field Open - please carry chains

Our Story

Forty years ago a group of keen skiers came together and turned their dream of a ski field up the Rainbow peaks into a reality.   Ever since then snow lovers have graced, snow boarded, zoomed, tobogganed and tumbled down the slopes.

The development of Rainbow and its survival is testament to the hard work and cooperation of the Marlborough, Tasman and Nelson communities.  Dedicated leadership, the efforts and contributions of many individuals, groups and sponsors mean that this winter people will enjoy snow sports again in this region. 

Thank you everyone who has so willingly shared their memories and told their stories so far.

If you know a missing part of the story,  please send it to us at, so we can share with it with everyone. 

Over the next few months look here for installments that add to this story.   

What’s in a Name? 

Originally Rainbow was just an expanse of snow until the committee of the day thought it could be useful for people to know where they were on the mountain.   Exploring ski run names also uncovered other gems. 

Enjoy this first selection of the Rainbow story and if you know a part of the story that we haven’t found yet love to hear from you

The origins of the name ‘Rainbow’ are a little unclear – either an urban myth or more likely the translation of an old Maori name.


Urban Myth

The origins of the name Rainbow can be traced back to the 1850s, from the book ‘Foot Prints’ by J N W Newport. This is referred to in ‘Marlborough Place Names’ where Newport described the naming of the valley with the following story:

“This valley was named after a shepherd called Rainbow who first stocked a run here with about 8000 wethers. Mr ER Goulter states that when Rainbow returned after an absence of about a year, he found all his sheep had disappeared, and the missing sheep were never found.”[1]


Maori Origins

The colonial exploration of the Upper Wairau in April 1855 saw Travers, Locke, Maling and Oldham accompanied by Maori guides heading into the region, and in their descriptions of the journey they wrote:

“… Te Kopi o Uenuku (the Rainbow River) had its source in the mountains above Lake Rotoroa”.[2]

The Nelson Examiner published a number of original articles written by Travers, the first of these was dated 5 May 1855. In his articles, Travers described the explorers slog through foul weather into the area, before being forced to turn back from somewhere near Tarndale. A few years later, on 14 March 1860, Travers reported:

“From the size of the river at the point where we first struck it, and from the appearance of the valley towards the north, I should suppose the river-course to this point to be about 10 miles, through a glen bounded on either side by rugged mountains, the Clarence, the Wairau, and the Te Kopi-o-Wenuku  or Rainbow River, rising amongst those which lie on its eastern side”.[3]


Mt Robert

In early records, Sir Julius von Hasst is credited with being the first to climb Mt Robert on 17 January 1860.  Hasst was married to Antonia Johanna Caroline Schmitt, and Mt Robert is reputedly named after their son Matthais Robert who was 12 years old at the time of the first climb.

Six Mile Creek

One of the fords on the Rainbow Valley road crosses Six Mile Creek. The exact origins of the name of the creek are a mystery – exactly six miles from where? It has been thought that six miles might refer to the distance from the creek to the original homestead. In any case, the ski field nestles comfortably in Six Mile basin which gives rise to the creek.

A photo of the first old original rope tow up at the Rainbow Ski Field in Six Mile Creek. The tow was powered and driven by an old diesel Fordson tractor, which had its back wheels taken off and replaced by large role pulleys. To allow the pulleys to run freely and drive the rope tow the tractor was jacked up onto an iron frame. The tractor was housed in an engine shed which was purposely built for it.

Notice the large diesel tank situated behind the engine shed which was very close to the creek in the foreground. Because this creek drained the wetlands area on the right of the photo, this tank was shifted to another safer site. In later years, large concrete culvert pipes were put in this creek then filled and levelled out over the top of them.

Photo taken by Malcolm Aitken about 1982.

[1] ‘Marlborough Place Names’, ‘Foot Prints’ by J N W Newport.

