An early season trip down to the Snowy Mountains is a tried-and-tested method for voluntary heart failure. I discovered this during the week prior to my visit as I fervently scanned the various weather reports hoping that maybe one of them would predict more than a 10% chance of snow. Each morning I’d wake up to check the snow cams up at Thredbo and Perisher, initially delight in the coverage provided by the multi-million dollar snow gun equipment powering overnight, only to have my hopes dashed on the rocks by mid-afternoon when it had all melted again. It was when I found myself hounding the Thredbo Twitter account that I knew I had gone too far.
t won’t come as a surprise to you (I would hope) to hear that Australia is not particularly known for it’s skiing, so when planning a visit just keep your expectations in check. If you’re dreaming of knee-deep powder and long runs without a soul in sight, you’re in for a serious spoonful of disappointment.
That’s not to say that I don’t love snowboarding in Australia – keeping in mind that I have visited much bigger and snowier mountains – because there’s something truly unique about the experience. You’ll feel it in the first lift of the day when you’re looking up the mountain, not towards rows of snow-dusted evergreens, but at eucalyptus trees against a backdrop of sheer white. They’re pretty much the same ones you’d see out in The Red Centre – the resilience of these trees is astounding. Also up here, kangaroos bound across snowy fields with barely a flinch at the harsh, cold winds.
So I’m telling you that if you’re in New South Wales, Victoria or Tasmania when winter rolls in, you owe it to your future self to get out on those slopes. Remember when you didn’t even know that it snowed in Australia? Look at you now, reading a magazine article about skiing in Australia. You’ve come a long way, kid. There’s nowhere to go but up.
To get things started, a trip to the slopes is not cheap, and once you get there you’re going to partake in a sport which requires fairly specialist equipment. Jeans and flip-flops just won’t cut it. Luckily just about everything can be rented once you arrive – skis, boards, boots, jacket, trousers, helmet.All except gloves. For some reason you have to buy gloves.
Of course there is always a budget option to soothe your crippled wallet. One such way is with Oz Snow Adventures, which is how I made my way down to the Snowy Mountains. They’ll grab you from Central Station in Sydney and load you onto one of their coaches – at six hours it’s a long drive, but nothing that a couple of six packs can’t get you through (there’s a quiet bus if that’s more your style).
We arrived at the Snowy Valley Resort in Jindabyne just a little after midnight, and sadly we were not allowed to roll straight into bed. Moonlight equipment fittings seem to be a tradition in Jindabyne, as most gear hire places will stay open 24 hours during the middle of the season. It’s the only way to ensure that you’re up and ready to hit the slopes first thing in the morning.
As I said earlier, I’d been watching the snow report pretty closely in the week leading up to the trip, so I had a fairly good idea of what to expect. That morning, we were set to hit Thredbo on their first weekend open. The beginner slope, Friday Flat, was open, as were a few runs over in the Cruiser area. I’m no beginner, so the slow pace combined with the rather narrow snow gun run was not gonna cut it. I boarded the chairlift which, unsurprisingly, was snow free until we got near to the top.
Looking at the trail map is a terrible tease, because if you visited Thredbo when all the trails were open and the snow was pumping you’d hardly have a negative word to say about it. Early season is a trade-off for sure as prices are much cheaper than during peak times, although if you’re new to the sport you’ll still get plenty out of an early season visit.
It was about 9am when we hit the mountain, so conditions were favourable. After getting my snow legs back I was making turns without much trouble – though most maneuvering was done in order to avoid dirt patches. Despite it being early season the handful of runs available were good fun. There weren’t too many people up this high as beginners seemed to avoid this section all together.
All-in-all I hit the same few runs available for most of the day, and conditions worsened with every skier and boarder that passed over them. By the time the last chair made its way up the mountain there were very few routes left to choose from, as most central lines had been scraped down to the grass. That being said, it was rather entertaining to encounter the occasional rider who failed to avoid the dirt patches, only to ‘flying squirrel’ forwards onto their face. I can highly recommend dedicating some time watching from the bottom of the slope with a beer in hand.
We were rounded up again and hauled back to Jindabyne for the night. Everyone had a story of a spectacular bail, either their own or someone else’s, but the word going round Jindabyne that night was that Perisher had the best snow and most runs on offer. Without hesitation I opted to hit their slopes on the Sunday. Hearsay was right, there was definitely more snow and a better selection of runs – but sadly every man and his dog seemed to have heard the news.
Despite significantly more snow, and therefore space, the extra people meant that it didn’t really feel less crowded than Thredbo. The major problem is that the way their open runs flowed meant that heading up to even the highest point still eventually funnelled you towards the onslaught of beginners on the main slope. Nothing interrupts a run quite like a row of snowboarders strapping in and clogging everything up.
