This past weekend we took a few days off for a final break before Spring warms up the Southern Hemisphere. What else is there to do in Australia, particularly in our state of Victoria, in late winter other than go skiing? While most foreigners don’t think of Australia as a snowy paradise, we learned this past weekend that the land area that receives solid winter snow coverage in Australia is larger than the area of Switzerland. Who knew?
Ski resorts in Australia are the most expensive (and profitable) in the world. It’s almost impossible to find a lift ticket for less than $100/day. Neither Laura nor I have much affection for resorts; we prefer the quiet and solitude of wild places in winter to the whir of lifts and crowds. After a little research, we found a guide to take us on a three-day backcountry ski tour up and around Victoria’s highest point – Mt. Bogong.
For those of you that don’t live in Australia, Mt. Bogong is located in Victoria’s northeast in Alpine National Park and is one of the high points of the Great Dividing Range. This range stretches over 2,000 miles (3,500km) along Australia’s eastern seaboard, much like the Appalachian Mountains on the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Below are some highlights from the trip.
Hiking in – our first adventure
In all of my previous ski tours, we strapped on our skis in the parking lot and skied off in the wilderness. This isn’t possible in Australia. The snowline is high enough that, unless you’re at a resort, you’re almost always going to have to hike to it. This means that you have to not only strap all of your hiking and camping gear to your back (food, tent, sleeping bag, etc.) but also all of your winter gear (skis, snowshoes, boots, helmets, etc.) for the slog up to the snow.
And it certainly was a slog.
Another unique aspect of the hike in is walking through a gum (eucalyptus) forest. Gum trees are the dominant arboreal species in Australia. Certain types of gum trees can also be quite brittle. Over the past few weeks, multiple blustery storms have blown in off the Southern Ocean, and we came across hundreds of downed trees beside and along the trail.
The downed trees are such a common problem that anyone who consistently ventures into Australian Alpine country will carry a chainsaw in their vehicle. It’s not uncommon for trees to block the roads in and out. One of the groups we met at the hut had spent an extra hour and a half cutting through logs and using the winch on their vehicle to clear the road before they reached the trailhead.
The hike up was steep, slow but steady. We paced ourselves well and reached snow after a few hours of hiking. As we ascended the weather changed quite dramatically. By the time we emerged above treeline, we faced whiteout conditions with up to 40 knot winds.
We certainly look happy in the photo above, but that was just us practicing expedition behavior. It wasn’t all that much fun. It was hard to see in front of you, and the wind was pretty relentless. Not to mention that it included the hardest climbing section of the whole trip. Below is a video that our guide, Matt O’Keefe, took of us descending Eskdale spur (pronounced Esdale without the ‘k’) on our return journey. Needless to say, we became pretty expert at making switchbacks on the way up.
Huts – a refuge for winter touring
I was first turned on to ski touring after a visit some years ago to Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division huts. There are many iterations of ski hut systems around the world from the world famous European alpine huts that have full-time chefs and prepare lunch packs for you to those in the Australian Alps, which are generally refuge huts that serve to protect skiers from the elements when the weather turns bad.
We visited two of these huts during our tour. The first was Michell hut on Eskdale spur.
Michell is a relatively small hut with few amenities since it’s not meant to be slept in. We stopped on the way up and the way back for lunch.
After leaving Michell Hut we hiked over the main massif to Cleve Cole Memorial Hut. This hut was built in the 1930s as a memorial to an intrepid ski tourer who was caught in a blizzard and died on Mt. Bogong. Cleve Cole is much larger than Michell Hut and has a number of additional amenities. These include running water, woodstove with stocked wood, solar electricity, bunk beds, and composting toilet.
We had carried tents and sleeping pads with us but there was plenty of room in the bunks, allowing us to sleep in the hut both nights.
We also prepared our meals, warmed up, listened to footy matches in the evening, and relaxed after our days out on the mountain.
