Tom Dunbar is the classic Kiwi boy, who grew up on a farm and refuses to brag about his achievements – like the fact that he was shoulder tapped to be an All Black in high school.
Tom chose to chase his dreams on the peak – not the pitch – and used competitive skiing as a way to see the world.
“Snow was very much a part of my childhood,” says Tom Dunbar, who grew up on a farm near Hanmer Springs. “On the farm and at the ski field – skiing, tobogganing – it was all part of the winter.”
“When the feeding out had been done to all the stock, dad would drive the truck and we’d hold on to the back and go up the slope and then ski down,” Tom remembers.
Amuri was Tom’s local club field. “I was young when I started skiing – I was five or six. I remember riding up the tow between dad’s legs and getting a nutcracker in the head.
“We used to go up and do a ski week. Back then, school holidays came smack bang in the middle of winter and snow was reasonably reliable.
“My parents are skiers. They’re not competitive skiers or global travelling skiers. It was more part of the country thing and small town thing growing up in New Zealand.
“A lot of the Amuri staff had come from Switzerland and they’d bring with them maps of these great big ski fields like Flims Laaxs and Klosters.”
Looking at trail maps of these huge resorts on the walls of little Amuri, Tom would dreaming of one day exploring these places.
When Tom went to boarding school in Christchurch, he had his first experience skiing somewhere outside of the local club – and his first experience on a chairlift.
“I do remember lifting off in the air and the ride up was just as much a thrill as going down. I was staggered at the size of it all and the amount of people on the slope. Amuri was probably one of the smallest and most low-key ski fields in the world really. Often, there’d only be a few people skiing and most people sitting inside drinking cups of tea and chatting.”
After school, Tom got a job in Japan, working in terrain parks.
“After that, I basically used skiing as a tool to travel the world.”
He got into competing. It started with a slopestyle course at the Remarkables and then Tom moved into big mountain events, where he was more comfortable.
“Everyone was really pushing each other and pushing the sport and the competition thing became sort of addictive, trying to better your results.”
Tom ended up competing in the Freeride World tour. He travelled to Cashmere, Morocco, Europe and America. “I even went skiing in the Dubai mall.”
“I was just doing what I loved and what I wanted to do . I was living in the moment. I didn’t have a five-year or 10-year plan. I had a next-winter plan and that was to go skiing.”
Tom was living the classic ski bum life. There is one story that sums up this time.
“In my younger days when I was competing around the world, I found myself out of money using someone else’s ski pass. We’ve all got one of those stories if we’ve been a ski bum.
“It was the Three Valleys, the end of the season and someone would be injured and you’d pick up their pass. It was spring, so I wasn’t wearing many layers when I scanned the pass at the chairlift a picture came up of this guy whose pass I had borrowed and he was skinny and had glasses and dark hair and I’m short and fat and white.
“The patroller said, ‘This is not you’, and I said, ‘No, it’s not.’ And he said, ‘Well I’m going escort you to the office and book you.’
“It was going to be a 1000 euro fine and I was going to be in serious trouble so I clicked into my skis and started into a snowplow. I started skiing down like it was my first day on skis. And the guy in front got impatient and went into the ski patrol office, which gave me quite a big gap and thought, ‘If I’m going to get away, this is it.’ So I pinned my skis and straight-lined it. This guy started chasing me and yelling at me in French. My skis weren’t waxed and came up right behind me – this big french man – and so I peeled off the side of a cat track and just wildly and blindly jumped into these bushes and came out the other side onto a learner slope.
“My heart was racing. I was so nervous that I was going to get caught that I shot under a learners’ rope tow on the tails of my skis and the rope nearly decapitated me. I managed to shake him off, went home, changed my clothes and hid my skis. That night at the local bars, the ski patrollers were talking about this wee guy on bright skis who had got away. They were very pissed off about it.
“It was probably the most exhilarating run of my life. Faced with a 1000 Euro fine, which I knew I didn’t have, I thought, ‘What’s a Kiwi to do – just bolt’.”
Tom’s best result came at a Freeride World Tour stop in Verbier, where he scored the most points for the day. In fact, Tom’s Verbier run was the highest scoring line ever.
“I remember sitting at the top of the venue with New Zealander Hamish Acland. I remember looking around and there I was on the top of this mountain that I’d looked at on a map on the wall of my ski club back in New Zealand. And I remember thinking, God I grew up on a farm in a small town in New Zealand and now I’m on the top of one of these world-renowned ski resorts competing with the best in the world. It was a pretty cool day. I decided to go for it and everything came to plan.”
The success at Verbier scored him an invitation to a week-long heli-accessed RedBull event in Italy.
“I had a hell of a lot of fun in that period of my life, but looking back the best thing about it was travelling and using the competition scene a way to travel and make friends.”
Right at his peak, injury struck. “It was flat light and I was probably a bit lazy. I skied down a bit of terrain there was a small cliff drop – about 15-foot or something. I could have hiked back out but I thought ‘I’ll just drop off here it’s not too large’.”
The flat light disguised the pitch of landing. Tom ended up rolling and flipping over rocks. He broke his pelvis and fractured his back.
“It sounds major but I was actually skiing a few weeks after it. It was a regrettable mistake but more than anything it set me back mentally. I started doubting myself after that and probably never really found the same form again.”
Tom started questioning his career path.
“You get interrogated all the time being a professional skier. People say, ‘You should get a real job’ or ‘You must be crazy’ and all these things. You don’t really let it get to you until something happens and then you think, ‘Shit, maybe I am crazy’. I lost confidence. I thought, ‘I’ve got people at home that love me and there’s other things in life I enjoy as well so why risk it all for one thing’. I definitely took my foot off the accelerator.”
Tom headed back to New Zealand to study outdoor education, but jobs were few and far between and Tom wanted to be his own boss.
“That’s when I got back into beekeeping, which I’d done when I was younger.”
Today, Tom runs a beekeeping business and exports high-end honey to Dubai.
“Most of my beehives are around the areas where we ski. It’s bush honey from around the Craigieburn club fields.”
Tom still enjoys spending time in the mountains – whether skiing or beekeeping.
“That’s one of the things that drew me to skiing was not just the skiing but being in the mountains. Being able to work in them now is just as rewarding.”
These days, skiing for Tom is mostly a social affair. But there is still the thrill of the ride. “It’s that feeling of being not on ground and not flying but somewhere in between.”
For Tom, skiing has proven to be a lifelong pursuit – from the kid behind the farm truck to extreme skier and now dad. It’s been a vehicle for seeing the world and now it’s a way for his family to spend time together.
Tom’s looking forward to the next phase – introducing skiing to his young kids.
“My parents are skiing with their grandchildren now and they think that’s pretty cool.”
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