The beauty doesn’t stop when you get to the top

By Andrew Bock. Published Traveller, The Age and SMH

Beyond the villages and ski resorts in Victoria’s highest national parks, there are 650,000 hectares of snow-capped ridges, mountains and plateaus, snow gum forests, granite outcrops covered in lichen and moss and frozen ponds that reflect valleys covered in wedding cake icing.


You don’t even have to ski to discover Victoria’s alpine beauty. Snow shoes and a few hours are all you need to enjoy the divine exultation of the first league out from a village. 


After 15 years snowboarding at resorts, I discovered a new freedom and another country on a pair of cross-country skis. 


I was nervous about skiing into back country, but cross country skiing is relatively easy to learn, safe on trails, and the best way to explore true alpine country. 


Cross country skiing can also be enjoyed at resorts closer to Melbourne, like Mount Baw Baw, Mount St Gwinear and Lake Mountain. And with cross country skiing, getting there is all the fun.


I drove the Warburton highway to Mount Baw Baw early on a weekday. All the traffic was city bound a bit like skiers are often resort bound.


The road to Mount Baw Baw is one of the most beautiful roads in Victoria, on a par with the Great Ocean Road. In the shelter of the great dividing range, the Yarra Junction-Noojee road traverses fog-filled, valleys that preserve history of the high country.


Sawmills still operate around early timber towns like Three Bridges and Powelltown, formed after the 1860s gold rush to Walhalla.  Timber tracks helped open up the high country to bushwalkers and some of Australia’s first skiers who crossed the Baw Baw plateau as early as 1908.  


Cross country skiers opened up all of Victoria’s ski resorts, like surfers pioneered tropical beach resorts, partly because cross country skiing is about discovery.   


As it approaches Mount Baw Baw, the winding road is lined by tree ferns, mossy banks, grassy verges, myrtle beech trees and mountainous mountain ash. It’s like driving through 60 kilometres of rainforest garden. And the beauty doesn’t stop when you get to the top.


Sub-temperate rainforest mingles with alpine vegetation near a snow line that distinguishes the ranges to the moist south of the Dividing Range. These are the only places in Australia you can see Gondwanaland myrtle beech trees decorated with snow.     


Unlike the alps to the north, the shallow valleys on the Baw Baw plateau are treeless and cooler while the ridges are warmer and covered by snow gums. The ten kilometres of trails inside the Mt. Baw Baw alpine resort wind among the deep olive and khaki trunks of these elegant gums. 


Two kilometres, let alone ten kilometres, sounded like a lot of terrain to me before I began cross-country skiing a few weeks ago but it’s not once you get going.


I took one face plant and three falls the first morning but after two short trails I began to get the hang of it. Children can pick up cross country easier than downhill especially with a lesson. Skiing down is the tricky part but if you can snow plough, you adapt quickly.   


As your heel lifts and your toe slides the ski forward, you soon glide across level ground with ease. It’s like walking across water in slippers.


At one point, I paused on a ridge closer to the sky and gazed across the snowy fields, valleys and mountains of the Baw Baw plateau. I suddenly realised with these skis I could travel wherever I wanted through this magical country. It was a breathtaking feeling.


There are around 6000 hectares of ski-able terrain in the Baw Baw National Park alone. I took a deep breath of the finest air in the world and pushed off on my poles.


Through the snow gums I saw untouched white valleys to the north. To the south, the blue Latrobe Valley stretched away to Bass Strait like a sea.   The calls of currawongs were joined by alpine songbirds. Tracks revealed the wombats that used the trails at night. 


Close up, and through a camera lens, the alpine country became a garden of plants, shapes and colours. Ice patterns decorated everything. After a rain that had frozen, leaves of ice were falling from branches to form glittering piles of shattered glass on the snow.


Every sort of weather leaves different patterns in the snow which is like a tabula rasa each morning. At Mueller’s lookout near the summit of Mount Baw Baw, Jessie Chadderton from Williamstown, said simply, “The snow is fresher up here. And so is the air.”


On cross country skis, alpine touring skis or split snowboards, you can access all this beauty for free. At Mt St Gwinear, Mt Buffalo and all national park mountains there are now no entry fees. Cross country skiing at a resort is also cheaper. Trail fees are minimal and there are no lift tickets. Resort trails are packed and groomed and dotted with picnic tables. Just 20 cm of snow is enough to cover many trails.


