Drew Jolowicz & Buff Farnell scoping lines and conditions top of Hamburg. PICTURE CREDIT: Karl Gray
Sick of standing on the side of the ski resort boundary salivating at the virgin snow on the other side? Backcountry ski and split board touring will get you out there and you don’t need to be an expert or extreme skier to get amongst it.
I had long heard the chatter about backcountry skiing before I ever freed my own heel on an alpine touring binding. The mystery of powder snow begging for the taking not far from the chairlift had its appeal but I was scared. Backcountry was for the domain of big mountain extreme skiers who threw themselves (by choice) off cliffs, backcountry meant avalanches, backcountry meant death.
Then I learnt to ski powder, real powder, floating on over the head snow dust and I wanted more. First tracks on a chairlift meant I could feed that feeling on a powder day, at least for a few laps before the masses tracked out my virgin run but I wanted that feeling over and over again without fighting the crowds. Without the funds for a helicopter I was forced to confront my fear and step outside of the resort.
Think backcountry skiing and many don’t think Australia, but they should. Few realise the delights on offer among Australia’s unique snow gums and granite boulder bowls of snow in New South Wales and Victoria.
“Backcountry skiing in Australia is one of a kind for many reasons” says long time backcountry skiing professional and guide Bill Barker. He spends his southern winters heading up ski patrol at Hotham Alpine Resort and his northern guiding intrepid skiers in Antarctica and India.
“Our mountains are so old that most of them are flat on top, so many of our good lines start mellow and get steeper as you descend. Skiing the gnarled and awesome coloured limbs and trunks of 200 year old snow gums is pretty unique.
Buff Farnell, Drew Jolowicz & Ash Warnock in Australia's alpine backcountry, Mt Buffalo, PICTURE CREDIT: Karl Gray
BACKCOUNTRY AIN'T SO FEARSOME
As long as you can comfortably ski or board off piste in a variety of snow conditions you can ski backcountry. You do not need to be an expert by any means as often the snow in the back-country is way easier than skiing in the resort.”
If you are considering dipping your ski boot into the great unknown then heading out past the boundary above Karel’s T Bar at Thredbo gives first timers access to the legendary Dead Horse Gap backcountry run. Though many would refer to this as ‘sidecountry’ the run itself is not patrolled and while an intermediate rolling pitch it does require an adventurous spirit. You can do this run without alpine touring gear, just be prepared to side slip or traverse or even take your skis off and hike to get out into it.
You never forget your first time on Dead Horse Gap, if you’re lucky the snow will be fresh mid winter powder or spring corn and you’ll stumble upon some snow brumbies in the wild, if you’re unlucky you’ll be negotiating a mix of ice then snow then ice again. Either way it’s bush bashing Aussie skiing at its finest.
Half way down, you’ll hit the bush and this is where you want to be with someone who knows the run well as you’ll have to navigate the trees and the right side of the creek below before clicking out and crossing the river bridge to where you will have thought ahead and set up a BBQ and beers.
Nat Segal shredding while filming for Finding The Line. PHOTO CREDIT: Zoya Lynch
AUSTRALIAN ALPINE BACKCOUNTRY IS LIKE NO OTHER
Once is not enough and if this is, like it was mine, your first taste of Australian backcountry skiing then you’ll be researching alpine ski gear come the end of the day. I, in my ski resort ways, had no concept of true Australian skiing until this day. The mystique of being out of the resort, the snow gummed landscape that spells home, the wilderness, the silence, the peace.
In Victoria you can get a taster without much work on the back of a snow mobile with an Australian Olympic ski racer and FIS World Cup medalist. Steve Lee is quite the character, laid back, and a man of few words, though the ones he does have are as dry witted as you need when upside down in a snow hole.
Lee grew up around these parts, his family still spend their winters at Falls Creek (his sister is a ski instructor in the ski school) and he now calls the Hakuba Valley home during the northern Japan winter where he runs guided backcountry tours. Translated? You’re in good hands.
Climb aboard the purpose built multi seat trailer behind one of his snow mobiles and get towed out of the resort and into the wilds of Mt McKay. It’s a crazy set up akin to those inflatable bananas that get dragged around the ocean by jet boats at tourist beaches. If you don’t hold on you will fall off, if you do hold on then you’ll get quite the ride to the peak of some of Australia’s finest backcountry runs from intermediate pitch to advanced tree runs.
On a good winter when the snow is deep you may even stumble upon an anonymous ski patroller skiing the hydro pipeline and racing alpine hares down the slopes.
A guide is recommended if venturing deep into the unknown.
While these types of adventures are all good fun and uniquely Australian there is more serious skiing and split boarding to be had out in once you venture further afield but you’ll need at the very least a guide that knows the area and avalanche gear.
It is easy to forget that avalanches do happen in the Australian mountains. While many laugh at the idea of avalanches in a country that averages at most, four metres of snowfall a season and is not known for extreme pitched terrain of the European Alps or Rocky Mountains but, the fatalities tell a different story.
Snowboarding backcountry mates Daniel Kerr and Martie Buckland were buried four metres deep by an avalanche while boarding on Mt Bogong in Victoria in July 2014. The men had appropriate avalanche safety gear but they did not survive. In 2008, 22 year old Tom Carr Boyd died while skiing when a cornice collapsed near Blue Lake in the New South Wales backcountry.
