Backcountry skiing challenges your skills, stretches your dollar and extends the ski season well beyond the resort’s operating times. What’s more, Australia is fine place to get a taste for it.
One side effect of any skiing obsession is that at some point, everything inside the ropes starts to feel a little, well, tame. As with any skill, the more you do it, the more you naturally progress and find yourself wanting to test your limits and take on bigger challenges.
As well as the inevitable urge to upskill, the purist’s perspective also comes into play. Some might say that all that perfectly combed corduroy that your lift pass pays for counts for conveying purposes only – and yeah okay, maybe the odd bit of ego skiing. ‘Real’ skiing doesn’t happen till you’re drawing on a full suite of techniques, responding second-by-second to the terrain, unpredictable and ever-changing, just as nature intended.
Be it taking the backseat through powder, or blunting your edges on boiler plate, weaving euphorically through trees, or side-stepping back to (relative) safety from the edge of a precipice, when there’s no trail map, no ski patrol, no colour-coded signage – only your wits telling you where to go – the backcountry will do nothing if not keep you on your toes.
Despite being the obvious level up for seasoned skiers, going out of bounds isn’t as common in Australia as it is in North America and Europe. That there’s no deep, dry powder or gnarly steeps are half-truths that may contribute to the Great Divide’s dismissal by ‘extreme’ big mountain skiers. For everyone else, there’s a little bit of fear and not a lot of information.
With vehicle-assisted access options few and far between, we’d also speculate that the human-powered approaches put our unlifted areas firmly in the too-hard basket for many people who may have otherwise toyed with the idea.
And then there’s the small matter of geography; our low elevation and mild climate rely greatly on manufactured snow to sustain a full season of resort riding, whereas success in the backcountry depends entirely on the whims of the ever-warming weather. Backcountry skiing in Australia is nothing if not a lottery.
All said, we reckon the Australian alps aren’t to be sniffed at. They’re as varied as they are vast, serving up everything from nasty chutes and you-go-first couloirs, to easy open bowls and undulating high plains that take upwards of a week to traverse. Familiarise yourself the with wind direction to uncover stashes of powder that have blown off exposed faces and settled in protected gullies, and from late August through October, enjoy the satisfaction of slicing through springtime corn while the weather is at its most stable. Yep, adventure is out there if you’re willing to plan and work for it. And if you’re not, there’s always the slackcountry – but more on that in a second.
Accessing the backcountry
How you reach the Holy Grail of snow will depend on which part of the Australian alps you want to ski. If you don’t mind huffing and puffing to each peak, traditional alpine touring – which combines human power and gear mods – opens up any of the off-piste playgrounds in New South Wales and Victoria. Very early starts and/or snow camping might be necessary depending on how much ground you’re trying to cover, and you’ll need touring bindings and skins for your skis (or splitboard) which allow you to lift your heels and “walk” uphill without sliding backwards.
Slackcountry and sidecountry describe backcountry that’s easily accessed from ski resorts, usually by riding the lifts and finding slopes beyond but not too far from patrolled areas. Happily, Australia has lots of of terrain that fits this brief, and if you’re after a mix of resort and backcountry riding, it’s one of the more efficient uses of both time and dollars.
The opposite of backcountry – rather than trekking out to true wilderness far from the built environment, frontcountry denotes areas where you simply pull your car to the side of the road and drop off the edge, followed by a climb back out that may or may not have been worth it.
On that note, snowcats and snowmobiles have clear benefits: they eliminate the time and energy needed to climb hills on foot, and make it possible to cover big distances without camping overnight. You have to pay for the privilege however, and guided snowmobile services in Australia are limited. But if you’re new to backcountry skiing, it’s a great, and safe, way to go.
At the most extreme (read: expensive) end, there’s heli skiing. Though not currently available in Australia, New Zealand has a number of operators who’ll chopper you to otherwise inaccessible peaks in a matter of minutes. Those who’ve done it say the scenic flight over the Southern Alps is worth the cost in its own right; an assessment we don’t find too difficult to believe.
Have you tried cross country skiing?
It won’t give you the same rush as downhill skiing, but if getting closer to solitude and further from queues is your main motivation, don’t discount cross country trails. Because this style of skiing involves gliding along flat trails with relatively little pitch, it’s generally considered easier to learn than downhill skiing, and the skills are more or less transferable – if you can skate on skis you’ll pick it up no problem, though perhaps with questionable technique. There are plenty of cross country trail networks maintained by ski resorts and these, combined with the cruisy terrain, make cross country a fairly easy departure from the piste.
Backcountry skiing in NSW
The majority of NSW’s backcountry can be found in Kosciuszko National Park, and alpine touring, with or without the aid of ski lifts, is more or less the only way to reach it. Whether you’re carving down from Australia’s highest point with the help of a lift pass and a guide, or skiing deep into snow gum wilderness, backcountry skiing adventures in NSW come in many colours.