The exercise is invigorating and being self-propelled, the sport is obviously more environmentally sustainable.


Alpine touring and back country snowboarding are the newer forms of cross country skiing and growth snowsports in the northern hemisphere.  Special bindings allow skiers to free their heels and add skins for ascents and then clip the heel in for downhill torque and speed. Split snowboards that clip together use similar bindings that rotate.


Adam Rasmussen of Northcote runs an online alpine touring store and skis Victorian back country with friends most weekends.  "There is a vast amount of skiable terrain out there, and you can approach it from multiple routes, and there are some good loops you can do say from Falls Creek to Hotham via spots like Mt Fainter or the Yit-ma-thangs,” he says.


Most rental stores only hire traditional cross country skis, either unedged or metal-edged for better turning and handling. Some stores only rent un-edged skis but I found unedged skis discouragingly difficult to adopt. Both types have imbricated soles for uphill traction.


Compared to the locked-in bulk of downhill bindings and boots there is an incredible lightness to cross country skiing. The soft leather boots and lighter skis with toe clips are really comfortable. If terrain gets steep or snow gets patchy, it’s easy to shoulder skis and walk. 


Four wheel drive charter companies can pick you up at one end of a long trail and drive you back to a lodge so there’s no need to camp overnight by a fire in a hut in the alps.  Which is, of course, a higher ambition.


Despite the growth of back country downhill, traditional cross country skiing has become less popular in Australia. The addiction to adrenaline-filled runs, chairlifts, cafes, and comfort has drawn people away from nature.


Andy Gillham, Parks Victoria ranger in charge and a cross country skier who has worked in the Baw Baw National park for 22 years, says 20 years ago more than 20,000 cross country skiers visited the Baw Baw national park but now there are only about 2000 each year.  


“I don’t know why people don’t come cross country skiing as much now,” he says. “You can have a fantastic outdoor experience for the whole family, including ski hire, for $100.” 


I suspect downhill skiers and boarders don’t know what they’re missing because they’re all sliding in one direction. 




Cross country skiers need to carry layers of clothing for bad weather, food and plenty of water. Alpine resorts charge resort entry of around $35 a car and trail head fees of around $10 for adults and $6 for children. National parks are free. See www.wikiski.com/wiki/index.php/Category:Backcountry for information about accessing Australian snowfields beyond the resorts.




Mt Baw Baw

10 kilometres of groomed trails inside the resort connect with 11 kilometres of trails to Mt St Gwinear. 2.5 hrs from Melbourne. Mt Baw Baw ski hire on 5165 1120. For pick up and return to the resort call Mountaintop Experience on 5134 6876. 


Mt St Gwinear

20 km of partially groomed trails for all levels in the Baw Baw national park and a permanently marked trail to Mt Baw Baw resort. 2.5 hrs from Melbourne. Equipment at Erica Ski Hire on 5165 3353 have unedged XC sets for just $30 a day, $20 for kids. www.stgwinear.info


Lake Mountain

Now under regrowth after the Black Saturday fires, with 30 km of groomed trails. Lake Mountain resort ski hire rents XC kits for $37 (and with a lesson for $64).


Falls Creek

Home of the Australian Cross Country skiing team with 60 km of groomed trails and access to overnight touring and the huts of the Bogong high plains. Windy Corner XC centre rents metal edged and plain XC sets.  $205 for lessons and gear for a family of four.


Mt Hotham and Dinner Plain

35 kilometres of groomed trails for all levels between Mt Hotham and Dinner Plain. Hire at Hoys on 5759 2658.


Mt Stirling

68 kilometres of groomed trails. Mt Stirling Ski Hire on 5777 6441 rents cross country kits starting from $45 and $30 for children (and including a lesson for $80 or $50.) 


Mt Buller

9 kilometres of groomed cross country trails around the resort. XC hire at Buller Sports Ski School (ph 5777 7800) with kits starting at $35 for adults.


Mt Buffalo

14 km of marked trails and 20 km of remote, unmarked trails, and off-track backcountry ski touring.


Melbourne equipment specialists

XC equipment rentals at Ajays and EMC stores on 9817 1477 www.snow-ski.com.au

Advanced alpine touring equipment and split boards at www.thecornicestore.com.au



© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.