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Ski History

Ashleigh McLarin, Exhibitions Curator


Skiing is now a popular past-time and one that draws overseas visitors to our shores in the winter months (COVID allowing). Our beautiful maunga (mountains) provide breath-taking views and superb runs. These ski poles provide a reference to equipment development as well as prompting a wider retelling of the history of skiing in Aotearoa, New Zealand.


Skiing was introduced to New Zealand in the 1860s by the Norwegian goldminers. Scandinavians have a long history of skiing and their earliest poles date back to 3623 BCE. Skiing was a logical mode of transport in Scandinavia, and this knowhow was brought to New Zealand with Norwegian émigré. They used their skis as a form of transport to get to dig sites in winter. By the start of the 20th century, skiing had been taken up by many New Zealanders and was now a sport. The first ski club was established at Mt Ruapehu in 1913, and not long after, others cropped up across the country. By the 1920s, races were held between different ski clubs which created a social network between localities. In New Zealand today, there are 73 registered ski clubs.


Regarding equipment development, these poles sit in the middle of the field. They have predecessors and successors. We can date this pair due to the style and materials used in its production. The shaft is made of steel, the grip and handles from brown leather, the basket is aluminium which is attached by a web of leather strips. The function of the basket is to prevent the ski poles entering too deep in the snow. This webbed design was popular up until the 1980s where smaller, predominately plastic alternatives became widespread. We can date this set to around the 1940/50s as in the late 1950s aluminium became the preferred material for the shaft due to its lower density.


Early ski poles in New Zealand were predominately home-jobs. When the sport was starting out it was common for individuals to craft their own equipment. Many golf clubs were repurposed ̶ hardwood and bamboo were the other options for pole shafts. It wasn’t until 1933 that equipment from Europe began being imported. These poles were imported from Europe as a local manufacturer did not exist.


Commercial ski fields began operating in New Zealand after the second world war. Back in 1972, it cost mountain-goers $9 for a day of skiing including gear hire, or $30 for the weekend. Even though that sounds cheap to us, given we know the costs of a ski holiday now, this expense derived a wealthy clientele even back then. Commentators noted the affluence of those on the mountains. Skiing has long been considered an elite sport due to the costs involved in partaking however it did have humbler origins with the prevalence of home-made equipment. It should be noted that even though the gear was home crafted, to participate in the sport one required the ability to have time off and the mobility to travel to the mountains which means that participation is limited.  


These poles were donated to the museum by Mr Tracee Rapley. The poles measure 141 cm in length, which means they are suited to a person of 6’7” (200cm). I have only been able to obtain bust portraits of Mr Rapley, rather than relational group photographs which would have allowed me to determine whether he himself was of large stature and therefore, these poles might have been used by him personally. However, we do know he was an avid collector and acquired a vast assortment of objects. He displayed these in his front sunroom here in Whangārei. At his death, he bequeathed his display collection to the Whangārei Museum and so we can verify that these ski poles were a part of that collection. These poles are most likely to have been of interest as an object rather than as a hobby/past-time. This would also explain the good condition of the leather hand grips and straps.


We are accustomed to the sleek designs of modern ski equipment, but these ski poles allude to earlier variations. The evolution of ski poles matches the discovery and implementation of new materials. The poles provide an insight into the development of ski equipment and skiing as a sport in New Zealand.