[2] Te Tau Ihu O Te Waka, a history of Maori in Nelson and Marlborough, Volume 11, 2007, p.292, chapter by Hilary & John Mitchell.

[3] “Papers Past” original articles written by Travers in the Nelson Examiner.

What’s in a Name – Ski Trails

Find out how the trails got their names and how they were developed.

Enjoy the second selection of the Rainbow story and if you know a part of the story that we haven’t found yet love to hear from you

Allan’s Way

The first trail map was done by John Lundon around 1985. Details on the names are below.  Alans Way was named after Alan Pritchard. Mike Morrison was the Ski Area Manager at the time we put the chairlift in and he become friendly with Alan Pritchard who used to ski a lot mid-week. Alan made a good donation to Rainbow to assist the mountain and to recognise this we named a run “ Alan’s Way “  circa 1992


Harry’s Way

Harry’s Way is named after another early committee member David Dew. The story goes that a local newspaper misreported David’s name in a rugby game report and the nick-name Harry stuck for a while.  David, a lawyer in Blenheim, is credited with doing the hard yards to achieve a zone change which enabled the ski field to develop. John Lundon who was also very involved in Rainbow put Harry’s Way on the first trail map.


Barry’s Trail (West Bowl)

Barry Rance was involved with the new Rainbow from its origins in 2003.  He wanted to ensure a local ski field continued to exist, especially for children and youth in the future. His carpentry and ‘fixit skills’ were legendary, and he earned a reputation for always carrying an extensive tool kit on ski days to fix whatever needed fixing especially around the buildings.  The committee named Barry’s Trail in recognition of his dedication as a volunteer at Rainbow.  Barry passed away in June 2012.


The Shirt Front

The front slope on the field resembles a white shirt front, resulting in the name ‘The Shirt Front’. Over the years the contour has been reworked but still provides a challenge for some and a fun quick descent for others.

Shirtfront-Earthworks as told by David Dew. “One of the bugbears at Rainbow was the area known as the shirtfront which is just above the main lift terminal. It was difficult for beginner/intermediate skiers and hard to maintain snow cover on.

We applied to DOC for permission to re-contour it by effectively taking about 3 metres out of the top of it and filing the bottom. Helen Clark was the Minister for Conservation at the time. She flew in by Airforce Helicopter to inspect the proposal and approved both the work and the Code we proposed for such work. This became the code adopted for all Ski fields in NZ.

The work was done by a large bulldozer and made a fantastic difference and of course is still how the slope is configured. We were also allowed to do rock grooming on the main runs. This helps opening on limited snow. At the time this work was being done Dirk Robinson showed us how a 20-tonne digger could ski.“

Looking up the shirt front at the Rainbow Ski Field as a D8 dozer goes over the crest of the escarpment during reshaping and modification of the slope. (Photo taken March/April 1988)

This photo gives an idea of the size of the shirt front slope and the area that was reshaped and manicured. This vantage point shows the large D8 dozer working on the slope and looking like a dinky toy. (Photo taken March April 1988 by Karen and Mike Ryan)

The Easy Way Home

Originally called the Upper Access Road, ‘The Easy Way Home’ provided access for equipment to the upper field during early development days.It is still used as a way to access equipment for repairs and maintenance, for ski patrol and a gentler route down than the Shirt Front. Looking along the Upper Access Road either side of the rope tow. The hut seen in the centre of the track housed the radio repeater equipment for the phone link and was a shelter hut for field workers and in case of emergency. When finished this access track gave skiers an easier way to get down the steep slope from the rope tow.


The Cheapskates (2021) Terrain Park


This park has changed name over the years depending on the business sponsor for that year. 2021 the Terrain Park will be supported again by Cheapskates.


West Bowl

‘West Bowl’ got its name from the bowl-shaped area on the west side of the field. To access it skiers and boarders take the T-bar to the top, traverse a little then grab a short rope tow. The bowl is a lake which freezes and covers with snow most years from mid-season onwards.


