Australia Victoria - Falls Creek

feature article


Kopje that

It was supposed to be an easy tour with a snappy exit, skiing terrain coveted for decades. But things don’t always go according to plan, as JIM DARBY discovered.

Picture this. We’re entirely surrounded by burnt forest. At the back of us is an 1837m peak and a steep face to regain it (about 550m vertical in less than 1.5km, yep, steep).

It’s dark, but we have a near-full moon to guide us, whenever the passing clouds sweep it clear.

At the front of us, on our escape route, is a much shorter but no less sharp climb to the road where we’ve left a car.

Between us and the escape (ergo, the hot shower and the cold beer) is a feature the map calls Nelse Creek.

It’s spring and there’s a huge snowpack thawing; we’re calling this Nelse White Water Deathtrap.

We’re scrambling along its banks, looking feverishly for a crossing as though it’s the chase scene and the evil-doers are closing fast.

We’re looking for some rocks to hop, a section wide enough to wade or a log strong enough to lurch over.

Then Chris finds the log. It looks unburnt enough and fresh-fallen enough to hold us for the seven metre crossing.

Chris says he’s going to give it a try and just as he edges on to the log, he turns and asks “what about you guys, are you going to give it a try?”

I answer directly, maybe a little too directly, “well Chris, if you make it we will!”

“Hmmmm,” the Doc, a touring veteran of the NSW Main Range says to himself, “they sure do it different down here in Vico.”

Let me put this in context for you. We’re a happy touring party, lucky enough to have spent time together in Centennial Hut skiing the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers in New Zealand with a guide for four or five days.

We’ve tested skis together, skied resorts together and posed touring plots together, seeing some of them fade as dreams and some of them hatch into reality.

Doug ‘the Doc’ Chatten works in outdoor education in the Snowy Mountains. He’s tried not living in the mountains a couple of times and has failed dismally.

The Doc has driven through the night from Jindabyne for this adventure, run shy of fuel in Corryong and caught some cramped zzzzs in his car waiting for the petrol station to open.

Chris Gadsden, a Falls Creek skier for 40-odd years with a weakness for Swiss terrain and astonishing strength in leather (telemarking) boots has stayed on from an October weekend skiing the last of the lifts in a spring of super snow cover.

I can also claim my Falls Creek 40-year badge, have done my share of touring (even if I should be fitter for it) and have driven in from Canberra on the tail end of a trade show.

Spion Kopje is one of those peaks that tempt you all your life. It is in the view line virtually wherever you are in Falls Creek on the village side, with its big, Bogong-like ridge running back towards Rocky Valley Dam.

To reach it from Falls Creek is a 14 km tour more or less and in a reasonable season, most of the journey will be snow covered.

According to the translators, Kopje is from the Dutch via South Africa, meaning an isolated hill usually without trees. Spion Kopje might then translate as the spine and head.

The name seems to have come from a South African peak from which the Boers first saw the promised fields of Natal. It later became the centerpiece in a battle where the Boers beat the British.

Chris first skied Falls Creek in 1964, same year I started, and ever since we’ve looked across the valley and admired Spion Kopje and wondered at the potential of its skiing.

So here we are, here to ski it.

We staged a car down near the Falls Creek resort entry station at Howman’s Gap then headed up to the Resort Management Board office to fill out the intentions report and skied off from Windy Corner.

By about 11.30am, we were crossing the dam wall, the Doc cast his eye along the route, most of it generally visible from here and just made a small comment about the exit – “what’s the river like at the bottom of that face? I’m not sure about a river crossing in spring….”

Then we were up and along Heathy Spur, to intersect with the Big River Fire Track via Edmonson Hut.

We came across a couple of cross-country skiers, light as elves in their track gear and as fit as race horses on cup day.

They made no comment on our expedition, other than to say there was some nice looking skiing on the other side of Mt Nelse, out towards Johnston Hut.

Then we had our first descent, from Heathy Spur down to the Nelse Creek – it wouldn’t be the first time we encountered Nelse Creek, but up here at 1700m, the crossing was pretty well a year nine long jump.

