Pandemic Piste: A Ski Down Buller Access Road

Lockdown 2020 pretty much shut down Victorian ski resorts, but every cloud has a silver lining – local identity Rob Aivatoglou from George’s Ski Hire and a couple of mates got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to convert the Buller access road into an 11km ski run one snowy night last August..

Normally even if it is dumping overnight there is traffic on the road, and the snow clearing crews get stuck in early to keep access clear for the normal hordes of skiers heading up daily.

But not during August lockdown. With no lifts running locals with the skills and gear had been skinning or snowshoeing up to get some lines in, especially whenever it snowed.

So Rob, Teddy Laycock and Toby Fleming were ready for a challenge.

Skiing down the Mt Buller access road at night
Stick to the speed limit lads .. © Rob Aivatoglou

Did you have a plan, or was it a last minute thing?

It was forecast to snow about 25 – 30cm and they were talking about snowing down to 1100m, maybe 1000m. So we saw the forecast and we were all up here, the resort was closed, and were looking for activities basically.

So in the night when we went to bed we said, look if it snows, let’s meet at the clock tower at 5:30 in the morning. And let’s see how far we can get down the road. We wanted to ski it prior to the Resort Management board clearing the road with their graders etc.

That was next question, even with COVID they must of had to still do that, so they were only doing it quite late in the morning?

Correct. There wasn’t the urgency that there normally would be clearing the road. so we were conscious of doing that.

But it was all on the basis that the snow that was forecast arrived. And it did.

About 5:15 we all started communicating on WhatsApp, looking out the bedroom window debating how much snow had actually fallen. Then Toby fleming rocked up at the clock tower and called me to say, ‘Well, I’m here ..’

A couple of head torches doesn’t exactly equal night skiing under lights .. © Rob Aivatoglou

That’s crazy. So there was a pretty decent cover over the road?

Yes, I don’t think as much as forecast fell. I think it was closer to 15cm. 15 – 20cm.

But enough, so you just took off down the road?

Yes. We had head torches, and our skins, we were all on touring gear.

The most exciting bit of skiing the road is actually the first bit, because it’s the steepest section. Down to Tip Corner and Hell Corner.

Does that compare to like blue run gradient so you can a bit of speed up?

Yes. We ended up getting all the way down to White Bridge, which i think is 10 or 11km off the top of my head.

Not too shabby. What about the vertical?

The Village is about 1450m, and we finished it quite early. But it kept snowing. So if we’d gone a bit later maybe we would have been able to get a bit further.

Maybe. But you just turned around and skinned back up?

Yes, we got down there and it was starting to get light. So put our skins on and headed back up. We chatted to a couple of cars that were coming through. There were still some people working up here who had to drive up.

But you couldn’t hitch a lift, because that would have contravened COVID restrictions right?

(laughs) Probably true. We just had a chat to them. We were happy to skin back up, it took us about 2 hours.

You’ve lived on Buller practically all your life, can you remember anyone ever skiing down the road over the years?

I went to school up here in the early 70s. No, I can’t really remember anyone doing it. I guess somebody must have.

Normally there must be traffic though. A snowplough in the middle of the night would clean you up.

Typically the graders will clear the road by around 5:30 in the morning. So yes, you’d have to do it super early. I guess just circumstance gave us the opportunity really. That’s the reason we decided to do it. We knew it’s something we could never do in a normal season. Either due to work, or the grader going through really early.

The stars aligned and we took the opportunity to do something different.

Top of Grimus lift – no lifts turning, no people © Rob Aivatoglou

Looking at your feed all winter you were getting out skinning getting some good fresh lines in.

Yes we actually got some pretty good turns in. There weren’t that many decent snowfalls. But we got a couple of memorable days that were really fun around Cow Camp, up at Mclaughlins Shoulder, even Slalom gully.

It was unique. I can still recall one Saturday in August on our skins walking up Bourke Street at 9 o’clock with nobody around.

That’s amazing. Hopefully it won’t happen again.

I reckon last winter I was skiing more days combined than I have in the previous 5 or 10 years with no work to do.

And you got all the powder days!

Hey, I’m not going to say there were a lot of them. But I got whatever there was.

Well, there’s never a lot, let’s face it.

Easy. Easy..

But then normally there’s competition when they do happen so bang, it doesn’t last long.

Yes, I mean we had some great days down Wood Run, even Bull Run, Chamoix, we just looked for somewhere different.

I think I went across to Stirling 7 or 8 days, we had some great days over there. We were always looking for something to keep us busy.

Another pandemic pow day at Buller 2020 © Rob Aivatoglou

On balance though, Rob will take getting back to a normal life at Buller over another crazy season like 2020, road runner or not.