Corin Forest Canberra chairlift is here 40 years on

Corin Forest ski area outside Canberra finally got its double chairlift this month, 40 odd years after plans to have one were first mooted.

Note that’s ‘got’ as in arrived in pieces to the car park so far, not ‘got’ as in installed and ready to rock.

The Corin chairlift is here .. hopefully won’t be that long before it is installed and fired up © Corin Forest

Current CEO Dane Liepins prefers to announce things when they happen, having viewed the decades of previous predictions, plans and forecasts at Corin that were mostly never realised. But news leaked out about this delivery so they posted the arrival to their social anyway.

The best example of his as-it-actually-happens approach was the surprise May 2016 announcement that skiing and snowboarding had returned to Corin and Canberra, after a long absence.

They had installed a magic carpet lift and created a new ski slope below the original one that had operated only sporadically since installation in 1983, and not for over a decade.

Old view of the original Corin Forest Canberra ski slope
‘Champagne snow’ so close to Canberra – the original ski slope c1990

I last skied it and wrote it up back in the winter of 1994 for the Canberra Times, a season when Corin ran well and attracted a loyal following. The original slope was short, but steep enough to offer a challenge, and the night ski sessions were popular after work for the keen.

The original owners, W and G Promotions, saw the outstanding potential of this then little known sub-alpine environment tucked away in the mountains only 30 minutes drive south west of the Tuggeranong, Canberra’s southern satellite city then known as “Nappy Valley” for obvious reasons – young families were flooding into the area’s rapidly growing suburbs.

View of the original ski slope at Corin Forest Canberra in 2020, partially re-vegetated
The original ski slope has partially grown over and the bottom now forms part of the toboggan area © Carmen Price

Originally the founders had their sights set on the higher Brindabellas, including taking over the existing but defunct Mt Franklin club area. Snowmaking would not have been approved there as it sits inside the ACT water catchment, not to mention the problems of setting up inside the Namadgi National Park.

But it shows they were thinking big. When they switched their focus to Smokers Gap on the Corin Dam road they envisaged a full size ski area complete with accommodation and year round recreational facilities. Have a look at the artist’s impressions of the proposed ‘Smokers Gap Lodge’ for an idea of that scope.

Plans of the ski lodge hotel proposed for Corin Forest Canberra
A ski lodge hotel 30 minutes from Canberra? That was the plan.

“Winter activities would include skiing, ice skating, chair-lift rides and an alpine slide. Summer activities would include artificial (matting) surface skiing, an alpine slide, barbecues and entertainment” partner Keiran Murphy told the Canberra Times in 1986.

“A 650-metre double chairlift, which will transverse a man-made lake and ascend at two off-load points to the summit of the run, is due to open in 1988. A concourse at the bottom of the lift will join it to the base station which will be extended from its pilot-scheme size of 200 square metres to 1,200 square metres.”

“The resort will have a bar, lounge, childcare and conference areas. Other attractions at the resort will be all-weather tennis courts and a competition-size ice skating rink.”

That was 1986; 1987 saw the stock market crash, interest rates go up (yes, they used to do that back in the day!) and Australia move into recession. The financial difficulties to obtain more capital, combined with delays in getting lease approvals, meant the whole project was trimmed back to the largely pilot installation that ran thereafter.

Corin is not high, the base only 1220m.

But the southerly aspect and frost hollow nature of the valley are well suited to snowmaking. Winter temperatures can drop as low as -10°, while in summer the area is usually 6-8° cooler than Canberra city.

The original project proponents did their homework climate wise, testing for 4 years to confidently predict they could make snow over at least a 12 week season. There was, and is, no reliance on natural snowfalls at all. Since winter precipitation here is mostly rain actually a dry year is better for Corin to function well.

Snowmaking at Corin Forest Canberra
Snowguns pumping out snow on the main slope © Corin Forest

“We ran for over 5 months last year” says CEO Liepins. “We have made snow in late April for snowplay as a test, and can have skiing in May most years.”