“And it was Chris who led the way,” the Doc said, “straight across – he’s the river man, he loves a bit of water under him!”

We climbed a steepish face on to Baker Spur and looked back to see a huge wedge tailed eagle circling the area and hear all the smaller birds squealing in alarm.

I was mesmerised by the eagle, by the match of its size and grace in the mountain environment.

“There’s a big queue you know Jim…” the Doc said.

“Hey?”

“Eagles and dolphins, there’s a very big queue to come back as an eagle or a dolphin, if you could settle for a trout or a currajong we could get you sorted a whole lot sooner.”

“I’ve got a real problem with that one then Doc, because I’m torn between the wedgie in the mountains and the sea eagle by the coast.

“I lean towards the sea eagle because I think the diet might be better – fresh fish just seems to have an edge on raw rodent.”

“Fair enough Jim,” Doug says, “but when you get there, don’t say I didn’t warn you!”

At the top of Baker Spur we headed straight for the fire track and scooted around to Warby Corner, at 1860m. By this point it was about 4.00pm and we’d covered around eight km.

At this altitude, the snow was firm and from here, with the high ground made and little of it to lose, the touring was easy out to Spion Kopje.

As you tour out along that ridge, the view of Bogong gradually unfolds, a sight NSW Doug had never really seen before – “what’s that mountain! We’ve gotta ski that one!” he said.

Later Doc.

We reached the trig point at the top of Spion Kopje around 5.30pm and had a lunch of cheese and salami on Vita Wheets, beautifully presented on the base of some K2 picnic planks.

It was turning into a beautiful evening. Although the forecast was threatening, the weather had been kind all day – sunny breaks and the cloud never dropping to cover us or the peaks.

We could still smell ash from the summer (2002-03) fires; even the summit of Spion Kopje was burned and looking down into the snow gum and woolybutt forests, you could see through them as you’d never been able to before.

We were about to have our first big descent of the day; the turns Chris and I had coveted on Spion Kopje for about four decades and the ones Doug had contemplated for about four hours.

The turns were tough but tasty, fairly heavy end-of-the-day spring snow, but a terrific pitch (much steeper than it looks from a distance) and there are some fantastic faces out there to be skied.

We skied from the summit at 1863m down to about a 1600m contour; then we pulled up for a reckoning on the exit.

We were heading three ridges short of where we wanted to start the climb out, so we traversed west, back around under the face of Spion Kopje, to then head down the gully we had picked from the road.

It was steep but entertaining tree skiing made a lot easier by the summer fires – even though there were many dead and fallen trees, the absence of undergrowth meant we could ski a lot further.

The snow ran out for us at about 1380m – not bad vertical for Aus; 483m all up and with all the weaving and wandering through the trees, we’d spent about an hour skiing it.

We were already below its horizon, but the sinking sun was leaving a red glow over the snow in its wake.

This would have worried us, but “hey,” said Chris, “look up at the moon” and there over the other shoulder was an almost full moon, high in the sky and ready to light the path, even if occasionally shattered by scattered cloud.

Ullr was alongside.

As we descended through the forest towards Nelse Creek, the roar got louder and louder; it was emphasised by the lack of wind or any other noise, but we knew we had a major obstacle ahead.

The water was deep, the current was strong, there was a lot of volume and the rocks across it were always just too far apart.

“When I first saw it,” Doug said, “I was thinking ‘yep, you need to have a good look at this one’.”

“Spotting the tree was a breakthrough, it was quite a wide trunk. If it was on grass, you’d just walk over it,” Chris said, “but because it was over this raging torrent, we were a bit more cautious.”

Indeed, with skis in front of him, Chris’s technique was to straddle it and edge forwards; slow enough to feel for movement or collapse in the log, but fast enough to get it over and done with.

It turned out to be quite solid, but more river-crossing experience made the Doc worried and he scooted downstream in case Chris fell or the log broke and he had to be caught.

