Mt Mawson outside Hobart offers Tasmania’s best lift-served ski terrain, and Australia’s cheapest ski pass. When it’s on, it can be awesome. And the fact that it is ever “on” at all is thanks to the awesome efforts of the club volunteers who run the lifts and the field. Just 90 minutes plus a hike outside of Hobart, Tassies’ club ski area Mt Mawson is a triumph of volunteer effort over challenging natural and manmade odds. At $35 a day to ride the 3 nutcracker rope tows it’s also by far Australia’s cheapest skiing.
Shaun Mittwollen & Kelsy Mcnamara got it at its best last year for Snow Action, enjoying repeat pillow lines past the funky pandani trees, found only in Tasmania.
Winter in Tasmania. Braced by the roaring forties, chaotic maritime snowfalls hammer the south west. Rugged, variable and wild. Sculpted by recent glaciation, the mountains here are sharper and steeper than those on the mainland. Alpine plateaus cascade into deep forested valleys where people rarely set foot. Tight couloirs are especially commonplace amongst the vertically fractured dolerite columns. Here good skiing abounds when conditions align. There is excellent back country for those willing to experience true wilderness, and a tiny volunteer operated club field called Mt. Mawson to touch the edge of it.
Like an unexpected surprise, you might feel you have uncovered a rad little Tassie secret after your first trip up to Mt. Mawson. Just an hour and a half from Hobart, Tasmania’s second ski field offers a surprising variety of terrain that rises from surrounding farms and rainforests to some 1320m.
The Rodway Tow has the reputation as one of the steepest in the country, an open bowl scything through boulders that cumulates near an idyllic alpine tarn.
The Mawson Tow offers playful intermediate terrain that meanders through alpine bush and rocky crags.
At Mt. Mawson there is a definite sense of the wilderness culture that is so prominent throughout the state.
The tows are accessed via a 30-minute hike (20 if you’re in a hurry on a pow day!) through pandani forests, while most visitors sport classic Australian bushwalking gear. Fun, cheap and with easy access off-piste, Mt. Mawson has a lot to offer.
It was 230pm in Hobart, sign out time from work. Freedom! In the midst of a classic cold outbreak snow was falling across most of the state above 500m, and I had been checking my phone for updates out of Mt. Mawson all day, for fear of missing out.
The plan was to make the short drive out to a powder emergency at Mt. Mawson. It was there waiting, ready to be skied and with enough daylight to hike a few laps of the famous Golden Stairs. The snow base sat at well over a metre, big figures for Tasmania.
Driving through the outer suburbs of Hobart an urban jungle quickly gives way to rolling farmland, hop fields and then upwards towards old growth forest and a thick snow line. Seventy-five kilometres in and the road turns to gravel as it winds steeply, twisting and turning through temperate rainforest and gigantic tree ferns. Here the services are flighty about keeping the road open in potentially hazardous conditions. Approaching the gravel turn-off I saw something that made my heart sink. Road closed! Disaster, a minibus carrying some tourists had slipped into a ditch. With the snow plows making rescue efforts there would be no traffic allowed up for the foreseeable future. A massive blow for the afternoon’s skiing.
A few days later, with heavy snow continuing and countless calls to check the road status, the plows had finally broken through the building windblown drifts. Open again and right in time for the weekend lift operations. Anticipation was running at a record high as reports said that another 30cm had fallen overnight, bringing the storm total up around the metre mark, Japow levels!
Ascending the rough dirt track the previously lush green rainforest had taken on an entirely different tone. Plants were bent groaning under the weight of fresh snow, while heavy windblown flakes continued to fall near horizontally across the upper open moors in full on blizzard conditions.
Arriving at the Lake Dobson carpark the transition to boots and warm jackets was very quick indeed. It was immediately obvious that the tree zones were entirely filled in right down to the base at 1000m.
A few other groups arrived equally excited. The atmosphere was electric. Hiking up to the tows the normally straightforward path became more of a boot pack through knee deep powder, as all the while heavy snow continued to fall.
A normally shrubby hillside had been transformed into open powder fields dotted with half buried Pandani trees and snow mushrooms! The Tassie pillow factory had obviously been hard at work.
Arriving at the Mawson base it was like a scene out of Antarctica. Temperatures were extremely cold with thick mist and blowing snow obscuring visibility. A few timber structures rose out of the fog, a tow rope exiting one building. Around it, a small crowd gathered with brightly coloured jackets, skis and snowboards at the ready. Up the tow rope waist high trenches had been dug out of three metre deep wind drifts in an effort to form a drag path. The slope continued upwards above the tree line off into the blizzard.
