skiing

The Big Outside is waiting

Treeless alpine ecosystems cover just 0.5 per cent of Australia. While we might lack huge mountains, what we do have is a network of ranges that run in a long arc from the outskirts of Canberra almost to Melbourne’s doorstep. They host a unique combination of plants, animals and landscapes. Despite our moderate latitude and very modest altitude, we do have significant areas that tend to be snow-covered in winter – in total, an area about the size of Switzerland.

Melbourne residents who enjoy the snow will probably know the resorts – places like Mount Buller and Falls Creek. These get you to the edge of some incredible “winter wilderness”. Even though the Victorian Alps are generally well protected through the Alpine National Park, there are road networks through much of the High Country. In winter the mountains are transformed into seasonal wilderness through the closure of many of these roads and tracks.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

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Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

There is nowhere else on the planet where you can stand in Alpine Ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) forest. These are tall mountain trees that have a subtle twist as they grow into old age. Often called Woolly Butt because of their fibrous lower sections, their upper trunks are pale and “gum”-like, mirroring their close relatives the Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans). Alpine Ash forest, which will often host lyrebirds, and a range of possums and wombats, merge – often quite rapidly – into Snow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) as you climb up the mountain. Snow Gums are lyrical in the way they grow – with such diversity of form and so many colours in their bark, from silver and white to red and green. As you climb closer to the treeline they become smaller, trimmed by the cold and prevailing wind, until you emerge into the true alpine zone. In early summer these areas are ablaze with colour, but in winter the snow gives a sombre black and white aspect to the terrain.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

There are so many adventures to be had in the Victorian Alps. Probably one of the best ways to experience them is to do one of the long climbs from a river valley to one of the higher peaks. This will often involve a long climb of up to 900 metres of vertical, but will take you from Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) forests along the rivers into the Peppermint forests of the foothills, which include Narrow-leaved Peppermint (Eucalyptus radiata), and eventually the alpine. Tracing the Howqua River up Howitt Spur to the West Peak of Howitt, or Bungalow Spur up Feathertop, or the Staircase Spur to our highest mountain – Bogong - are all great examples of these classic walks. Once you’re out walking or skiing, what I notice is the silence and lack of people. Just a few hours from Melbourne you can have silence, clouds, the sound of gentle snowfall and a sense of the “big wild” that comes in winter when many of the four-wheel drive tracks are closed. In winter our higher mountains are transformed into temporary wilderness that makes you feel like you’re in Tasmania rather than a few hours’ drive from Melbourne.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Many Melburnians who ski or snowboard will have looked out at the surrounding mountains but not ventured out into them in winter. But a set of touring skis, snow shoes or a splitboard (a type of snowboard adapted for touring) will get you out into the solitude. I once heard a French ski instructor describe the ‘cool, slow’ mood of the Australian Alps which are so different to the ‘fast’ European Alps. Our mountains are like nowhere else. But finding a way to explore this backcountry terrain can be daunting for first timers.

To help people find a way to get into the mountains outside the resorts, the Victorian Backcountry Festival is taking place this September. It will start and finish at the Falls Creek Resort in north-east Victoria. While Falls Creek charges an entry fee, all the tours, clinics and workshops are free.

Everyone is welcome. If you’d like to learn the skills that will help you experience some winter wildness, then check the festival website and come along.


Cam Walker is the campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth in Melbourne and a keen walker, skier and climber who loves the Victorian High Country and wilds of Tasmania.


Banner image courtesy of Cam Walker.

Melbourne's Teen Polar Explorer Takes on Greenland

Being a teenage girl can be tough. Young women are constantly bombarded with messages telling them they need to look a certain way, dress a certain way, be a certain way. Sixteen-year-old Melbournian Jade Hameister is trying her best not to pay attention.

“There is too much emphasis on chasing perfection,” she says.

