began in 1962 while on a Boy Scout climbing expedition to Fox Peak. Passing through the Fox Peak ski field and attracted to the mechanics of the place, the recreational skier offered to help out, keeping his word and returning a week later. By the late 1960s he was running the place.

However, by 1970 Peter was looking for another challenge and the opportunity to open a new ski field sparked his imagination. While Peter says there are a further four or five basins with potential in the region, Dobson was the mountain with ‘all the ingredients’ – reliable snow and access from the main road, a key element for the hardy pioneer who vividly recalls early access to Fox – an hour’s hike into the first hut and a further hour to the ski field! Applications to the old Lands and Survey department were submitted in 1972 but bureaucracy hit hard and at one point Peter was dealing with 20 different organisations in his bid to open the new ski area. Four years on and in 1976 consent was finally granted when Peter and his late wife, Shirley, started to build the access road. By this stage, Peter and Shirley had started their young family. Richard had just started school, Allan wasn’t long out of nappies and Bruce was yet to arrive. However, that didn’t stop Peter from cranking up three elderly bulldozers for road building or Shirley from making the 700 culverts required for the access road, all mixed and formed in their own backyard in Fairlie.

Dobson was to become a labour of love for the Foote family. While Peter was the face of the mountain, the family insist it was Shirley who fulfilled the behind-the-scenes jobs. As Peter says, ‘She was the manager. She did the café, the GST, the phone, paid the bills, dealt with the schools. We sat on the machines while she did everything else!’ She even mothered on the mountain, taking her sons to live in the Dobson hut for three weeks every year. It was a unique and special time for Bruce. ‘I was up there with my brothers, sometimes stuck in the hut for three days during snow storms. ‘At times we were the only ones up there.’ Laughingly, he admits Dobson is at its best when there’s nobody else there.

However, the romance of owning a ski area wasn’t always idyllic and tough times struck in 1987, a disastrous snow year when the mountain opened for just five days. And 1988 wasn’t much better with a mere 32 operational days. Peter had borrowed big in 1983 and again in 1984 to install the T-bar lift and the platter lift. With ‘hundreds of thousands’ owing and crippling interest rates of 26 per cent, the family was in trouble. These days they’re matter-of-fact about the debt but the strain must have been immense. Peter remembers ‘it being very tight. We had to pump fuel out of vehicles and sell it. Food parcels arrived at the door and I took a dozer off the hill and went and did some contracting’. With the wolves at the door, three friends lent money to the Footes so they could keep up with interest payments.

And then in 1989 a miracle happened, a freak snow situation. There was no snow at Coronet Peak but there was snow at Dobson. Auckland skiers holidaying in Queenstown arrived at Dobson in their droves, chasing the illusive white stuff. The result was a record season for Dobson and Peter cleared his debts, vowing to ‘never borrow money again’.

These days you’ll still find Peter on the mountain in his self-titled role as ‘gofer’, woolly hat firmly in place, one ear listening for the smooth running of the lifts, an eye to the weather and backup to his youngest son, Bruce, who is now a director of Mt Dobson Ski Area, alongside brother Allan, as well as general manager. Together with his wife Sarah and children Lochie (13), Emily (10) and Maggie (eight), Bruce is the next generation of Footes on the mountain.

Forty years on from opening in 1979, skiing has become quite a different beast. Technology has helped but a typical working day for Bruce can still start as early as 2 am if a storm has blown through. Bruce is responsible for all the hands-on maintenance, road clearing, snow grooming, weather predictions and people management, but he says ‘the expectations of people have risen’. While Peter insists they still get ‘skiers instead of posers’, today’s skiers want flat whites and latte coffees, including one regular skier who has been ‘coming for 29 season passes’! A simple café has expanded to cater to these needs and Fairlie’s infamous Bakehouse pies are on offer each day.

The taps might run full-time in the toilet block to prevent the pipes from freezing, but heating has been added so casting off gloves and jackets is no longer the bracing experience of a few years ago! On any given day, Dobson skiers can expect to share the mountain with a Japanese race team and Bruce is currently hooking into new American and Korean markets. As with any organisation, social media plays an important role and Bruce is only too happy to keep it in the family yet pass on the responsibility of the Dobson Instagram page to 13-year old Lochie. In fact, it’s refreshing to read the comments of a credible kid who lives and breathes the mountain.

Dobson is a commercial ski area in the same league as big brother Mt Hutt, but in spite of its larger ski area, some 400 acres, Dobson is a smaller business operation and one the Footes describe as boutique. It’s this boutique attribute that adds to the charm of Dobson, one where the owners are physically on the mountain and accessible to the public. However, in the year of their ruby anniversary, the Footes are about to be hit by bureaucracy again. The original lease for the ski area was with the Crown and included a 33-year right of renewal. These days the ski area is under Department of Conservation management and the old Crown negotiations have not been honoured. It’s nothing new. Many commercial ski fields throughout New Zealand are experiencing the same logistical hurdle but this family-run snow field won’t be outsourcing their latest round of applications. Instead, it’s a given Peter, Bruce, Sarah and Allan will be hands-on, facing up to the challenges themselves and ensuring Dobson remains viable for the next generation of skiers.

In the meantime, the Foote family will celebrate Dobson’s 40th commemorations in their own predictably unfussy way. They’ll offer up their boutique vibe, one without queues but with a smile and a laugh at the lifts, where the car park transforms to become a popular lunchtime picnic spot with bangers sizzling on the barbecue and flasks steaming with hot soup, kids scoffing their nosh in a rush to get back to the chairlift, parents relaxing in the sun, grandparents laughing with old mates and a snowy terrain that brings joy, elation and recreation to so many.

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WORDS Pip Goldsbury IMAGES Emmily Harmer