Australia as a winter sports paradise? Why yes, says Nina Zietman, whose claim to fame is splitboarding along Australasia's highest mountain
It was 5.30am when my alarm woke me. Outside, the temperature was hovering just above -5°C. I poked my head out of the sleeping bag. “Guys, you’ve got to get out here and see this,” said my partner, Ed, from outside the tent. I crawled out in my thermals, pulled on my winter boots and turned around.
A crimson red line streaked across the horizon. Golden light illuminated our campsite perched 2,000m high above the clouds. It was completely silent as the sun rose over the snowy wilderness below. We could have been deep in the Arctic Circle.
It was hard to believe we were looking out across south-east Australia.
Most people don’t realise it snows in Australia. But just over two hours’ drive from Canberra, you’ll find yourself deep in Australia’s Snowy Mountains, the highest range on the continent. Ski season begins here in May and runs until October. We were here for a splitboarding expedition to summit Mount Kosciuszko, at 2,228m, the tallest mountain in Australia.
Splitboarding has exploded across Europe in the past five years among adventurous snowboarders looking to explore the backcountry. A splitboard is a snowboard that can be split in two with sticky skins attached to the base, allowing you to walk uphill and access terrain where there are no mechanical lifts. When you reach the top of a mountain, you pull the skins off, clip the snowboard back together and ride downhill as normal.
Mike Edmondson has been guiding people around the Snowy Mountains for over 35 years. An avid yogi, photographer and cross-country skier, he’s in remarkably good shape for 62 years old. “It’s nearly impossible to navigate this area in a whiteout,” one local told us. “But if anyone can do it, it’s Mike.” Just what you want to hear.
We climbed aboard the Kosciuszko Express chairlift at Thredbo ski resort, armed with splitboards and backpacks. From the top, it would be a 90-minute splitboard hike uphill to our campsite. Clambering off the lift, we found ourselves surrounded by a thick, white fog. We couldn't see past the end of the chairlift. It was a total whiteout, just as our newfound friend had warned us. At least we were with the right guy.
Rain turned to snow as we pulled the skins onto our splitboards and slid off into the mist. After a slow ascent uphill, giant boulders and rolling mountains started to appear. The resort was far behind us, there wasn't a soul in sight. Finally, we reached a circle of rocks hunkered deep in the mountainside. Mike signalled that we were going to set up camp up for the night.
Snow-camping is no easy task. We had two hours to erect our tents, construct a snow kitchen and find an all-important toilet spot before the sun set, Mike warned us. Hurriedly we set to work, flattening a snow platform for the tent, cutting huge ice blocks to create a wind buffer and using shovels to dig a ‘kitchen’, including two benches and a table made from snow with a teepee on top. The food wasn’t quite so glamorous: cup-a-soups and curry sachets. After a few squares of dark chocolate to finish, we returned to our tents, pulled off our soggy outer layers and climbed into our sleeping bags.
By the next morning, the fog had cleared to reveal a breathtakingly beautiful sunrise. We could finally see Mount Kosciuszko – one of the “seven summits” (the highest peaks of each continent) – illuminated by a pink glow, and today we would reach the top. “I told you it was worth it,” Mike said.
Sweating in the warm morning sun, having defrosted our snowboard boots, we glided across the icy ground, passing snow-capped hills and huge stacked boulders teetering on top of each other like Stonehenge.
An hour later, we finally found ourselves climbing the steep ascent to the top of Mount Kosciuszko. The clouds swirled around us as we glimpsed the view from the highest point in Australasia. We had only been travelling for 90 minutes, but the elation we felt was like we’d just reached the peak of Mont Blanc.
Then it was time for the fun part. We clipped our snowboards back together and rode back down the mountain, carving fresh tracks into the soft snow. In fact, it was so much fun that we hiked back up and did it again.
As we made our way back towards Thredbo, the clouds started to roll across the mountains once more. Within minutes, the blue skies were shrouded in fog – we couldn’t see further than three metres in front. It became clear just how easily you could get lost out here without proper navigation skills. Luckily we had Mike and his compass to guide us safely back to the resort.
Three hours later, we spied chairlifts in the distance – we were back. Skiers and snowboarders were gliding down the pistes like normal. We couldn’t wipe the grin off our faces as we glanced back up towards Mount Kosciuszko one last time. As we slid silently into the resort, our wild hair and giant backpacks were the only clues showing where we had been.
Singapore Airlines fly from London to Canberra via. Singapore from £1,200 return. Thredbo is a two-and-a-half hour drive from Canberra airport – it’s easiest to hire a car.
K7 Adventures (k7adventures.com) work with Mike Edmondson (mikeedmondson.com.au) who offers three-day winter camping adventures in the Kosciuszko National Park from $575pp. Included in the price are guide and national park fees, snowshoes and poles, Kosciuszko Express Chairlift return ride and insurance. Travel to and from Thredbo and accommodation is not included. Camping equipment and food can be added on for a small fee. Splitboards can be hired from Jindy Snow Ski Hire (jindysnow.com) in East Jindabyne.