There’s no better feeling than walking into work on a Monday and receiving jealous stares for looking like a raccoon, after a snowy sojourn over the weekend. With a rosy glow and tan lines from goggles, co-workers know exactly how your weekend played out. From Sydney or Melbourne it’s a six-hour drive to the snow, so if you get a good start after work on Friday, you’ll be in the alps to catch the bell ring for last orders before an early rise for the first chair in the morning.
And so we did. It was hardly light out and there was a crisp bite to the alpine air. Tomorrow it would gallantly fail to chase the hangover away, but this morning it woke us completely. We had checked into the hotel the night before, about five busloads of us. People without equipment were quickly sorted out so that we could get away on time. The road to Thredbo winds through the Kosciusko National Park and the forest floor changes from green to white the higher you get, and if you’re lucky, rain to snow. We, however, had a bluebird day with the sun making it feel warmer than the five degrees.
Thredbo isn’t exactly the Swiss Alps or Canada’s Whistler, but there is fun for every level. A yellow run called Friday Flats will get you started if you’ve never skied or boarded before, or if you just need to get your snow-legs back. Fortunately we formed a small pack of relatively experienced riders and ventured up Gunbarrel Express and across to the Merritts area where some comfortable blue runs got us grinning from ear to ear as we raced each other, with the snot running the faster we went. All of a sudden those cold rainy nights in Sydney dodging puddles were worthwhile.
We moved over to the Crackenback area once we were warmed up, where black runs offer exciting lines through the beautiful snow gums. These trees, squat and sprawling, add a uniquely Australian feel to mountain riding, compared to the treeless “steeps” of the European Alps or the high-rise pines of North America. Also uniquely Aussie is the chance to spot fat wombats, alpine birdlife or brumbies (wild horses) that still roam the countryside. The brumbies are an iconic image and reminiscent of the famous poem “The Man From Snowy River” by Banjo Paterson, who also wrote “Waltzing Matilda” – there you go kids, your TNT history lesson for this issue.
You work up a decent appetite on the slopes, so by high noon we were warming our mitts around a chilli-dog and cooling them again with a refreshing beer, while catching some sun in the village. A full belly, a high-altitude beer-buzz and sun could make a cokehead fall asleep, but then at the thought of all those long white powder lines, it doesn’t take much to strap in again. We rode the rest of the day, taking a few obscure lines with patches of powder knee deep, spending time at the top of the mountain at Sponars and Antons t-bars and Australia’s highest lift point, Karels t-bar.
It doesn’t matter how much of a pro you are, at the end of your first day of the season you find muscles you never thought you had. And if you’re particularly unfit, the end comes sooner. Ah apres drinks – takes the edge off the soreness. We mossied over to a pub with a patio and bought a couple of jugs, some nachos and hot chips, and proceeded to devour in a Homer “Can’t talk. Eating” manner. The sun struck the mountains on its way down and threw out a glow, but soon enough we were in shadows and everything got colder than a baby toe in a ski boot.
In the past I’ve been caught out still wearing my snowboarding gear, boots ‘n’ all, into the long hours of the night. Fortunately for those around me, we hopped on the bus and went back to the resort. Shower-bound, I pushed my dirty socks to the bottom of my bag before getting some dinner and propping up the bar.
The resort we stayed in had two bars, a bistro, an indoor pool, sauna and spa, so after some dinner, the night could’ve gone any which way…
When the Jager bomb hit me like Eddie the Eagle had just landed, my head rattled and my stomach did the splits. But like Eddie I got back up for more as our tour group leader pulled out a ski with four shot glasses stuck in it. Filling them full of more Jagermeister, he lined up four patrons and made them knock it back simultaneously, eyes squinted and throats gagging while a small audience cheered. Meanwhile, the butterscotch schnapps was feeling neglected so we began to suck back the sickly sweet syrup, warming the inside. There were smiles all round, rosy cheeks and the raccoon eyes shining through – but before long those eyes turned into fully-fledged beer goggles.
