A Snow Camp On Australia’s Highest Mountains

A 4:30am wake up is difficult at the best of times. Let alone when you’re in a tent, snuggled up in a minus 18 sleeping bag with ice and snow swirling around outside. Still, the alarm went off and I dutifully pulled on my head torch, wriggled into snow pants, jacket and three extra layers. Beside me, my touring buddy Michaela was doing the same. She unzipped the tent door, stuck her head out and said, “It looks like a white out.” Would we get the epic alpine sunrise we had hoped for on our last day of snow camping? “She’ll be right,” I said, and we clambered out onto the snow.

Our tent was shimmering with a layer of ice over it. Our splitboards were frozen over too but luckily we had kept our climbing skins inside the tent so they weren’t completely solid. Soon they were on the base of our splitboards, ready for a walk in the dark up a mountain. Sunrise was set to spring just after 6:00am. We had spotted the perfect place to view it the morning before, about an hour away from base camp. We set off, crunching our way over the snow, and hoped the clouds would lift in time.

Australia’s Most Dramatic Mountains

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Australia had more rolling hills than mountains. Even our highest peak, Mt Kosciuszko at 2,228m, can look a little underwhelming when approached from the usual routes. But I’d argue that you don’t know our Aussie mountains until you’ve seen the Western Faces of Carruthers, Watsong Crags and the Sentinel. These are true, steep mountains that are stunning to look at. You can view them during the 10 Summit Tour expedition that Australian Summit Tours operates in early autumn. As for me, I was hunting them out in the winter months when they were covered in snow to ride.

I’d been daydreaming of the Western Faces for years while working as a backcountry guide. They’re the sort of lines that land front covers of adventure magazines and have films made about them. One such film is in fact called “Western Faces” – a 2020 film by The North Face that features big name riders like Tim Macartney-Snape, Anna Segal, Hank Bilous, Fraser McDougal and Michaela Davis-Meehan. I remember being in awe of Michaela, riding these icy, steep chutes and making it look easy. As the only snowboarder in the film and a Freeride World Tour competitor, I looked up to her. So it was mind blowing that I was now sharing a tent with her and we were scoping lines, side by side.

I had gotten to know Michaela on an avalanche course this year and we got on like a house on fire. So when I was once again daydreaming about heading out to the Western Faces for a few days, Michaela came to mind as an ideal adventure buddy. I sent her a message and her classic response came back, “Yeah, let’s do it!” Less than 48 hours later we were driving in the dark up to Guthega to start the adventure of a lifetime.

Getting to Base Camp

Our first challenge was getting to our camp spot. It was about 10km of mostly uphill, up and over Mt Twynam. Our packs were heavy, brimming with a tent, sleeping equipment, cooking gear, first aid, spare clothes, food for three days and more. We started with walking along an icy track by the Snowy River, then bounced our way over a suspension bridge and begun our uphill skinning. I was only a few hours in when my left splitboard binding started spontaneously shifting around and creating funky angles for me to walk on. Turns out two screws out of three had disappeared! Luckily I had brought spares so I fixed that up and away we went. The sun was out and we enjoyed a lunch under the snow gums in a spot known as the Arc of Trees.

Once we got over Mt Twynam (Australia’s third highest mountain at 2,195m) the Western Faces came into full view. There were pointed peaks, rocky crags, steep drops and layers of blue mountains overlapping into the distance. The scale of this area is hard to describe. You feel like you’ve stepped into another country – one full of mountaineers, good cheese and funny accents.

Setting Up a Snow Camp

The winds were forecast to be light so we took full advantage of the views and built a snow camp on the ridge. There are a few things that make a snow camp more comfortable. Flat ground, shelter, an excellent kitchen and a toilet with epic views. We set about digging away a flat area and smoothed it out with a snowboard, then we built up a snow wall for shelter from any sneaky nighttime breezes. We left a gap in our snow wall so that we could still see the mountains from bed!