Six One

A peak to the west side of the field challenges fitter and more adventurous skiers and boarders. From the top of the T-Bar they traverse past the rope tow to West Bowl then trek up to Six One. The peak Six One is named due to its height in feet (6,161 ft), on the old pre-metric maps it may have been called point 6161.


Powder Valley

‘Powder Valley’ is named for its quality snow. This tempting valley lies just outside the east of the field boundary. Keen skiers trek from the top of the T-bar across the east ridge then drop down into the valley. The exit is some distance down the road where hopefully a ride awaits back to base.

The Planets, The Gun Barrell, Aeroplane Corner, Roller Coaster and Boulder Ride

The origin of these names is presently unknown but the terrain offers a few clues.

What’s in a Name – Road Features

Stories from the road and how the road features got their names.

Enjoy the third selection of the Rainbow story and if you know a part of the story that we haven’t found yet love to hear from you

Stratford’s Corner

Stratford’s Corner is an infamous corner on the ski field road, possibly named by Mike Morrison the Mountain Manager at the time.


Kerry Stratford tells the story:

“Stratford’s Corner came about in July 1993 when the road was extremely icy and a few centimetres of new snow. One car had just done a 180 so we were at walking pace in our 4WD with chains on, down towards what is now called Stratford Corner. We had just taken evasive action from a Landcruiser ahead of us in a slide. This in turn made us slide and we ended up slowly skidding around, facing back up hill.  Now we were teetering on the brink of the hairpin’s upper edge. It gave way and very slowly we toppled over the edge, rolling completely in the huge amount of snow on the bank, to land back on our wheels and facing the right way.  Pretty much every panel on the car was dented and the windscreen broken but the car was quite drivable.  Even the skis on the roof rack were undamaged.  I doubt a stunt driver could have done it better!  Then cars were sliding all over the place. A bit higher up a 4WD van had also gone over the edge, down into the trees. Cars were all backed up and eventually the road was closed while the road crew chopped up the road surface using the groomer.  I understand that the last of the public vehicles didn’t get down the road that day until 10:30pm. The whole incident made the Blenheim radio news bulletins the next day.”


Paddys Rock

Paddy’s Rock 2019

Derek Cordes tells the story of Paddy’s Rock:

“On a cold bleak day during a snow storm at Paddy’s Rock in the lower Six Mile Creek, Colin Wishart, New Zealand Forest Service, Environmental Forestry Ranger from Blenheim was inspecting progress of the road construction.  Two intrepid personnel from the Rainbow ski field were standing on Paddy’s Rock.  Even during a snow storm, they were drilling and blasting this huge rock from the top down.  Paddy Dillon was one of the men doing the drilling and had a large hip flask which he used to ‘keep warm

’.  After several days standing on the rock, drilling, blasting and swigging whiskey all this work was found to be completely unnecessary.  The road was constructed under this huge rock and the rock was named after Paddy Dillon and was marked by a for sale sign for many years.”

From Dereks Photos Vol 1 page 101

Tobbys Track

Tobby’s Track was used when the original road was much shorter and did not reach the ski basin.  It was named after Tobby Hardy Boyes who had a reputation for carrying large loads of gear up to the landing at the top. The track goes up from the right side of the road, just below Stratford’s Corner, and emerges from the bush on the flat area near where the explosives magazine is now.  In the beginning this flat area was used as a helicopter pad.  

Helen Rance tells the story of Tobby’s Track:

“Barry and I found the remnants of this track in 2009 – it is steep and the top flat is very swampy.  After emerging from the bush there is still a long way to walk to the base building.  Markers carry on from the start of the track down the river.  We understand the track is now used for trapping lines.”


Virgin Country

An early aerial photo of virgin untouched country. Looking into the head of Six Mile Creek, Upper Wairau River Rainbow Forest Park.  The skyline ridge is the top of the St Arnaud Range, which overlooks the head of Lake Rotoiti.  Photo taken before any ski field development in the early winter of 1975.

