After last year’s ‘Trip of Legends’ to Feathertop, we were determined to head back and do it properly. While last year’s trip was by no means a dismal failure, nor was it a raging success. But we learned an immense amount and were particularly keen on redeeming ourselves. Due to the poor stop-start nature of the season we weren’t even sure if we would get a chance this year, but mid-August laid down a series of snowfalls that weren’t (totally) rained away so we picked a week that looked like our best chance of good weather and good snow and went for it.
From our original cast we were missing George, but Micky, Alex & myself reported for duty and we were joined by newcomers Dave, Matt and Luke. This addition brought a wealth of experience to the group – Dave is a fully qualified snowboard instructor and guide in the Austrian system, while Matt and Luke are currently completing a degree in outdoor education. This meant all four skiers are APSI Level IV certified, Dave has more qualifications than hot breakfasts & Luke a new snowboard instructor. So collectively we had a group of 6 very strong skiers & riders with some excellent outdoor and guiding leadership skills.
Matt and Luke headed up the Bungalow Spur on Monday to Federation Hut while the rest of us travelled to Dinner Plain aiming for an early Tuesday departure. We must profusely thank Gina for her amazing hospitality at DP and ferrying our motley crew to Diamantina Hut at an ungodly hour.
Our first mistake last year was a late start – this was not to be repeated – we were on the move at about 7:40 am and made initial good pace. Due to good visibility and snow conditions we completed the first stages of the Razorback in great time, we were able to traverse many of the undulations which beat climbing up and the unsteady ski down the other side with free heels, skins on and heavy packs. But as we got further along the Razorback it became apparent that the northern aspects were melted out & bare, which meant that we had the worst combination of skinning up the hills but having to walk down the far sides carrying our skis. This became more & more character building as the day went on, and the final couple of peaks harder and harder. But our early start stood us in good stead and we made it to Federation Hut well before dark. So while it was an annoying and difficult walk we were still ahead of last year. Tick.
We made camp and met up with Matt and Luke who had been up on Feathertop skiing around, taking pictures and scoping lines. After last years party with the local rodents we decided that sleeping in a tent was a much better option, and with the mild weather we were comfortable and undisturbed. The hut is a great resource for cooking and hanging out in the evening and we soon became jealous of Matt and Luke’s outdoor culinary prowess. We were content enough with dehydrated meals but Matt has his own dehydrator and was cooking up a storm. The night was clear which meant the morning would be crunchy, so we decided an early start was not required and settled down for the night.
Wednesday morning dawned clear but windy and we geared up to climb the peak that had eluded us last year. From the hut it was a short skin, then a short walk, then another skin up the ridge. Due to the west face being melted out we were restricted to a sliver of snow near the cornice, that in places tested the grip of your skins. The splitboarders never bothered and walked all the way up, beating the skiers it must be noted.
The famous Feathertop Cornice was not its formidable self, but there was clear evidence of cracking and we steered well clear, skinning up on the very LHS edge of the snow as far back as we could
Once up on top of the summit we posed for the requisite photos, and in the full coverage of Hotham’s 4G I managed to fire off some Instagrams and FB updates before we headed to the goal of the day which was the NE Ridge.
We skied down from the summit to the North Peak and from there worked an area called the NE Ridge. Matt had taken photos the day before so we had good visibility of what was available, and due to the largely SE aspect of this zone the snow was excellent despite the warm weather.
We worked this zone well, finding some great chutes and open faces of corn, then skinning or booting up to the next set of lines, followed by a big skin up the ridge at the end.
It was a bit of a long slog back up to the Summit at the end of the day, and our altimeter watches were showing we hiked 1100m vert which is a respectable number, so after some more Summit sunset shots we made our way back down the ridge and to the hut.
It was a superb day skiing, firstly the sense of achievement by reaching the Summit, a feat we did not manage the previous year, and also the satisfaction of getting some great turns in a perfect zone. It was also a great opportunity to familiarise ourselves with the topography of Feathertop. Due to the lack of snow we were shoehorned into the S and E faces given the N and W had melted out, but despite this we were struck by two things:
The sheer amount of terrain on this mountain. It is amazing how much potential skiing there is here. You could spend weeks on end working through it. High and low altitude, through all points of the compass, there is an absolute wealth of skiable slopes.
