Australia – The Best Mountains In The World Are Right Here

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“We ski 600 metres of consistent steep vertical in a single pitch. You just need to know where to go.” Coen Bennie-Faull, the NSW Main Range. Photo: Tim Clark

 

Mountainwatch | Chris Booth

This story originally appeared in the 2018 issue of Chillfactor ski magazine.

Chris Booth has spent the past few years living between Chamonix and Oslo,  working, skiing big mountain lines and touring places like Iceland and Norway’s fjords. During a  visit home to catch up with familyfor a couple of weeks Chris and his wife Norwegian wife Lene snuck in a trip to the Snowy Mountains, a trip that coincided with a storm that dropped 70cms of snow.  It was an opportunity for Chris to show Lene the mountains he feels are “the best in the world”.

 

I have been trying to convince my fiance that Australia has the best skiing in the world for two years now. Her name is Lene and she is Norwegian. Like any Norwegian she grew up on skis and would not consider Australia as having the best skiing in the world.

I would drop it casually into conversation. Like, “Oh yeah, interesting. Hey, did you know that the highest mountain in Australia is the same height as the highest mountain in Norway?”

Sometimes I would send her text messages like, “Did you know that it’s a tie between which country has the world’s first ski club? Norway and… Australia.”

I would leave copies of Chillfactor around our house in Oslo for her to see. I made her read The Roof of Australia article from the 2015 issue about three times. “You know back home we ski 600 metres of consistent, steep vertical in a single pitch. That’s like Chamonix vertical. You just need to know where to go.”

 

The beauty of a storm front hitting the Aussie mountains. Photo: Jake McBride

Sometimes when we would have people over I’d bring it up on purpose, so she’d have to go along with it (Norwegian people are polite toward guests). “You guys probably don’t know this bit of your history, but there’s a historical connection between Norway and the Australian Alps. In the mid-20th century dozens of Norwegian engineers came out with their families to build tunnels and dams for the Snowy Hydro Scheme, the idea was just to come out for a few years but they all stayed because the skiing was so good.”

I work in Chamonix for a French ski brand called Black Crows. Lene and I live between there and her home town of Oslo. On storm days in Chamonix we would ski the steep tree runs that line the valley; 1000 metres of consistent steep vertical in deep blower powder snow, serviced by the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi or the Brevent gondola. “That was just like skiing back home,” I’d say at the bottom, “just here you don’t get the gum trees… they’re a bit better spaced back home.”

Up in Norway, sometimes we would drive northwest from Oslo for weekend trips to the Telemark region to go ski touring or to Hemsedal to ski the resort there. The muscular, rolling mountains remind me a lot of our alps. Dry tops give on to beefy rocky bluffs, the slope angle gets steeper as you ski down, and scattered rocks make for playful, slow-paced skiing. “I love it here,” I would tell her, “it’s just like home, only these mountains are smaller and our ski resorts don’t have eight lifts, they have 48.”

 

Lene, experiencing the uniqueness of skiing through the gum trees. Photo: Aedan O’Donnell

Despite all my effort, I still felt Lene wasn’t convinced. So last winter I gave Lene the ultimate gift. A ski trip to Australia. To help her get her ski legs and work up to it, we made a stop in New Zealand to ski the west coast of the Southern Alps first. We took a helicopter up to the Franz-Joseph glacier and stayed in Centennial Hut for a week to climb and ski the peaks that run west between Mount Elie de Beaumont and Mount Cook. The trip was a success, and by the end of the week I felt she was ready to experience the best mountains in the world.

We crossed the ditch to Sydney and set up our base camp at mum’s house in Cronulla. She was excited about Lene seeing the best mountains in the world, so she went out and bought a bag of prawns. Dad lent us the old Landcruiser. “The brakes heat up and it pulls to the right a bit, but she’s still going,” he said, handing me his prized CD collection: it was mainly Jim Morrison and some early Fleetwood Mac, but also the soundtrack to Sister Act and Dangerous Minds. He knew that if Lene was going to see the best mountains in the world that she needed to hear this for five hours first. He is a good man my dad.

By my long-range forecast (seven months) we would definitely be skiing powder snow on this trip. As it happened SNOWPOCALYPSE 2 was upon us, delivering a metre of the finest Antarctic crystals imaginable on our mountains. I explained to Lene that in Australia we don’t get snowfall, we get weather events and they all get their own names.

 

A rare glimpse of the Froth Lord. Photo: Colin Levitch

On our journey south from Sydney I took a moment to explain to Lene the concept of The Froth. The Froth, I explained, is a mental model used by Australian skiers to handle the absolute epicness of Australian skiing. It’s kind of like a mix between a set of values and a method of appraisal.

It comes with a set of gestures that include the shaka (which I demoed for her) and the yew, which is an expression that kind of goes like “yieeew”. I told her that there is even a guy they call The Froth Lord, he skis alone and embodies the spirit of The Froth more than anyone. I said if we were lucky and found ourselves in the right zone, we might even get a glimpse of him.

She had a go at a few yews until we stopped at the Maccas in Goulburn and got nuggets.

By night we arrived in Thredbo. Sideways rain lashed the windows as we pulled into by the Alpine Hotel. “It’s trying to snow,” I said. “Maybe put your jacket on.”

Inside the hotel Lene noticed a lamp hanging from the atrium by the stairwell and stopped me by the shoulder. “Look, an artichoke lamp by Poul Henningsen for Louis Poulsen. It was designed in 1958 for Langelinie Pavillonen in Copenhagen. My granddad used to work with him. I think it’s an original.”