One of my favorite things about huts like this is the camraderie that you experience with other hut users. On this particular trip, there were five other users of the hut (not including the native field mice). Three were older gentleman who had spent seven full days at the hut. This trip has become an annual tradition for them since 2001. They were hilarious, each with a vastly different personality. In addition to them, there were two younger guys who were very good skiers but on their first backcountry tour. Over the course of the three days, we shared stories, information about good runs, (inevitably) talked gear, and laughed a lot.
Parks Victoria has installed some really nice composting toilets near the hut!
If the first day of the tour was overcast, blustery, and relatively miserable, the second day of our tour was a perfect Spring ski day. You can see how bluebird clear it was in the photo above as I headed to out for my morning devotional.
Since we weren’t interested in skiing the steep lines that can be found on Mt. Bogong, we decided to take a leisurely ski tour up to the summit and to ski some nice gladed runs nearer to the hut.
After reaching the summit, we stopped for some photos and a leisurely snack. The rock cairn you can see in the photo is 14ft tall when there is no snow.
It was so clear that we were able to see all the way to the Snowy Mountains, Australia’s highest mountain range. We had fantastic view of Mt. Kosciuszko, the highest point on mainland Australia. We also learned two fun facts about Mt. Kosciuszko. 1. It’s named after a Polish national hero who is also a United States Revolutionary War hero. You can find a statue of him in Lafeyette Park in front of the White House! 2. About 20 years ago, the Australian authorities realized that the peak they thought was the highest point in Australia was actually ten meters lower than it’s neighboring peak. Not wanting to worry about rewriting history, they decided to simply swap the two names of the mountains – so the Mount Kosciuszko we know today had a different name 20 years ago.
After bagging our summit, we headed back toward Cleve Cole Hut so Laura could work on her ever improving downhill skiing skills.
The Good Guide
In a previous post on travelling, we mentioned that we think it’s worth paying for a good guide for certain travel experiences. Since neither of us knew what to expect in the Australian backcountry, we thought it best to hire a professional. It was well worth it. Matt O’Keefe at vicalps.com is everything you could want in a guide. Safety is his top priority, he’s flexible when necessary, attentive to your needs and interests, and is a fantastic travelling companion. We couldn’t have enjoyed ourselves more and much of the credit falls to Matt’s knowledgeable and thoughtful planning. Matt runs hiking, mountain biking, snowshoesing, and ski touring trips. He also guides sea kayaking tours that are within 2 to 3 hours of Melbourne. We would highly recommend seeking him out.
Laura’s thoughts on her first ski tour
My experience on this trip was really marked by the journey up and down the mountain. It was one of the most physically exhausting experiences of my life. If you would have asked me if I would like to hike almost entirely uphill on a rocky path, dodging fallen trees, with a massive backpack, I probably would have said, “no, not my idea of fun.” And that was only the first hour and half in. Once we actually reached snow, we walked, again mostly uphill, for another two or three hours in freezing winds, barely able to see more than a few feet in front us. Again, not my usual idea of fun. But here’s the weird thing: I enjoyed it. Even when I could barely feel my cheeks and my right shoulder ached as the wind beat against my backpack, my main thought was, “wow, this is unique. This is hard. I have never done this before.” And two days later, when I could actually see what I had hiked up, my thought was “holy s$#t, I can’t believe I hiked up that.” I am not the type of person who pushes herself physically. When I feel myself get tired, I usually stop. But, on this trip, I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. And, not to sound sappy or overly dramatic, I think this experience changed me a bit.
In comparison with the hike up and down, the rest of the trip was relaxing, easy and really fun. The weather was beautiful on our second day. I was able to practice my turns on gentle hills. I also gained a new appreciation for gear: climbing skins (removable pieces of nylon fabric that allow the ski to glide forward but not back) are awesome. Cleve Cole Hut had everything we needed for an enjoyable stay: a comfortable place to sleep, a warm fire, and good company.
Justin has been raving to me about ski touring for years now, and I think he was really hoping this trip would cause me to fall in love with it as he has. Unfortunately, I think this trip was much harder than he expected. But the unexpected outcome is that I would definitely do it again. I am excited to see what else I can do.