(Australian Associated Press)
I’m skiing smoothly through knee-deep powder, carving tracks in the fresh sugary snow. Apart from our group of four, there is not another soul in sight.
Turn after turn, our tracks are the only ones that disturb the perfect glistening fluffy powder.
You may think that I’m on the slopes in Canada, Japan or the European Alps.
But this is actually Australia.
I’m on a back-country tour from Thredbo with K7 Adventures.
Our guide Jeff is a “winterer”, his wife Janine tells me. He loves the snow and ice and isolation of the wilderness so much that he spent a year working as a carpenter in Antarctica.
Here in Australia, he has been touring the backcountry for 30 years. He looks perfectly comfortable, probably because he is so prepared. I think his orange ski jacket looks beautiful against the bright blue sky. He chose it because it can be seen from a long distance away. In his red backpack, he carries safety gear just in case something goes wrong off-piste.
Jeff knows the mountains beyond Thredbo ski report like the back of his hand. And he knows how dangerous it can be. He has rescued dozens of poorly prepared would-be adventurers from the icy wilderness and says no-one should be up here, beyond the boundaries of the resort without a guide.
The first mistake people make is to assume the weather will stay stable. A stunning clear day can easily turn deadly when a storm front rips through.
The second mistake is thinking a mobile phone will help get you out of trouble. Cold saps the power out of lithium batteries. His wise words are reinforced an hour after we start. My fully charged Go-Pro battery is dead. It couldn’t handle the -15C wind chill.
The wind is intense as we reach the top of the Kosciuszko Express chairlift. Skiers and snowboarders struggle to dismount as the wind and snow blasts in their face. They seek shelter inside the hut at Eagles Nest, adjusting neck warmers and goggles before they begin their downhill run.
We are not going downhill. At least not yet.
Janine and Jeff help us to fit skins to our special skis. Backcountry skis are designed for walking uphill. The bindings unlock and release the heel for ease of movement. The height of the heel can be adjusted to suit the slope or locked down again for a downhill run.
The skins are stuck to the bottom of the ski. They are called skins because the early adventurers used animal skin. These days, it’s all synthetic. Just like fur, the material is soft and smooth one way, but coarse when rubbed in the opposite direction. That’s what makes it grip in the snow and stops the skier from sliding backwards.
From Eagles Nest, we’re on our own, walking uphill and away from the resort.
The snow quality varies from ice to pure powder. Every now and then we stop to catch our breath. The stillness is overwhelming as is the sense of space and peace.
I certainly “earned those turns” as the backcountry pros like to say. As we trudge up the hill, the wind whips through the air, blasting powder in all directions. The tall granite boulders are splattered with ice crystals carved into intricate, delicate patterns. Powder snow rushes past them like rapids down into the valley below.
Part of the adventure of backcountry skiing is finding where that powder, whipped up by the roaring winds, settles.
Jeff tells me that it’s a secret.
I promise not to reveal the exact location of our downhill run.
What I can say is that it was magnificent. There were several stretches of open powder and a glorious run through gnarled snow gums. The soft powder snow was pure heaven, unlike the icy quality of the runs on the resort that day.
At the bottom of the mountain, we make a seat on an old rustic tree branch and stop for lunch. In one patch the powder is nearly up to hip-height. Mostly it is above my knees.
It’s peaceful and calm in the valley. Sounds are muted by the soft powder snow. But you can hear the birds and the gentle rustle of the leaves.
But the thing about backcountry skiing is that no matter where you go – you need to get out again. And that means climbing back up the beautiful powder trail that we’ve just sailed down.
It takes almost two hours to finally reach Eagles Nest again.
Climbing underneath the granite boulders, the wind shoves me downhill. I use my poles to maintain balance and force my skis forwards, upwards towards the resort. Ahead Jeff is in his element. The howling wind whips up the snow, swirling the powder around so that it looks almost like Jeff is walking on clouds. It is easy to imagine that we are all in Antarctica.
The gruelling, calf-burning climb ends as we duck under the red rope at the top of Thredbo resort. We stop to strip off the skins before making our final downhill run. It was perhaps one of the toughest adventures that I have ever taken on. It was also one of the most thrilling.
Later that afternoon I check in for a massage at our resort. Never have I felt like I needed one so much.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Thredbo ski resort is a six-hour drive south from Sydney. Or you can fly Rex Airlines to the Snowy Mountains (Cooma) airport.
STAYING THERE: Mountain View Studios at Lake Crackenback start at $365 per night with a minimum of a two-night stay in winter.
PLAYING THERE: K7 Adventures runs backcountry tours, snow shoe tours and snowkite aventures in the Snowy Mountains. k7adventures.com
* The writer travelled as a guest of Destination NSW.