Out the back
Some people take the Falls Creek back-country tour for the adventure or the chance to mix it with an Olympian. Or you could go for the view.The first thing I notice when we drop into the snow gums is the silence. There is no icy scrape under foot, no wind in my beanie, no drone of cable-lifts. If only there were no one to hear me scream. Because the second thing I notice is that tight turns in the thigh-deep-stuff are nothing like on a groomed run – and I’m about to perform a yelping face-plough.
Under normal circumstances it would be embarrassing enough, but eating snow in front of Steve Lee, Australian ski legend, three-time Olympian and World Cup champion turned ski guide, is just plain ridiculous! Still, this is the highlight of my week. I’m 30 minutes into a half-day back-country tour at Falls Creek in the High Country. But if you’re picturing hours of sweaty push-sliding across flat snowy plains, you’re thinking cross-country skiing. Back country is the adventure of taking alpine (downhill) riding away from the groomed runs, the ski lifts and the crowds, and onto virgin snow and untamed slopes.
Unlike the other ski fields in Australia, Falls Creek is unique in having backcountry terrain within resort bounds. But you wouldn’t know it. What we’re skiing looks and feels like national park, and is actually the only off-piste in the country legally explorable by snowmobile. So it’s also the only place where you don’t have to ‘earn your turns’ with the between-ride slogs on foot usually associated with back-country touring.
When we pull away from the chairlifts at the get-go, Steve wisecracks that we’re still riding “the fastest quaddie in the resort”: a four-seat sled attached to a high-powered custom snowmobile.
One of the first stops is the 1842m summit of Mt McKay, where we linger, taking in a spectacular early-morning panorama. Amid the frost-dusted snow gums and protruding boulders, Steve points out the black diamond steeps and chutes where he takes his more advanced clients. Dan, a Sydney-based executive and snowboarder, admits that until the night before he’d thought back country and cross country were the same thing and so was almost turned off booking. I’d chuckle, but I’m too busy gazing at the Razorback Ridge, Mt Feathertop, the Kiewa Valley and Mt Bogong.
We’ve timed our visit perfectly. It’s the first week of Awesome August and the sun has just come out after three days of blizzard. As an intermediate skier, I’ve seen these peaks in winter several times before but never from this vantage and never this laden.
Breaking us from our reverie, Steve reminds us that “this tour is definitely not a ski lesson” before pointing his tips downhill and scraping over a few wind-blown patches of ice. “But stay within 5-10m either side of my tracks and you’ll be fine.” It’s sound advice.
Away from the tree runs, I start to get the feel for turning in powder and even take on a few (modest) jumps over a lip at Occy’s Delight, a natural bowl in the Rocky Knolls named after another former world champion, surfer Mark Occhilupo, whom Steve brought here during a previous winter. When we get to the bottom, we’re all on such a high looking back at our tracks that we can’t help high fiving. Then we climb onto the sled one last time, and it occurs to me that skiing would have to be the sport that most easily frees us from our physical limitations. You just point yourself downhill and within an instant you’re flying.
Of course, it doesn’t take long to be reminded of our limitations, as I discover in the tree run. But there’s an age-old principle on the slopes that flips the sentiment of embarrassment: if you’re not crashing, you’re not learning.
Unless you get out of your comfort zone and make mistakes – evidenced by the occasional face-plant – you won’t improve. It’s often spoken by old mountain hands to the rookies as a metaphor for life, so with that in mind I give myself a pat on the back after all.