Regular readers of aussieskier.com will know that my skiing is gradually evolving towards the backcountry and human powered turns. There is no better example of why this is becoming the case as when Nicole and I were loading the Bull Run chair on Sunday, and after sitting down while bending over to undo our buckles we were being screamed at by the lifties to put down the safety bar, as if we were facing certain death if we put it down 50m from the station rather than 20m. Wonder what they think of Alta where there are no ‘safety’ bars.
Our recent love affair with Europe probably has something to do with this too. Over there ropes & signs are suggestions rather than rules, and in most cases you are left to your own devices. Personal responsibility over nanny state madness.
If you want freedom, you have to go outside the boundaries, and with that in mind I was thrilled to receive a call from my friend & former Buller Ski School colleague Micky who was planning a trip to Feathertop with his brother George and another Buller instructor Alex. I accepted immediately and then found out that the timing was perfect coinciding with an avalanche course that I had pre-planned to attend the following weekend. I did worry a little that my extra years & lack of fitness over the guys may be a hindrance, but I also had more experience and banked on that getting me through.
The plan was to ski Buller for the weekend, head to Harrietville to camp on Sunday night, traverse the Razorback to Federation Hut on Monday, ascend Feathertop & ski some lines on Tuesday, ski some more on Wednesday morning and then descend to Harrietville on Wednesday. For a number of reasons we didn’t 100% achieve our goals but we had an extremely worthwhile trip, learned a huge amount, and will return in the future better prepared.
Ford Australia were kind enough to supply a 4×4 Ranger Wildtrak for the trip (I will comprehensively review the car next week, keep an eye out) which I picked up on the way to Buller at their Campbellfield HQ:
After the weekend we drove from Buller to Harrietville to camp on Sunday night before heading up the mountain:
We parked at the Diamantina hut which is the starting point for trips on the Razorback:
In hindsight we left too late in the day, which is probably a common issue for many hiking/BC treks:
The Razorback was a new experience for me due to its undulating nature. Most of the touring I have done has been a long climb up a substantial hill, with a long return ski afterwards. So I was most unused to skiing downhill with skins on, with a free heel & also a heavy pack. It’s not that easy, especially in the heavily treed descents in the middle third of the Razorback.
This was compounded in George’s case by using Trekkers which further reduce control on the downhill. This led to a couple of stacks and a bit of an injury scare. Alex had a similar boot size to George & was kind enough to swap equipment for a while to make things a little easier on him.
It soon became apparent that due to our late start and slightly slow progress that we were going to run out of light. As nobody had done the route before, attempting it in the dark was not an option. Fortunately only 100m before the point where we decided to stop we had passed through a nice hollow that was a great protected campsite. So we dug in a sheltered platform for our tents, stomped it flat with skis, set up camp & got cooking. It got very cold very quickly once the sun set, and we were all very content with the decision we had made. We had mobile reception so I emailed our GPS co-ordinates to Nicole and another friend based at Hotham ‘just in case’.
By & large we were warm enough through the night, at this point I need to profusely thank ski.com.au forum members ‘mr’ & ‘Bogong’ for lending me (amongst other things) a Downmat and extremely warm sleeping bag. Due to the day’s efforts & my warm cocoon I got 10 great hours of sleep, and woke up well rested though sore in a few spots.
The morning was chilly & windy with high cloud. Alex decided that he didn’t really want to continue lugging the goon bag he had brought along, somehow his taste for Yalumba Dry Red had diminished so he left his mark at the campsite. And owes me $11. As it turned out the Vic Police Search & Rescue team were camped about 1km behind us and were wondering if it was a murder scene when it came through.
Our camp was 2km as the crow flies from Fed Hut but included a couple of tricky sections, including us taking a wrong turn and having to double back and then scramble up a steep face due to failed kick-turns. There was the usual sense of relief when we saw the hut in the distance and we finished the tour after about 2 hours walking.
Once we arrived at the hut first priority was lighting a fire & cooking up something warm – scroggin & frozen water didn’t really hit the spot for breakfast, and I learned that white chocolate is awesome when melted into porridge. So after some hot food & drinks & warming by the fire the call was made to go skiing. The hight cloud made Feathertop a non-option so we decided to explore the nearby hills. Micky & Alex headed out first, I still wasn’t so keen due to some rubbing issues in an unfortunate location, but they hailed me on the radio so I headed up to meet them.
We made some turns in the slopes nearby the hut – the snow was pretty crusty but we didn’t care – it was fast becoming apparent that this trip was more about the journey than the objective, and we all happily accepted this.
