On snowshoes, Raymond Gill discovers the greener sides of a mountain ski resort.
Wind your way to the top of Mount Buller and as you round one of its corners, sharp-eyed passengers might spy a tiny red door carved into the base of a mountain ash with a garden gnome standing sentry outside.
No possums, you have not somehow wound back to Edna Everage's suburbia, you have found an example of how Mount Buller management is using some lateral thinking and humour to communicate its commitment to the greening of Victoria's busiest ski resort.
The "Mount Buller Gnome Roam" allows kids and adults to follow a cute trail of gnomes around the ski village when they are not otherwise skiing or tobogganing. Its real intent, though, is to tell visitors that the gnomes are there to "protect" the mountain's population of mountain pygmy possums, whose numbers have fallen to a perilously low 50 this year due to the effects of foxes, feral cats and dogs.
Then there's the threat of the human species. Despite the global financial crisis and some weird, warm and windy weather, the number of visitors to Victorian ski resorts continues to climb. By late last month, 223,583 people had visited Mount Buller since the winter season officially began in early June – a 14 per cent increase on the same period last year. (Mount Buller is the closest of the big three ski resorts to Melbourne and therefore attracts more day-trippers. Mount Hotham has attracted 118,000 visitors and Falls Creek 102,111 people this winter season.)
To offset the effects of both man and animal at Mount Buller, its environmental managers have been undertaking a "recovery plan" for these palm-sized marsupials, which hibernate each winter. The plan has included planting 10,000 native mountain plum pine trees and baiting and trapping the feral animals, which are then euthanased. In the past five years, 83 feral cats and dogs have been removed from the mountain.
The plan is one of a series of environmental programs at the ski resort designed to remind visitors that while they might have come for fun, the natural environment on which they're playing is fragile.
This also means a commitment to recycling waste water for its 74 hectares of snow-making terrain, courtesy of a $3.4 million on-site filtration plant, which began operating last season. The resort has also introduced a "Just Say No" campaign to reduce the use of plastic bags and a "Bin Your Butts" policy. Its "Keep Winter Cool" program to reduce greenhouse emissions sees visiting school groups given playful, educational kits, while year 11 and 12 groups are taken on eco-tours around the village.
The environmental manager for Mount Buller's Alpine Resort Management Board, Louise Perrin, admits there's a delicate balance to be struck when explaining to visitors that the snow can be green.
"It's about trying to get people to think about what they're doing when they're here because people are coming here for what is really quite a luxurious holiday that is high on consumerism when you think about having long showers and spas after skiing all day," Perrin says.
Another way of educating fanatical skiers who want to spend all day zooming down slopes is to alert them to the mountains' other pleasures.
More and more people are taking to Mount Buller in the non-winter months, with about 130,000 to 170,000 visiting from November to April for activities that include mountain biking, bushwalking or just smelling the wildflowers. But mountain management also wants visitors to take greater advantage of its man-made facilities and other natural attractions while the snow is still falling.
One company offering an alpine experience that doesn't leave much of a carbon footprint is snowshoeguru.com.au. The company is run by Grant Houniet and Rebecca McLeod, who take tourists around the village and as far as Mount Stirling on informative alpine hikes with a focus on explaining the flora and fauna.
The tours cost from $30 for a 90-minute walk around the outskirts of the village to an eight-hour trek from Mount Buller to the top of Mount Stirling for $135 a person, including lunch and morning and afternoon tea.
"They've been given a licence to run this business here and it is low-impact but allows you to get out into the alpine areas that many visitors would not see," Perrin says.
"Its other advantage is it has a limited infrastructure," she adds.
All you need is waterproof clothing and some sensible shoes that slip into the supplied one-size-fits-all snow shoes, which resemble tennis racquets, albeit of the high-tech, lightweight aluminium variety Roger Federer would be happy to sport.
There are at least two other alpine activities that require no skiing skills and generate very little in the way of emissions.
One is to visit Mount Buller's National Alpine Museum of Australia, which is housed in the Community Centre and offers a fascinating insight into the history of skiing. It even includes a colourful, if not hysterically funny, range of ski outfits from the 1950s to the '90s. The other is the third annual snowball-throwing championships, which will be held today.
Officially known as the Australian Yukigassen Championships the one day event sees a series of heats open to all-comers who simply have to survive a three minute onslaught of dodging 90 snowballs to emerge the winner.
Raymond Gill stayed as a guest of Mount Buller.