Going Skiabout

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, June 1999


Going Skiabout

It's August. It's Australia. It's nordic nirvana.

Imagine midwinter Vermont, without the maple trees. Limitless rolling terrain, almost no avalanche danger—a nordic skier's paradise.

Now imagine it's your summer vacation.

Indeed, if Australia is in your plans this season, you might want to pack a few extras—like long underwear and that lucky ski cap—because this continent's got a not-so-little secret in its southeastern corner: the 7,500-square-mile Australian Alps, which boast some of the world's finest cross-country skiing at this time of year. While your friends are stuck back home in a midsummer malaise, you can be skiing through stands of gum trees with crimson and blue rosellas flitting amid the branches.

Most scenic of all is the Bogong High Plains, near the middle of the Alps. The ridge of mountains that cuts across the states of Victoria and New South Wales sticks up just high enough to turn winter rains into snow, the best of which falls in July and August.

While most alpine skiers would find the downhill resorts here pretty dull, for nordic skiing the terrain can't be beat. At the center of the High Plains lies the village of Falls Creek, home to the Kangaroo Hoppett, a ski marathon that draws an international field of competitors each August. Mere recreationists should head to Falls Creek Nordic Hire to rent late-model equipment ($14 for a full setup; 011-61-3-3588-3408).

Most winter mornings here start out brisk, somewhere in the twenties—which means that you can skate-ski for miles across the hardened snow, screaming from one eucalyptus grove to the next and encountering no one save the occasional emu. Then, as the temperature slowly rises, you'll want to be making turns on the gentle, wide-open slopes. Just a few miles downhill, in the town of Mount Beauty, I discovered alfresco aprs-ski dining surrounded by lemon trees in full bloom. "It's not like bloody Norway!" declared Paul L'Huillier, the editor of Australia's nordic-skiing newspaper, Crosscountry News, as we sat in the sun drinking tea.

There's more good skiing to the southwest in the village of Lake Mountain, about a half-day's drive from Falls Creek. Tucked inside Yarra Ranges National Park, Lake Mountain attracts huge crowds, including many Aussies who've never before seen snow. The first mile or so of trail is like a marathon's mass start—except that you're weaving around essentially motionless novice skiers. The terrain swoops, the forest is often locked in a wispy fog, and there's a good chance you'll spot a koala along the way. It'll cost you $16 to get onto the park's groomed trails ($5 for yourself, $11 for your car). Outfit yourself in nearby Marysville at the Marysville Ski Center (011-61-3-5963-3455); you can rent classic skis for $10 or the more advanced skating package for $16.

On the opposite end of the Australian Alps, about a half-day's drive to the northeast of Falls Creek, you'll find 7,310-foot Mount Kosciuszko, the continent's tallest peak and the centerpiece of Kosciuszko National Park. A 25-mile network of groomed trails winds around the alpine area, but a better challenge is to head straight into the bush. Look for advice at Paddy Pallin (011-61-2-6456-2922), the ski shop at the mountain's base in Jindabyne, where you can rent gear for $15 a day, hire a private guide for $100, or catch on with a group tour for $34.

If you plan to go touring, your only hope is to rent waxless skis (waxing, thanks to the relatively balmy climate, is a pain). Most Australians prefer skate-skiing; in fact, Bill Koch's seminal video on the subject, Skating Away, was filmed amid these gums in the mid-1980s.

To soak up maximum local flavor, bunk at one of the ski-club chalets you'll find in the area's villages. Back in the 1950s, groups of Australian skiers banded together to construct these clubhouses— photo- and trophy-filled lodges that also host overnight guests. In Falls Creek, try the Albury Ski Club ($37 a night; 011-61-3-3588-3334). Another good option is the Trackers Lodge (doubles, $125, including dinner and breakfast; 011-61-3-5758-3346), where partners Phil Rumpf and Rene Walsh lead morning nordic tours for guests.

But be forewarned, this collegial schuss-fest can be quite habit-forming. Dave McGraw, a former coach at the Holderness School in New Hampshire, confessed to me that he'd spent 13 straight seasons here, leaving New England after the snow melted and arriving in Australia as it began to fall. "I never saw summer that whole time," he said. Few of us take our skinny-skiing ardor to such extremes, but I found my own schussing all the more cool knowing it coincided with the swelter of North America's dog days. —Bill McKibben

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