High plains trail seekers

Dugald Jellie leaves resort life behind for the solitude and adventure of cross-country skiing in Victoria's wilderness.

From a knoll behind the hut, we ski on to an open plateau and have the place to ourselves. It feels good to be without packs. It's a last run for the day, making tracks across shallow contours to Mount Cope, where we traverse a spur until the whole of the range spreads before us.

Here we see the limits of the snow country. Vapour trails from Sydney-to-Melbourne dusk plane flights glisten above. We trace the mountains: the distant snow of Kosciuszko, Bogong's round shoulders, the runs of Hotham, the sharp flanks of Feathertop. We congratulate ourselves for being here, so high up, knowing tonight we'll be two men in a small tent sleeping among some of the best back-country skiing to be had, and it will all be ours in the morning.

"There's nothing really can touch skiing, is there?" wrote Ernest Hemingway in Cross Country Snow, his short story published in 1924 about male camaraderie, freedom and life changes brought by marriage and children. "The way it feels when you first drop off on a long run."

That is how it seemed as we planned this trip, old school friends on a Boys' Own adventure, looking for deep pockets of virgin snow. Our text message chain was a narrative of anticipation. Have leave pass at this end/Got gear out of storage last night/Need to source snow pegs/ Very excited/Do you have any port in liquor cabinet?/Yes - will bottle it up.

The idea is to set out from Falls Creek on touring skis with backpacks and provisions, into the wilds of the Bogong High Plains. We're keen to ski above the tree line in some of the country's purest cross-country terrain. We want to go beyond snow poles. Wear striped thermal underwear. In our private ways, we hope to be at one with the sky, the ice, the wind, the mountains, with a stick of salami, with ourselves.

"Possibilities on the plateau are almost endless," says Allan Marsland, 67, of Mount Beauty's fabled Birkebeiner Nordic Ski Club, and race director of next Saturday's Kangaroo Hoppet, the biggest cross-country ski event in Australia. "From Falls Creek you can do long loops on groomed trails, head off down the edge of the plateau, or go out the back into tiger country, skiing between huts."

We choose the latter, turning our backs on the crowds, and plot a route along the plateau's lip to Cope Hut, a curious footnote of ski history. Built in 1929 by the Public Works Department for the Ski Club of Victoria, it was the first tourist structure erected on the high plains. Australia's snow fields were developed between the wars, with state tourist bureaus spruiking newly opened hotels on Kosciuszko, Buffalo and Hotham. A rising middle class sought to get high off mountain air and annual frolics in the snow.

Our midweek jaunt follows this tradition; of individuality, freedom and picturesque travel on hired single-cambered skis. Before setting off we measure shared items and split the load: fuel stove (640 grams), pasta (402 grams), muesli (275 grams), cutlery (228 grams), candles (58 grams), coffee (55 grams), powdered milk (32 grams), sugar (25 grams). I learn the weight of a second pair of underpants (90 grams) and think it excessive. We each carry about 15 kilograms. Then add a good few drams of stiff liquor.

At Windy Corner at the upper end of Falls Creek, it seems counter-intuitive to leave behind snow bunnies and the resort's perfectly good chairlifts. But the two of us want to survive on a bag of scroggin (427 grams) and a tin of sardines (142 grams). And I need an excuse to wear a skivvy.

VICTORIA'S highest peak and the country's tallest massif, Mount Bogong, rises 1986 metres above the state's north-east river valleys. It's said to mean "big fella" in the Aboriginal language of the Murray River people. It's also the common name of a moth, Agrotis infusa, that migrates in spring from the flats of Queensland and western NSW to the Australian Alps. During the Sydney Olympics, one found the world's spotlight when it landed on opera singer Yvonne Kenny as she performed The Olympic Hymn, clinging to her breast like a native brooch.

Bogong lends its name to a high plain, separated geographically from the mountain by the Big River, steeped in the lore of mountain cattlemen and listed on old maps variously as Bugung and Boogon.

The moths invade its basalt outcrops each summer, and long ago prompted Aboriginal hunter-gatherers to make seasonal journeys to smoke them out, feasting on their fatty flesh, rich in protein.

