2020’s Whacky Winter

At many points through early 2020, it didn’t look like we’d get to ski at all due to COVID restrictions, and our Victorian friends found themselves in that situation most of the season. After an amazing cold pre-season dump in May that hardly anyone could ski, it was also a case of dodge ball as La Niña-fuelled tropical low pressure systems dumped moist snow and rain while many colder systems got pushed too far South to consistently snow. Despite all this, Winter 2020 was awesome, so I thought I’d capture some highlights for posterity.

The view from Illawong bridge to Mt Twynam in mid July 2020

June was generally snow-starved, with whatever snow-making in the resorts melted away by incessant warm temperatures and moist precipitation. The resorts did their best to open despite the lack of snow and COVID restrictions for the July school holidays, but it wasn’t until the middle of the month that the first big storm hit… from the wrong direction! This was a warm “Atmospheric river” event, similar to West Coast USA’s infamous Pineapple Express. This drew warm air down from the Equator to Australia’s East Coast, forming a low pressure system that fired moisture straight at the mountains.

Weather satellite photo from July 13 showing a cloud band stretching from Indonesia to New Zealand

By sheer luck, NSW had a pocket of cold air that this intersected with, causing catastrophic heavy snow as low as Jindabyne, closing roads, destroying power lines and shredding forest canopies. This shut everything down for about 3 days in the mountains, but once the debris was cleared, 60-80cms of heavy snow created the semblance of a base to ski on. The Victorian mountains, within sight of NSW peaks, missed out on the cold air and had every last smidgin of snow washed away by torrential rain. Winter 2020 had officially started, and Ms Monkey and I scooted out to Illawong for a lovely day in the sun to get our ski legs back.

Making our way back to Guthega after the first ski of the year

By July 27, the second East Coast Low formed under similar La Niña conditions and pounded the mountains with almost 100mm of rain while the coast received about 300mm over a couple of days. This almost re-set the season to zero and was followed by yet another intense low a week later that only snowed above the tree line. After waiting days for this storm to peter out, the clouds finally lifted on Monday August 10 to reveal an ice encrusted landscape in the high alpine.

Out across the Ice Field

Ginny and I had blocked out the day to get into Leatherbarrel Creek, but had to skin across a couple of kilometres of boilerplate ice to get to the Western faces that had some snow blown into them. This was well worth the pain, as once we got there we had a flawless run down The Couloir to the creek in perfect sunshine on smooth, wind-packed snow.

Miss G heading to the lunch spot!

The climb back out of Leatherbarrel is always less fun than the run down, and we figured bootpacking back up The Corrie would be easier than slip-sliding on skins up the creek, with some added excitement as ice and rocks started melting off the cliffs above us! We then had to keep our skins on to have some grip on the ice all the way back downhill to Thredbo.

Bootpacking back up The Corrie

A couple of weeks later, what looked to be the storm of the season loomed – the first properly cold system with forecasts of over a metre of snow likely. So, back to the mountains and a plan to storm-ski the resort before heading out for some camping to score the first bluebird day after the storm. This meant buying a lift ticket at full Covid and weekend pricing rates, including Ski Tube for a grand total of $225 – the most I’ve ever spent on a day’s skiing that doesn’t involve helicopters! After a fun Saturday tree skiing, we headed out in the back end of the storm on Sunday morning and set up camp near South Ramshead before an afternoon storm skiing the trees.

A perfect afternoon for some storm skiing!

While the weather was miserable, it was cold and dry and the snow had been piling up for over 48hrs, burying absolutely everything in around a metre of fresh. After a cosy night snuggled in the tents, we woke early on Monday to crisp sun and temperatures well below zero.

Post-storm morning view

While we had planned to get back into Leatherbarrel Creek for the day, a thick layer of fog was blanketing the Western faces, despite the clear skies to the East. We adjusted our plans accordingly and found some amazing lines into Bogong Creek. The snow was a bit wind packed up high, but was skiing soft and deep by Australian standards down in the gullies before we packed up camp and cruised back to the car at Dead Horse Gap.

(Guthega) Dam good Australian snow!

The following day saw everyone that had been waiting for a powder day trying to drive up to Perisher, creating a traffic jam for hours down the hill from Front Valley. A quick change of plan saw us divert to Guthega and an amazing day touring off the top of Guthega Trig and out to Mount Tate in some of the best Australian snow conditions I can remember.

