Being lost in the Victorian backcountry with a broken ski binding and night closing in wasn’t exactly what Aidan and his mates had planned for their ski trip. But they did learn a few things along the way.
Every now and then, a trip outdoors really gets you questioning your taste in hobbies.
This is especially likely to happen in the wintertime – maybe when you’ve ventured outside the safe bounds of a ski resort and into the unknowns of the backcountry, in search of a far-flung wilderness hut.
And while your face is being battered by icy grit, and fatigue weighs on every stride, you might find yourself thinking about, say, home-brewing beer. Or scrapbooking. Or any number of hobbies that aren’t normally associated with sore shoulders, burning blisters and frozen feet.
Backcountry Skiing in Alpine National Park
Off the back of a generous dump of snow, as well as a few scraps of intel on choice huts to ski out to (provided by a supermarket employee in Harrietville), we were rearing to go.
We spent a few days resort-skiing in Hotham to bed in our snow legs and test out a few new bits of gear we’d picked up in off-season sales – second-hand sets of alpine touring bindings and skis.
Then, on a particularly misty and ominous morning, we set off.
From there we’d set up camp, explore the adjacent Mt Feathertop, and continue on further north to another few huts if conditions looked good.
Things Start to go Wrong
Progress was slow – we were hampered by the extremely low visibility and an unplanned side-trip down a gully to retrieve a rogue water bottle that slipped out of my pack.
By lunchtime, one of my companions had started to develop a very sizable blister. Shortly after, while traversing a steep incline (which forced sideways pressure on my binding where a screw was loose) my binding snapped.
Seven or so kilometres into our journey to Federation Hut, this was considerably less than ideal. It wasn’t a complete snap, but it was significant, such that I wasn’t able to keep the binding in touring mode (where the binding is free to pivot up and down, mimicking a walking motion) for fear that the whole component would break off.
So rather than risking this, which would render the ski pretty unusable and nudge the situation towards a proper crisis, I decided to jam the binding into downhill mode. This would make movement very inefficient, but still possible.
Crestfallen, with me dragging my left ski, we carried on.
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A Fork in the Snow
At this point, we reached a junction. We could attempt a steep uphill onto the ridgeline (option 1) – although with a heavy pack and broken binding, this would be difficult.
Alternatively, our topo map indicated a summer hiking trail dropping down to traverse the side of the ridgeline (option 2). From what we could see, the tree cover looked thick, but not unmanageable. Plus we noticed a set of snow-shoe tracks in that direction, which appeared relatively fresh.
With daylight getting away from us, we decided to take what seemed like the more conservative choice, and veered left. Probably a mistake, as it turns out.
Four hours later, it was starting to get dark. We’d quickly lost anything resembling a track as the tree cover grew increasingly thick, and we were now bush-bashing through thick snow and half-buried trees.
Branches were constantly catching on our skis and packs, and pulling us over. More than a dozen times I was forced to unclip my bindings and climb over large limbs and brambles, or turn around having reached an impassable section of bush. Our progress was maybe 100m every half hour.
The hut was still more than a kilometre away, the route forward was very unclear, and we were moving slowly. With night just around the corner, we donned our head torches.
Rest assured, we ended up okay. No one succumbed to the elements, or made an appearance on Nine News. But looking back on it, there were four stand-out things – admittedly not really that I did – but that I took away from the experience:
1. Stay Together
The trusty Scooby-Doo adage ‘let’s split up, gang!’ often isn’t a very good idea. In many cases, it’s a terrible idea.
At one stage in the late afternoon, we found ourselves charting different courses through the trees, each hoping to find a better path through the labyrinth of branches and trunks.
We were 8 or 9 hours into a big day of touring, and I was admittedly not thinking clearly. Charging ahead and finding a viable route for the group suddenly seemed like a good option when light was running out.
Having covered a good bit of ground, I turned around and called out to the others to follow my lead. But through the dense trees and steady wind, I didn’t hear any reply.
Suddenly I felt very alone, and retraced my steps. I eventually spotted my partners through a gap in the trees, although I was surprised how quickly the distance between us had stacked up. It easily could have been more. First lesson learnt.
2. Have a Chomp of Something
As pangs of concern kick in, the temptation grows to ignore your appetite, keep your head down and push on. At least, for me it does. But in reality, you burn a lot of calories outdoors, and your body needs fuel to keep functioning well.
If nothing else, this is also a problem because your stomach releases the hormone ghrelin when you’re hungry, which has been proven across a bunch of studies to negatively impact decision making and increase impulsive behaviours. Bad news.
So, once rejoined we took ten minutes, sat down on our packs and munched through muesli bars and handfuls of grated cheese. Not the most congruous flavour combination, but suddenly things did start to look less grim.
3. Keep Calm and Take Stock
Which brings me to my next point. It sounds obvious, but often it’s easy to overlook stopping, breathing and giving yourself a quick minute to assess.
Half-processed in my tired brain, our situation seemed kinda bad – lost at night, in the mountains, navigating our way through heavy snow and thick bush.
But in reality – conditions were starting to fine up, there was an almost full moon, we had plenty of food, gear and supplies, and we were okay (a few blisters and busted bindings aside).
Things could be a lot worse – consider the experience of former Olympian Eric Lemarque. In 2004, he endured a week lost in the sprawling Sierra Nevadas after getting disorientated returning from a day of off-piste snowboarding.
In his case, he was equipped with nothing but a dead mobile phone, an MP3 player and four pieces of chewing gum – not ideal.
So, reassured by a discussion on our relative preparedness, we carried on – each laboured step illuminated by our head torches, still burning brightly.
4. Have a Backup Plan (or at least a backup idea)
Lastly – backup plans. Even if it’s only partly conceived, or just involves remembering a space blanket buried at the bottom of your pack, it always pays to have something up the old GoreTex-lined sleeve.
In our case, having successfully built and camped in an igloo the year before, we had a bit of experience building improvised snow shelters. Igloos were also how the above-mentioned Eric Lemarque had survived his week in the backcountry, subsisting on a diet of pine needles and bark. Yum.
If igloo-making isn’t your thing, a snow pit lined with space blankets then covered with a wind-resistant layer of skis and bags would also have done the job. Or a snow cave dug into the side of the mountain if we were feeling particularly industrious.
We also had a small backup tent we could have crammed ourselves into if worst came to worse. Not quite luxury chalets, but we’d have been fine.
Finally, Federation Hut
As it turns out, no shelter construction was required. After another few hours, the trees around us started to thin.
Sore, scraped, and still dragging along my broken binding, we reached a clearing and spotted a dim light on the side of a nearby mountain. Federation Hut, where two other skiers were lodging for the night.
By 10.00pm we were inside, rolling out our sleeping bags, brewing hot soup and scoffing salami.
Things hadn’t quite gone our way, but I set to work using a very crude improvised fibreglass (alternating layers of super glue and Gore-tex patches) as a repair for my binding.
The following day was forecast to be fine, and there was plenty more terrain to cover. The embers in the old tin fireplace were still glowing warmly.