Like flip flops to an eskimo, snowboards and Australia aren’t generally known for going very well together. Deciding to go splitboarding in Perisher Valley’s backcountry to some may seem like a pretty silly idea.
Oh, how wrong those naysayers would be.
Little did we know, the southern hemisphere’s weather systems had aligned in such a way to create a ‘perfect storm’; the heavens had blanketed the Snowy Mountains with a biblical amount of powder – we’d chosen to head on a 3-day camping adventure with the fruitiest conditions the country had experienced in 8 years.
As the four of us drove to Cooma after work on Thursday, the sense of excitement in our car was palatable. After the obligatory dirty Macca’s recharge on route, we found ourselves in Rhythm Sports quicker than you could say ski plough.
As Charlie’s Chocolate Factory is to anyone with a sweet tooth, this snow sports emporium equips all manner of mountain enthusiasts with everything required for an amazing experience in the Snowies. It’s open 24/7 and given the record conditions it was absolutely humming. Their Oompa Loompas were extremely helpful in sorting us out with our rental gear, the occasional break out into song really adding to the whole shopping experience.
After a few restless hours sleep in a little cabin in Cooma Tourist Park, we wound our way through Kosciuszko National Park to Guthega, gaining altitude as we neared the end of the road and start of the trail. As the saliva rolled down his chin, Nathan – our resident Welshman and Perisher regular – pointed out that he’d never seen snow at such low altitude before. Thus, the mood in the car went from excitement to all-out pandemonium.
We arrived in Guthega and unpacked everything from the car. It then fully dawned on us that none of us knew how to splitboard. YouTube videos would surely be sufficient training?
Splitboarding is essentially a snowboard that can split into two skis that you apply a climbing skin to, allowing riders to explore the deepest backcountry and climb mountains using the tele-marking ski set up, and then descend on a snowboard.
After faffing around like a gaggle of grannies on route to a bingo night (a common theme for the rest of the weekend) we were eventually on the move, attempting to find some form of technique in our questionable cross country style.
We were looking for the Illawong Track which begins at Guthega’s little ski resort and were semi-lost within 20 minutes. Standing next to a busy chair lift with 30kg backpacks with compass and map in hand, we asked for the assistance of a resort worker who eye’d us up worryingly:
“I’m not going to have to send a chopper out to get your fellas this weekend am I?”
Like the new kid at school with all the gear and no idea, I think he’d caught wind that that our preparation may not equal our abilities.
We eventually found the track, our progress rivalling that of drunk turtles. As we weaved our way through snow sunken gum trees, the whitened vista that surrounded us was nothing shy of magnificent – could this really be Australia!? We plodded on through forests, across mountains and over frozen rivers. We experimented with various styles and soon started to find our feet.
The few people that we crossed along the track had these faces of raw excitement; ear to ear smiles that seemed if anything slightly possessed. Most were backcountry regulars and each one of them commented on how they’d never see such incredible conditions before.
With light fading, it soon became time to create our temporary homes for the night. We secured a protected area behind a verge surrounded by trees, and using our shovels dug with all the ferocity of young boys in search of treasure in the garden. We pitched two tents in the newly formed meteor crater just in time to see the sun disappear behind the mountain and for the twilight hues to put on a show.
Temperatures dropped to around -5 in the evening so the challenge was keeping warm. We hung out in our newly formed dining and entertaining area (we’d got carried away with the digging), wolfed down our dehydrated meals and as the snow began to fall, decided to hit the hay.
Despite syphoning as much out of my bladder as possible before calling it a night – both Ross and I woke in the at 3am in desperate need of a slash. Having foolishly not embraced the pee bottle, it was a case of heading out into the wilderness, but rather than spending 15 minutes putting all our clothes back on we decided to dart out barefooted in our long johns and get it over with as quickly as possible. It was a deeply unpleasant experience and one I wouldn’t recommend in a hurry!
Our morning vista was absolutely spectacular. Not a living soul in sight. We boiled more snow and prepared our day packs for the hike to Little Twynam, a 2,195m peak of the Great Dividing Range. The skiing techniques we’d experimented with the day before had certainly helped, and we skirted more confidently across steep ridges, over peaks and up further into the sky. Some 5 hours later we reached our summit.
Like any great descent, it has to be earned. The time it took to come back down to camp was a fraction of the time it took to ascend, but worth every nanosecond of pow carving descent.
With a few hours of the afternoon to play with, we decided it was time to use our shovels again so built a kicker on the nearest hill to our weekend abodes, and spend the rest of the day riding the find line between thrills and broken bones. Thankfully our safety beacon didn’t come out of it’s pouch.
Snow fell from burning skies as we prepared for another night of camping in the cold. Boiling snow to stay hydrated was our constant challenge – it’s amazing how easy it is to forget how much your body craves water after a day hiking up 2,000m+ mountains in mid winter.
Temperatures dropped to a rather punchy -10 on the second night, but the veil of stars above somehow warmed our souls. Whiskey was the only thing not to freeze, and we drank a bellyful, both out of celebration for what had been one of the best days of our lives, but more importantly to help anaesthetise us for the night ahead.