Australia’s Main Range offers an amazing amount of spectacular ski terrain. But does anywhere else in the ski world keep their best terrain so hidden from the vast majority of their skiers as Australia does?
First Aussie to climb Everest, legendary mountaineer Tim Macartney-Snape, has been skiing there for over 40 years. Indeed it was experiencing the wild beauty of our highest mountains that led him to a lifetime among first those and subsequently the World’s mightiest peaks.
Faces like The Sentinel, a magnificent peak that offers more challenges than all our resort terrain put together, get less traffic a season than a resort run gets in a day. So if you’ve never skied the Australia’s Main Range check out what you’re missing out on in this special feature we commissioned Tim to write for our 20th Anniversary Season of SnowAction.
Skiing the Main Range featured in our launch issue 20 years ago, but it was hardly anything new: the lure of Australia’s highest peaks and steepest terrain has been an integral part of the story of skiing downunder since the 1930’s, when Tom & Elyne Mitchell made many first descents on the spectacular, craggy western faces.
They often started on horseback, skis slung over their shoulders, heading out from their property on the banks of the upper Murray River, and following summer stockmen’s routes up ridges to the snow line, where they tethered the horses and switched to skis and skins (the original seal variety).
40 years later Tim Macartney-Snape discovered it too, with a school mate who knew it better than most, the Mitchell’s son John.
From besting Kosciuzko as a teenager back then Macartney-Snape went on to summit Everest twice, but he’s never stopped feeling at home on the Main Range, and few skiers know it better.
Having recently switched from telemark to AT gear, he’s finding a whole new level of fun out there too. So who better to give the lowdown on 40 years on the range.
I began my gap year after school with a celebratory hike across the ‘top of Australia’, from Round Mountain to Thredbo. A schoolies’ celebration many would consider dull – no alcohol, all boys, increasingly smelly. But for us, valving off the stress of exams, ‘losing ourselves’ to the freedom of the hills was an apt way to celebrate our new-found freedom from the long years of school. The walk culminated in three days on the very top of Australia – the Main Range.
Of course we traversed the summit of Kosci. But the highlight was sampling the “most mountainous” terrain in Australia by dropping steeply off Mt Townsend into the depths of Lady Northcote’s Canyon, then a long climb out rock-hopping steeply up Crags Creek, which drains the western slopes of Watsons Crags.
John, the local of our team, was particularly excited as he had grown up by the banks of the Upper Murray river on his parents’ cattle station, clearly visible from any of the higher vantage points around us. Indeed John’s parents, Tom and Elyne Mitchell, were pioneers in skiing the terrain around us. Driving us up to the start of our walk old Tom had regaled us with tales of their early ski touring forays down the mighty western faces of the Main Range. Picturing the dense undergrowth about us smothered in a wintry mantle of snow, it seemed fair to think that skiing was going to be a lot more fun than the bush-bashing we’d had to endure. Little did I know that one day I would become intimately familiar with those slopes.
My ‘gap year’ was spent working on farms and attending night school in the hope of redeeming my miserable fail in HSC English, a pass was mandatory if I was to do any further study, so no gallivanting over to Europe for me – not that I could have remotely afforded it.
There were compensations. On occasional weekends John and I would hike or ski. The highlight of which was my first ski tour on the Main Range. After an inauspicious start skidding on black ice into a retaining wall as I drove my parents’ Falcon into Thredbo, and being pulled out by the old Blitz truck from the service station, John and I indulged in the easier option of taking the chair to top station. I remember leaving the bottom thinking it was cold; at the top I felt I’d arrived in Antarctica. A light southerly breeze marked the end of a front that had left thick cauliflower heads of rime on the trees, drifts of powder in the hollows and bare ice across more exposed terrain.
Part of a snowy winter’s appeal is that it transforms the landscape into something wilder. Shouldering our overnight packs and barely managing to keep the cold at bay, we headed out into what then felt like the very wild. Our goal was Lake Albina Lodge nestled in the cirque above Lake Albina – the starting point of Lady Northcote’s Canyon. Even by the mid-seventies the lodge was becoming a little dilapidated, but it did offer comfortable, secure shelter in a magnificent setting. I remember settling in there as darkness fell, feeling the excitement of being high in wild mountains, and what tomorrow would bring. We were higher than anyone else in Australia!