It has been a long road

Rising to a height of over 1760m, the Rainbow Ski Area boasts a scenic entrance.  The road is about 9 kms and winds up through native beech forest – a unique attribute for a South Island ski field.  But accessing snow sport in this region has not always been easy.  Before the Rainbow Ski Area existed and could be reached by road, intrepid skiers would row across the lake then trudge up the hill to Mt Robert – the birthplace of the Nelson Ski Club formed on 24 August 1944, and officially constituted on 10 November that same year.  

Development of the roads to the Rainbow Ski Area and also on the ski field were achieved by endless hours of voluntary work from dedicated individuals in the wider Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough communities with the support of some big diggers, excavators and construction companies.  

Read the story here of how the road now enables snow enthusiasts to drive right up to the snow.

Before the road at Mt Robert

As early as 1929 intrepid skiers were known to ski in the Mt Robert Basin, Eric Chittenden was one of them.


Eric Chittenden First president of the Nelson ski club, then Patron for many years. He died in 2010 aged 101.
Photo from the Nelson Photo News No 115 May 30 1970.

This was a time when in the area roads were scarce and there was no bridge across the Buller River. Skiers would carry all their gear, much heavier than present day equipment, row across the lake and then trudge their way up the ridge route known as Paddy’s track.


Determined skiers walk up Paddy’s track for a day on the slopes.

Rowing across the lake from Kerr Bay in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

The Nelson Ski Club’s first Annual Report in 1945 shows the purchase of a new row boat cost £20.17.6.

Fred McKee remembers:

Fred used to ski with the Mt Robert Club over 70 years ago! “after work in Motueka on a Friday night- we would drive to Rotoiti – fill several dinghies with people, skis, food etc. then row the lake to the foot of Robert, climb to Bushline hut for a couple of well rummed coffees and a couple of hours sleep. Next morning, we would haul a B&S petrol driven portable rope tow up the 1st basin and enjoy a day skiing.
One memorable night we had a very full dinghy and were rowing across the lake. Someone sneezed and a nice pair of hickory skis (from Oscar Coberger) slid over the side straight to the bottom of the lake never to be seen again. The owner of the skis was Alan James of Mariri. 
In those days the gun skiers were Peter Hogg, Garry Askew, Brian and Janet Moss, Eric Chittenden and others.


Mt Robert Road

In May 1945, engineer Charles Kidson conducted a survey for a bridge, road and track.   The first footbridge was completed in 1947, but destroyed by a flood in 1955.  A second bridge decked as a footbridge was built May 1955 and replaced by a pre- fabricated traffic bridge in time for the 1960 ski season.  In October 1974, the Nelson Lakes National Parks Board approved a 6-kilometre extension of the Mt Robert road from the car park to near 2nd Basin.  But Headlines in the Nelson Evening Mail on 30 September 1980 read “Ski Road Not in Best Interest.”  This was followed by enormous efforts to lobby, research and make submissions for the road extension but the National Parks Board decided it was not in the best interest of the National Park.  This meant skiers still had to walk two hours from the car park to the snow. Helicopter flights were run frequently for passengers and freight and were popular, especially on ski weeks.  This decision is thought to have later had consequences for the survival of the Mt Robert field.  Access was by a long gravel road to the foot of a mountainside and then a 2 hour hike up a steep slope carrying all your ski gear.

Excerpt from Correspondence between The Conservator of Forests and the Nelson Ski Club (New Zealand Forest Service Records):

21st November 1978

“Dear Mr Maplesden,

As you are probably aware, the Nelson Ski Club is quite interested in the suggestion that the Six Mile Basin on the Arnaud Range be developed as a ski area for the Club has for the last 30 years been desirous of obtaining road access to suitable skiing slopes …….