We left the melee of the rope tows and headed towards the Golden Stairs side country. Off in the distance an overhanging cornice menaced above a creek gully continuously building with the southwesterly breeze. Significant avalanche danger prevalent we opted for a moderate pitch through the well spaced snow gums that was completely untouched. Clicking into the skis for the first time I had never experienced powder in Australia and honestly wasn’t expecting too much after several seasons in Japan. How wrong I was!
Dropping in I accelerated and placed the first lefthand hook. Completely taken aback the skis descended knee deep into the snow sending a plume of powder off to the right. Tips of the legendary powder planks faithfully sprung out of the turn and into the next, saving me from eating it with surprise. Next the terrain rolled over around a cliff band, below a few trees clung to the steeper slope. Pausing to consider options my girlfriend Kelsey was not stopping and shot down the middle disappearing behind a cloud of snow. I follow hot on her heels and we free rode down through the forest stoked to be riding powder in Tasmania.
Soon we reach the same path we had climbed up earlier. Nothing for it but to head back up for another lap.
Quickly regaining the resort, heavy snow was showing no signs of letting up. Such was the rate of falls and with the blowing wind that already our tracks were mostly filled.
Off again, lap after lap. During that day we made a total of eight runs between the trees of the golden stairs at Mt. Mawson. With constant falling snow filling in our tracks, combined with little competition, there was simply not enough time to ski all the lines available. It was hands down our best day of skiing in Australia.
While you have to be lucky to catch Mt. Mawson in such fine form even on the normal days the club field is a whole bunch of fun. As an escape from the commercial resorts, as good as they are, Mt. Mawson is hard to beat. A hugely laid back vibe creates a social space of pure fun and enjoyment. Enthusiastic boarders build kickers off to the side, families picnic and local legends cruise the slopes on skinny skis from the 80’s. The tows are a challenge to master but even these antiquated lifts have their own sense of character. Wilderness stretches off in all directions completing the scene.
A day up at Mt. Mawson is always a day well spent and certainly sure beats working!
We asked Southern Tasmanian Ski Association President Doctor Peter Davis for an update on what’s new at Mawson for 2018, and why all mainland Aussie snow enthusiasts & internationals heading downunder in winter should come to check it out. A big shout out to the members for supplying some extra shots too, including these spectacular dig-out-the-tow pics from epic snowfalls of seasons past.
The Mt Mawson Ski Field is set in a stunning alpine location in the World-Heritage listed Mt Field National Park. The three rope tows were established back in the 1960’s and provide a truly retro outdoor experience for the snow enthusiast. There is nothing better than carving turns down the Mawson, Uni or Rodway tows with dolerite mountains all around and the expanse of the Broad River Valley laid out in front of you. The ski field is accessed via a 30-45 minute uphill walk from the Lake Dobson carpark, and so you already feel like you have achieved something worthwhile when you arrive at the ski field. It is a real privilege to be able to ski in an environment where you really have escaped from the day to day to something special and remote.
Mt Mawson Ski Field is pretty unique in today’s busy commercial world in that it is run entirely by volunteers on a not-for-profit basis. It is operated by the Southern Tasmanian Ski Association, which includes the members of the six active ski clubs with huts on the mountain, but non-club members are also encouraged to get involved. As a result there is a great community spirit on the mountain, where volunteers pitch in to keep everything running. The STSA run working bees over the Summer, and there is always plenty to do to keep the infrastructure in good order and able to survive the Tassie winter storms. A key improvement over recent years has been the installation of improved snow fences replacing old ones constructed in the 70’s to help capture and retain the natural snow fall (there is no grooming or snow making here!)
A key development currently underway is the construction of a new Mt Mawson public day shelter and ski patrol facility by the Tasmanian Government Parks Department. This will provide a long overdue facility for visitors, so even if you are not out on the slopes you can get in out of the cold to enjoy the spectacular view from the comfort of a purpose-built public facility.
For more on Tasmania’s other lift accessed ski option, Ben Lomond, check our feature here.
Getting to Mt Mawson ski area
Closest airport is Hobart, around 90 minutes drive and a hike from the car park at Lake Dobson. When it’s good you can ski back down. Tickets are $35 for non-members, plus a towbelt $10 deposit – pay and pick up belts at the hut at the base. Take cash, they don’t have EFTPOS. Take your own food and drinks too, it’s self-catering here. A volunteer Ski Patrol operates. The area is run on a volunteer basis by the 6 member Ski Clubs of the Southern Tasmanian Ski Association. So if you get there and the tow needs digging out remember the old adage “many hands makes light work”. Chip in, help, and meet some friendly people.
The tows open weekends and school holidays when snow conditions allow.
More info http://mtmawson.info