As we were to discover, the modest altitude of the Main Range belies the fact that it’s regularly hit by some of the worst weather in the world.
But after our first night we woke to a blue-bird day and enjoyed climbing and skiing off Townsend’s gentle upper slopes. Our gear was basic – skinny cross-country skis with alloy edges, banana-skin limp leather boots and rat-trap bindings. I wasn’t aware of the telemark turn until a year later and relied on rudimentary stem-christies to get me down. I got lots of bruises, left a few craters. John pointed out a bowl opposite that funneled into a nice looking gully, ‘Little Austria – first skied by mum and dad and their cohorts in the 1930s’. One day I thought to myself, one day.
We kept off the steeper stuff, but got full value out of the mountain’s complex folds, all of them harbouring sweet wind packed powder that carries the tell tale soft dappled signature on the surface. The backdrop – dazzling white mounds studded with ice encrusted outcrops, and behind range upon range of blue ridges marching to the horizon, is always uplifting, a special uniquely Australian mountain ambience.
A strong nor-westerly front broke upon the Main Range that night. We woke to a hammering blizzard, but work commitments gave us no choice but to try to struggle back to Thredbo. Visibility was extremely poor because we were in the clouds. It wasn’t only a whiteout, the wind howled, driving stinging pellets of semi frozen hail into us, violent gusts threw us off balance and underfoot was scoured to iron hard ice. Only a hundred metres into the journey my basic goggles proved almost worthless. Our saviour were the snow poles – designed and placed by the skiing enthusiasts who had built Lake Albina Chalet, placed just close enough so that in these conditions you could stand at one and just make out the next. Without them we would have to have been purely following a compass bearing, something that is really hard to do when you’re struggling to stand upright, look where you’re going, and keeping an eye on the person in front who is your check-point that you’re keeping a straight course.
The two deadliest features of the Main Range are whiteouts and hypothermia, and it was very educational to be fully confronted with both hazards. Luckily we kept our cool, didn’t ski out of sight of one another or the poles. A little chilled and bedraggled we finally made it back to top station and the long descent to the valley.
Back at the Mitchell’s homestead, Towong Hill, we were regaled with more epic tales of Main Range skiing, blizzards and the old grazing days of droving cattle up onto the tops. I was smitten and have been a regular visitor ever since. Many times I’ve been caught out by fast moving weather, but thankfully have never taken for granted that the benign conditions of a fine day will last and my navigation skills have often been tested to the max.
In terms of downhill runs, there are two aspects to skiing the Main Range – there’s the gullies, cirques and headwalls flanking the higher peaks, and then there’s the western faces.
The former require a little, but no great effort, to access. From Guthega one can cross the Snowy River at Illawong and climb up Twynam for gentler runs off the summit to the north with some fabulous cornice topped bowls and to the south some steeper runs into Blue Lake.
Twynam can also be accessed easily from Charlotte’s Pass. Being more central, on a good day with light gear, you can visit all of the major summits from there – a great outing in spring just after the road opens. It is most commonly from here that people go to ski the steep cirques of Club and Blue Lakes. Finally, the chairlift at Thredbo offers an easy access point to the Ramshead range, Kosciusko and Townsend.
The western faces are the lodestone for serious skiers. Technically they are the western and northern faces that drop down into the headwaters of the Murray River. Being further out, steeper and longer, they require a little more effort to get to, and a lot more effort to get out from the bottom of. Starting from the south at Leatherbarrel creek, which drains the western aspect of the Ramsheads, the edge of the range continues north into Wilkinson’s Valley, around the western flanks of Townsend, where it swings eastwards through Townsend north spur, Lady Northcote’s Canyon, the western and northern faces of Mounts Lee and Carruthers, the sharp spur of The Sentinel, and then on to Twynam’s west ridge (starring Watson’s Crags), then finally on to Twynam’s north spur and Mt Anderson.
