Hotham backcountry tours for average skiers and riders

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Hotham backcountry .. just those two words conjure up images of seriously steep and often seriously deep, Japow Downunder as we called it last year. Looks awesome splashed across our big fat print issues and on the social feeds seeing the talented pro riders smashing it up. But like the song says, “What about me?”

Skins on time with Hotham backcountry tours
Hotham backcountry here we come © Dave Windsor

Yes, at Snow Action we look after the regular average skier and rider who can’t put the seasons in to get that good, but still wants to get out there and experience what home among the snowgums means when the Aussie winter gets into gear.

Our man-in-Melbourne Dave Windsor checked out the new Hotham Backcountry tours that make it easy to get amongst it this year as soon as snow conditions allow.

Hotham is known as ‘The Giant’ with good reason – 790 acres inbounds are just the start, the back and side country is huge. But daunting, not to mention potentially dangerous if you don’t know it and/or don’t have the right gear. So what does the casual guest here for a few days do? Enter Danny Foster and Shane Guest from Hotham Ski & Ride School, and their pending Intro to Backcountry Tour which I trialled last spring.

Split boarder Briony Johnson riding Hotham back country in spring snow
Briony Johnson enjoys a creamy corn splitboard slash © Dave Windsor

Hotham Backcountry tours day

The day started off with a rendezvous at the Ski school office, double shot espresso and a quick debrief. Shane pulled out his detailed topographical map and with military precision outlined the plan for the day before doing a comprehensive gear check – touring skis/split-boards, skins, avi-beacons, shovels, probes, lunch, water and the all-important battery check on the beacons. 

“I did a bit of recon yesterday and there’s some good-looking stuff out there”, says Shane, “the weather’s looking awesome so that’s fantastic. Avi wise, we’ve had the freeze overnight, it was about neg 4 and it’s looking at max 10 today so there’s going to be a lot of warming on the northern aspects. The main thing we’ll be looking for is a little bit of frozen base with this warmed up snow sliding on top of that. It should be alright, most of it’s reasonably low angle – it should be a lot of fun out there.”

OneTree Sports in Hotham Central hooked me up with the gear I required and had me frothing with their tales of adventure – they also gave me a sense of confidence that Shane and the team know what they’re doing. 

Shane certainly emphasises the paramount importance of safety and took note of our skiing ability, experience, and general awareness.  Like many, I’ve carried the avi gear when heliskiing, or doing side country touring in the Alps, but thankfully I’ve never had to use it.

“The main thing is that we have fun,” concludes Shane, “We won’t provide full-on avi training out there; we just want to make sure that we’re all safe to travel with and not put each other at risk. And if something were to go wrong then you’d have some idea of how to get out.”

Lunch in the Hotham backcountry
You don’t need IKEA or BUNNINGS outdoor living settings here © Dave Windsor

“The idea of the Hotham Backcountry tours program has been on the agenda for a number of years now, however it hasn’t been until this season we’ve been able to really knuckle down and start ticking boxes to enable the program to operate in 2019,” says Danny Foster, who together with Shane and Sam Robinson have been instrumental in setting it up.

“We’ve seen great involvement from a number of departments including Ski Patrol over at the Resort Management Board to help get the program on its feet. At the moment we have 3 guides on our team, this will likely increase to around 5 for 2019 winter, with a mix of both skiers and split boarders.”

With introductions done, we head out to The Orchard and jump the rope. First up is a secondary equipment check, beacons powered and skins on. Skinning is certainly an acquired skill; our first little walk is a relatively easy shallow incline of about 200-300 metres. Technique wise I guess it’s a little different for everyone, Shane encourages me to just relax and let the ski slide under my foot as I kick my toe forward. There’s a certain point where it feels easy and forward progress is going great, then I muck it up and lose my mojo and have to talk myself into getting it right again.

We spend a good 40 minutes to an hour running through our equipment. It’s no point carrying it if you don’t know how to use it. Shane buries his avi beacon and asks us to split up and go find it. With increasingly intense beeping the five of us hone-in on our target and then we’re on our knees digging, digging and digging. We run through probing techniques and dig some more. We work up a decent sweat saving our imaginary victim, and though it’s the last time we use the gear on the day, we at least all know what it takes to save someone and that we’ve got each other’s back.

