Winter! Best time of the year. A bit of resort is fun. Weekend backcountry trips are great. But winter is not winter without at least one big outing. Here’s my shortlist of the best winter backcountry touring trips in the country.
If I had a spare month, a good snow-base, and a bit of good weather, here’s my must do BC list:
The Western slopes of the Main Range in the Snowy Mountains (NSW)
To really appreciate the incredible slopes along the western side of the Snowies, you need at least a couple of days. Ski in from Dead Horse Gap, Thredbo, the Skitube/ Perisher, Guthega resort or Guthega Pondage and treat yourself to the biggest alpine terrain in the country.
There is a huge mix of terrain, from the moderate to the desperate: gullies, chutes, cliffs, broad spurs, with the grandest section stretching along the range between Abbott Peak and Watsons Crags. There are more mellow slopes on the ‘inside’ of the range – from the top of the range back towards the east (towards the ski resorts) which make a great alternative or warm up.
This is wild and windswept country, and hard to escape from when blizzards come in. Dig your camp in, and consider taking your human waste out with you. Don’t camp in the catchments of the glacial lakes. You can get avalanches on some slopes. Be prepared for extreme winds, and all snow conditions, from sheet ice to dry powder, and have an awesome time. Be aware that there are many bluffs and small cliffs and serious possibility of sustained ice sections.
Check the Huck & Dyno website for this great introduction to what’s out there. And the SkiWiki for some ideas on routes in. Wilderness Sports in Jindabyne is a wealth of local knowledge. There are a number of guiding companies that offer tours and avalanche training.
Recommended time: minimum of 4 days to enjoy time on the slopes, from the trailhead/ resort. Five or six days gives you greater safety margin to ski/ride the western slopes in the right condition.
Mt Howitt (VIC)
Mt Howitt sits at the head of the Howqua, Macalister and Wonnangatta valleys in the Central VIC Alps. In winter it feels incredibly remote, even as you look across the valley to the lights of Mt Buller resort. It’s hard to get to, with the three key approaches (from Bluff hut via the Howqua in the west, Lake Cobbler to the north, or through Licola to the south) all taking several days. Climbing up and over The Bluff – rather than approaching stright from Bluff Hut – takes an extra day but adds a great ‘alpine’ dimension to the trip.
Highlights include untracked terrain, long touring on the approach, quiet snow gum forests, and The Crosscut Saw – the most impressive ridgeline in the state (OK, its probably a contest between the Crosscut and The Razorback). Vallejo Gantner Hut – a stylish A Frame – at Macalister Springs makes a wonderful base.
There are big slopes to ski or ride, and the snow gum meadows south of the hut towards Howitt Plains are incredibly beautiful. Be aware that the Crosscut Saw is dangerous and icy more than it is skiable and a rescue would be complex. Carry safety and avalanche gear if you venture out onto any of the big slopes.
There is a brief guide available here.
Check here for the Mountain Sports Collective snow assessment for the Howitt area.
Recommended time: from the trailhead allow at least six days. Most approaches will take two days to get to Mac Springs, which is the logical base. Be aware that the three approach roads are not patrolled in winter so taking a chainsaw with you is a very good idea.
The Ducane Traverse (TAS)
In solid snow conditions, I still think this is the most incredible mountain trip in the country. Its located at the southern end of the Overland Track, and requires either a day and a half walk to get to the start (or a ferry hire on Lake St Clair and half day walk up the Overland).
Once you leave the Overland Track at Ducane Gap, it’s a two to three day traverse along a high rocky ridge over Mt Massif that connects to the Ducane Range. Thick rainforest and scrub and boulderfields can slow you down on the initial climb, but once you’re onto Falling Mountain/ Castle Crag, you then have the most incredible alpine terrain until you descend into the Pool of Memories in The Labyrinth. There can be dangerous conditions in the boulderfields – especially before the climb up Mt Massif where the boulders are very large. Clambering through here with heavy pack and skis is *very* hard work – and there is an exposed climb from Big Gun Pass to the Ducane Range. Snowshoes would be the best option for the crossing rather than skis/ splitboard (and easier for the sections through the trees).
If conditions allow it, a side trip to Mt Geryon will give you one of the best alpine experiences in Australia.
It’s mind blowingly good. There is a brief guide to the trip available here.
Recommended time: do it when there is a good snow base. From Lake St Clair (Cynthia Bay tourist area) allow at least six days for the round trip.
Yes. There’s heaps of great country for longer winter exploring and touring that also offer great downhill runs, as well as some that are just epic in winter. Some obvious ones:
- Any remote range in Tassie once it snows (mostly just epic rather than having skiing, although you can get lucky!). Get the map out and look for substantial areas above 1,500 m asl for the best touring spots, eg Ben Lomond plateau in the north east, Mt Rufus near Lake St Clair/ Leeawuleena, and the Lake Mackenzie area on the Central Plateau.
- The Cobberas area in eastern VIC. Remote area with amazing views of both the VIC Alps and Snowy Mountains.
- The Kiandra to Kosciusko traverse. A 130 km, 10 day trip. Often involves a fair bit of walking, and creek crossings.
- Mt Jagungal in the northern Snowies. I like the approach from Guthega dam the best, up the Munyang Valley, there are a couple wonderful days of touring before you get to the mountain.
- The Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) – or at least sections of it. A good option is to catch the snow bus to Hotham and ski/ walk along the AAWT to the Bogong High Plains, then either ski into Falls Creek (a nice 2 day trip) and get the bus back to Melbourne, or continue on and climb then descend Mt Bogong. Book a taxi from Mt Beauty or Snow Dog Transport and get them to meet you at the Mountain Creek campsite, just a few Ks from town. Allow 4 or 5 days for this one. Longer if you want to experience the big runs on Bogong. Get inspired by this winter traverse of the AAWT from Mark Oates.
- Mt MacDonald and Mt Clear, VIC Alps. Seriously remote alpine country south of The Bluff. The area has less hut infrastructure than the Bluff to Howitt trip. Access is limited by seasonal road closure. I would recommend driving in via the Howqua River to the track below Bluff hut, then access via Mt Lovick, heading towards Mt Howitt, then south to Mt Clear.
- Mt Bogong and Feathertop (of course).
- The Overland Track in Lutruwita/ TAS (take snow shoes and climb the side peaks where you can).
There’s lots of info about BC areas on the ski wiki.
Long trips are good for the body, the mind and the spirit. Hope you can get at least one in this winter.