That is a fair amount of terrain!
The day trip to these faces has the challenge of getting there and back by traversing over the tops – a one to two hour trip each way requiring effort that eats into your energy stores for climbing out from your runs. The overnight trip has the challenge of having to ski in with your gear. If the weather is stable I prefer overnighting, but these days you’ll have to camp as, except for Seaman’s, the huts have gone. In good weather there are few better places to camp than on the top edges of the western faces, seeing the sun sink down over Victoria and then rise over the Monaro – the alpen glow magic always charges me with wonder. I’ve sometimes used a pulk (sled) to drag in my gear and because I can, I tend to overload it with luxuries like beer and wine. I’ve bivvied out without a tent, slept in snow caves and igloos, but a lightweight tent is really the most practical shelter, as they require little effort to pitch and you can, with care, cook inside and out of the wind.
My favourite area would have to be the north and west spurs of Twynam – there are runs in pretty well all aspects and some of the steepest I’d care to ski. Some can drop you seven hundred vertical metres, so are pretty well the longest in Australia. As your thighs begin to burn and the slope continues to open up below, you begin asking yourself, “will I still have the energy to climb out of here?” – it’s not the kind place you want to run out of fuel.
My first foray down there on skis was in 1977, when a mate and I based ourselves in a snow cave above Blue Lake and on lightweight tele gear burned our thighs on some long runs – like novice skin-divers, we dared not test the limits of how far down we could go for fear of the long climb out, and the fact that once in the trees the skiing got a lot more challenging!
Without wanting to point out the obvious, there is one other danger apart from wind, cold and whiteout that is worth noting.
Big avalanches are rare in Australia but they do occur. The most common avalanches are triggered by cornice collapse and these have taken several lives.
While it’s fun to jump off cornices, be wary of them collapsing. Also understand that the slope beneath a cornice is in the lee of the wind, the kind of slope that can develop a layer of wind compacted snow called a windslab. If this builds on an unstable layer underneath, such as hoar frost on crust, the slab can part company with the slope and slide to the bottom, breaking up as it falls and engulfing you in it. Knowing the recent history of conditions is enormously important in assessing potential avalanche danger – fresh snow on top of an icy crust is perhaps the most obvious danger sign on a big slope. In spring steep gullies can slough enough wet snow to get you in trouble as well. As in any situation, being aware of what’s going on and has gone on around you is always best.
Although I’ve skied many, many runs on the Main Range, all of them on telemark gear, I haven’t done them all by a long way, and now I’ve discovered lightweight AT (Alpine Touring) I’m looking forward to ripping more new lines.
Local knowledge/gear etc:
Carruthers is the spring special express intro to skiing out west once the road to Charlotte’s opens, a relatively easy hike & skin up from the Snowy River. That’s Bruce Easton from Wilderness Sports at Nuggets in Jindabyne fording the river below; they are the local experts for all your gear, advice & guides/lessons needs for Main Range access on tele, AT or split board gear.
Alan Andrew’s sketch map inset, from Skiing The Western Faces (details on the books below), shows how close you are to the goods from here.
Klaus Hueneke from Tabletop Press has been hiking and skiing the ranges for a long time, and doing a lot to make sure their histories and stories get told to future generations. His best known book is Huts of the High Country, detailing the often fascinating tales behind those, and he was awarded an AM in the 2012 Aussie Honours list for his services to conservation and the environment. His catalogue includes some of the most readable books ever written about the mountains, like Rick Walkom’s Skiing Off The Roof, the story of Kosciusko Chalet/Charlotte’s Pass, and many hard to find titles including all Elyne Mitchell’s fiction works.
Alan Andrew’s books, of which Skiing the Western Faces is the most interesting for skiers, are more of a ramble, and certainly require an attention span longer than a gnat’s, but you can pick them up and discover plenty of little gems like his accurate and cutely decorated hand drawn maps as above, especially if you know the areas he is talking about first hand.
For more info/purchases & a full list of titles available go to