With the current COVID19 pandemic, ski adventure travellers are rethinking their travel plans for a while. It might be more than 12 months before anyone is migrating north from Australasia to the snows of Japan, North America or Europe. Our attention has been focussed on enjoying what mountain activities we can in the Southern Hemisphere and be grateful that we have the opportunity to enjoy them.
New Zealand is known for its magnificent alpine terrain for heliskiing, backcountry touring and climbing. It’s widely understood that there is a definite avalanche risk in the backcountry, and we will cover a bit more about that later.
Australia is more renowned on the international scene for its beaches and surf but there are certainly some great backcountry skiing options for those who want to take the time to explore. With a generally maritime snowpack, there can be a little complacency regarding avalanche risk for those venturing into the mountains.
Especially with ski area restrictions due to the ongoing COVID19 precautions, no doubt less experienced people will be lured into getting some turns the “old fashioned way” by earning them with a bit of uphill manpower.
The major alpine regions of Australia are the Snowy Mountains (bordering the states of New South Wales and Victoria) and the Tasmanian Highlands. Although not high in elevation and more rounded in profile, there are some well known steep aspects particularly in the regions of Mt Feathertop, Mt Bogong, Mt Field, Watson’s Crags, The Main Range and Western Faces.
Do avalanches actually occur in Australia?
There have actually been numerous avalanche incidents in Australia.
The first winter ascent of the country’s highest peak, Mt Kosciuszko (2228m) was by Charles Kerry and group in August of 1897. Just four months later Wragge’s Observatory was established near the summit and three men wintered there in 1898. They managed to trial many ski descents on the Main range but there is no mention of avalanche encounters.
The first death widely reported from an avalanche in the region was of Roslyn Welch who perished when the entire Kunama Hut was destroyed by an avalanche from Mt Clarke in July 1956. The Hut was at the base of the Kunama Basin and served as accommodation for the Northcote Ski Tow. This basin is on the Main Range of the Snowy Mountains and the hut was a 3.5km ski from the Charlotte’s Pass Chalet.
The area was used for The Golden Eagle Speed Ski Trials. According to an excellent article by Ward, the avalanche occurred as a result of a cornice collapse releasing in a slab avalanche below. The resulting slide was 50 yards wide and the crown wall depth about three feet. Huge blocks of snow destroyed the hut.
The Northcote Tow no longer exists but the Basin is still a favoured touring destination.
In August 1979 a 28 year old skier, John Davis, was killed by an avalanche on the Golden Staircase Ski slope in Mt Field National Park, Tasmania. The Mt Mawson ski area still exists. It is a club field with 3 rope tows and an adventurous approach.
The Golden Staircase is still on their area map as an unpatrolled zone with high avalanche and uncontrolled slides risk. The Mt Mawson Ski Patrol and Southern Tasmanian Ski Association “recommend avoiding these slopes”.
Interestingly in the newspaper article regarding the search for Mr Davis, it was noted that a metal detector was used in the hope of finding the metal on the edges of his skis. Be thankful for avalanche beacons ( hint: you have to wear them for them to work), companion rescue (his companions were unaware he had been caught in an avalanche until he did not meet them at the bottom of the run), and Recco technology.
On July 10, 2014, two backcountry riders were caught and killed in an avalanche on Victoria highest peak, Mt Bogong. Like the two scenarios above this occurred in the midst of a significant storm cycle. In this part of the world, these cycles are usually accompanied by high wind and dense snow. Often there are rain, wind or sun crusts for the snow to fall on: a result of the relatively warm (for mountains) winter temperatures experienced in this part of the world.
Three years later two skiers narrowly avoided disaster outside the patrolled area of Mt Hotham ski area in Victoria. Again there had been high winds, some heavy snowfall and a rewarm. All a nasty combination for slab avalanche production.
Be aware of the weather patterns in your area
This so called Upside Down storm where the snow fall starts cold with unconsolidated snow falling onto a crust. Then the weight increases with dense wet snow as the storm warms. Mix in some wind deposition and there is a good little sliding layer for the overlying dense windslab to peel off.
These are just a few stories to remind us that avalanches with consequences do occur in the Australian backcountry. The fact that they occur less frequently than Europe, North America or New Zealand does not justify complacency. Carrying the appropriate companion rescue equipment, getting some training in avalanche terrain and rescue, respecting the mountain environment, and making wise decisions in the backcountry are all still very relevant.
For those in New Zealand, it’s a reminder to check out the avalanche rating and snowpack for your region. Even when conditions (as at the time of writing) are low risk, remember that local weather and terrain conditions can mean you could still trigger a slide. A classic example is loose wet slides occurring as solar activity warms the isothermal pack. If you are in a precarious position a heavy wet slide can still have a terrible outcome.
Snow SAFETY risk assessment is so important
However, there are ways you can mitigate the risks. Your aim every time you head into the backcountry is to come home and be able to plan your next trip! At least that’s our plan and we make sure we know the risks before we go by following our Snow SAFETY risk assessment. You can download it here and make sure you are well prepared before you go.
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