On the piste
In the main room a guitarist played all the favourite sing-a-longs and the merrier we got, the more swaying and vocal we became. It seemed Sydney’s entire Gaelic football community was there in fine choir, not to mention a bevy of Brazilians and Scandinavians returning to the mountains (not forgetting the token Aussies jumping on board). We were a rent-a-crowd at the hotel, five busloads all piling into the one bar – an instant atmosphere. While some opted for the billiards table in the back room, the playboy-wannabes amongst us dashed to the hot tub in shorts and bikinis. Later the resort’s nightclub opened up and we all flowed downstairs to turn it up a notch – (11 to be precise, oh the debauchery). As this was winter in the Australian Alps, we needed to keep our body temperatures up and young drunk couples can be very inventive.
I vaguely remember the walk back to my room, and yet I can’t forget the taste in my mouth – which could have only been a local wombat using my snoring mouth as a toilet – when I woke. Five tooth brushings, two cups of coffee and a hot breakfast later, I dragged myself to the bus. Another blue sky day was mocking us and the bus resembled a funeral procession to our dear friend Sobriety.
On piste, as mentioned earlier, the mountain air did its best to chase the hangover away, but after a few runs I avalanched to Merritts Bistro in an heap where I found fellow near-corpses struggling with comfort food. A couple of hours later I found the legs to venture out again and took in a last few runs, rather shakily I might add, before heading back to the bus.
We returned to the hotel briefly to collect our things before starting homeward bound.
After a huge weekend of skiing and partying, slow murmurs moved around the bus, but for the most part we all fell on to each other’s shoulders crashing out, bruised bodies, sore heads yet great memories: this was a sure sign of success by the tour crew. We arrived in Sydney around 11pm. Bed beckoned. On Monday I’d return to work with my raccoon eyes and edited stories to save face.
Australian Ski Resorts: Need to know
The peak season is roughly late June to early September. If you visit the slopes a few weeks either side, you’ll save a heap of money on the peak season prices to the right, but will be gambling on how much (if any) snow you get. Check individual resorts for snow and price updates. Hasta la piste, baby (sorry).
What: This famous slope is also one of the busiest, with high-speed chairs pumping skiers to the top. The resort claims to have the longest runs and largest snow-making system in Oz, plus the thriving town has lively nightlife.
Where: About halfway between Sydney and Melbourne – about 500km, or 5-7 hours drive, from each.
How much: Lift pass daily $107, five-day pass $460. www.thredbo.com.au
What: This massive chunk of glorious white terrain is Australia’s answer to European mega resorts. Despite being a smaller town than Thredbo, the slopes are spread over a much bigger area – 1,250 hectares of land and seven mountain peaks, with 47 ski lifts compared to Thredbo’s 14.
Where: In Perisher Valley, not far from Thredbo.
How much: Lift pass daily $109, five-day pass $479. www.perisher.com.au
MT HOTHAM (VIC)
What: Boasting the highest average snowfall of any Aussie resort and reputedly the best powder, head here for excellent free-ride facilities and some of the most challenging runs in Oz.
Where: About 350km from Melbourne.
How much: Lift pass daily $106, five-day pass $482. www.hotham.com.au
MT BULLER (VIC)
What: With the second-largest lift system in the Southern Hemisphere, you’re sure to get more runs for your dollar. It’s where Aussie Olympic skiers train.
Where: Under 240km from Melbourne.
How much: Lift pass daily $104, five-day pass $437. www.mtbuller.com.au
FALLS CREEK (VIC)
What: Home to some of Victoria’s best back-country terrain, this mountain also has a huge snow-making capacity and is one of the first resorts to open. It prides itself on its 120m super-pipe and rail park, not to mention more than 92 ski runs.
Where: About 375km from Melbourne.
How much: Lift pass daily $106, five-day pass $482. www.fallscreek.com.au