Wild Tasmania skiing is something else, unknown to most islanders, never mind mainlanders or the rest of the world. It sits in the same latitude as New Zealand’s South Island and northern Chile & Argentina’s northern Patagonia, both far better known for great snow options. But when the stars align skiing Tasmania can be equally spectacular. Our man in Tassie, Shaun Mittwollen, has been working hard to bring back its spectacular secrets for the past couple of seasons – never easy when the low altitude and wild weather make conditions totally variable.
The 2017 season was one of the best, and taking advantage of the weather/snow windows Shaun bought back some amazing images and stories. Here he checks out Mt field and the Rodway Range.
Standing atop the summit block of Mt Field West, deep snow blankets the landscape, tendrils of the Aurora Australis undulate overhead. The cosmic towers of green pierce the blackened atmosphere like vertical lighthouse beams moving across an alpine horizon line. An auroral glow reflects on the snowy plateau illuminating the ski potential. Off to the West a short rocky couloir bisects tall dolerite towers. Eastwards and the flat plain slopes over into open bowls that drop off into the night. There was not a breath of wind. “Is this Tasmania or is this Norway?” I thought to myself.
Tasmania was experiencing the best snow year in two decades and conditions were primed for touring. It’s rare to get a lengthy break of weather in the relentless Tassie winter but on this occasion a slow moving high pressure was due to park itself over the island, promising three days of clarity and sun.
Another bonus that would satisfy an ever-increasing aurora hunting addiction, a strong index was forecast at the same time as the clear weather. Almost unheard of in the winter mountains. One thing was for sure, it was high time to get out and experience the best of the island’s backcountry terrain under some unique astronomical conditions.
The first ski objective for the trip was the Rodway Range. At the far end of Mt Mawson ski field this broad ridge line skirts northwards with steep drops either side and good skiing through open bowls and shorter rocky chutes.
Passing through stunted eucalypts, delicate alpine herb fields and chaotic frost shattered boulders the range is reached within an hour. Inspiring terrain of various difficulties flanks the landscape in all directions. Off to the right the opposing valley wall is cut by an impossibly narrow couloir, not two meters wide with a complex entry. Behind, the Rodway Range extends above. Smooth open slopes that are normally covered by huge boulders back up the recent snow depth measurements. The range flattens out at the base into a pristine sub alpine bench that is riddled with small tarns and lakes.
Choosing the most aesthetic bowl descending east off the range it’s time to make the first line of the trip. Ski tips hang in space above the entry below which a smooth open slope banks left before fading over a roll. Small playful rock drops adorn the slope. The snow looks like its in excellent condition and as I drop in this is quickly confirmed. Arcing small even turns the morning sun shines behind my back and each turn sends light dry snow into the air which casts a shadow in the peripherals. The playful sliding continues down towards the shore of a frozen lake surrounded by wrangled King Billy Pines. Trickles of the lake outlet are the only sounds but even that is muffled underneath the deep snow. Intense sunshine is focused in the amphitheatre, the day is warming and only a t-shirt is required for the quick skin back to the ridge top.
From the top of the Rodway range I head west, down towards the K Col that gaps the valley to Mt Field West. Here lies a tight, steep and usually icy couloir. One of the finest lines in the area, it is no more than four meters wide wall to wall that descends back towards a rocky escarpment, an apron eighty meters seemingly directly below. In normal seasons sharp rocks protrude near the entrance necessitating a technical air drop followed by immediate speed control. However the huge accumulations of 2017 had all but removed this obstacle. I click into the skis, at 118mm underfoot they aren’t ideal to be skiing on steep ice. The previous two attempts had failed miserably thanks to poor weather, ice and fear. Although Kelsey had been more successful, making an extremely sketchy descent on sheet ice that had me literally fearing for her life. Gingerly skiing towards the entrance the ground moves over a convex roll and I place a nervous turn. A hideous sound of scraping ice, little particles of snow tumble off down the chute. No way! I would not be skiing this today. Not without a change of undies.
Onwards to Mt Field West. Here the summit rises to lofty heights, some 1434m above sea level. On a clear day the view is stupendous. Just about every mountain in Southern Tasmania is visible rising above an impenetrable wilderness. So vast and encompassing the wild forests below that thoughts strike of Thylacines roaming undetected for almost a century.
A small distinctive peak rises slightly on the southern outskirts of a broad flat topped plateau, Mt Field West. Below the summit a tiny notch appears an almost perfect site for the tent, with just enough space to stand outside. I set my camp for a night under the meandering Aurora Australis. Southwards, afternoon shadows lengthen across the flat plain below as the sun reaches low on the horizon. Enough time for one last line off the eastern slopes.
Clicking into the skis I skate off soon reaching the edge. Below me an open bowl dives away, before coming to a halt on a slight bench and then continuing on out of view to the forest far below. The gnarly slopes of Naturalist Peak loom right side, not looking out of place in any pro freeride movie.
The day is late, I’m alone, and its now or never. Dropping into the open bowl following a slight ridgeline just touched by the last sun I slide into the true wilderness beyond.
So much competition for tracks in Tassie.