“Yeah we’re really into culture here,” I agreed nodding. “You know Henningsen stayed here once actually while on a conference, apparently he stayed longer because the skiing was so good.”

 

It’s all about timing. Chris Booth, shredding some Thredbo pow during his first day skiing in Australia in three years. Photo: Aedan O’Donnell

The next morning Thredbo village was white. Lene looked outside at the flags flying in the 50-knot southerly wind, then she looked at the two odd centimetres of snow on the ground and looked a little doubtful. “I’m not sure there is one metre of snow out there.”

“Ah, but up there it’s another world,” I answered, pointing up the Kosciuszko express chair as it disappeared into a chaotic swirling white abyss. “You know all this was once a glacier?”

Reggae (the Ed) was so excited about Lene getting to ski the best mountains in the world that he took his kids – Joey and Arkie – out of school for the day to ski with us. Me, Lene, Joey and Arkie met at the base of Gunbarrel and jumped on the first chair. Well, actually not really. We were a bit late getting coffee and then Reg talked to us for a while about where Parks were stopping people to put chains on and how good Snowgums was yesterday and what the Grasshopper thinks and that sort of thing, but we got on the first chair right after that.

With news that both the Kosciuszko Express and the Cruiser Chair were on wind hold I thought we’d cut away from the crowd and make a traverse into Stanley’s Gorge to ski where the snow was surely catching.

 

On a storm day in Australia, if you know where to go, you’ll score the goods.

At the top it was a full-on Australian blizzard. One of the ones that actually hurts. Together we poled and shuffled and penguin-walked for about 15 minutes across the scarred landscape between Michael’s Mistake and the top of the Cruiser Chair to get out toward the entry to Stanley’s. Across barren mass of ice and sastrugi we plodded along, battered by wind and seared by the molecules in the moisture-ridden snow that lashed the skin on our faces. Lene looked at me through her hood and said something.

“What?” I shouted back over the wind, gesturing towards my ear. “I didn’t hear you.”

“It doesn’t feel like there is a metre of snow,” she said.

“There is a metre of snow,” I replied. “It just gets spread out a lot because of the wind.”

Joey and Arkie were already well ahead of us, so we shuffled on.

Finally, we arrived at a little arc of trees that gave on to the top of Stanley’s Gorge. In the shelter of the howling winds, was a little powder paradise filled with perfectly manicured lips and waves, gullies and passages. But we weren’t first. Before us was a single track following the best line and disappearing off into the trees. I recognised it instantly. If there is one place to find the original Froth Lord, it is here. I got excited, if we could find The Froth Lord, Lene could get to see The Froth first hand.

 

Boothy, enjoying his time back in the “best mountains in the world.”.

 

Joey, happy to be showing Lene around his home mountain Photo: Chris Booth

We dropped in one by one, blowing up the deep, perfect Australian snow as we linked turns through the playful, fall-line terrain that lead us into the trees. With no reason to stop at the classic traverse that brings you back to the lift, we continued skiing all the way to the gully floor 100 metres further below.

When we regrouped at the bottom of the gully we were each blanketed in pow. We were in the right spot and alone. The atmosphere was calm and peaceful, nothing like what it was a few hundred metres up slope.

We were in another world, an Australian alpine world, where gum trees slump heavy with snow, where the faint sound of trickling creek water massages the neurons whizzing around your head, where the heavy and ancient rocks have a reassuring presence. We had escaped the winds, escaped the crowds and, for a moment, escaped reality.

 

Lene taking it all in after her first morning skiing in Australia. Photo: Chris Booth

Lene looked around and absorbed it all. She looked happy. This must have just been so unexpected for her, I mean if you don’t know where to go skiing in Australia you can have a genuinely shit time. But if you do, it’s epic. I think she was getting it. It made me wonder when the last time was that I’d been somewhere completely new.

I set the boot pack back up to the classic traverse and together we began to wrestle our way back up the hill when, just a few steps in, we hear this massive “yiiieeew”.

 

Chris, Arkie and Joey boot pack their way out of a hidden Thredbo gem.

We all look up and stop. I can make out a big powder cloud up in the distance. Then another one, this time louder, and closer. “Yiieeeeew.” The powder clouds start exploding one after the other as the black figure descends through the trees, now in plain site and coming toward us.

The black figure lets out a last howling “Yiiiieeheheheyiew” and dumps a big slash turn right in front of us, stopping just about where we stood.

The Froth Lord had actually found us. Alone and dressed in black with a balaclava over his face, covered in snow, and with a GoPro on a selfie stick, The Froth Lord was practically fizzing with Froth.

 

The Froth Lord, dropping into Stanleys. Photo: Boen Ferguson.

“Boothy! Joey! Arkie!” exclaimed The Froth Lord. “I was going to stop at the traverse track too, but I saw your tracks and just kept going cause the skiing was so good. Mind if I join you guys?”

“Of course mate!” I said giving The Froth Lord a bro hug. I introduced him to Lene and told him that she was from Norway and was skiing Australia for the first time.

“Faaark, you’re lucky, not everyone gets to ski the best mountains in the world.”

“Yehaha, I guess you’re right,” she said laughing, perhaps not sure which mountains he was referring to.

To be honest I didn’t really know which mountains he was referring to either. But she didn’t deny it. And that’s good enough for me.

Long live Australian skiing.

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