Australia Weather News

Powdery snow and groomed slopes are usually peak conditions for skiers, but for some back-country specialists it's a case of the tougher the better.

August is often the best time for snowfall in Tasmania and skiers have not been disappointed this year.

The August falls provided a trio of skiers with the perfect conditions to tackle the eastern escarpment of a snow-laden Cradle Mountain in Tasmania's World Heritage Area.

The mountain's picture-perfect northern face provides the much-photographed tourist vista.

But the less observed eastern side provides some skiing couloirs —or long narrow corridors — for thrill-seekers prepared to haul gear up and over the northern face.

Tasmanian Ben Armstrong first skied the eastern face last year with an ice axe for "psychological support".

This time he was joined by Shaun Mittwollen from Wollongong and New Zealander Ben Grindle to tackle what possibly only a handful of hardy skiers have done.

The gradient was 40 degrees on average but approached 50 degrees in some parts.

To put that in perspective, the steepest black runs in ski fields are usually 30 degrees.

"There wasn't that much snow on the north face at least but we knew there would be a lot more on the eastern face which is the side you don't really see in photos," Armstrong told ABC Radio.

"We headed up to the summit and headed down the east face.

"It was probably one of the most spectacular and scary runs in Australia.

"Luckily it was really firm frozen snow with a soft layer on top which really made for pleasant and relatively safe skiing.

"We still hit a bit of ice on the way down which was slightly never-wracking when there's a huge drop below you, but we got through it.

"It was fantastic. It was one of best days of skiing I've had in Tassie."

While the conditions were mostly with rather than against them, they had to remain ultra vigilant — especially for rocks just below the surface.

"I misjudged turned and slammed into [a rock] and took a tumble," Armstrong said.

"Usually it's just under the snow that are the ones you worry about. [It's] not just a safety issue, they can tear chunks out of your skis which is a little annoying."

'Downhill skiing without the lifts'

The adventure up and down Cradle Mountain took about nine hours, with plenty of stunning views along the way.

While it looks gruelling to the novices, Armstrong said it was not always treacherous — but it is advisable to be fit.

"Back-country skiing is essentially downhill skiing, but without the lifts so it's human-powered uphill," he said.

"There's different levels of it, it can be quite easy depending where you do it, but for Tasmania you definitely need a lot of fitness.

"Depending where you go it can be quite a safe, mellow experience if you stick to gentle slopes with good access."

The quality of snow is also a factor.

"With Tasmania, it tends to be incredibly variable," Armstrong said.

"Often it falls really wet and heavy and there's no base of hard snow underneath, so it can just be scrub or whatever's underneath [like rocks] so it can make for pretty terrible skiing.

"But then if you get it right [like Cradle] it's a blast and it's just made so much better by all the times that you struggle and have no success when it comes right, it's pretty satisfying."

Back-country — or Alpine tour skiing — can be as easy or as difficult and you want to make it.

"You might only need to walk only for 20 minutes as in the case of Mount Field, but for Frenchman's Cap [both in the state's Wilderness World Heritage Area] which I did a few years ago, it's 50 kilometres of walking with skis on your back," he said.

"In Tasmania, Mount Field is probably one of the easier places, there is the Mt Mawson ski tow and beyond that there are some back country nice runs.

"Usually I suss out the lines I want to ski in advance, so it might be something I've seen from a distance or seen a photos, and I'll check it out on a map and then you usually approach from the top or sometimes or climb up from below, just try to suss out the conditions before you commit to it.

"Cross-country is slightly different thing, it's on lightweight skis which are good for flat or gentle slopes, whereas back-country skiers are able to ski downhill like normal downhill skis but you can also ski uphill."

Special ski gear to 'walk up hills'

People have been back-country skiing in Tasmania for decades, but these days special gear makes it easier.

"There's a different binding so your heel can lift out of the ski which allows kind of walking motion," Armstrong said.

"They also strap these things called skins on the base of the skis which is like a fabric with a one-way grain on it and some kind of glue which sticks to the base of the skis.

"So that allow you to pretty much walk up hills."

Snowboarders also take to the slopes.

"They've got a thing called a split board which comes apart lengthways and you put the skins on underneath and they essentially turn into a pair of skis you can use to get uphill," Armstrong said.

"In terms of modern equipment, it's only taken off in last 20 years [making] it a bit more accessible for people.

"The scene in Tas is very, very small, it's really hard to gauge how many people are doing it."

It can be expensive to get into, with good quality gear costing up to $2,000, but Armstrong said it's "not that bad" compared to hundreds of dollars just to access a ski resort.

And for Armstrong, back-country skiing is a far more fulfilling experience.

"There's definitely a deep satisfaction that comes when the effort you've put in pays off."