Under your own green steam

“There is no machine known that is more efficient than a human on a bicycle. A bowl of oatmeal, 30 miles, you can’t come close to that.  Put a bowl of oatmeal in your car, you’re not going anywhere, let alone 30 miles. The efficiency is terrible compared to a human.”

These are the words of American scientist / comedian Bill Nye, and that’s the principle at the heart of Green Steam. An annual event, Green Steam sees hardy skiers-cum-cyclists strap their skis and their gear to their bikes, ride from the centre of Wānaka to the base of Treble Cone, and then ski, or walk, to the summit, then turn around and do it all in reverse. The official route is described as the Doughbin Bakery to Kai Whakapai cafe, “via the TC Summit”. It’s normally a one-minute bike ride between the two businesses. This will take considerably longer.

It’s with some trepidation that I approach the event. I ride my bike a lot, and I like climbing, but Treble Cone is a big beast. The start of the ski field access road is a good 20 kilometres from town, and the ensuing climb features 8.5 kilometres of rutted dirt road with an average gradient of 11%. If it was paved, it wouldn’t be out of place in the Tour de France. But my concerns ebb away as I get a feel for the buzz at the Doughbin, the pie shop and local institution that serves as Green Steam’s start village. If Bill Nye were from Otago, he’d have used a mince pie as an example instead of oatmeal.

There’s more to all of this than just getting to the top of the mountain. The event seeks to raise awareness of the climate crisis, our threatened winters, and the huge quantities of fuel spent ferrying skiers up and down our hills.

At the centre of the carbon fibre and fibreglass is Toby Roberts, a pillar of the Wānaka bike scene and the organiser of Green Steam. Toby took part in the inaugural event in 2020, organised by former Wānaka resident Ash Rogers, before becoming its custodian for the third edition in 2022.

“I heard about the first one from a friend of a friend,” Toby tells me. “Ash wanted to make a point about too many cars driving up the hill with one person, so we slapped a Green Steam flag on a bike and rode out to Treble Cone, up the mountain and back.”

Today, Green Steam is run in partnership with the New Zealand chapter of Protect Our Winters (POW). POW is a non-profit organisation which started in the United States in 2007 but now has an international presence, with 15 chapters globally. POW NZ uses community-based empowerment to protect New Zealand’s Alpine environment, and it’s hard to think of an event more aligned with these aims than Green Steam.

Marian Krogh is POW NZ’s lead advocate. Marian is careful not to present events like Green Steam as a solution to the climate crisis, but they do give individuals who might not be inclined to protest a platform to engage with the issue. “I think it kind of highlights the importance that climate action has to be fun and has to connect the things you’re passionate about. A lot of people won’t maybe show up to like a protest. But they’ll show up to bike up to Treble Cone with their skis.” This is a sentiment Toby agrees with. “It can be difficult to show that you care about the environment, but an event like this is a great way of getting together and representing how you feel about climate change.”

And the number of participants lending their legs and their voices to the cause is growing. From a handful of riders in the first edition of the event, participation has … snowballed. Assembled outside the Doughbin this morning are more than 50 riders, demonstrating varying degrees of physical and practical preparedness. With each rider paying $20 for a POW membership as the cost of entry, the event also raises around $1000 for the organisation.

“There’s a real mix,” Toby says. “Half the people there are cyclists, half of them are skiers, and half aren’t good at either. They just want to have a crack and take part in the challenge. There’s a broad spectrum and that’s what makes it so good. The people who find it hardest, they definitely get the most out of it.”

There is no normal way to strap skis and boots to a bicycle, so I arrive at a scene reminiscent of a dog park. Except instead of sniffing each other’s butts, we’re inspecting each other’s rigs and casting aspersions. A whispered, “I wouldn’t want to ride down the mountain like that,” is followed by an envious, “look at how she’s attached her boots!”