Snowmaking has of course improved dramatically since the 1980s, and Corin can make a lot of snow nowadays from plenty of Techno-Alpin fan guns and a Yeti ‘all-weather’ snow machine, similar to the ‘Snow Factories’ installed successfully at Buller and Baw Baw in recent years.

Liepkins took over in 2013, of what was largely a mothballed operation. The Alpine Slide has been the most enduring facility, operating effectively since 1987.

Kids big and small love the Alpine Slide © Corin Forest

2014 was Corin’s first winter back in action, for snowplay only initially.

Showing the pent up demand, they were getting over 1,000 people a day with almost no promotion, just a social media launch that spread the word quickly. Warm conditions made snowmaking impossible, and things were starting to look grim with the holidays approaching.

“I had borrowed to the limit from family and friends to be ready for that first winter. But June was warm, we couldn’t make any snow” Liepins recalls. “We were having dinner late June and it started raining hard. Then it turned to sleet when we went to bed. I woke up and there was over 35cm of fresh snow outside the door. Then it just took off.”

That lucky break with a decent natural snowfall allowed artificial-snow fuelled Corin to come back with a bang. And more importantly, get busy enough to survive and grow.

“Everything was really run down when I took over. The water supply, the electricity, the garbage, the sewage, the whole infrastructure had been run down. So for year two we concentrated on getting all that sorted and getting our systems in place to cope with the numbers. We set up the online booking system, and put in more parking and got the basics working.”

Another successful snowplay winter allowed taking the next step of bringing back skiing and snowboarding for 2016, a happy surprise for Canberrans and an increasing number of interstate visitors.

The toboggan slope proved a huge hit as soon as they re-opened in winter 2014 © Corin Forest

Leipins sees the core market as beginners, especially beginner families, so he had and has no intention of re-opening the old steep slope. In fact the bottom of it has been scooped out and flattened to provide part of the popular toboggan/snowplay zone.

The actual ‘skiable areas’ consist of the main slope served by a long carpet lift and the Joey’s kid’s slope served by a short carpet lift. Both are very much fit for purpose.

I was actually surprised seeing it up close that the main slope actually has a reasonable pitch. If for example you were taking some family or friends up for a first time ski experience you could have fun trying snowboarding yourself (or vice-versa).

This has been the year from hell for Australia’s ski industry generally.

Smoke haze from nearby bushfires through January then the bushfire itself ripping through the back of the ski area in February ruined the summer season for Corin, then COVID-19 left the resort operating at 50% capacity to allow for appropriate social distancing etc.

Despite that progress continues. The chairlift – a 20 year old second hand one from Europe – arriving is an encouraging sign. Liepins is at pains to play down expectations, it still has to be installed and the runs cut and supplied with snowmaking etc, so watch this space.

The chairlift would, or will, depending on your outlook, offer 137m vertical and an intermediate level run or runs from 600m – 1000m or so long. Which would definitely up the ante and make Corin a very viable first timer/family option for locals and visitors alike. Canberra has a lot to see and do these days, and being just a 3 hour freeway drive from Sydney would actually be a potential day trip even, and certainly an easy stay one night, ski and do something else option.

Corin has had some limited support from the ACT government. Hopefully they will get more as a very handy tourist attraction.

Having a good road going right past was always an advantage. It was built to access the Corin Dam site 20km past Corin Forest.

This is a nice drive and from the dam wall you get a magnificent view straight up at Mt Bimberi, the ACT’s highest peak at 1911m.

Driving to Corin watch out for the local kangaroos and swamp wallabies on the road, especially on the last windy section up past Gibralter Falls. For anyone doing a half day ski session stopping at the falls and a visit to the dam are easy to fit in as well, especially in late August/September.

The alpine slide and whole environment are a nice cool change in summer. Check times and book sessions etc on the website link here.

1995 feature on Corin Forest Canberra
True in 1995, still true today .. © TROVE / Canberra Times / Owain Price