This was however tempered by our second point: It’s bloody dangerous. With my mind very much occupied by the fatal fall of experienced Feathertop skier Dr Graeme Nelson just over 2 years earlier, it very much occurred to me that to ski Feathertop in all conditions would require the full complement of mountain skills that you would encounter on any non-glaciated alpine peak anywhere in the world. And given Australian’s reputation for putrid respect for these ideals while travelling overseas I am somewhat loath to glorify this peak given the potential for serious, serious accidents driven by poor weather & lack of experience.
Talk in the hut that night started to revolve around the gear and knowledge that you would require to be safe on Feathertop at all times and it’s pretty much the same gear that I would take out with me for a big day in the mountains in France, full Avalanche kit (beacon, shovel, probe), Ice Axe, Crampons, plus decent first aid plus warm gear to spend a night out given that if you’re in an accident, or your partner is, there aren’t choppers buzzing overhead like birds. So space blanket/bivvy bag, down jacket, warm hat, winter gloves etc etc. Outdoor stores around the country would have been rubbing their hands together after this conversation!
Thursday’s forecast was ordinary, but after hearing a few raindrops on the tent very early in the morning we woke to strong winds and high cloud. So not the best but certainly not the worst.
We headed up again, I was feeling pretty tired due to the previous days exertions so I was weighing up my options during the hour up to the summit. The guys chose a line which followed a ridgeline to the skier’s left of Hellfire Gully then dropping a chute into the gully proper. I had seen it on many aerial photos of Feathertop and it seemed a relatively safe way to get into the guts of Feathertop’s blue ribbon terrain. But on the summit I didn’t feel right. My legs were heavy and I was clearly tired, so I made the call that I didn’t want to either drop into a committing line, or commit to the slog out. So I walked a little down the ridge towards the North Peak and found a good vantage point to take some pics of the rest of the group, and after they dropped I headed back up and over the summit.
Halfway down the south side of the Summit Ridge I hit paydirt. I spied a beautiful, mellow bowl full of corn snow. Being on my own wasn’t overly ideal but I was in radio and phone contact with the team so I let them know my location and intentions and dropped in. It was just lovely. Long run, perfect corn snow, steep without being hair-raising, out of the wind and the visibility was perfect for my descent.
The skin out was a little tricky due to the soft snow, lots of kick turns up the gully, but before long I was back at the saddle which marked the start of the track back to Fed Hut. I sat there & ate my lunch extremely satisfied that I had made the right decision and enjoyed some lovely skiing.
I headed back to the hut and was sitting on the verandah just about to fire up my stove for a coffee when a walker arrived, I’m not quite sure what he was expecting as it was his first time at the hut, but I’m sure it wasn’t being offered a hot coffee on his arrival!!!
The crew returned at dusk from their adventures and we all shared stories and photos & had quite a jovial evening. The forecasted rain began to fall and we were resigned to trekking out in the morning. The snow melt around the hut in the 4 days we had been there was amazing, and we packed up our tents to begin the 9km walk down the Bungalow Spur. We had originally planned to walk back out along the Razorback but the snow melt quickly nixed this idea.
Micky and Alex had taken the opportunity to grow some quality moustaches, and instead of worrying about their safety, the only communications they got from their girlfriends was ultimatums to shave them off.
The under 30s set a cracking pace down the Bungalow while the over 30’s took a little longer. I was in absolute agony for this walk last year but again put the learnings to good use and prepared myself much better. I ended up with a bloodstained sock but it was much more dramatic than it actually felt, and I arrived in Harrietville tired but not broken. Until the next morning when I could not get out of bed.
We had a few beers at the pub and then went our separate ways, extremely happy with a successful trip and promises to explore farther and wider in the coming years.
Ski touring and backcountry skiing is becoming more and more a part of my repertoire, the most telling sign is that I didn’t feel one peep of pain from my troublesome right knee. It was great to have such an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and experienced group, I think each member brought a lot to the collective and we all benefited. I can’t wait to head out with these guys again.