For most West Australians, ski touring, or cross country skiing is not something that would rank high in their list of things to do on holiday. The Australian Alps are not particularly high by any standard; Mt Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest mainland peak at 2228 metres would be regarded as a mere foothill compared to many other mountains throughout the world.
The Kosciuszko National Park, an area 160km long by 40km wide, is midway between Sydney and Melbourne, just south of Canberra. At higher levels the landscape varies from rolling plains to steep sided gorges which have been cut by many creeks and rivers which crisscross the park. The area is fairly open and ideal for cross country skiing in the winter months.
I was introduced to cross country skiing by my friend Gavan, who has made the trip across to the Snowy every August since 1996 to ski in this area and at the summit area around Mt Kosciuszko. “It’s just like bushwalking on skis,” he said, to provide some encouragement. That’s true up to a point; in fact it would be very difficult moving across deep snow if one were not on skis or snow shoes. Having said that, some skill and a reasonable level of fitness are required. This was my second trip to the Snowies with Gavan. I regard myself as a beginner to cross country skiing; I realise my limitations and I watch the more advanced skiers with envy. Of the other two on this trip, David had been once before, but Hanh had never seen snow before, let alone skied or hiked with a backpack.
Getting to the park involved flying to Canberra followed by a three hour bus trip to Jindabyne, where we stayed overnight, hired skis and boots and organised a taxi to get us to the Guthega power station at Munyang, which would be our starting point for the trip.
We planned to be out for six or seven days, skiing between the huts that are dotted throughout this part of the national park. They are maintained by the Kosciuszko Huts Association (KHA) and the NSW National Park Service. Many of the huts were originally built by cattlemen who grazed their sheep and cattle here during the summer months, a practice that has long since ceased. More huts were built by the Snowy Mountains Authority (SMA) during the construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. In some parts of the park there may be huts dating back to the gold rush period of the 1860s, although most of those have either burnt or fallen down.
The huts are very basic, a mixture of wood and corrugated iron, and usually have a kitchen area and a room with bunk beds. There is no running water or lighting. The huts are occupied on a first in basis which is why skiers must carry tents, and of course if you happen to be caught out in bad weather a tent is a necessity. On this trip we were fortunate enough to have a hut each night. All food provisions, clothing, sleeping bags, stoves and cooking utensils need to be carried for the entire trip.
Horse Camp Hut was our first overnight stop. It was built by the SMA and owes its name to the surveyors who kept their horses in the front paddock. There was good snow cover all the way from Munyang; we followed the Schlink Pass Track and were able to ski all the way to the hut, which is at 1700m. It’s a good overnight stop for novice ski tourists.
The room at the end of the hut has two sleeping platforms which accommodate four people comfortably. It also has a pot belly stove which keeps the room cosy. Horse Camp is only about six kilometers from the drop off point with an increase in altitude of about 300m, most of which occurs in the first two kilometers. On our first day we were carrying about 18kg in our packs, so Horse Camp seemed like a good stop over. The weather couldn’t have been better; sunny, blue sky, little or no wind and excellent snow cover. On our first night we had the hut to ourselves, apart from the resident rats. The rats were much better behaved compared to Bibbulmun Track rats; we heard them but didn’t see them and they left our food alone.
On day two the plan was to move onto White’s River Hut, which is only another four kilometers with a rise of 220m. We followed the undulating trail to White’s Hut over pristine untracked snow in perfect weather.
White’s is a corrugated iron hut originally built in 1935 by stockmen. Two years ago it was damaged by a hiker trying to light the stove with liquid fuel and major repairs were necessary. It is now a comfortable two-roomed hut with a pot belly stove. After lunch we were able to dump our packs and do some exploring in the area. There are many day trips that can be done from the huts carrying a day pack and this is a great opportunity to work on your skiing technique. Most of the snow gums in this area were burnt by bushfires in 2003 and regrowth is only just starting to occur. We shared our night in White’s Hut with six people, with another two camped outside.
The weather stayed fine for the next two days, enabling us to firstly go over the Schlink Pass at 1800m and take a lovely run down the valley to the Schlink Hilton hut. Built by the SMA the hut is named after Dr Bertie Schlink, a well known character from the early 1900s who organised the first ski crossing from Kiandra to Kosciuszko. Schlink hut is a substantial structure, having a couple of bunk rooms, a kitchen, table and chairs. It overlooks the valley of the Dicky Cooper Creek. Dicky Cooper Bogong (2003m) is on the other side of the creek and to the east is Mt Gungartan (2068m). Many day trips can be done from here, or a longer circular trip taking in Tin Hut, Mawson’s Hut and Valentine Hut.
On day four we elected to do a day trip to Valentine Hut and back. Valentine is a tiny hut built by the SMA and is painted bright red. It is perched above the gorge of the Valentine River. We had lunch there and skied back. Then the weather deteriorated and for the next two days we were restricted to the Schlink hut. Strong winds howled around and heavy snow made conditions blizzard-like.
Finally we were able to ski back to Horse Camp. It was still snowing and the weather remained bleak all the way back. Amazingly, soon after we reached Horse Camp the snow stopped and the sun reappeared. The following morning we skied back to Munyang, where our driver met us and took us back to Jindabyne for a well earned hot shower and meal.
The area where we had been is known as the Jagungal Wilderness Area and there are numerous variations of the trip we had just been on. Bushwalking in the area during summer and spring is also very popular but we have all got the skiing bug and would love to be back here next winter. As mentioned, the mountains here are not as high as those in other parts of the world but the scenery is just as spectacular in its own way.
In a hot climate country like Australia, this area really is unique!