Thredbo guided backcountry trips
Operated in partnership with The North Face, Thredbo’s guided backcountry adventures are new in 2018 and make transitioning to off piste skiing easier than ever. The tours range from a few hours to all day, with difficulty ratings that cater to beginner, intermediate, and advanced skiers. While anyone with a sense of direction and a Thredbo lift pass can explore the ungroomed terrain surrounding Mt Kosciuszko, a guided trip is a great way to familiarise yourself with the mountains and learn how to use skins in a low-risk environment.
Explore the Main Range from Charlotte Pass
A popular hiking route in summer, the Main Range comprises dozens of rolling summits and alpine lakes above the treeline that transform into a backcountry playground in the white season. In winter the access road to Charlotte Pass is closed to the public so you’ll need to catch a shuttle, but this is by far the quickest way to skin to the best bits at the northern end of the range (if not the cheapest). With an early start, you can get your backcountry fix in a day, but making base camp and spending a long weekend bagging peaks is the more leisurely way to go about it.
Check out Perisher’s slackcountry
The slackcountry just outside Perisher’s boundaries is frequently recommended for backcountry beginners, and it’s pretty simple to explore if you’ve already got a lift pass. The easiest options include picking lines off the backside of Mt Perisher or the Paralyser, then following Farm Creek to Guthega. Or you can try exploring south of the Eyre T-bar, which brings you down to Kosciuszko Road where it’s a short walk back to the lifts.
Go on a cross-country epic in the Jagungal Wilderness
Less mountainous though undeniably more wild and remote is the sprawling Jagungal Wilderness. It lies directly to the north of the Main Range and can be accessed from Kiandra, a long-abandoned mining town and incidentally the birthplace of skiing in Australia. The plains and plateaus make it a touring rather than big mountain destination, and the K2K, which connects Kiandra and Kosciuszko and takes around nine days to complete, is one of Australia’s only long-distance backcountry skiing routes.
Backcountry skiing in Victoria
The Victorian alps aren’t as high as NSW, but in Alpine National Park they’re cut deeper, steeper and are ragged with couloirs bearing colourful names like Hellfire and Tombstone and Death Cookie. While there’s some crazy lines to be tackled (when and if they’re holding snow), there’s also plenty of just-steep-enough bowls and vehicle-assisted options for the more risk-averse skiers among us. Falls Creek in the north-east and Hotham in the south-west provide access to playgrounds in the Bogong High Plains, Mt Bogong, and Mt Feathertop areas, and the Great Alpine Road itself is loaded with slackcountry stashes as it weaves conveniently up and over the alps.
Take a snowmobile backcountry tour from Falls Creek
The guided trips operated by three-time Olympian Steve Lee are the only snowmobile-lifted backcountry tours in Australia. It may feel a little bit like cheating, but if it eliminates the legwork and allows you to access anywhere within 450 hectares of backcountry in half a day, who’s complaining? Depending on your ability (all intermediate to advanced riders welcome), you might find yourself tree skiing in Pretty Valley or tackling the black stuff at Mt McKay.
Hike, camp and ski Mt Feathertop
With good snow coverage you’ll be able to skin and ski the length of the Razorback to basecamp at Federation Hut, but if snowmelt has made the conditions patchy, expect the trek to be a bit more testing. Spend a few days summiting Feathertop and scoping lines that range from intermediate to expert-only. And remember, this neck of the woods is for true backcountry skiing – you’ll need a reasonably experienced group and a competent leader at a minimum.
Play in the plateaus
Gentler skiing and snow camping can be found by exploring Victoria’s surprisingly vast cross country scene. A 2.5 hour drive out of Melbourne brings you to the Baw Baw Plateau, where at Mt St Gwinear you can break away from the groomed trails and navigate towards the northern or southern ends of the plateau to discover remote countryside away from daytrippers. Meanwhile up in Mt Buffalo National Park, Cresta Valley has 4km of marked, ungroomed trails, and nothing but preparation to stop you from forging your own path deeper into uncharted territory.
Go on a Great Alpine Road slackcountry crawl
The Great Alpine Road follows the ridge that starts at Harrietville and starts to descend at Dinner Plain, with Hotham marking the crest. Along the way there’s countless opportunity for sidecountry riding that’s only a short walk from parking – try Renes Lookout, Mt Blowhard, the south end of the Razorback or, with the help of a Hotham lift pass, Mt Loch and Eagle Ridge.
While in no way a comprehensive list of all the backcountry adventures you can have in Australia, we hope this is enough to get you started. The appeal of the backcountry’s natural terrain, fresh tracks and uncrowded slopes goes without saying, but what might not be so obvious is that you don’t have to be a pro to give it a go. If you’re feeling inspired to venture beyond the ropes on your own terms, make sure you read our guide on how to safely transition to skiing off piste.
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