Rainbow Valley Road

Colin Wilkin

Colin Wilkin, a Rainbow Life Member (2014), remembers working on the Rainbow Valley Road in the 1950s when electricity pylons were installed to supply power to the Nelson and Buller regions.  The Rainbow Valley road runs from St Arnaud, the main gateway to the Upper Wairau Valley, through to Hanmer Springs in North Canterbury, 134km north of Christchurch.

The original route of the Rainbow Valley road came off SH 63 at the bottom of the hill through the Rainbow Station gates.  Problems with access arose when the Rainbow Station runholder refused access past the house and buildings. Don Holden found a paper road from original stock routes and the Rainbow Ski Field Company started surveying and cutting fences to gain access.

From The Marlborough Express    Tuesday 26/5/1981

Ski developers run into row over road

A row over road access has broken out between the Six Mile Basin developers and the owners of Rainbow Station. A few weeks ago, a bulldozer following a paper road to cut access to the Six Mile Basin ski field cut through farm fences that were in the way.

Yesterday the owners of the fences, Mr and Mrs Harold Mould, obtained a court injunction to stop the skifield developers from entering their land.  In March Rainbow Skifield Developments LTD secured a 20-year-licence to develop Six Mile Basin on St Arnaud Range.  Access to the basin is through the Upper Wairau off the highway which is part of Rainbow Station…

Rainbow Station has been sold but the contract of sale has not yet been signed….Until then Mr and Mrs Mould are the station’s legal owners and they do not want any skifield development at Six Mile Basin…”      

A road was formed and access was restored re-joining Rainbow Valley Road at the junction of the wagon wheel memorial.   The issue was finally resolved by negotiation with Crown Lands and the existing road was legalised.

The New Zealand Forest Service main entrance sign to the Rainbow State Forest, at the junction of the Rainbow Station homestead and New Zealand Electricity Department Roads.  In keeping with the historical significance of the old coaching route through the Rainbow Station to the old Tarndale Station this sign incorporates two old wagon wheels.    


The Wagon Wheel sign in August 2021
Six Mile Creek Road

Construction of the road from Rainbow Valley up Six Mile Creek to the ski field has been identified as one of the most prominent problems in the ski field’s development. Building started in 1981 and took a year to complete.  It was built with donated labour and money. Initially it only went part of the way up and early skiers and volunteers had to walk the rest of the way to the ski field.

Paddy’s Rock also proved to be a notable challenge to the building of the road.

Building this road presented many adventures and incidents. For example, the day in 1986 when a D6 dozer belonging to Gill Construction Company slipped down the bank into Six Mile Creek. The dozer had been repairing a wash out on the road and thankfully the operator Graham Delany (Grubby) was unhurt. 

Photo shows an excavator starting to scratch a track to rescue the dozer.

From The Press 3/8/81

Rainbow Ski field Development Ltd has spent $45,000 so far on developing the road to its Rainbow Ski field.  And although the four-wheel drive access road will only be taken as far as the bush line this winter, skiers will be able to use the new ski field by the end of this month…

Mr John Smart, a director, said the road would be taken as far as the bush line this winter and skiers would be towed from that area by a groomer which has to be purchased by the company. ……

The summer would see the completion of the pilot road and next winter it would be substantially completed for all vehicles. The company would install a rope tow and learner tow to begin with, and by 1983 a T-bar could be in operation. Mr Smart said a T-bar would cost about $300,00 compared to $12,000 for rope tows.

Photo of the Hood brothers.  Keith on the left and Doug to the right.

Doug Hood had extensive experience in constructing roads in steep mountainous country. Following the part he played in the development of the successful Mount Hutt Ski Field, his earthmoving company was engaged to construct part of the road up Six Mile Creek to Rainbow.

Photo shows Ferguson Brothers digger

The Hood brothers constructed the road to just below the bush line where Ferguson Brothers Construction Ltd from Greymouth took over. Construction of the road above the bush line involved drilling and blasting of hard rock outcrops before the two large excavators could make any headway. Ferguson Brothers completed the road up to the present car park.

