August 18 is etched into the brain of NZ Ski chief executive Paul Anderson.
"We all sat there and looked at the best snow in probably 10 years on Coronet Peak, and we couldn't put people on it," he said.
"That was pretty gutting."
After a roller coaster season of changeable weather and border closures, a storm had delivered ideal snow conditions, just as the country went into Covid-19 lockdown.
For three weeks, with bumper snow and in the prime of the season, skifields could not open. The season was declared "a disaster" .
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It had started with such promise.
Last year, Covid-19 border closures kept Australian visitors out and social distancing was the new norm. But many New Zealanders rediscovered their love of skiing, and flocked to the slopes in numbers that surprised and overwhelmed operators.
RealNZ chief experience officer Bridget Legnavsky, who has responsibility for the Cardrona and Treble Cone skifields near Wānaka, said operators feared being inundated by domestic skiers again this year, along with keen Australians.
"We were really concerned about how we would handle it and deliver a great experience to everybody," she said.
In February the ski areas put out a call for New Zealand workers and border exemptions for overseas workers as they faced a shortfall of 1200 staff.
By June, when the season opened, staff were in place and bookings were solid, but the rollercoaster was just beginning.
"It was a shocking start," Legnavsky said, "One of the worst. And then the border closed."
When the trans-Tasman travel bubble burst , thousands of Australian bookings for apartments and ski lessons were cancelled at short notice. There was no hope of filling them.
But within weeks, t he New Zealand school holidays brought a new rush of domestic visitors and some relief.
"We were really busy, but we had poor snow, so that meant two out of seven lifts couldn't open. Then you get disgruntled customers stuck in a queue," said Leganvasky.
In mid-August, a massive polar storm enveloped the South Island. Most skifields received about a metre of thick, fluffy powder.
As soon as the weather, cleared conditions would be perfect for the best weeks of the season. Except that the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus had also arrived in the country .
For three weeks, skifields could not open at all.
Even when they were able to open under Covid-19 alert level 2 protocols, Aucklanders, the biggest chunk of the domestic market, were missing.
In the North Island, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts chief executive Jono Dean said the downstream effects of the Covid shutdowns would be disastrous.
"When you take three weeks of prime operating season out it makes for a pretty difficult recovery."
Capital developments, in particular, would go on hold, he said.
"Without any good capital in any business it becomes difficult to develop anything.
"It's very much one foot in front of the other at the moment."
They were grateful to be able to open the Tūroa and Wahakapa ski areas but absent Aucklanders accounted for 40 per cent of their market.
The season had been a disaster, he said.
"There's no other words. Visitation is now down almost 50 per cent on where it would normally be."
"There's been lots of crises over time which has set us up quite well to adapt and change when we have to," Dean said.
Sitting in Auckland and unable to get to the slopes is frustrated skier Andy Hamilton.
This season was supposed to be a boomer for him. He had completed a snow craft course in Taranaki and was planning a three-week working holiday in Queenstown from August 20.
He had bought a season pass for the NZ Ski mountains of Coronet Peak, The Remarkables and Mt Hutt, and a five-day pass to ski at Cardrona and Treble Cone.
"I think that's why I'm so annoyed about it. I had this year all set out."
He managed a few days in Queenstown in July, when there was limited snow cover, before he was locked down in Auckland .
Once it became clear he was not going to be able to return to the slopes he sought refunds.
NZ Ski declined as he had not purchased the insurance they set up to cover eventualities such as a lockdown. Hamilton said it should not be necessary as the reasons for cancelling were beyond his control.
Air NZ and the rental car company provided credits or full refunds, while Cardrona refunded him for the four days he didn't use.
"That was really awesome. I think maybe we'll just buy season passes for the Wānaka fields next year," he said.
That is welcome news to Legnavsky. ReaNZ had a lenient refund policy to cover the risk for their visitors, but the scheme backfired.
"It's really costly," she said, "I do understand NZ Ski's perspective on that."
Legnavsky anticipates revenue for the season will be about 50 per cent less than expected, significantly worse than the 20 per cent drop in 2020.
The skifields are now in survival mode, she said.
"It's really disappointing. We feel like we had a clear vision of where we were going, and now we're on hold until we recover."
The new lifts and restaurants that would come with Cardrona's expansion into the neighbouring Soho Basin are on hold but plans to develop snow making at Treble Cone will continue.
"We can't afford to lose any more revenue, so the money has to go into making snow, so we can open."
Industry leaders have just spent two days at Cardrona mulling over the season and planning for next year.
Ski Areas Association of NZ chairman Marty Toomey said most operators were in a tough position, and feeling despondent.
The financial impacts for large and small fields were worse than 2020, because early-season optimism had led them to take on more staff.
At Mt Cheeseman Ski Area in Canterbury, president Cam Lill said the club was tracking about 65 per cent down on where it forecast, due to poor early snow conditions followed by the Covid-19 lockdown.
"But that's better than last year," he said.
In 2020 the skifiield only opened for nine days. In 2021, it managed 28 days. A normal year would be 65 to 70 days, he said.
Like many club fields, Mt Cheeseman relied on its lodge accommodation for a large chunk of revenue.
However, the lodge configuration made social distancing difficult, Gill said, and it stayed closed when the field opened under level 2 restrictions.
Paul Anderson saidvisitation at the NZ Ski fields was similar to last year – about 40 per cent down on 2019.
Coronet Peak and The Remarkables, in Queenstown, were badly affected by the loss of the Australian and Auckland markets but Mt Hutt, near Christchurch, had great snow and lots of local visitors.
"The Canterbury market haven't been able to travel anywhere else," he said.
The last of the skifields will close for the season this weekend.
Dean says there will be few celebrations at Ruapehu after a forgettable winter.
He warned keen skiers to purchase their 2022 season pass soon as numbers would be limited. 2021 passes sold out in about two weeks last year. Aucklanders and Northlanders are entitled to a 50 per cent discount.
Cardrona will hold its traditional ski and mountain bike race from the skifield to Cardrona pub, which also involves eating pies and frozen Moro bars.
Legnavsky is feeling wary but hopeful as vaccination numbers climb.
"I feel like we're at the tail end of this, and we can have some confidence and positivity looking forward. We have to really."
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