If you’ve been to Perisher before you might be familiar with the fairly daunting slope just before Bullwheel Run. It’s a real catch 22, as you need to get as much speed as you can in order to keep enough momentum to get past the long flat section – a nightmare for snowboarders. But go too fast and you might fall, then have to walk the whole flat section anyway. I’m not ashamed to say that I spent more than a couple of runs either scraping down that slope on my front, or losing momentum and having to unstrap, only to complete the walk of shame under the chairlift. As always there are plenty of expert/fearless skiers under the age of five to make you feel totally inadequate.
Rory (middle) hit the slopes with Oz Snow Adventures
On my way back towards the main lift, I decided to take a crack at the small terrain park that runs alongside the front valley. I waited patiently at the top, reading the rules like everyone always does, until a gap opened up. With a push up and a bound, I carved my way towards a small kicker in front of a fun box. The official term for the trick I attempted is a 50-50, but I threw in a variant which I have dubbed the 50-50 arse-plant.
In my imagination the kids laughed and pointed at me lying flat on my back, but in reality no one really cared. With my ego slightly bruised and the wind knocked out of me, I retreated to the bar for a final beer before I said goodbye to my snowy weekend.
I returned to Sydney feeling satisfied with my trip to the snow. The conditions weren’t perfect but, damn-it-all-to-hell, if I didn’t have a great time anyway. I did, however, break down into horrible metaphorical tears when, out of habit, I checked the snow report and saw that a storm had started the evening I left and finished 48 hours later, leaving behind 50cm of snow. Just my luck.
Where to stay
There are a few options in the Snowy Mountains, but budget stuff isn’t easy to come by. As a general rule, it’s always cheaper to visit midweek. It’s also much less crowded on the slopes, so that’s a bonus too!
Try your luck at the Snowy Mountains Backpackers in Jindabyne for your cheapest option. In peak season they charge $45 per bed for a six, eight or 10 person dorm during the week and an extra $5 on weekends. If you’d like to be a little closer to the action there’s always Thredbo YHA, located right in Thredbo Village. It’s a bit steep at $104 per bed midweek ($82 for YHA members), but since you’re at the foot of the slopes you can spend more time skiing and less time driving back and forth to Jindabyne.
With accommodation you should take into consideration the parks pass fee, which is $27 a day per car. If you’re self-driving with a car full of buddies it’s not too bad, but for a solo traveller you might consider taking a shuttle. If you stay on the slopes you can avoid the daily $27 if you take a coach in and out. This makes it a better option if you’re staying longer.
Where to eat
If you’re down in Jindabyne there are plenty of places that serve up a filling meal to help you recuperate after a hard slog on the mountains. Some are better than others (naturally), but most are a little pricier than you’re probably used to. For a decent-priced pub meal head to the Lake Jindabyne Hotel – they have a beautiful view over the lake as well. Or, if you’re after something a little different, try Cafe Darya. It’s one of the best restaurants in Jindabyne, serving up some fantastic Persian dishes.
If you’re unfamiliar with the stereotypical cuisine on ski mountains it goes a little something like this – overpriced and bland, often served with chips. In spite of that I can recommend Berntis Restaurant & Grill up in Thredbo Village. Incredible food, cheaper beer than many other places on the slopes and decent value for your meals.
Alternatively, you can self-cook. You’re a backpacker right? No need to blow all your hard-earned fruit-picking cash in a weekend. There’s a Woolworths in Jindabyne, or a FoodWorks up in Thredbo Village. Your wallet will thank me.
Where to party
Arguably, the most important component of skiing is the après-ski. In Jindy you’ll probably want to mingle with the backpackers over at Snowy Valley Resort. There’s usually a band on Saturday nights and happy hour between 8pm and 9pm. They pretty much stay open until you leave, which for a lot of people means far too late to hit the slopes the next day. Alternatively the Lake Jindabyne Hotel is a pretty good bet for getting your drink on.
Up on the slopes of Thredbo you should pay a visit to the Schuss Bar, where there’s live music aplenty and a mean Canadian whiskey with added cinnamon known as the Fireball. They’re dead set to take back the title of ‘Best Live Music in the Alpine’, so keep an eye and ear out for some semi/demi-celebrities gracing the stage.
Over at Perisher, The Overflow Bar is the venue of choice for the locals. It’s nice and casual – pool tables, darts and live music too. Enter the pool competition on Tuesdays if you fancy yourself as a balls man/lady. You’ll find it in The Man From Snowy River Hotel in Perisher Valley.
Oz Snow Adventures operate a weekend coach trip starting at $245pp departing from Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra. Price includes two nights at Snowy Valley Resort, daily shuttle to Thredbo or Perisher Ski Tube, national park fees, two breakfasts, one three-course dinner and one lunch at The River Inn at Thredbo. Oz Snow’s discounted lift and gear rental packages in peak season for Threbdo start at $229pp and Perisher at $249pp.