Jade is chasing something else instead. This year she hopes to fulfill her dream of becoming the world’s youngest person to complete the ‘Polar Hat Trick’ – a feat only a handful of people have accomplished. By the end of 2017, Jade is planning to have completed a three-pronged mission to ski to the North Pole, cross the world’s largest icecap in Greenland and ski to the South Pole.

She is already two-thirds of the way. In April 2016, at age 14, Jade completed the first stage of her mission by skiing 150km over shifting polar sea ice to the North Pole. In doing so, she became the youngest person in history to ski to the North Pole from anywhere outside 89 degrees.

Jade trains all over Victoria, pulling tyres along the beach at Lorne and along the Kokoda Track to mimic the action of pulling a sled – that weighs as much as she does – over the ice.  

In May this year, Jade set out on the second stage of her mission, to traverse 540km across the world’s largest icecap in Greenland, unsupported and unassisted.

“I was very committed to trying to finish by day 27, which we did, because I wanted to finish aged 15,” says Jade. She turned sixteen the day after they completed their journey, on June 5th.

Teen polar explorer Jade Hameister after becoming the youngest woman in history to traverse the Greenland icecap, the day before her sixteenth birthday. 

Teen polar explorer Jade Hameister after becoming the youngest woman in history to traverse the Greenland icecap, the day before her sixteenth birthday. 

She made the trip on skis, dragging a 70kg sled containing 30 days of supplies. To make things even harder, the weather was not always on Jade’s side. Her group had to delay their start date due to rain, and stop for two days during the trek to shelter and dry out their gear after being soaked in a blizzard. 

“The most surprising part was how warm it was,” says Jade, but this was not necessarily a good thing. “The warm weather also meant the ice was very slushy, which makes dragging sleds very difficult (they glide much easier on hard ice) and meant that we were sweating lots in our polar clothing and boots. Our boots are rated to -100°c, so in the heat of the day our feet were literally cooking – which meant lots of blisters.”

The group also had a close run-in with one of the locals, coming across the fresh tracks of a mother polar bear and her cub. They were 150km inland from the coast at the time (“where there isn’t much food, except us!”), so they spent a few nervous days setting up perimeters around the camp to make sure they were alerted to any unwelcome intruders. 

“Thankfully we never actually saw the bear.”

Jade had to drag a 70kg sled of gear behind her for the 540km journey. 

Jade had to drag a 70kg sled of gear behind her for the 540km journey. 

The trials, setbacks and hard work were all worth it, however, as Jade was able to complete her mission and spend some time in “one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.” 

It is spending time out on the ice, and meeting the local people, that has solidified Jade’s view of our changing planet. Part of the generation that will inherit the effects of climate change, Jade has started using her firsthand experience of the most fragile part of the planet to raise awareness about the effects of rising temperatures.  

“From what I have seen, experienced and researched, and the scientists and indigenous people I have interviewed, global warming is very real.” She says, “Our beautiful and fragile polar regions are disappearing fast.”

Jade now has her sights set on her next and final step: the South Pole. In December, Jade will ski 1,170km over unexplored territory, which may take up to 60 days, depending on the weather, to reach her final goal. 

“South Pole will be next level. We are attempting a new route from the coast, so it will be true exploration.” 

#bravenotperfect “If we choose bravery over perfection, then we give ourselves permission to fail or look foolish and we try anyway.” – Jade Hameister, 16

#bravenotperfect “If we choose bravery over perfection, then we give ourselves permission to fail or look foolish and we try anyway.” – Jade Hameister, 16

Jade’s mission is not just about crossing the ice. She is trying (and succeeding) to show that young women should not just be valued by how they look, but by what they do. She has been pushed out of her comfort zone, and now Jade is embracing being a role model for other girls who may be afraid to give something new a try.

“We need to shift the focus for young women from how we appear to the possibilities of what we can do and contribute to this world.”

Keep an eye on Jade as she heads towards the final stage of her mission in December:
www.jadehameister.com / @jadehameister


Ella.jpg

Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella.


All images courtesy of Jade Hameister.