Hiking back up
You don’t have to be Einstein to work out the equation here: lower you go, more you hike out! © Dave Windsor

Then it’s a zig zag skin up and under the 1,887m summit of Mt Loch, Victoria’s 4th highest peak behind Bogong, Feathertop and Nelse. Shane eyes a safe, wind protected spot to carve up and we regroup and de-skin. Then, one by one, we find fresh lines on the East faces under Loch into a beautiful open meadow. Again, with safety in mind we wait our turn and all eyes are on the rider of the moment. The snow’s excellent and the spring corn releases perfectly under foot. We do a couple of circuits before settling for lunch in a delightful stand of snow gums – BYO sandwiches, left-overs, energy bars, bananas and chocolate are pulled from back packs as we relax, hydrate and take in the sweeping views. 

“Initially the areas we’ll operate will include Mt Loch, Dargo Bowls, Eagle Ridge, as well as Avalanche and Harrison Gullies,” explains Danny. “We have the potential to add additional sites including Baldy Hollow, Women’s Downhill, the Razorback and Machinery Spur to name but a few. The great thing about Hotham is there are so many amazing backcountry offerings. I’ve just wrapped up my 13th season at Hotham and I’m still able to find new spots to play in the backcountry.”

Following lunch, we stow our trash and shoot below the tree line for some steeper fun in the goods. Which is all good, until the steeper hike up to our next drop off. I struggle to keep up with the younger fitter crew and slowly bring up the rear, taking time to enjoy the silence and snap a few shots.

“Our Intro to the Hotham Backcountry program will see guests get approximately 350-500 meters of vertical in the afternoon,” says Danny (we did approximately 350-400m on our outing, but that was with some camera time), “with the morning primarily being used as an educational session. Booking a private day trip with one of our guides could see guests get in over double that number of vertical. With the only limiting factors being a guest’s fitness, experience and goals for being out in the backcountry, some groups may end up doing well over 1,000 metres in vert.”

Group sizes will range between 4-6 people for individuals, depending on complexity of terrain and group objectives, with the option for mates to get together for a private tour. Similar fitness levels will help.

As we skin southwards it’s apparent how much we don’t see from the resort. You can see it in the distance, but it’s not until I’m beyond the boundary away from the crowds that the Alpine National Park reveals her majesty. We regroup and drop in again, heading down unnamed white rooms towards a bubbling creek finding shin deep virgin snow.

As the sun eases west, we do too. Over a little crest the resort welcomes us back. In fact, despite the serenity and sense of wilderness, we’re actually pretty close to the resort the entire time. One last hurrah down OneTree Hill and we’re back in time for knock-off bevies at The Bird, to recount the epic day that was – even if you’re not an epic skier, the Hotham backcountry is now more accessible than ever for you.

Danny has racked up a lot of winters – 13 at Hotham, 2 at Apex and 8 at Whitwater BC Canada, plus one at the Bundessportheim in St Christoph and Lech.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in a number of amazing areas” he explains. “The last few years at Whitewater (which gets huge snowfall) I was working as the Director of the Snow School and was privileged to oversee their Freeride team. It was here that I first began administering guided and educational programs for the backcountry and saw the benefits they have for those keen on getting out into it.”

Now he’s applying that knowledge at Hotham, so you’re in very safe hands.

Hotham scenic sled tours

For a softer Hotham BC adventure, Snow Stuff Park offer a variety of scenic rides on their custom designed snowmobile sled through the back country with sweeping views of the Dargo Valley, Swindlers Valley, Mt Feathertop and the Bogong High Plains. Tours include a 10 or 30 minute joy ride, a fabulous sunset champagne & cheese tour, and a half-day Derricks Hut Back Country Sled Tour including lunch.

So head to Hotham this season for back and side country fun. The glorious views, pristine snow, superb company and terrific skiing are well worth it. It also makes a beer enjoyed afterwards just that little bit more satisfying.

For bookings and full details check the link on the Hotham website below.

www.mthotham.com.au/lessons-hire/lesson-type/backcountry

www.snowstuffpark.com.au/mt-hotham-back-country-sled-tour

Stay: www.arrabriskiclub.org.au 

Rent: www.snowmonkey.com.au
Chains & fuel: www.omeoskihire.com.au

Headiing back from a big day out
Homeward bound © Dave Windsor