“Do you want to go next?” the Doc asked me.

“No you’ll be right mate, you can have it,” I said.

With some help from my friends on the equipment front, I scooted across that log as quickly as I could, I wasn’t interested in staying on the wrong side on my own, or wondering about the water below me.

The next, and last leg of the trip was in many ways the most challenging physically – it was very steep and we were very tired, 1200m to 1360m in the space of about 500m.

The fires had really hammered this side of the hill – boulders a metre round were coming loose under our feet on the spongy forest floor; with any wind there’d be a huge risk from falling timber.

We gained the road and lost the moon. The weather had been exceptionally kind.

Doug had a mandarin peeled for me; fruit hasn’t tasted that good since Eve and Adam were munching apples in the back garden.

We got back to Chris’s flat about 10pm “and that was one of the best beers I’ve had,” Chris said.

Life moves in a luxurious motion.

“Touring Vico style,” the Doc mumbled, “they sure do it different down here.”

The gear

Doug’s chosen weapon was what he describes as “the missing link.” They’re Fischer Out Of Bounds skis with a half scale on the base for climbing and easy downhill running.

It means he doesn’t have to fit skins to climb, nor remove them to run. By rights, the climbing should be more difficult for him, but he’s so fit, he can zig-zag up a slope in half the time it takes me to make a straight run at it.

Chris, a tele tragic, loved the skiing in his Crispi leather boots (which started the day in a friendly tan kind of color and ended it with a very charcoal sort of tinge) on his K2 Totally Piste tele skis.

I settled for the alpine cross-over, the plastic Lowa Struktura touring boots and some K2 Axis XT skis in 174cm with alpine touring bindings – the Fritschi Diamir Freeride and skins for climbing.

With no tele skills to speak of, this was a great combination for me.

 Inside lines

* Map/s: Nelse 8324-2-4 1:25,000 or Bogong Alpine Area Leisure Series 1:50,000.

* Duration: With good snow cover it’s a full day for fit skiers. Allow six hours to get to Spion Kopje, an hour to ski it and two hours to make the exit. Be aware our exit may become unpassable after the bush recovers.

* Area: Falls Creek/Alpine National Park.

* Challenge: Moderate tour to Spion Kopje but difficult skiing and exit, only for fit and seasoned tourers with strong all round skills.

* Skiing: Advanced, but expert in places.

* Description: A temptress for Falls Creek skiers, Spion Kopje has some sensational steep faces with very good snow holding aspects. With good snow cover, the tree skiing can be sensational (it’s like Falls Creek’s Maze with no trails cut but a more southerly aspect). If we were taking the same walk out, we’d ski the whole gully we eventually skied out from – this would mean moving further west below the summit of Spion Kopje to find it. An alternative would be to ski a few runs on the faces and ski out via the Spion Kopje Fire Track that runs below Little Spion Kopje. According to the map, that track eventually exits at Bogong Village.

* Snow quality: Be prepared for anything! On our spring tour we caught a little bit of corn but it was mostly very soft. You could get powder in the trees or sastrugi on the ridge tops.

* There is an intentions book over the dam wall from Falls Creek but if you’re doing the round trip, it’s best to sign out and in at the Resort Management Board near the bottom of the Falls Express Quad Chair.

Equipment

For a day tour, these are the minimum equipment requirements, per person:

* Clothing, including a quality shell, top and bottom, pile (fleece) mid layer, thermal layer, beanie, gloves and mitts and balaclava or neck gaiter.

* Goggles, sunnies, sunscreen and sun hat.

* Map, compass, pocket knife, whistle and first aid kit.

* Two litres of water per person, food and energy snacks.

* Head lamp with spare batteries; candle and waterproof matches.

* Garbage bags; and a pack big enough to take all this.

Shared among the group, you need:

* Bivvy bag or sleeping bag; down jacket and GPS/EPIRB/Mobile phone.

TRIP LIST: DOUG CHATTEN

 

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There's a lot to like about ski lifts, and the people who make them.

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