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Unreliable snowfalls, puny mountains, a short season, pricey lift tickets; what's to like about a snow holiday in Australia? On the opening weekend of the season, Jim Darby argues the case.
Most Australian skiers and snowboarders who travel go through a kind of difficult adolescence where, having fashioned their technique on home ground, they move on and taste the forbidden fruit: submerged in the weightless powder of Japan; enthralled by the Alps on a village-to-village snow safari; or riding the polished pistes of North America, runs so smooth they find skills they didn't know they had. With all this behind them, they reject Australia for a time.
And why not? Aren't the runs short? The seasons unreliable? The sport super-expensive? You can make a case for all those assertions, but the reality is, almost all those skiers and boarders come back to ride their home mountains. And nobody's forcing them to.
They do it because of the appeal of the alpine villages, the scent and sound of skiing among the snow gums and the quality in Australia's lifts, slope preparation and snowmaking. And they uncover ways of doing it that don't demand a second mortgage.
Belinda Trembath, manager of Mount Hotham's lift company for almost a decade, is in the front line when it comes to stopping the drift of skiers and boarders away from Australia.
"One of the great things that you can't really replace in an overseas holiday," she says, "is that ability to enjoy it with close friends and family friends. It's much harder to pack up two or three families and go overseas than it is to have a snow holiday together at home in Australia."
Nevertheless, she has noticed the change in holiday patterns. "There's been a general shift, driven by the attraction of overseas holidays, whether it be for skiing or for travel generally, for shorter breaks. We've had to change from being so strict about people coming in on Sunday and staying until Friday or the following Sunday; now we're seeing Thursday is the new Friday, with so many people coming for long weekends."
To keep people coming to the snow in Australia, she says, the most significant move came when the major domestic resorts dropped their season pass prices. "They really looked at what was happening in the US to drive sales of seasons' passes. I think that bought a lot of people back to skiing more regularly, which is great."
The resort that started all that was Perisher, in 2011, and they're on the move again. Perisher's chief executive Peter Brulisauer says the recent purchase of his resort by US-based Vail Resorts was a "big vote of confidence in the Australian industry and a big vote of confidence in the Snowy Mountains region."
The biggest gain has been for travelling skiers who can now ski for the season at Perisher and use the same pass to ski the many resorts Vail owns in the US. Competition is alive and well.
10 THINGS TO LIKE ABOUT AN AUSTRALIAN SNOW HOLIDAY
The mountain villages have evolved and many of the European characters that founded them have moved on, but there's still a lot to like. Leading the pack is Falls Creek in Victoria, where you can often ski the village roads, and Thredbo in NSW where you're either tucked away in the gum trees or on the side of the valley looking up at the slopes.
It isn't surprising that a nation of surfers would search out waves in the mountains. Australia's terrain parks and half pipes are world-class. Jindabyne slopestyle Olympian Russ Henshaw puts the quality of the facilities at home down to their designers, in particular champion snowboarder Charles Beckinsale. "Charles is head of the pipe crew there at Perisher and he really has it dialled with all the angles. Some parks and their features have really heavy landings, but not Charles's," Henshaw says.
Snow equipment used to look expensive, until cycling boomed. You can buy a full snow outfit and equipment set and still be only a third of the way to paying for your slick new road bike. It's not just about value though. Outerwear is lighter and warmer and that's good news in Australia, where riding the best snow often involves going out in the worst weather. Skis have also come a long way with innovations in shape and construction making them far easier to use.
TAKE A LIFT
What's not to like about something that saves all the uphill work? High-speed chairlifts have done to lift queues what the internet has done to bank queues. The Kosciuszko Express at Thredbo is one of the best-used lifts of its type in the world, taking snow riders up the mountain in winter and Kosciuszko walkers in summer. But some older treasures endure, like Falls Creek's 1.2 kilometre-long International Poma, the James Bond Aston Martin DB5 of ski lifts.
