If your idea of wilderness touring is all heat and red earth, it’s time to broaden your perspective. Gavan O’Connor straps on his skis to explore the frozen white of NSW’s Snowy Mountains.
I’ve been making winter hiking trips to the Australian Alps – mostly in the NSW region between Mount Jagungal in the Kosciuszko National Park and Mount Kosciuszko – since 1975. The Snowy Mountains are gently undulating highlands, with the best ski touring along the ridge of the main range where the snow is deepest and longer-lasting than the resorts in the valleys. When I go touring there, I carry a backpack with food, fuel, clothes, sleeping bag and a tent. It’s the ultimate way to enjoy the wilderness.
Daniel, 12, with his dad, Gavan, gets to grips with the cross-country skis.
My most recent trip – in 2013 – I made with two other adults and three children, aged 10, 11 and 12. Tumbling out of a 4WD into crisp air and half-melted snow, we began our trek by crossing a small bridge over the Snowy River to the beginning of a steeply rising track up into the mountains. It had been a good year for snow cover, and even this low down the snow was too deep to walk on. So, with the final checks of our backpacks, gloves and goggles completed, we clipped on our cross-country skis (light, and held to the boots only at the toes – in effect, you walk in them) and made a start.
The glistening, white trail is 4WD-only in summer; even then, the only vehicles permitted are those of the National Park, police or Snowy Hydro, so the few marks on the track ahead of us were made by other ski tourers. Zig-zagging for the first steep kilometre, the trail levelled out beside a large snow gum, where we were happy to stop for a snack, a drink and, truth be told, a breather.
The eucalpyt and wattle forest beside the track was dense, the snow hanging heavy on the bushes, but as we gained height the wattles started to thin out, leaving only the snow gums. After two days, even they would be left behind and below us.
Shelters like this one at Horse Camp can be welcome indeed – especially if the weather turns…
Having started out later than we’d expected, we made the decision to stop at the first of the huts along the trail, Horse Camp. By the time we were 400m away from it, we were already so exhausted, all conversation had been replaced by the sounds of heavy breathing and the steady swishing of our skis.
There are several of these small huts scattered along the route, and they are a welcome refuge in poor weather. Each has a fireplace or wood stove, but no electricity, and water has to be scooped from creeks. Also, they are available on a first-come-first-served basis, so it’s always a lottery whether or not there will be room. Horse Camp is small and close to the road, so when we arrived it wasn’t a great surprise to find it was already crowded. There were two tents and an igloo nearby and, after flattening the snow, we added our own tents to them. Then it was a trip to the creek for water, a squeeze into the hut to cook, and a crawl into
our tents for an early night.
A light snow fell while we slept, but by morning the sky was clear again and the sun sparkling on the fresh white. The occupants of the hut were moving on, and because this was only the second ski tour for the children, we opted to move into the newly vacated hut and spend another day, giving them the chance to enjoy some time playing without backpacks and skis.
When at last the time came for us to move on, we struck off up a steep rise behind the hut to reach a covered aqueduct, beside which runs the summertime 4WD track. By this time it was well covered in snow, and the ideal trail to follow into the mountains.
It took another five hours, including many chocolate and drink stops, to reach the next hut, Whites River. Again, however, it was crowded – nine people in three groups had arrived already, leaving room for us only on the floor. But the atmosphere was friendly, with everyone introducing themselves and swapping tales of the mountains: the routes taken, the weather conditions, and how the snowfall had differed to previous visits (I’d once had to dig a tunnel to get to the door of the very same hut we were now occupying).
The following day was spent skiing over the 1800m Schlink Pass, our destination another, much larger hut known as the Schlink Hilton. After grabbing lunch, we switched to day packs and skied up to a ridge to the hut’s south west, Dicky Cooper Bogong. The ridge provides an excellent view of Mt Jagungal to the north and the Grey Mare range to the north west, and this trip was no exception.
Knowing that there had to have been a few dozen people out there trekking like us, we could still see no sign that anyone other than our party were in the mountains.
We spent another two days in the remote mountains before heading back. In two weeks, we had one day of sleet and rain and another when we were confined to a hut by high winds, but as with any trip, the odd day of poor weather can happen. What more than make up for it are the compellingly beautiful scenes of fresh snow on gum trees, flakes of white drifting down gently from heaven to waft past your enraptured eyes. The only word that comes close to capturing the magic of the experience is ‘numinous’.
For West Australians, there’s really no excuse not to experience this enchanted isolation, so why not give it a try, next time you’re thinking of a wilderness escape – I may even see you there.
When to go
Mid-August to mid-September is the best time for cross-country skiing in the Australian Alps.
What you'll need
You can rent cross-country skis from all ski hire outlets but it’s a good idea to call ahead to ensure they have some in store, particularly if you’re travelling with a large group. You will also need to carry your own water and camping equipment in case the huts are full.
Cross-country skiing requires careful preparation and specialist equipment. All of the major ski resorts offer lessons, and guided tours that will introduce you to the sport and teach you about potential hazards. Visit snowsafe.org.au for details.