Toll ticket

This information sign was installed by Forest Service staff at the toll gate at the start of the Six Mile Creek road up to the ski field.
The ability to drive right up to the ski field became one of the points of difference between the Rainbow and Mt Robert fields, and people were prepared to pay the Rainbow toll fee for the easier access.

This information sign was installed by the New Zealand Forest Service at the turn off to the ski field road at its junction with State Highway 63 to Lake Rotoiti and the West Coast.  These signs were made by Bing Keats, Forest Service carpenter in their Blenheim workshops.  They were a contribution from the Forest Service to the development of the Rainbow Skifield Company.


Bill Warner and Bing Keats from the New Zealand Forest service, standing on the top of a Toyota Land Cruiser on the Six Mile Road just above the bush line.  This sheer wall of snow was left after the D6 dozer had cut a track through huge snow drifts which had formed on the road.  It took three days for the dozer and grader to clear the road up to the Basin and it was one of the biggest snow falls recorded in the Six Mile Creek area.  Photo taken in the winter of 1983.
Shirtfront Earthworks

Photo taken early winter 1975 looking up the middle of the main ski basin the proposed Rainbow ski field. One of the Forest Service manuka sapling snow measuring poles can be seen at the bottom of the Shirt Front slope. 

One of the early bugbears at Rainbow was the area known as the Shirtfront which sits just above the main lift terminal. It was difficult terrain for beginner/intermediate skiers and hard to maintain snow cover on.  Rainbow applied to DOC for permission to re-contour it by taking about 3 meters out of the top of it and filing the bottom. Helen Clark was the Minister for Conservation at the time. She flew in by Airforce Helicopter to inspect the proposal and approved both the work and the Code proposed for such work. Ultimately, this became the Code adopted for all Ski fields in NZ. The original work was done by a large bulldozer and made a fantastic difference. To this day, it is still how the slope is configured.  As part of the permitted works there was scope to do rock grooming on the main runs – a big help when trying to open on limited snow.  David Dewe

At the time this work was done Dirk Robinson showed us how a 20 tonne digger could ‘Ski.’  He drove this machine down the shirtfront with it skiing most of the way but he was such a great operator he could control it even doing that.  Adapted from David Dewe

The Shirt Front 2016
Upper Access Road

In order to reach the upper parts of the ski field and Shirt Front an access road was built early in the Rainbow ski field’s history. This access road gave safe passage to vehicles, equipment and workers enabling them to reach ski lift systems to carry out maintenance and repairs. This road made it easier for ski patrollers to extract injured skiers off the upper slopes back to the first aid room.  During the season when covered in snow it is known as the Easy Way Home.

Old wooden culvert

A washout on the road up Six Mile Creek.  This section had to be reconstructed and new larger concrete culverts put in. The concrete culvert can be seen lying down in the creek.  With heavy rain falls in the area, especially during the spring months, road washouts did occur, and this put an unpredictable financial burden on the ski company.  Over the years the wooden culverts were replaced with concrete ones as the original wooden one did not stand up to the harsh conditions. Photo by Karen and Mike Ryan


This sign is installed at the turn of to the ski field road at its junction with State Highway 63. 

The road from the Rainbow Valley up to the ski field is maintained solely by the Club.   It also provides access for DOC and other conservation organisations to carry out pest management and monitoring activities. Rainbow provides the only year-round road accessible alpine environment in the Marlborough/Nelson-Tasman region and as such is regularly used by groups as diverse as the Mountain Safety Council, LandSAR, NZ Police, Defence Force, universities and clubs for a wide range of alpine activities.

Today, the maintenance of the road requires constant work and is a major item in seasonal budgets.

The weather has, and continues, to have an impact on the access road to the Rainbow ski field.