Once upon a time, top-to-bottom skiing at an area such as Thredbo was the dream that became reality only 18 to 20 days a season, or 10 per cent of the days of operation. With snowmaking, guests can now ski or board top-to-bottom virtually every day of the season. Snowmaking is well used in Australia, to patch up high-wear areas and strengthen resorts' reliability of operations.
Australia has the market sewn up when it comes to skiing in the bush. Sami Kennedy-Sim competed for Australia in the ski-cross at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and, with an eye on the 2018 games in Korea, gets to see a lot of the world with skis on her feet. Nevertheless, she says there's "nothing better than having a powder day in among the gum trees. You can't get it anywhere else in the whole world."
It might be a recreation with adventurous and social sides, but snow sports are also competitive and Australia has a respectable record. There's more to it than medals though, Kennedy-Sim recalls when she was young and "when one of the national team members came to our training sessions, it really gave me something to aspire to." She returns the favour, spending time with young competitors in the NSW squads showing them what they can achieve with some hard work and passion. "You become so self-sufficient... it's incredible what something that is so enjoyable can do for you," she says.
Snow is a very efficient reflector of light; consider those ski instructors and their racoon-eyed tans. It's also very good at reflecting light at night; something those with the appropriate skills can appreciate. Ski patroller Doug Chatten is a talented ski tourer; enthusiastic to the point where you might find him deep in the Snowy Mountains on a moonlit night searching out the best snow. "It's colder, you see, so the snow stays dry," Chatten says. "I've had quite a few trips skiing knee-deep powder snow in the Twin Valleys [a few kilometres down the range from Thredbo] under a full moon. It's something else."
SKI FOR FREE
Our moonlighter, Chatten, is also a fan of touring the white open spaces during daylight hours. He calls the Snowy Mountains Main Range the "grand-daddy of Australian back-country ski touring. It's true ski mountaineering country. It's very steep and really tests you, you need a full set of skills out there." There's also plenty there for people just developing that skill set, on the groomed cross country trails around the resorts or touring from the trailheads at Guthega or along the road beyond Thredbo at Dead Horse Gap. And you don't need a lift pass to do it.
WINE & DINE
Quality can be up and down in seasonal businesses, but Hotham has landed a team with a proven record – Michael Ryan from two-hat Provenance in Beechworth, and Hamish Nugent of chef's hat Tani in Bright – to launch Yama Kitchen on the mountain. They previously collaborated at Tsubo in Dinner Plain and at a restaurant in Hakuba in Japan. In NSW, the restaurant at Crackenback Farm, on the road to Thredbo, is consistently good.
SKIING IN AUSTRALIA: SOME HARD QUESTIONS
WHY DOES THE INDUSTRY LAUNCH THE SKI SEASON IN JUNE WITH LITTLE OR NO SNOW?
Put this down to history. Ski clubs were the foundation of most Australian mountain resort villages, and back in the day, club members didn't really care if there was snow or not; the June long weekend was always one big party. There have been bids to push the opening back, but with the scope for snowmaking to secure snow cover and an earlier winter holiday break in a four-term school year, those bids have evaporated.
DOES AUSTRALIA REALLY GET AS MUCH SNOW AS SWITZERLAND?
There might be a brief case for snow cover, but surely not for snow depth. Switzerland holds snow year-round and who knows its depth in its shadiest glacial burrows? After a good fall, spread over Tasmania's Central Plateau, the Victorian Alps, the NSW Snowy Mountains and the ACT's Brindabella Ranges, you could argue that there are more snow-covered hectares in Australia, but you'd need to get in quick before the snow melted at lower levels.
ARE LIFT-TICKETS MORE EXPENSIVE HERE THAN OVERSEAS?
Yes and no. Day tickets for lifts in Australia are up to $120 this year, but that comes in under Aspen Colorado's $140 ($US109). Some places are far and away better on value though. On the exchange rate at the time of writing, all the combined areas at Niseko in Japan could be skied for $58 a day, or the vast Arlberg network of resorts in Austria for $70. But the day ticket is deceptive – prices fall when tickets are bought in advance online and advance-purchase season passes in Australia can cost as little as six day tickets.
