Melbourne is lucky enough to have two big mountains on the doorstep, famous Mt Buller and far less know Mt Stirling. While most head for buller, but it’s well worth putting Stirling in the foreground says Victorian backcountry ski guru Cam Walker.
If you live in Melbourne and ski or ride in resorts then you will have no doubt have done your share of trips to Mt Buller. One of the great aspects of the mountain is that it’s close enough for a quick weekend. Or even a day trip if you’re super keen, or the powder is going off. But you’ll also know that proximity can bring huge crowds. If you feel like a wilder – and less crowded – weekend, and don’t mind putting in the effort to get some turns, then put Mt Stirling on your list for this winter.
Mt Stirling is accessed from the pay station at Mirimbah at the base of Mt Buller and has the same entry fee. But from there you head over the Delatite River and up a dirt road, which is fine for 2WD, to Telephone Box Junction, or TBJ. There is a ski school and hire shop, ski patrol and café and the trails start here. You will need skis with touring (AT) bindings and skins, or a splitboard. Mt Stirling hires out some AT gear, plus good telemark skis, if you feel like adding to the adventure (its best to ring first to check what’s available).
There have been several attempts to develop the mountain into a downhill resort. None of these have been successful, so the summit area is in a wild condition and getting there is straight forward for any competent skier. You start out in alpine ash forests, pass through snow gums as you climb, then eventually hit the treeline. On a clear day, the views – stretching from Mt Buller to Hotham and Bogong – are amazing, and the skiing is well worth the effort. While the summit area is relatively small, there are a lot of possible runs if you have a good look around.
Mt Stirling is the closest mountain to my home, and it’s my handy weekender when Hotham seems too far away. Its different to the side country of Hotham or Falls in that you need to climb the mountain, gaining about 500 metres of vertical, to access the slopes. While traditionally it’s been a cross country mountain, it’s becoming more popular with people chasing some steeps. Last year, the best winter in the last 17, Mt Stirling went off. The big runs in Stanley Bowl and more mellow slopes in Dugout Basin were wonderful, but the secret terrain at Stirling is really the tree skiing, and this was in top form. A lot of the higher mountain has been burnt, meaning thicker regrowth, but the unburnt sections have amazing tree skiing when the snow is good. Start at the summit, pick a line of least resistance, and see where it takes you. There are also some good, steeper slopes hidden away over the ridge directly east of the Geelong Grammar hut. Remember that the only way home is up, so save some energy for the bootpack out.
One of the best things about Stirling is that when the day is done and its time to head home, its downhill to the car. Bluff Spur trail probably gives the best run – its like a narrow home trail and there are a small number of uphill sections, but if you hit these at speed you can generally shuffle to the top. The last 2 km is flatter, but the upper section provides great turns, including some fun corners.
It’s also a great mountain to learn about alpine camping. The short approach to the summit makes carrying gear a breeze, and the fact that there are lots of options for camping just at treeline means you can find sheltered spots no matter where the weather is coming from and get out quickly if you need to.
Snowcaves are certainly an option in most seasons and even though you can’t find a spot, dig a platform for the tent and watch the night skiing on Mt Buller’s Bourke Street, you feel surprisingly remote. To take it up a notch, ski over the south summit and drop down the obvious ridge on the other side and camp on the highpoint between Dugout Bowl and Stanley Bowl, and be treated to amazing morning views of The Bluff and Mt Howitt.
I have so many great memories of Mt Stirling – wild winds, lightning storms, incredible powder, long afternoons of skiing spring corn, and waking up to a metre of fresh. But night time skiing on a full moon on the gentle summit slopes above Geelong Grammar hut tops the list. My advice would be to get up there this winter: pick a weekend when the snow is down low, check out Stanley Bowl, and set up camp among some ancient snow gums. It’s the best winter wildness within 4 hours of Melbourne.
Cam’s Tips for a first Stirling trip
In a good winter you can ski from TBJ, but often you will need to walk a few k’s, so make sure you have a pack suitable to carry your skis. You can pick up a trail map at TBJ. The most direct approach is to go straight up Bluff Spur Trail to the hut, then its another 20 minutes to the summit (roughly 90 minutes in total).
Once on top, there are mellow runs off the summit to the east and north east. It can often be icy and wind affected up there, so you may need to go over the leeward side to find some fresh.
For something more serious, head to the south summit past the obvious tree and ride Stanley Bowl. These are the biggest and steepest slopes and face east, so can really hold the snow and collect powder when its blowing from the Buller side. The best option is to bootpack back up, but you can traverse out to skiers right towards the ridgeline that leads to Howqua Gap, then climb that to the summit. Never head further downhill into the forest: two young men died here after heading downhill in a storm. It often has a cornice, and occasionally slides, but ski patrol assess it daily for safety.
There is a pole line that runs over the summit area for poor visibility days.
Stirling is a great day trip, especially if you have accommodation nearby, but is best experienced on an overnighter. There’s good camping around the various huts – especially Bluff Spur and the more sheltered King Spur.
Be aware that the summit is a true alpine environment and in stormy conditions it can be hard to get back from Stanley Bowl to the other side of the mountain, so be fully prepared with gear for any conditions and serious cold.
more info www.mtstirling.com.au
*Cam Walker is organising Australia’s first back country ski festival at Falls Creek on September 1 & 2. For more on that check the link here.