The kids trudging across the flats to Bogong Creek

The people who’d been smart enough to book this week in advance had days of blue skies and fantastic snow to enjoy, and our gaggle of kids were keen to do some backcountry themselves on the Wednesday. We kitted them out with snowshoes so they could carry their snowboards and headed back to Bogong Creek for a beautiful day in the sun, with the snow having held up perfectly since the weekend. It’s always a delight to see kids have their first backcountry trip and the first question at the end of the day being “When can we do it again???”.

Hopefully this will all fit!

A quick turnaround at home saw me packing for our now annual Big Trip of the season – at least 3 nights and 4 days camping and skiing in the backcountry. After last year’s Thredbo to Guthega traverse, we wanted to get deeper into the Western Faces, so had decided to put a base camp at Little Twynam for good access each day. This meant lugging some heavy packs up, but a lot of comfort and flexibility once we were dug in. The initial weather forecast looked promising, so we were quite relaxed going to bed on the first night despite a bit of a breeze around the peaks.

Building snow walls to protect the base camp at Little Twynam

This all changed shortly after midnight when the prevailing Northerly wind swung West, eliminating any shelter we had from the rocks we’d camped behind as the wind pushed towards 100kmh gusts. Amazingly, all the tents held fast, but we got stuck into building snow walls at first light to give us some reprieve lest it continued through the day. Of course, the moment we’d finished a couple of hours of intense wall building, the wind abated and we could start thinking about going skiing! It was a good lesson about being too complacent about the weather forecasts and being prepared for rapid changes in the high alpine.

Cornice collapse at Blue Lake

We spent the day trying to find patches of skiable snow after the wind had ripped anything soft away, exploring the chutes around Blue Lake and checking out a huge cornice collapse. This was roughly in the same place Tom Carr-Boyd died in 2008, a tragic reminder that you can have catastrophic alpine accidents in Australia.

Snug in the kitchen tent

This trip’s crew were all very experienced alpinists, so I was happy to just keep up and listen to some amazing stories over a tasty freeze dried meal and nips of tightly rationed whiskey! We’d also brought a cheap pyramid tent to use as a kitchen which provided us with much more cosy evenings than freezing outside.

Looking down Watson’s Creek and out towards Mount Jugungal

The following morning was the epic blue bird day we’d been counting on to explore the Western Faces, and we set off early for Tennyson Woods Knoll. Given it was a sunny Sunday, there were quite a few other groups out enjoying the day, so we ventured a bit further to get a clean line down Siren Song. The snow had softened quickly in the morning sun and the terrain was on par with anything I’ve skied around the world, with steep open bowls and a seemingly endless fall line. After a long climb back out, we put a second lap in down a different line before a hot midday exit.

By late September, it seemed the season was well and truly over when a blip of cold weather appeared in the forecast. A couple of friends who’d never been backcountry asked if I could take them out if it did snow, and when the totals stacked up with over 70cm of dry powder, we bolted back down on September 27. Half the group had decided to try and surf and snowboard in the same day, so we didn’t get to the top of the Thredbo lift until well after 2pm, deciding to get as far as we could before nightfall. This ended up being just on the back side of Kosciuszko herself, with a great view across to Mt Townsend, Carruthers and Twynam.

Early morning view from Kosciuszko

Monday morning greeted us with exceptional weather, and while the snow wasn’t super deep (We were hitting grass digging out our tent spots), it had filled most of the skiable slopes in.

Joel and Dave looking across at Watson’s Crags and Mount Jagungal in the far distance.

Our goal was to spend the day exploring around Lake Albina and we found some incredible untracked lines in between GFunk trying to get the perfect photo!

Modelling some fancy gear for Helly Hansen in The Dolomites Lake Albina! Pic by gfunk.

Some of the terrain felt like we were in British Columbia, with bottomless valleys below and soaring rocky outcrops above – all a full day’s ski from civilisation.

Skinning up Alice Rawson Peak

The group had enough youthful energy to put a full day of hiking and riding in, topped off by a dip in a very frozen Lake Albina before heading back to camp.

Joel soaking up some warmth before a brisk dip in Lake Albina. Pic by gfunk.

And that was the end of the season skiing. What started out seeming like it could be a complete write-off ended up being one of the most memorable Winters ever. Amazing snow if you were there on the right day and some fantastic trips with great friends. What more could you ask for?

End of season yard sale before the long drive home

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