We made a call that night to stay inside the hut rather than set up camp. This is a bit of a no-no etiquette-wise but not that unusual – the main reason we did this was due to the exposed night out on the Razorback, so a warm hut seemed like the antidote for that. We had been warned about the friendly rodents, and it only took about 10 minutes after lights out for them to make their appearance. We startled the first one with our lights which looked like an Antechinus as opposed to a rat, and at that stage I decided not to stress about it. All our food was tied up in plastic bags hanging from the clothes hooks but we realised that our packs were leaning against the ledges and were effectively rodent-ladders.
I only had one close visitor, I had my clothes bag near my head, this wasn’t tied shut and one little friend must have been attracted by the wonderful aroma of my socks/jocks. To be honest I didn’t sleep as well as the night before, and in future unless in dire circumstances I would probably just use the hut for warmth/cooking and sleep in the tent.
We had received some communication from weather-watchers that the conditions on Wednesday were going to turn ugly, and that we should head down first thing, which we duly did. We skied about the first 1km down the Bungalow spur to Harrietville & walked the rest. Not long after we set off the rain set in, making us happy with our decision to get out of there.
Things got a little ugly for me at that stage. As well as the chafing issues I had been putting up with, I also found that my touring boots being half a size too small was far less than ideal. As these boots were three years old and I did 7 weeks in them overseas this year I never even dreamed that they would be an issue – I had so much other equipment that was an unknown so my boots never even crossed my mind. So needless to say walking 10km downhill with your toes crashing into the ends isn’t ideal. I was at a virtual crawl by the end and very happy to be at the cars.
About halfway down the Bungalow I was thinking how nice it would be to soak in an Onsen like we did after the big days in Japan, at which point I realised that there IS AN ONSEN IN DINNER PLAIN, where I would be heading. So once we sorted out our gear I said goodbye to Micky and Alex and George drove me back up to the Diamantina Hut & the Ranger.
We were a little miffed when we got back up the mountain and saw clear skies, feeling that perhaps we had left early for no reason and should have done a couple of runs first, but this feeling disappeared when I got out of the car and felt the high wind. I took the opportunity to take some nice scenic shots of our route, but at one stage was almost blown over by the wind. Not long after the weather came in and it began raining, further justifying our decision.
Once we reached the Ranger I noticed that I had been visited by a magic beer fairy, who had left a few stubbies in the tray. I was absolutely touched by this simple but wonderful gesture – I think I know who left them and I am particularly grateful.
I then made a beeline for the Dinner Plain Onsen to decontaminate & soak the weary muscles. It was sublime, but also quite surreal to think that a couple of hours earlier I was trudging down a rainy, muddy spur in quite a bit of pain, and only an hour or so later soaking in five star luxury. Under normal circumstances I would have a far different opinion on paying $45 to sit in a few warm pools, but after a long & arduous effort it was the perfect option.
I woke to extremely stiff muscles and rain on the roof on Thursday which made my decision not to ski pretty simple. However at the time of typing this report it is slowly turning to snow with 30cm in the forecast, so I think tomorrow could be a fun one. We will attend our Level 1 AST Avalanche Course over the weekend, ski Monday and return that night. Keep an eye out for the reports.
Overall we had a fantastic time. As a group we were generally quite inexperienced in both ski touring and snow camping, but we felt that even though we didn’t achieve what we set out to do, we never put ourselves in danger and did not make any dumb decisions in the face of poor weather/bad light etc.
What started out as a trip with skiing as the main objective quickly turned into a ski tour with a bit of skiing tacked on. But even if we were disappointed with this, it was only minor, as we all learned an enormous amount in the process which we will be able to put to use in further trips. We all left with the hunger to ski Feathertop ‘properly’ and also explore other areas such as Bogong and the NSW Main Range.
At this stage I must thank Ford Australia and Oakley Australia for supplying equipment for this trip, keep an eye on aussieskier.com for reviews in the coming weeks, also thanks to the ski.com.au Backcountry forum members, their advice has been invaluable, either directed towards me or their prior contributions which I fervently devoured. Also specifically to members ‘Bogong’ & ‘mr’ who were kind enough to lend me much of the camping gear I used for the trip.
It was extremely remiss of me to not mention this in the haste of producing this rather epic & time consuming report, but I would like to dedicate it to the memory of Dr Graeme Nelson, who passed away on Feathertop one year ago this week. Some quiet moments of reflection during the tour were made in his memory, as he was a large part of the inspiration for me to get out there. RIP.