Buff Farnell, Drew Jolowicz & Asha Warnock chasing the last light on the Pink Hamburg ridge, Mt Buffalo. PICTURE CREDIT: Karl Gray
Another incident as recent as last year occurred when a sizeable slab avalanche was triggered by side country skiers in the unpatrolled area of Mt Hotham. Thankfully no one was caught.
But that’s not all. “One of the biggest threats in Australia is hypothermia” explains Barker of our wetter conditions. “It is easy to get wet and if you then get lost or delayed (due to anything) you will start getting cold and get into trouble.”
Once you get the backcountry bug, and you will, you will want to keep feeding it so it is best to educate yourself. The Mountain Sports Collective in Australia (mountainsportscollective.org) release a backcountry travel advisory daily, also check in with Snow Safety Australia (snowsafety.com.au) and the local ski patrol at nearby resorts will have a wealth of snow data to help you make safer decisions.
Buff Farnell, Drew Jolowicz & Asha Warnock on the slopes. PICTURE CREDIT: Karl Gray
THE NORTH FACE AND THREDBO RESORTS NOW OFFER AUSTRALIA'S FIRST BACKCOUNTRY TOUR
“We don’t run the backcountry, the backcountry runs us” says Jake Iskov, lead guide for Thredbo’s new The North Face backcountry tours offering day trips for intermediate to expert resort skiers to experience a half or full day backcountry tour suitable to their experience.
“Safety should be on the top of everyone’s list. There’s no ski patrol to apply band aids, nor cafes where you can stop in for a latte when you get cold feet. The weather can get pretty much as bad as anywhere in the world. Navigation can be difficult in adverse weather, which can drift in quickly. For those reasons and several others, it’s a very good idea to go with a guide.”
The Australian mountains old world majestic beat is present when hitting up the more well known routes. Take the seven hour Top of Australia backcountry tour with Thredbo and ski off Australia’s highest peak, Mt Kosciuszko (2228 metres) or the more advanced Cream of Etheridge Range Crop tour and ski high above the tree line with lunch at the historic Seaman’s Hut. The alpine hut built in the 1920s to provide shelter and warmth after the death of two skiers who died of exposure.
Ski the Main Range lines and expect to drink in sweeping views of the Snowy Mountain Range, steeped in geographical history with rolling bowls, languid ridges and flat top mountains that drop down into steeper chutes lined with gum trees. Those in the backcountry know lust after Watsons Crags, steep south facing slopes that do Australia proud for those that mock our sunburnt country’s snow obsession. Expect narrow steep chutes that are not visible when standing atop of the ridge. So, once you’re in, you’re in.
Drew Jolowicz showing off his skins. PHOTO CREDIT: Karl Gray
But first things first. Equipment. If you take a tour like the Thredbo backcountry tours then they will set you up with all the appropriate equipment otherwise have a chat to Bruce Easton at Wilderness Sports in Jindabyne. You’ll need avalanche beacon, shovel and probe (and have a basic understanding of how to use them), a split board if you’re a snowboarder and alpine touring ski bindings and boots to allow your heel to release while your toe stays static so you can push your skis up the hill with each leg motion. Velvet skins attach to the underside of your skis to provide the grip required to move uphill without sliding down. Once at the top the skins are removed and the heel locked down and voila, you’re back to downhill skiing.
Wear breathable base layers and outerwear without a lining so you can layer up and down as conditions require. Always let someone know where you are going and what time you expect to return and take rations. Backcountry skiing burns a lot of energy, especially on the ‘skin up’ so dense nutrient foods high in good fat and protein (beef jerky and nuts are good) plus dark chocolate for a slower sugar release.
The more experienced you become the more adventures become available including multi day ski touring trips. Australian big mountain skier and Freeride World Tour athlete, Nat Segal, spends her northern winters ski touring the extreme couloirs of Chamonix in the French Alps. She’s skied the backcountry of Alaska, Norway, Canada, Japan and beyond including ‘the crags’ of Australia but she still rates her home country for beauty alone.
“We had an incredible campsite and every night the sunsets were spectacular” says Segal after spending five days camping on the shoulder of Mt Townsend in the Main Range of New South Wales.
“It was my first time snow camping in the area and we barely saw anyone else the whole trip, it was really special. Backcountry skiing in Australia is totally worth it. The terrain and snow conditions are different to overseas but the feeling is the same. After a good day ‘earning’ your turns you have the same smile on your face.”
Avalanche Training Australia in conjunction with Avalanche NZ are offering accredited 2-day Avalanche Awareness (AST 1) and 4-day Backcountry Avalanche Avoidance (AST2) courses in Falls Creek and Thredbo this year. Avalanchetraining.com.au
MORE OUTDOOR ADVENTURES...
- AUSTRALIA'S ALPINE BACKCOUNTRY
- CLIMBING THE ARAPLIES
- MOUNTAIN BIKING AUSTRALIA
- MT RUAPEHU NEW ZEALAND
- GRAVEL BIKING
- SOUTHWEST TASMANIA
The full feature appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Outdoor Magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest outdoor adventure, travel news and inspiration.