IS CLIMATE CHANGE REALLY GOING TO RUIN SKIING IN AUSTRALIA?
Snowmaking has proven that it is possible to underpin natural falls with reliable cover at lower levels, but even the snowmakers can't do anything in wet weather. Peter Brulisauer, Perisher's chief executive argues that "seasons vary, wherever you might be." He says Perisher's "investment in snowmaking gives us the most reliable cover overall."
ARE SNOW-CONDITION REPORTS IN AUSTRALIA STILL DODGY?
Not anymore. Webcams and the bush telegraph that is social media are the truth serum in snow reporting. Skiers and boarders familiar with their area can glance at the gallery of images delivered by webcams and instantly know the extent of the snow cover. If they look for signs like snow on the trees or leaves glistening wet with moisture, they can also judge snow quality with some accuracy.
THE CASE FOR NEW ZEALAND
There can't be a better view in the world of snowsports than the one that unfolds on the drive to Treble Cone from Wanaka. You get the mountains mirrored in Lake Wanaka, views of the braided glacial river in the Matukituki Valley, then a final climb up to the skifield on a road a brave bulldozer driver once etched into the mountain. You arrive in the car park, slip into your boots and slip off to the slopes. Welcome to New Zealand skiing and boarding, where the drive can be as inspiring as the terrain you're driving to.
The daily commute reflects the strength and the weakness in Kiwi skiing and boarding. The major weakness is that without trees, there is limited perspective when the cloud's down and that can make it challenging to find your way on the slopes.
But here's the strength: because the villages couldn't grow above the snowline, they've boomed below it. On the South Island, Queenstown, Arrowtown and Wanaka, and to a lesser extent Methven, have everything a travelling skier or boarder could look for in nightlife, food and accommodation.
In terms of cost and value, there's probably little difference between Australian and New Zealand holidays – some costs are higher in Australia, and the exchange rate normally swings in Australians' favour (although not so much this year), but once you factor in the airfares, the baggage rates for snow equipment and a hire car for the commute to the skifields, things even out.
A nation of adventurers and innovators, it is in the edgier pursuits that New Zealand really shines: the heli-skiing and heli-boarding, the alpine touring and the opportunity for remote lodgings.
AUSTRALIA'S MAJOR SKI RESORTS: A READY RECKONER
WHAT'S TO LOVE Challenging, varied terrain and long runs with a big vertical drop (672 metres from the highest lifted point back to base) and a well-planned, attractive village.
IMPROVERS Well-groomed trails and cruising terrain on the upper mountain in the Merritts area are ideal for developing skills. Beginners are on snow straight off the road at Friday Flat – no scary long lifts to ride first off.
YOUTH VOTE Struggles to match its neighbour Perisher in terrain parks and half pipes, but has a solid offering for developing riders and big aerial features as the season progresses.
BARE PATCHES Crowding a problem in beginner areas and main trails. Wind can affect upper slopes, but this has the virtue of delivering wind-blown powder snow.
SOCIAL NOTES Wear your best Bogner for the Piano Bar or tie up your toga and join your uni friends at the Keller Bar; Thredbo has the demographics covered. Apres by the pool is cool at the Thredbo Alpine Hotel.
WHAT'S NEW More terrain for beginners and more space for snow players to ride toboggans or tubes right in the village. Thredbo's status in the Mountain Collective now gives season-pass holders access to a range of international resort benefits.
WHAT'S TO LOVE This vast area is a combination of four skifields that gives an infinite variety of runs and an edge in altitude adds reliability to the snow cover.
IMPROVERS Most Australian skiers and boarders are in the lower to upper intermediate skill range and this is Perisher's bread-and-butter, with blue-rated terrain in virtually every corner. Good beginner terrain at Smiggin Holes.
YOUTH VOTE Perisher sets the benchmark with its terrain parks and half pipes which are located front and centre at the resort base.
