Snowsports are all about adventure and there's an extra element on undiscovered terrain beyond the lift lines. The view changes, there's the flexibility to choose your slope for the best aspect and best snow. There are trees to turn through, steep drops if you want them or long and gentle runs.
Falls Creek in north-east Victoria has a perfectly located mountain village, tucked in among the snow gums and surrounded by the sweeping Bogong High Plains and sharp peaks of the Great Divide. Only a small portion of the resort's overall terrain is taken up by the groomed runs, so there's plenty of scope to ski beyond the boundaries.
You can do it on your own, on cross-country skis, or through the resort's backcountry programs. One is with the Snowsports School, where the skiers do the climbing and one is with the resort's resident World Cup skiing champion, Steve Lee, where snowmobiles take care of the uphill work. We took ourselves along for a taste.
STEVE LEE'S BACKCOUNTRY TOURS
Laid-back and laconic, but so very accomplished, Steve Lee is one of only three Australians to win a World Cup in alpine skiing (his was Furano, Japan in 1985) and is a three-time Winter Olympian. He grew up on Falls Creek's slopes and has long admired the terrain that lies beyond.
Falls Creek first ran snow cat tours to give skiers and boarders access to more remote and challenging terrain, but they proved cumbersome. Enter Lee, who proposed a more flexible operation using a snowmobile with a passenger sled.
He runs two rigs, each with a snowmobile carrying driver and guide and up to four skiers or boarders on the sleds, with seats cunningly staggered so they can enjoy the uphill ride without removing their equipment.
The slopes to ski depend on the ability of the participants, the depth of the snow and the time of the season. In Lee's words – "In winter, for powder, you hide from the sun. In spring, for corn snow, you follow the sun."
He has the luxury of choice for his guests, "from wide open, cruisy gullies, from tree skiing in the Pretty Valley area when the weather's in, all the way up to the steep lines of Mount McKay for more advanced skiers".
Lee has 450 hectares of terrain available for his backcountry touring – roughly the same as Falls Creek's patrolled slopes. While the challenge is there at whatever level his skiers or boarders want to take it, he says it's the overall alpine experience that really engages them.
"Everyone loves the serenity – to be out there with friends or family or like-minded people skiing pristine slopes and snow. They really get off on the views, and the silence out there. It isn't a true wilderness experience, but it's a great introduction to it."
SNOWSPORTS SCHOOL ALPINE TOURING
Our instructor and guide, Andreas Lindner, is from the Austrian Tirol; he's exact and exacting, but with a dry humour. He's a very accomplished skier and ski tourer, and, despite the vast terrain available in his home mountains, admires Falls Creek for its convenience: "Here you can be out in the touring terrain in 15 minutes, in Europe it can take hours."
Lindner's aim is to give us a solid introduction to touring; to teach us how to use the equipment and also guide us out of the resort's patrolled area. For this program, normal ski boots are fine, although for serious touring, lighter boots with a walk mode are a better bet.
The skis we used were Volkl Nanuq. They're light and have a hole in the tip to make it easy to attach the skins, the nylon strips that go on the base of the skis for uphill work, where they slide easily forward but grip to stop you sliding backwards. The skins are removed to ski downhill.
We rode the summit chairlift then ducked beyond the patrolled boundary and headed for the open, sweeping slopes known as Headwaters. Lindner's first tip was to be defensive: "Keep your skis close together for touring, closer than the shoulder width that is typical now. You never know what is under the snow and you don't want to have one leg up high and one leg sunk way down low."
There are tactics too: when climbing, you have to balance what might look like the fastest route to the top (straight up) with the one that is going to conserve energy (zigzagging like a mountain road). "And don't lift the ski too high, slide it along; don't take too long a stride, don't waste your energy."
An element of this tour is to build knowledge about touring. In Lindner's view, it wouldn't be a bad thing to carry avalanche beacons on these tours – even though they really aren't required on this terrain. He argues that it's good training for skiers who'll be touring in Europe, Japan or North America.
If Lee's tours are about maximum terrain coverage, the thrill of the ride up, and the joy of the mountain views and downhill runs, with Lindner, the pace is a little slower and the downhill runs all the sweeter because of the work you do to get them and there's a lot of learning along the way.
As ways of pushing beyond the boundaries, both programs are highly recommended.
Falls Creek is about a 6½-hour drive from Sydney or 4½ hours from Melbourne via the Hume Freeway and Alpine Valleys. Rex, Virgin Australia and QantasLink fly between Sydney and Albury with hire car or coach connections to Falls Creek; see fallsbus.com.au and fallscreekcoachservice.com.au for coach services.
QT Falls Creek has a prime drive-in/ski-out location with self-catering apartments, most with a balcony and hot tub. QT also has one of the mountain's best restaurants in Bazaar, a hip bar in Stingray and the restorative spaQ; see qthotelsandresorts.com
The Alpine Touring sessions start at 10am, last three hours and cost $88, plus lift ticket. Steve Lee's half-day Backcountry Tours run from 8.45am or 12.30pm and cost $159, plus lift ticket. Phone 03 5758 1070 or see fallscreek.com.au
Jim Darby was a guest of Falls Creek Ski Lifts.