Despite some of the best snow depths in decades, it was another stop-start season in Australia's snowfields. As the ski season comes to a close, resorts are hoping summer will bring some salvation.
At Mount Buller in Victoria, the season started with Melbourne in lockdown, but regional Victorians able to visit for the June 12 opening. Then the gates opened to Melburnians on June 25 for the all-important school holiday period. The snow fell in abundance in July, but the gates shut again, leaving some of the mountain's residents and business owners with the skifields to themselves, albeit without lifts.
Mount Buller reopened at the end of July, but that lasted barely a week before another lockdown. Regional Victorians were in the box seat on August 10 when the resort bounced back from its sixth lockdown, with dining, hospitality, retail, the snow sports school and lift operations all cranked up again.
"We feel for our friends in Melbourne doing the hard yards in lockdown but can reassure everyone our team will work hard to keep the ski area humming along safely and we hope to see all of Victoria back for a slide on snow as soon as possible," Buller Ski Lifts general manager Laurie Blampied said at the time.
That didn't last, with regional Victoria joining Melburnians in lockdown on August 21. Mount Buller and the other Victorian resorts reopened to some of the regions on September 10, with all visitors required to present a negative COVID-19 test, and even though skiers and snowboarders from Melbourne, the core market, didn't make it back to the mountain, they managed to keep their lifts running. Mount Buller's lifts will stop turning on Sunday, as will the lifts at Falls Creek and Mount Hotham.
In NSW, the lifts stopped turning on August 14 with that state's regional lockdown forcing the snow resorts and related businesses to stand down staff in their thousands. They opened again to people from the local area and certain approved NSW local government areas on September 20, but for Thredbo, that only lasted a week - its lifts closed last Sunday, September 27. Perisher was scheduled to close on Monday (a NSW public holiday) but a snap lockdown put an end to the season on Thursday.
"While winter 2021 didn't end exactly how we had hoped, during the time we were open, guests who were lucky enough to visit enjoyed incredible conditions with the highest snow depth measured at Spencer's Creek in July in 21 years," Thredbo general manager Stuart Diver said.
With a focus on mountain biking, walking, wellness tourism and events, the mountain resorts have their sights on the summer season and the potential prizes there.
Thredbo typically opens its mountain biking park and trails in late November and has the added attraction of a chairlift that runs virtually year-round to provide access for the walking trail to Mount Kosciuszko, a four to six-hour return walk from the top of the lift.
The bike trail network at Mount Buller and neighbouring Mount Stirling is primed for a major makeover for the coming summer with $1.25 million from the Victorian government's Regional Tourism Investment Fund to be used to revitalise the trails. The master plan for the two resorts aims at attracting more than 50,000 additional guests to visit, stay and explore the alpine areas in summer.
"It's also part of driving recovery after a difficult couple of years," Resort Management Board chief executive Mark Bennetts said. "The upgrades will restore trails to their original quality, add new features, and provide a more balanced mix of green, blue and black trails which can be enjoyed by riders of all levels. This is great news for our keen expert riders, while encouraging newer riders to get started on simpler tracks before progressing to something more adventurous."
The board's David McCoombe is co-ordinating the work and says it is "about getting our trails back on the radar for riders and enticing them to rediscover riding up here. It's great to be investing in the network of XC and gravity trails again with a world-class team who have a track record of creating amazing riding experiences. People are going to love what we're about to create."
The 100-kilometre trail network that criss-crosses Mount Buller and Mount Stirling put the resorts on the mountain biking map a decade ago with a mix of cross-country and gravity riding, including the 46-kilometre Australian Alpine Epic Trail.
Evan Winton and Ryan De La Rue from Contour Works will resurface and tailor the 15 tracks across the extensive XC network with a focus on improving the ride experience. They have 30 years of experience designing and building trails at Mount Buller and Falls Creek and were integral in the development of the renowned Blue Derby network in Tasmania.
All works will start as soon as conditions permit, with many of the upgraded trails expected to be ready to ride in December. Works will be done progressively, ensuring plenty of options for riders through the summer season.
A total of $2 million has been provided for the mountains, the balance allocated to developing new walking and mountain biking trail experiences at both Mount Buller and Mount Stirling.