Ice Ball

Ice Ball

By Andrew Penniket

Snow reports aren’t usually of much interest to divers but as custodians of a wonderful, new, exciting and adventurous sport we were deeply concerned that snow might force a cancellation of the Inaugural World Ice Ball Championships.

Ice Ball was conceived about 11 years ago when the disreputable Chris Riley and Neil Harraway and the reputable moi, were recovering over a couple of beers (light) from our first ever ice dives at Lake Alta in the Remarkable Mountains, next to the Remarkable Skifield, run by some remarkably helpful people. We had been testing out our equipment and resolve before making our first trip in 1987 to film underwater at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

Lake Alta is an excellent setting for alpine ice diving (I think we were the first to do this rather dubious task) and, while larking around just under the ice, we discovered the reverse gravity principle, whereby if you blow lots of air into your drysuit it plasters you up under the ice. With a bit more air into your feet you can actually stand and walk around upside down, under the ice. We were like a bunch of primates in a cage with a new trick. What a laugh. Then later we cooked up the notion of an underwater game upside down, like rugby or soccer. We could have immersed sofas for the crowds and satellite coverage would be essential, of course.

Well all good things take time, as they say on the Mainland Cheese advertisement, and I should say what good cheese it is too, from the lush dairy pastures of Southland. But this year Ice Ball finally came to life. Yes, the television series Adventure Central, produced by Natural History New Zealand, wanted crazy sports and activities and asked if they could host the event. Not wanting to be seen as a crazy sport we at first refused but finally acceded after receiving a huge amount of cash in unmarked notes (at least we assume that was who it was from) Err, was that meant to be secret, Julian?

So 29 August 1999 was a big day. Snow report was great, 60 cm base with a light fall of powder from the previous day – when, we had a miserable time chopping holes, erecting tents and preparing the site in snow and rain. Yes, but it was now a beautiful day and tension was rising in the camps as we headed up the hill in a convoy of 4-WDs with questions preying on our minds like, ‘how can I cheat?’ and, ‘what’s for lunch?’

We cadged lifts up on the chair lift, skidoos, the groomer and whatever other way one could bribe. Diving gear was prepared, teams briefed on what there would be for lunch and then a round of television and newspaper interviews, where posing experts were asked probing questions like ‘why invent such a stupid sport?’ Well, someone has to do it.

The formal part of the proceedings was conducted most admirably by organiser Julian Grimond, a wayward Queenstown television type. He read out the rules, hastily concocted on the back of a Durex packet he said he found on the road. Rule One – No Knives, Rule Two – No Australians. So that was over and then the two teams, that some bright type called Wanaka Dolphins and the Queenstown Seals, (which I hereby announce I had nothing to do with) proceeded towards our ice holes. Actually, I really should point out now, just to prevent any debate that would inevitably arise sometime in the future when this is an intergalactically famous sport, that the original name of the sport was Ice Hole but for some reason the sponsors weren’t so keen on that – so we renamed it Ice Ball. Anyway, we finally stumbled our way through the hoards of television cameras, more than you could shake a stick at even, and after the odd gear problem we all got into stations underwater.

I could mention how excruciatingly cold it was and how terribly brave we all were but that would be exaggerating a bit. The general layout was two ice holes about 10 meters apart and defended by opposing teams. The object of course, to get the ball through the opposing team’s ice hole. We also had a third hole for the general use of the very able referee and safety officer, Jeanie Ackley, and miscellaneous camera people like Ed Jowett, Murray Milne and myself.

Predictably Chris Riley lead one excellent and well practiced team and opposing him was the unrespectable rag-tag bunch of no-hopers following Mike Single. Well, for all the precise and well thought-out rules the game quickly degenerated into a brawl. Mike’s team was disadvantaged by having an American and possibly even someone who was once in Australia, so naturally they lost. Quite frankly it wasn’t the most graceful sport I’ve ever seen but certainly one of the silliest. Fortunately everyone cheated a lot and I even managed a few fouls for the home team (a few blocks, camera in the groin – you know – usual stuff). Consequently the Riley lead team (Remarkable Ice Hole Team) masqerading as the Wanaka Seals won but I can’t remember the score.

All in all, an excellent game and in the end, Ice Ball was the winner. I had better close this report from the southern desk before I slander too many other people (its already two weeks late and Dave Moran is getting mean). But on behalf of the teams and groupees etc I would like to thank the Adventure Central team, Natural History New Zealand and the Remarkable Ski Field folk for a quite remarkable time (and lunch was a type of curried chicken sort of thing – quite nice really). See you next year. Teams silly enough to be interested in lining up to get thrashed at next years event can Email me

but I can’t guarantee anything I’ll say is true. Happy Millennium everybody.

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