BARE PATCHES Short runs in the Perisher area, village lacks cohesion, nightlife a mixed bag.
SOCIAL NOTES DJs or live music at the likes of Man From Snowy River, Tuesday-night comedy at the Sundeck. Lunch on the mountain is a highlight; take a table outside the Guthega Alpine Inn on a sunny day with uncluttered views over the vast expanses of the Snowy Mountains' Main Range.
WHAT'S NEW Vail Resorts' purchase of Perisher was the biggest thing to hit the Australian snowfields since skis with metal edges.
WHAT'S TO LOVE Challenging terrain when the snow cover is there with very steep options beyond the Summit on runs like Moonlight and the Summit Chutes. Melburnians can be in the car park at Buller and putting their boots on in three hours; Sydneysiders would kill for that kind of access.
IMPROVERS Long cruising trails like Little Buller Spur and Family Run are well-groomed and encouraging. The Bourke Street run is a long and gentle learning option, but it gets crowded.
YOUTH VOTE Plenty to like here in the terrain parks and half pipes and in exceptionally good programmes for younger freestyle skiers through Team Buller.
BARE PATCHES Buller's proximity and popularity can be its enemy with crowding for village access, on the lifts and some of the runs.
SOCIAL NOTES This is a mountain with a very busy social calendar. Apes ski at the Whitt (the Ski Club of Victoria bar) remains an institution, but there's a challenge nearby from the fancy Snowpony.
WHAT'S NEW Asian food court in the Mount Buller Chalet Hotel and a new Spice Room in the renovated Abom cafe and bar.
WHAT'S TO LOVE When the roads are covered in snow, this is a magical village, where skiers and boarders can click-in at the front door and head for the steeper slopes of the Summit Bowl, or the long and winding bush trails like Wishing Well and Valley of the Moon.
IMPROVERS Masses of options here, from Australia's longest beginner run, Wombat's Ramble, to the cruising terrain of the Sun Valley slopes, which maintain snow quality and cover through their southerly aspect.
YOUTH VOTE Falls Creek is spoilt for space so they've been able to set aside a good slice of it for the Ruined Castle Terrain Park; generally regarded as the best in Victoria.
BARE PATCHES Struggles when the snow cover is inconsistent on the village roads.
SOCIAL NOTES The young and the restless head for the Frying Pan and The Man, quieter drinks in classic surroundings at Astra Lodge or the funkier Milch.
WHAT'S NEW Upgrades to one of the best adventures in the Australian mountains – backcountry skiing with World Cup champion Steven Lee on the challenging terrain around Mount McKay and Rocky Knolls.
WHAT'S TO LOVE Challenging terrain in abundance for better skiers and boarders, from the long steep cruising trails of Heavenly Valley to genuine double-black slopes like Mary's Slide. Hotham gained greatly in lifts and other infrastructure from a surge in property development last decade.
IMPROVERS Both nearby Dinner Plain Village and The Big D area at Hotham have gentler learning terrain.
YOUTH VOTE Natural features like the steep sides of Gunbarrel Run make this a popular mountain with boarders; as does the powder snow when it falls.
BARE PATCHES A quirk in history (the old access route) has seen the village built on top of the ridge. It's wonderful in a blizzard by the fire, but it can be challenging if you're out among it.
SOCIAL NOTES The Zirknitzer family are back in charge at Zirkys, so expect that venue to resume its status as the apres venue. The General is the spot when the very sharp and very amusing DJ Eddy spins the disks.
WHAT'S NEW Dinner Plain gets the family vote with a new tube park, rope tow and snowmaking on its beginners slope.
Jim Darby first put on skis aged six, in the legendary winter of 1964 and he's skied every season since, working in the mountains as a lift operator and ski patroller before becoming a ski magazine editor, columnist and author of several books on snow sports and mountain resorts. He has skied extensively in Australia and beyond and wherever it might be, still finds himself smiling when he clicks into his bindings. Darby is a production editor for Traveller.