Straddling the Great Dividing Range, the plains are the country's highest tableland south of Kosciuszko, veiled each winter in one of the nation's largest blankets of snow. "It's inspiring country, it gets into your blood, it becomes part of you," says Chris Derrick, a general manager at Falls Creek, and from a family with a long ski history in these parts.

His uncle, Charles Henry Derrick, a Wangaratta Ski Club stalwart, was caught in a blizzard in September 1965 while on a marathon solo ski tour from Mount Bogong to Mount Hotham and died in the snow. A memorial cairn on a ridge of Hotham marks the spot where he froze to death; across the valley on Swindlers Spur is Derrick Hut, built in 1967 in his honour.

A year earlier he had competed in the inaugural Paddy Pallin ski classic, a 50-kilometre cross-country race from Round Mountain to Perisher. The event ran for more than 25 years on the Kosciuszko plateau as the nation's premier ski endurance test.

These days Falls Creek holds the crown as the country's top cross-country skiing destination, home to the national squad and 65 kilometres of groomed Nordic trails, many leading to the Bogong High Plains. With the backing of the Birkebeiners (an Old Norse term that means, literally, "birch legs"), the resort hosts the annual Kangaroo Hoppet, a 42-kilometre race in a series of events that attract about 1000 competitors, including busloads this winter from Finland, Russia, the US and Norway.

"There's always been a judgment call about whether you're a cross-country skier, or a tourer, or a snow boarder, or a downhill skier," Derrick says. "But if you're up in the mountains and loving it, it's all the same. And events like the Hoppet give cross-country skiers their day in the sun."

We hire skis and poles from YMCA Ski Centre at Windy Corner, and shuffle to the bald mountain tops at the first crossing, the terraced wall of Rocky Valley Dam, then follow the snow-covered track to Omeo. The sky is blue, the air is dry. I'm glad to be rid of the resort's amplified music, the whine of Ski-Doos, the queues.

Serenity is disturbed only by the swoosh of young women and grey-beards gliding by in full-body Lycra. It's the Nordic fraternity, a mixed group of hardy types with barely an inch of flab among them, all skating by on four-centimetre-wide sticks in a rhythm of flailing arms and legs.

They make it look easy.

We struggle on with planks and packs, rising gradually from Rocky Valley, my thoughts consumed by a coming birthday, turning 42 - tipping me further beyond the median of life's halfway post. "It's all downhill from here," I tell my friend. "This time with experience," he says.

I see the future and it's white-haired men carrying water bladders and tubes. Or a grandfather in a pink terry-towelling hat towing his six-month-old grandson in a baby carrier on skis. Or the 73-year-old woman from Tawonga South who's doing a lap of the lake by herself. "Most women my age have trouble with their hips," she says. "But I'm still going."

Watchbed Creek is where we leave day-trippers behind. Most are heading up the Paralyzer towards Mount Nelse (1882 metres), where they turn to drop back down to Falls.

We head south instead, over the watershed, finding Langford West Aqueduct that diverts headwater snow melt into the 1940s-built Kiewa Hydroelectric Scheme, tracing it to Wallace Gap, where we rise into the snow gums and, under a fingernail moon, ski out into the heart of the Bogong High Plains.

At last we've arrived.

HIGH country folklore has it that Australia's first skiers were Norwegian miners who, in 1865, ventured out on fence palings from the goldfields of Kiandra in southern NSW. As the story goes, their exploits so inspired locals they stripped the town of its pickets to try this new sport.

But not until 1928, when the Australian Ski Yearbook foresaw "the snowy ranges in Victoria and the Kosciuszko-Kiandra section shall be dotted with hotels and villages nestling at the foot of every peak", did this outdoor craze take off. Telemark turns in woollen jodhpurs and plus fours became a midwinter social event.

