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 history@skirainbow.co.nz, 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  history@skirainbow.co.nz

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  history@skirainbow.co.nz

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  history@skirainbow.co.nz

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

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.”

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.  

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.

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.”