Feathertop is hands down the most spectacular alpine peak in Victoria, part of the ‘could be anywhere awesome’ backdrop to Mt Hotham, aka Australia’s Powder Capital. So it’s no surprise it delivers plenty of the best back country lines in Victoria, and Australia.
Shaun Mittwollen set out to smash the best of them for Snow Action last winter, with Hotham’s resident poster guy Drew Jolowicz and a tight crew of mates from previous J-land and Tassie missions (like the Cradle Mountain Couloir Crazy feature).
For such an arid, flat continent Australia still has quite a few peaks that impress by international standards. Mt Feathertop is one such contender. Its towering bulk dominates the distant skyline at Hotham, casting a shadow over green paddocks and quaint rural towns.
A formidable mountain that has claimed many lives. Its not just the obvious avalanche hazard that’s intimidating but the risk of losing an edge and sliding top to bottom in icy conditions is considerable.
A menacing cornice hangs over Feathertop’s entire South Face for most of the winter, creating an overhead hazard and troublesome entry points. But the South Face is also one of the best faces for steep skiing in Australia. And so, excellent risk management is a constant necessity here.
The South Face at Feathertop has it all. Wide-open bowls, steep narrow chutes, big cliffs and technical ridge top skiing amid complex terrain. Standing atop the peak and peering over the edge the sheer height becomes apparent. It’s a long long way to the bottom. Steep, distant and vertigo-inducing, 600m vertical to be precise.
To access this steep skiing mecca we chose the beautiful Razorback Ridgeline, intending to hit some of the South Face over three days from an established campsite. In the crew was Ben from Tassie, Josh and Jana who were friends from Japan along with Drew, the poster skier for Hotham resort and myself.
The weather forecast was ideal. Clear, no wind and the predictions were calling a perfect freezing level for hitting the south faces, 2500m. Just enough to soften what could potentially be an ice climbing route. With heavy packs and fierce sun we made a leisurely pace along the visually stunning ridge. On the left, expansive views towards the foothills, and to the right huge open bowls of the Twin Knobs tempted us for a line. But we had our eyes on the prize and after the long traverse we reached the summit in perfectly blue windless conditions.
The outlook was just so fantastic we decided on setting our tents directly on the east summit (well back from the small cornice) and afterwards there was just enough time for one sunset line off the open North Face.
Drew skied right out to the far shoulder, while Ben and I dropped in from camp. Drew’s line was worth the effort, at least for the photos, as he carved wide flowing turns in epic light right down to where the face rolls out of view.
Dropping into the North Face at sunset was an unreal experience. With the top half of the peak illuminated by the setting sun and the lower half in dusky blue light, passing through this sharp transition at speed is akin to diving in cold water. A warm and inviting world quickly becomes cool and unforgiving. The snow crusts over in the dusk and the turns suddenly becoming harder.
Arriving back at camp after dark Josh and Jana presented the drink of choice, whisky, which they had generously hauled in their hefty packs. What an epic way to round out a huge first day, chilling with drinks and dinner at our makeshift ‘summit lodge’ with good friends.
A new day and enough caffeine to drive a small car catapults me and Ben on a down climbing adventure, exploring along the central ridge. Crampons on and ice axes in hand we tentatively peer over ridgelines checking gullies far below. Does this one go?
Each blind roll looks like cliffs, but maybe there’s a way around. At last we think we can piece together a very steep and techy line on the Headwall directly below camp and we climb back up the ridge to test our hypothesis. Stories of people exiting feathertop inside body bags in the back of our minds, it was downright scary stepping into the skis.
Dropping in, the line tucks through a mellow chute until it bends away over a steep cascade. The snow inspires confidence in its softness and we cut hard right to avoid probable cliffs below onto an open shoulder. Here the snow did not inspire confidence – hot and sun affected. No place to be around in consequential terrain. I didn’t like it and neither did Ben. We cut our line short only 100m in and bail back to the safety of the ridge. Good call.
Back at camp and the group is stirring for the marquee line, Avalanche Gully.
Avy Gully is a spectacular ravine that falls directly from the Feathertop summit some 600 vertical meters right the way to the valley in one long fall line. Widening into huge snowfields and then pulling back in again into tight pinches, it’s one of the best backcountry lines in Australia. The line has numerous possible entries and we each pick out our priorities. Drew and I go for a dead straight chasm skier’s right from the peak.
Fixing skis at camp we slide along the summit ridge hooking left down into the chasm. The walls are steep-sided with a narrow flat base and truly superb snow enhanced by the backlight casting shadows with each spray. The chasm runs for about 100m before we enter a huge field where the rest of our group is waiting.
Cutting left to follow the central ridge the line continues into another narrow chasm, likely a summer waterfall. This is the main pinch in the route seen from afar, but the snow is excellent so confidence is high. For all my photography duties during the trip, I’m given the honours of first to drop and enter the narrow pinch as its rolls over out of view entombed in the rock. On the runout an avalanche fan projects out into a long creek basin that stretches downwards and around a corner.
As the rest of the group meets me at the bottom we decided to call it the best line of the season. 10/10 for fun. There’s always a time and a place for seriousness in the mountains, but this time there was nothing more fun than ticking off such a significant Australian line with a big group of friends and a light-hearted approach.
Check out some more of Shaun Mittwollen’s features on destinations as diverse as Tasmania – the club field of Mt Mawson with rope tows near Hobart and commercial Ben Lomond with pomas and at-bar (luxury!) near Launceston, Cradle Mountain’s couloirs – and Japan, like the Myoko Grand Traverse.