Cross-country skiing, known also as Nordic or langlaufing (long-running), was de rigueur among the ski set until 1938, when NSW Railways engineers built a J-bar hoist (the "meat hook") to Pulpit Rock at Charlotte Pass, and all went downhill from there. The "Big Five" resorts progressively opened mechanical lifts - Bourke Street rope tow at Buller in 1949, Hyman's rope tow at Falls in 1951, Blue Ribbon nutcracker at Hotham in 1953, Village rope tow at Perisher in 1956, and the Crackenback nutcracker at Thredbo in 1957 - until, by the mid-1980s, each had quad chairs for the serious business.

But a stoic chorus of cross-country skiers each winter still slides along trails, far from the mega- resorts. "The Main Range at Kosciuszko is big and exposed and if you get into trouble there you're in an awful lot of trouble," says Ben Derrick, the twin brother of Chris and a former Australian cross-country champion. "The beauty of the Bogong High Plains is that you get that wilderness experience, but you can always drop down into trees."

This is what we do for lunch, heading into a copse of snow gums to find Wallaces Hut, built in 1889, the oldest mountain cattleman's hut in the Alpine National Park, and a romantic legacy of the bush architecture found in the high country. Original woollybutt shingles covered in sheet iron can be seen from inside its split-timber frame. Its chimney is sheathed partly in flattened Vacuum Oil kerosene tins. A sign says it's an emergency shelter only. It looks awfully draughty.

We push off for higher country, navigating through the Rocky Knobs to a gentle saddle that drops down to Cope Hut. We pitch a tent outside. My friend walks into the gully and fills water bottles from a sinkhole in the snow. I assemble the camp stove and brew two cups of coffee.

We get a fire going in the hut's potbelly stove. The sky darkens and stars brighten. We listen for the distant tinkle of running water, falling water. We cook dinner, read the log book and catalogue our hurt from a long day in the bindings. Sore shoulders. Tender groin. Blistered toes. Stiff ankles. A dull pain in every limb.

"I think I've buggered the nail on my left big toe," my friend says. I'm not surprised. I counted his seven falls for the day. Some at speed.

But the aches hardly matter. We're here, safe and warm, with a flask of liquor and a block of chocolate, and soon we'll climb inside a small tent on the land's frozen rooftop. It's a night we're not likely to forget. And tomorrow we'll touch the void, skiing under clear skies into back country that's all ours.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Falls Creek, on the edge of the Bogong High Plains in north-east Victoria, is a 4½-hour drive from Melbourne, 8 hours' drive (690 kilometres) from Sydney. The nearest airport is Albury, 120 kilometres north, serviced by Virgin Australia, Rex and QantasLink, with hire, bus or private transfer services available to the resort. All vehicles, including four-wheel-drives, being driven to Falls Creek in winter are required by law to carry snow chains.

Cross-country skiing there

Falls Creek Nordic Centre, operated by YMCA, is located at the top of the resort at the trail head of 65 kilometres of groomed cross-country trails. Full ski hire costs from $46 a day; reduced rates for multiple days. Adult group lessons cost $46, or $85 with full ski-hire package. All trails are free and there's no need to buy lift tickets. The centre also rents snowshoes, toboggans and clothing. Phone (03) 5758 3408; see fallscreek.com.au.

The annual Kangaroo Hoppet at Falls Creek is on August 25; see hoppet.com.au. For details of the Birkebeiner Nordic Ski Club see birkebeiner.org.au.

Back-country skiing

Trails to Wallaces Hut and Cope Hut are well marked with snow poles and are groomed in August and September. All resort facilities close at the end of September, but spring snow on south-facing slopes can usually be found on the High Plains until well into October. Use the 1:50,000 Bogong Alpine Area map sheet, produced by Spatial Vision and available at Mount Beauty.

Staying there

We spent a night at Falls Creek and were able to get a last-minute booking at the self-contained Kilimanjaro Apartments, well located in the village, see kilimanjaro.com.au. For overnight ski tours, there are many public huts (including Edmondson, Johnston's, Fitzgerald, Cope and Tawonga) in the Alpine National Park within a day's reach of Falls Creek. Parks Victoria stipulates all huts are emergency shelters only and, for safety, it's essential to carry a four-season tent, sleeping bag, snow pegs and fuel stove; see australianalps.environment.gov.au.

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