When you think of traveling to Australia, one of the following images probably comes to mind: scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, visiting the Sydney Opera House, or diving into the waves on famous Bondi Beach. But while those are all wonderful experiences, one of my favorite memories made in Australia was actually an excursion into the snow.
The trip I am about to describe is not a luxury vacation by any measure. If you are looking for the Four Seasons on the slopes, this is not your best bet. My trip is a one week ice climbing and mountaineering class offered by the Australian School of Mountaineering in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains just outside of Sydney. It is a true adventure, and that’s what I loved about it!
Australia has several interesting ski regions, but our journey begins in Thredbo, New South Wales, around six hours southwest of Sydney, right in the middle of Kosciuszko National Park. Mount Kosciuszko is mainland Australia’s highest mountain, at 7,310 ft above sea level. Not very high compared to our equivalent of Mount Whitney at 14,508 feet or even Mammoth Mountain at 11,053 feet, but high enough for a wonderful snow experience in the winter (our summer).
Upon arrival in Thredbo we grabbed our backpacks and took a ski lift up the mountain, where we were met by a snow cat that took as another 30 minutes out of the ski region and into the wild. From there we were on our own. Equipped with enough food for a week, tents, shovels, sleeping bags, bivy sacks and a minimum of toiletries we set out on touring skis into the big “nothingness” of Kosciuszko National Park.
After approximately three hours on skis we reached “base camp”….really just a calm spot close to a stream that would provide our drinking water for the week to come. We never ended up using those tents, but dug a snow cave into the side of the mountain instead, which became our home for the next six nights. It turned out that of the five of us I was the weakest "digger", so I had water duty instead. Did I mention that three of my companions were professional rock climbing instructors and the fourth guy was over six feet tall?
Taking the bucket down to the stream, carrying it back up, and repeat that over and over again. It took several hours to build the cave and several trips down to the stream with my bucket, but it was a beauty when it was done.
The next day our snow adventures began, and they were a mix of climbing excursions, skill sessions and survival lessons in the outdoors. Every day we added a few skills in the morning, cooked our lunch out in the snow, and then did a fun hike or touring ski run in the afternoon. Our final goal was to climb a nearby peak on the last day.
I learned a lot of new techniques and pieces of information during this week, for example that you always want to sleep at a higher point than the entry point of your cave, so you don’t die of carbon monoxide inhalation. Or how to self arrest (stop yourself while sliding down a mountain) with an ice axe while wearing crampons, or how to repel into a cravass and then climb back out again using the same ice axe and what's called a Prusik. I learned how to use touring skis while carrying a 50 pound backpack and how to dry clothes when it’s freezing outside and there is no drying rack. I learned not to panic when it snows during the night and your cave entrance closes up, and I learned how to dig out that entrance. I learned to put my contact lenses into my sleeping bag and what a shower feels like after you haven’t had one for a week. I learned to be without a cell phone for a week and to enjoy complete quiet around me. I learned to relax and enjoy nature for an uninterrupted seven day period. Most of all I learned to overcome fears and trust my team mates….it was a wonderful and enriching experience. One day I want to do it again with my whole family!
To find out more about this trip check out the options at the Australian School of Mountaineering:
And even if you are not interested in a long and cold adventure, try one of their rock climbing classes or canyoning day trips through the Blue Mountains. It’s well worth it!
Disclaimer: I wrote this Blog post before the fires that swept through Australia. Since then a large portion of the Blue mountains has been destroyed and I don't know if any of these trips are a possibility in the years to come....