After setting up our alpine tent, we went about building steps and a foot well for ease of access. Next, we established a toilet area for some privacy. Lastly, we set up a camp kitchen with the best seats in the house, a spot for our burner and a few notches to act as shelves. As soon as night falls, all the snow freezes so if you don’t have these little holding areas you’ll find your hot chocolate slides away from you pretty quickly! With our 5-star snow hotel set up, it was time to cook some dinner and watch one of the most brilliant sunsets of my life.

Snowboarding My Favourite Mountain

My favourite mountain in the Main Range is Carruthers. It’s not the highest at 2,145m but it is a striking mountain with the beautiful Club Lake on one side, and amazing views of the Western Faces on the other. Michaela and I could see it from our camp spot so of course we started wondering if that’s what we should ride the next day. The northern aspects would get the morning sun, hopefully softening any ice into friendly slush. Carruthers also has some of the longest runs in Australia.

The next day, we watched the sunrise and then got ready at our leisure, packing day packs and making lunch wraps. We ambled off and only a couple of hours later we were standing on top of Carruthers, checking out the snow and figuring out where we should ride. Michaela’s Freeride World Tour skills were extremely helpful here as she has a knack for picking good lines and reading the terrain when you’re standing on top of a mountain. Staring at a face from afar and then being on top of it gives you an entirely different perspective and it can be hard to understand what you’re looking at. Carruthers was certainly steep and had some aggressive rocks you wouldn’t want to fall on, but we had timed it right for some soft snow and low avalanche danger. We chatted about our safety protocols, where to meet, our radio signals and then grabbed a few selfies before it was time to drop in.

Three, Two, One – Dropping

Michaela descended first, cutting deep lines in the snow and spraying it playfully over wind lips. She stopped just out of sight and radioed that it was safe to ride. I slid over the crest of Carruthers and was soon in a narrowing chute. The snow had softened perfectly so I could ride with confidence, although the steepness and huge jagged rocks that loomed on either side set my heart racing. I met up with Michaela and then we leap frogged down the face, carving lines and occasionally jumping off small ledges. There was one part where the curved chute acted like a half pipe and we rode it, cheering as we went. Finally, we descended down to the snow gums again and stopped by a series of waterfalls where we filled up our water bottles. It was a brilliant ride, but the tradeoff was a two hour hike up a steep face to the saddle!

After a long slog, we rode most of the way back to camp, with a slight hiccup when a whiteout came in and we overshot our tent by a hundred metres. But soon we were putting on warm layers, cooking up a storm and settling in for another amazing sunset. We were ready for a well earned rest but tomorrow was our last day and we wanted to have one final sunrise. So we planned a route up to a high point, popped breakfast in our packs and set the alarm for 4:30am.

The Final Day

“It looks like a white out,” Michaela had said on the morning of the last day. And she was right. But in the mountains the weather changes rapidly and we had a feeling it would clear. As we tramped up a hill by the light of our head torches, we noticed the stars beginning to shine above us. The skies were clearing and this sunrise was going to be epic!

About an hour later we had found our sunrise spot, out on a ridge line with mountains on all sides. We were encircled by giants, standing quietly in the night. Around 6:00am the sky began to lighten and suddenly the horizon was burning orange. The clouds dissipated and we could see all the way out to Mt Jagungal. The sun crested over the mountains in the distance and lit up the snowy face below us in red and gold, contrasting with the dark blue peaks in the shadows.

We were admiring it all when we spotted some other campers heading our way. It’s a small world out in the mountains and we knew who they were. We said hello and they told us there was a photographer up on a peak and if we were interested in snowboarding this sun drenched face, he’d surely snap a photo. One last run for the trip? But of course! So one by one, we dropped off the edge and rode into the light of a new day.

If you’re interested in exploring the Main Range and having an adventure of a lifetime, check out the tours run by Australian Summit Tours. You can hike Mt Kosciuszko, walk up 10 of Australia’s highest peaks in one trip, or come snow camping!