Taking it to the top on Mt Ruapehu

TPP Contracting operates a digger high above the snowline on a Mt Ruapehu chairlift construction project.   BY GAVIN RILEY

Ruapehu.jpgImagine driving a digger up a mountain and operating it at a height of just over 2320 metres (7600 feet).

That’s what Taumarunui firm TPP Contracting has had to do in helping carry out the biggest skifield upgrade in New Zealand’s history.  

Led by owner/manager Russell Le Quesne (pronounced Le Kane), the company has excavated the tower and terminal foundations for a 1.4 kilometre high-speed chairlift at the Turoa skifield on Mt Ruapehu.

The six-seater detachable chairlift, the largest and fastest in the country, starts at 1927 metres (6322 feet) and rises a vertical 400 metres to 2322 metres (7618 feet). It will be able to carry 3200 skiers an hour up the mountain.

TPP Contracting has also created a 50-million-litre snowmaking reservoir, lined with 12,000 square metres of HDPE, at an altitude of 1700 metres (5577 feet). The reservoir will feed 25 new snow guns to improve the snow on the lower slopes. 

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL), which runs the Turoa and Whakapapa skifields, commissioned the $18.5 million improvements, which include an upgraded cafe and retail complex at the base of the ski run (built by Stanley Construction of Matamata). The package is part of an overall $30 million investment programme, which will see a new and a replacement chairlift at Whakapapa.

TPP Contracting has been working on Mt Ruapehu contracts since 1993 and was featured in Contractor in May last year.

The company began the Turoa chairlift earthworks in early November. The work consisted of excavating the foundations for the drive and return terminals and 11 towers in between, ranging in height from 10 to 19 metres. Three of the foundations had to be dug by hand because the sites could not be accessed by machines.

Each tower foundation required up to 50 cubic metres of concrete, all supplied by Byford of Taihape. Including the terminal foundations, a total of just over 600 cubic metres was poured, all of it from a helicopter.

Foreman Chad Hooton had the task of operating a Hitachi ZX160 digger at “the top site”, the chairlift’s return terminal, and completed the task in early February. The digger had been driven up along a track cut partly by Russell Le Quesne but largely by snow groomers. Fuel for the machine, containing anti-freeze additive, was helicoptered to the top site in 500-litre pods.

Hand drilling and blasting had to be carried at the top site because of the amount of lava. TPP Contracting had up to three staff there and they were supplemented by workers from Doppelmayr New Zealand, which had the contract with RAL to install the chairlift components supplied by Doppelmayr’s parent company in Austria. 

“It was hard work and very cold work,” says Le Quesne, who holds a construction blaster’s ticket. “You have problems where you’re using compressed air and your guns freeze up.”

Le Quesne headed a team of four which from Christmas till the end of April created the snowmaking reservoir. Using 25- and 20-tonne excavators and a 30-tonne Moxy dump truck, the team shifted about 28,000 cubic metres of volcanic earth and rock, which was used to create an embankment on one side of the reservoir.

Extreme weather, as always on Mt Ruapehu, was a constant hazard. “I lost 32 days on the snowmaking pond. It’s a lot of down time – a helluva lot more than I was expecting,” Le Quesne says.

Doppelmayr New Zealand project supervisor Darren Wedder says the chairlift is due to be finished in mid-June, in time for the ski season. The entire contract has been “very much a weather game” because everything has to be flown in.

“So you have to judge the day in the morning, and try to judge it right, because a lot of the foundations, of course, you can only pour in one hit,” he says. “It’s been quite a juggle against the weather, but we’re managing to get there.”

It takes a special kind of contractor to earn his livelihood from working on the mountain. Le Quesne, 41, lives at Piriaka, 12 kilometres south of Taumarunui and nearly 60 kilometres from Mt Ruapehu. Because of that distance he and the rest of the TPP Contracting and Doppelmayr staff  have been staying at Ohakune, 17 kilometres from the Turoa work site.

“You don’t work a five-day week, you just work every fine day that’s there,” Le Quesne says. “You turn up every morning regardless at 7am. If you get an extended period of wet weather you go home for a couple of days. But it doesn’t happen very often.” 

Because of the altitude and environmental considerations, life on the mountain is not like anywhere else.

“Everything you do has to be supervised by the Department of Conservation,” he explains. “There’s a fairly tight rein on what you can and can’t do on the mountain. You’re given a footprint or boundaries to work to, and no matter what happens you’re not allowed to go beyond that.

“You’re not allowed to drive a vehicle up the track to where the snowmaking pond is. You have to walk there every morning. All fuel has to be flown in by helicopter. Everything you do, logistically, becomes a major exercise.

“The guys working up on top get flown to work every morning. At the end of the day they then either walk or take a chairlift part of the way.

“We’re extremely lucky we work with a very good pilot. There’s not many down days he bails out. A decision is made on the mountain as to whether any work can be done that day. We have to turn up every morning and try to make it happen.”

Le Quesne says working on the mountain keeps him fit because of the amount of walking he does over rugged terrain. But he agrees with his 74-year-old father, Trevor (who chairlifts his way up the mountain some days), that when he turns 50 it will be time to call it a day.

He says he has enjoyed the latest contract and (like Doppelmayr) is hoping for work on the Whakapapa skifield upgrades, due to start later in the year.

“It’s mainly the challenges. Most of the work you do on the mountain can be financially rewarding – but not always, because the weather plays a part and you’ve got staff to pay.

“But the work you do there is a challenge. There’s not a day goes by where effectively it’s not all a big challenge.”

Does that mean any young, fit, energetic contractor could make a go of working in such a harsh environment?

Not necessarily.

“They had an end-of-concrete shout last night, and we were talking to the pilot who does all the work there,” Le Quesne says. “And he said, ‘You either don’t make it after the first day or you’re there for a long time’.

“You either make the grade or you go home. And you’ve got to work in with people, and you’ve got to work in with the environment. That’s just how it is.”

Contractor Vol.31 No.5 June 2007