Ski Cradle Mountain? Yes you can! The tourist’s favourite, and arguably Tassie’s most famous mountain offers some crazy steep couloirs. But you may just have to be a little crazy to have a shot at them. Never mind keen. Shaun Mittwollen has the downlow ..
Cradle Mountain’s Western Face is certainly impressive. Fingers of dolerite cut vertically a half kilometre into the humid southern atmosphere framed by glacial lakes and stands of Pencil Pine. Narrow couloirs fracture downwards towards the rolling open plains of the Cradle Plateau. But owing to huge scree boulders that line these couloirs, and intense westerly winds that rip snow from all exposed slopes, these chutes rarely fill in enough to ski. At least not without a good deal of patience, indifferent perseverance and luck.
But venture over to the lee side of the Skyline Ridge that bisects the range North-South and you are faced with a completely different story altogether. Here on the East Face snow accumulates with ease, as two huge bowls flank the peak before funneling down chutes, couloirs or cliffs. Given the altitude, often around 1500m, the snow is about as reliable as it comes down here.
But as so often on the Apple Isle the mountain really makes you work for it.
If you can handle innumerable weather days, fickle snow conditions and steep terrain this is the best accessible backcountry skiing in Tasmania.
Compared to other Tasmanian mountains, access to the Cradle Mountain East Face is simple, as long as the weather is discounted. In good conditions the peak can be attained in two to three hours of climbing and walking across easy, well-maintained trails. A short climb from Dove Lake leads to Marions Lookout, with the last section challenging under heavy snow.
From there the route traverses meandering meadows, usually skin-able, towards the base of the mountain proper, where the fun really begins.
Good route finding is required to pick the ascent trail through small cliff lines and boulder fields. As the West Face steepens towards the Skyline Ridge crampons and ice axes are necessary to gain the summit in usually hard snow, but the effort is rewarded once on top.
The Cradle Mountain ski view is especially grand looking northwards as the craggy dolerite spine transects the mountain like a dragon’s back. Not to mention the stoke from viewing the steep fluted eastern faces! An obvious bowl wraps through the aspects, forming an amphitheatre of open snow and dolerite columns, which follows the contours down to a broad bench before continuing down again out of view. Off in the background wilderness and snowy peaks stretch far into the distance. This is what we climb for!
Over the winter of 2019 Ben, a native Tasmanian masochist, and I made two attempts to ski Cradle Mountain, both successful. On our first attempt, we were joined by a New Zealand split boarder also called Ben. Ben had skied the eastern faces solo the year before and spoke of a long steep couloir off the eastern escarpment that ended in cliffs.
How big are the cliffs we wondered? Probably don’t want to fall. Hmmm, yeah right..
As we arrived into Dove Lake carpark we were greeted with that classic Southern Ocean breeze whipping snow across the freshly plowed road instilling the usual unmotivating thoughts. Why are we doing this again?
But we go anyway, making quick progress up to the fixed chains where waist-deep ‘Tassiepow’ slows the climb. Off to the right spines of fresh snow cling above cliffs towering above Crater Lake looking quintessentially Alaskan, at least as close as it gets downunder. As we cross the Plateau, passing stands of half-buried wind-battered pencil pines, the weather gradually improves with a bullying wind fading away.
That is until we start the ascent. Crampons and ice axes at the ready we climb upwards, following an ice gully towards the Skyline Ridge, clouds swirling with spindrift off the top. Soon enough we are back in the fog. Viewless but motivated, we then traverse onto the Eastern face contouring around to our objective. A thick coat of rime ice cakes the windward side of each boulder and without anyone reaching the summit ridge we were alone on our adventure. For all we knew we might as well have just topped out on an unexplored Antarctic peak.
Ben motions where to drop and he’s off, leaving me and Kiwi Ben perched on the ridge-top watching down into the hazy oblivion. As he reaches the snowy bench we hear a distant yew, quick to get on the radio calling good snow conditions.
I drop next, picking up speed, the wind whistling past my face. But in the flat light I am cautious. A few haphazard line choices led me to pause to assess unnecessarily – all in the part of exploring somewhere new. Considering the humid air the snow was quite good, flowing fast under the skis, and I soon joined Ben on the bench.
Out of the incessant wind it was almost peaceful. A calm change from the intensity of the ridge and we were surrounded on almost all sides by tall walls of snow. Further east the snow dips out of view and we slide over to investigate. This is the one! A classic couloir stretched downwards, hard to see from our perspective but rolling over a narrow crux then becoming entombed in the rock.
Ben traverses cautiously across the couloir’s mouth, testing the variable snow then turning down into the narrow crux, ice axe in hand. He continues down into the guts of the couloir. It wasn’t long before he was on the radio having reached the cliff line at the base where he had pulled off onto a narrow bench. Kiwi Ben was having second thoughts about an attempt, but I was very keen and left him above to ponder his decision.
I placed a few cautious turns above the crux testing the snow. It was firm and icy, becoming even more so as the steepness increased. It was obvious that the apex was a frozen waterfall with a very narrow concave pinch above the main couloir. Piecing my way through very cautiously only the tips and tails of my skis were engaged with the snow, leaving the middle unsupported in thin air. Thankfully I escape the jaws of the crux ready to reap the rewards.
An empty Tasmanian couloir, the ground falling steeply away towards the valley floor far below. Making flowing jump turns through the narrow rocky funnel was exhilarating. It was steep, technical and felt like any good couloir back in the Alps, crowds replaced by wilderness. Soon I reached Ben on the snowy bench completely stoked with the epic line we just skied. That was probably the best line we’ve ever skied in Tassie we both enthusiastically agreed.
Did we mention you have be to keen? © Shaun Mittwollen The Bens climbing into the West Face chute © Shaun Mittwollen
With more effort to get into it – a serious climb as you can see here – we found another tight shorter couloir line in Cradle Mountain’s West Face chute.
We made another overnight attempt to ski Cradle Mountain off the peak later that winter, scoring absurdly good weather and deep fresh snow, as seen at the top of this feature and here.
However, nervous about the stability, we didn’t enter the couloir, opting instead for a few lines skiing Cradle Mountain’s Eastern Bowl before the weather closed in and it was time to call it quits.
Combined with this we made two unsuccessful attempts on Mt Anne, a couple of day tours at Mt Field, and even had a novelty ski on Mt Wellington behind Hobart. It was a good winter down in Tassie, but come September it was time to head north and link up with a few friends at Hotham. Feathertop beckoned..
Tassie is not all wilderness skiing – there are actually two lift served areas, the club field of Mt Mawson with rope tows near Hobart and commercial Ben Lomond with pomas and at-bar (luxury!) near Launceston. Check Shaun’s lowdowns on both of them on the links.
Sketchy is as Tassie does, especially on the get outs © Shaun Mittwollen