"It's going to look different this winter," said Thredbo general manager Stuart Diver. He's right about that. The ski season would normally open this weekend (June 6), but the lifts won't turn for a while yet.
Apart from the opening weekend frivolities, June is a quiet time in the mountains anyway – snow cover is still building and visitor-numbers are low before the school holidays – so it's not such a loss for the resorts, but when they do open, capacity is going to be greatly reduced.
There will be no spontaneity about a trip to the snow this winter. Most things will need to be pre-purchased online, including lift passes, accommodation and, in Victoria at least, resort-entry.
Those barriers aside, with overseas travel off the horizon and New Zealand a work in progress, there's good reason to contemplate a skiing or snowboarding trip this winter.
"Majestic though they are, the rock, the reef and the rainforest only begin to scratch the surface of the rich and diverse travel offering available to a domestic population that has been in frustrating self-isolation for months," said Tourism Australia managing director Philippa Harrison.
"There's never been a more important time than now to show Australians that we are a big country brimming with excitement, adventure and endless travel possibilities. We think Australians will fall in love with their own backyard again."
Here's how the snowy part of that backyard might work this coming winter.
When will the ski runs open?
Snow cover permitting, the ski lifts will start turning on Monday June 22 at Thredbo in New South Wales and Mount Buller in Victoria and two days later, on Wednesday June 24 at the three other major resorts – Perisher in NSW and Mount Hotham and Falls Creek in Victoria. Of the smaller resorts, Mt Baw Baw in Victoria will open on June 22 and in NSW, Charlotte Pass will open on June 26. Selwyn Snowfields was so damaged by the summer bushfires it won't open this season.
Can I access the snow resorts before June 22?
Hotham's ridge-top village.
In Victoria, the resorts are open, but access is limited. Entry permits must be pre-purchased online and the resorts will use this as a mechanism to cap and control visitor numbers. At Falls Creek in Victoria, for example, until June 22 they're limiting day passes to 250 vehicles. Visitors with confirmed accommodation will be able to access the resort, as will staff and locals and visitors with a season-pass for resort entry (although they'll need an accommodation booking and will have to register their visit before they come).
The Kosciuszko National Park snow resorts and access to the Snowy Mountains Main Range for ski touring is closed until Tuesday morning (June 9). After that, tobogganing and snow play are off the agenda and the NPWS will manage this by closing parking in the areas typically used by tobogganists (Dead Horse Gap on the Alpine Way for example). The KNP campgrounds will re-open, but they'll run at 50 per cent of their usual capacity and campsites will need to be pre-booked.
Overall, KNP visits are being discouraged unless visitors have a lift pass or a completed intentions form for ski touring (see below for more on ski touring).
How do I get a lift pass?
These also need to be pre-purchased online. On-sale dates vary from resort to resort but at Thredbo, for example, single day and up to seven-consecutive day passes will go on sale from Wednesday night (June 10). The catch here is that a confirmed accommodation booking will not guarantee a lift pass: "Due to the need to limit Thredbo's capacity for winter by up to 50 per cent per day, we are unable to prioritise lift passes for guests with pre-booked accommodation," is the resort's official line.
What about accommodation?
Club lodges are in strife. Their insurance premiums have sky-rocketed in the wake of the bushfires and they're now facing a season of a 50 per cent reduction in capacity, but no reduction in overheads like heating, which comes at an enormous cost in the mountains.
One Mt Buller club member we spoke to said they were looking at getting around two of their major problems – shared bathrooms and kitchens – by allocating a bathroom to a family or a group for a specific time, then sanitising it and promoting their lodge manager to be a chef, so only one or two people were in the kitchen.
Clubs also have an important revenue stream taking non-members as guests; this will most likely be off the cards this winter, unless restrictions are eased.
Private apartment accommodation should be OK but expect extra cleaning protocols. Hotels and commercial lodges will open, but with restrictions on operations - fewer staff and fewer guests.
What about cross-country and ski touring?
One of the best trail networks in the country is at Falls Creek, and while there still isn't enough snow cover to groom them, the resort has no plans to do it before June 22. "Regular infrastructure such as the Windy Corner day shelter, cross-country rentals and lessons will remain closed until June 22," Sarah Watt, the resort's marketing manager said.
Ski tourers can get going however: "While the National Park is open, restrictions will not be in place. Guests will still need to pre-plan and pay resort entry if coming through the resort entrance," she said.
Ski touring the vast snowy reaches, at great social distance, might seem just the thing, but it's a tricky one; search and rescue resources are limited and while a boom in ski touring might seem ideal, having inexperienced tourers lost in the mountains is not.
Expect guided ski touring operations to do well this season, but "ski touring takes a far different and greater set of skills than resort skiing," said Doug Chatten, who runs Snowy Mountains Backcountry which uses Guthega in the KNP as its base.
As soon as snow cover permits, he'll be able to run guided tours for groups of one to five and still meet social distancing standards. For snow-shoeing tours, he'll be able to host as many as 10 people.
What about ski schools and kids' centres?
At Thredbo, the Thredboland childrens' ski centre, won't operate at the outset. Group ski lessons are also more than likely off the cards, with private lessons offered to up to three people. This is to meet government standards, but is also a reflection that there will be very few international staff, many of them ski instructors, heading to our mountains this year.
Where will the skiers & boarders come from?
Falls Creek. Photo: Nathan Fenton
This depends entirely on border controls. If they stay as they are, then Victorian and New South Wales skiers and boarders will be able to access their own areas, as well as the ones in the other state. There are strong skier/snowboarder communities in Queensland and South Australia, but for the first part of the season at least, they don't look like making it to the mountains.
What will the numbers look like?
About half the usual seems to be the rule of thumb, and this means two people riding a four-person chairlift, one-person on a two-person T-bar and just two people in Thredbo's new eight-person gondola lift.
Ski area operators are quite accomplished at controlling their customers' movements with tools like queue-races and staggered openings of different zones within their areas.
Thredbo's Stuart Diver said they'd be enforcing "1.5 metre 'ski tip-to-tail' social distancing in lift queues" but expected that "skiers and snowboarders will incur wait times similar to a normal season."
Ski lift passes work on an RFID (radio frequency identification) system and this can be used to both trace skier movements and control skier numbers.
What about the apres-ski party?
Forget it; mountain bars, restaurants and cafes will be under the same restrictions as anywhere else in the country, but this will not be the winter for wild nights in packed pubs. Expect a strong police presence in the mountains.
What if I pre-paid my lift pass for the season?
Each resort has a policy in place and in the case of Vail Resorts, that policy covers Perisher, Falls Creek and Hotham. Most have delayed final payment and some are looking at refunds or rolling over passes to 2021 to allow for the limited opportunities people will have to ride the lifts this winter. Check each resort's website for specific details.
How can I find out more?
Watch this space and keep an eye on your favourite resort's websites.
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