My subjective award for best rig of the day goes to Kelvin Thiele. Kelvin is an engineer by trade and this becomes pretty clear when he talks his set-up. Free of bungee cords or baggage, Kelvin’s skis descend from his saddle to the ground, where they are attached to two wheels. “I started working on it at around 8:30pm the night before the event. I was playing around with a few elaborate trailers, but skis are pretty rigid, so I kept it simple and just clamped a couple of wheels to the end of the skis and hey, we’ve got a mini trailer.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Sam Shaw. Sam spent his winter in Europe riding in elite-level mountain bike events, but today he is grinding up Treble Cone with the rest of us. Sam’s ability on a bike might be elite, but his Green Steam set-up is not. As we ride out of Wānaka, I see him ahead of me wearing a rucksack, with skis haphazardly jutting out of it. He looks like a child who’s made a jet-pack out of what he found in the garage.

I ask Sam why he went with the rucksack. “I came into town to be sociable, and I wasn’t going to take my skis. But then I saw 50 people with skis and I thought it looked like it was going to be a sick day, so I better go get my skis. I boosted home and it took me three minutes to tuck them into my pack, get on my bike and come and join in.”

I empathise with Sam. Recently transplanted to Wānaka from London, I’ve barely touched snow and my bike is unburdened by skis and boots. In other company I might feel judged, but the positive energy of Green Steam is impossible to ignore. My self-consciousness subsides.

Following the undulating ride out of town, the collective gathers at the bottom of the Treble Cone access road for a group photo, and to begin the ascent. With 939 metres of elevation gain, the climb involves about 250 metres more climbing than the nearby Crown Range, Aotearoa’s highest sealed alpine pass. It is also almost twice as steep, with a loose gravel surface, and exposed to whatever the elements have in store. The weather forecast is bad.

A climb this hard has a meditative effect. The mountain chooses your pace as you push your pedals as hard and as often as your body will allow. The road up Treble Cone features nine hairpins that serve as milestones, nine lung-busting efforts that each start just as the previous one finishes. Today, a nor’westerly gale also serves to boost our egos in one direction, before blowing us off our bikes in the next. Still, the view rewards in spades, and the gradient of the climb means we quickly start to see the fruits of our labour as the valley floor recedes.

Kelvin Thiele – of the ingenious ski trailer – had never ridden a climb like this, but he wouldn’t let that put you off. “You just sit and settle into a low gear and start grinding your way up. Before you know it, you’re at the 1km marker and you only need to do seven more of them. There was such a cool atmosphere around it, and the whole thing was really supportive. Everyone was encouraging each other and there were some parents of the younger participants on the hairpins cheering us up the hill. It’s a really cool vibe,” Thiele says.

At the ski-field base, the riders are greeted by a celebratory atmosphere and refreshments from Treble Cone and Protect Our Winters. With the anticipated bad weather quickly becoming a reality, I scarper down the mountain, but the true Green Steamers push on. To start, ski patrol requests that the group go no further than the top of Treble Cone’s six-person chairlift, a height of 1760 metres. After a quick evaluation, though, patrol gives the Green Steamers the nod to continue their ascent, escorting the lead group to around 200 metres from the top. The summit, however, is not to be. The descent, and a wet and windy ride back to the finish area at Wānaka’s famous Kai Whakapai cafe, can begin.

According to Toby, “Everyone gave it a good nudge up the hill, but by the time we were skinning up the slope we were getting blown over. I’ve never seen wind like it before on a ski slope.” Still, reflecting on the day, he is delighted with the turnout. “The hill on its own is really horrible to ride. It’s so steep, and the gravel is so loose. Throw in the weather, and strap some skis to your bike, and it’s pretty impressive. This is a small town, so to know that there are at least 55 people that are willing to get together and do something like this is special.”

He’s right, this event is special, and it’s impossible to escape the sense that this is just the beginning for Green Steam. “I’d love to see one in the North Island at Mt Ruapehu, and another in the South Island. Setting it up is the easy part. Get in touch with your local ski field, recruit your mates, and put some posters up in your local bike shop.”

Wānaka’s Green Steam 2024 will take place on the 14th of September 2024.

Words: Ruairi O’Shea

Photos: Chris Chase Photography