Yesterday’s tragedies are today’s comedies. On a Friday night, Emma and I packed our bags for a trip to the snowy slopes of Mt Baw Baw. We were buzzing in anticipation of our impending carve sessions – that is, until we discovered that heavy snowfall and fallen trees had forced the closure of the roads in.
The same weather system that sprinkled snow on the Giants versus Hawks game in Canberra and dusted the Dandenongs in powder was responsible for the rare carnage which overpowered all measures to keep the roads open. I can only imagine, then, what it was like at the 1567m summit. The temperature plummeted to –5°, the winds raged at over 100kph and clouds dumped one metre of fresh snow.
The improbability of the timing did nothing to ease our self-pity. But sooner or later our hopes turned to the following weekend. We rescheduled and found ourselves at the top of the lifts one week after originally planned. Strapped into our boards, we surveyed the pure white slopes before us – still coated with a metre of snow and topped up with fresh falls. The only course of action in such circumstances is to face the nose downhill and let loose. One week on, we were finally laughing.
AN ICY INVENTORY
Mt Baw Baw has five lifts, excluding the magic carpets. Four of these climb slopes in a north-easterly direction, towards the summit. Of these four, three are accessible from the village: Maltese Cross T-Bar (460m long), Hut Run Platter (395m) and Summit T-Bar (665m). Painted Run T-Bar (over 300m) is accessible by catching the Summit T-Bar and riding left.
On the other side is Tank Hill Platter lift (174m), which climbs west. From the top here you can come down Tank Hill, a constantly angled section with a few pipes and a snow ramp, or down the back on Home Run, to come out at the Village Central Restaurant. But the longer runs are off the north-eastern lifts.
Tank Hill Platter, Hut Run Platter and Summit T-Bar are clustered at the far end of the village; Maltese Cross T-Bar is separate, nearer the resort entry. All in all, across the lifts, there are 18 designated runs – mostly of beginner and intermediate difficulty.
Lifts are T-bar or platter lifts, not chairlifts. These require a bit more concentration and effort, but give beginner boarders an extra chance to develop balance. Besides, they produce less of those moments of horror in which you are moving steadily towards a tangle of bodies that have failed to clear the dismount area.
I am forever indebted to these lifts for the retrieval of my Ray Ban sunglasses. I realised when I reached the bottom of the Summit Run that they’d fallen off my face. I had written them off, but on the next ride up, the operators paused the T-Bar lift midway, as they do when someone falls, and I saw, 30 metres to my right on the run, a small black shape in the snow. A snowboarder was approaching them and I called out, ‘Are those Ray Bans?’ The answer ‘yes’ came back and he rode them over. They were in perfect condition.
Around the outside of these slopes are seven cross-country trails, amounting to 10km. These are regularly groomed in winter and perfect for hikers or skiers (on a standard snowboard they would likely be too stop/start). Skiing down them from the top of the lifts would be brilliant, as they’re surrounded by dense forest, just open enough for occasional glimpses at the landscape below the snowline.
ADRENALINE TO BE HAD
I find myself in one of two snowboarding moods – adventurous or perfectionistic. When I’m feeling adventurous, I long to improvise like a jazz saxophonist down the slopes. Baw Baw’s 18 runs offer a lot of variety and, in practice, it feels like more than 18. Each run has various different lines to take and many can be strung together to form distinct journeys from top to bottom. Fortunately, you can duck from the top of Maltese Cross Bar to come out at the bottom of Hut Run Platter, and vice versa, which saves you from walking between the two sections when you feel like something new.
There are wide open sections where you can weave to your heart’s content, like grandma in her chair; sudden drops to give you that roller-coaster sensation in your stomach; long angled runs where you can get low as Shorty and race like a cheetah; sections of bumpy, mole-hill snow to test the knees (‘they ain’t what they used to be’) or embrace your inner currawong and get aerial; narrow sections where you’re hemmed in by trees and need to exercise precision turning; and raised bowl-like edges, that you can ride up and turn on like Kelly Slater.
This brings me to my other mood, perfectionism. Emma and I regularly found ourselves completing the same runs. Once you’re onto a good thing and are enjoying the challenges of a particular run, you can easily lose track of time and whittle away a few hours. We experienced something akin to Groundhog Day on Painted Run T-Bar, where there was virtually no line-up on Sunday. Other lifts were prone to longer lines, particularly later in the arvo on the perfectly sunny Saturday. Nothing to be done. Lines come with the territory of snow resorts. The dream would be to be here during the week.
It’s sometimes said that the hardest slopes at Baw Baw are of intermediate difficulty. I’d say a few slopes, like Slalom, are closer to ‘advanced’ if you hit them at pace, but for the most part I’d agree with that. I suppose the question is where your skill level is actually at. For intermediate riders Baw Baw has everything you need and will keep you on your feet. I consider myself intermediate, having snowboarded in New Zealand and Sweden, and I had a thoroughly good time.
As for those who are starting out, Baw Baw is a dream. There’s some easy slopes, lessons with professionals and limited risk if you wish to avoid it.
SLOPES AMONG SCENERY
Breakneck speed is one thing, but sometimes it’s nice to drift like a feather down the slope and look towards a brilliant view that you’re approaching. There are moments at Mt Baw Baw where the vista dazzles – particularly on a clear day without low cloud obscuring the plains (although being above the clouds is brilliant in its own right).
A stand-out view is the one when you veer right around the top of Champagne. There’s a wash of white in the foreground, bordered by gum trees, which terminates in a sharp drop as the slope steepens. Then, a layer back, the hill near the village rises with a symmetrical building smack-bang at the top (the aforementioned restaurant). Beyond this the plain expands to a horizon that seems unusually high.
Another stand-out glimpse of grandiosity comes when you turn on your toe edge into Playground and see white, untouched snowfields, broken sparsely by stands of trees. The seemingly endless white swathes of snow and limitless blue sky give you a sense of vastness, the feeling that you are properly immersed in large, boundless country.
It’s not only the grand-scale views that impress. I absolutely adore the snow gums. Their trunks are all the colours of the podium: gold, silver and bronze. Sometimes, if they’re wet, they shine like glossy sharkskin. Other times, when the surface moisture has sunk in and evaporated a little, they become matte and moody, darkly intense. There’s a weird two-dimensionality to their branches and leaves when coated in snow or frozen in ice; you see the branches and then, like an outline added afterwards, a border of frost. The narrow runs of Slam Dunk and Ridge Run surround you in archways of such trees.
STILL CARVING IN SPIRIT
Heading home, sore from using hibernating muscles (though still in one piece thanks to the comfy bed at Altitude Apartments) and hungry from being too distracted to eat, we were thrilled to only have to drive two and a half hours, via what I see as the preferable route, along Mt Baw Baw Tourist Road and Princes Highway, passing through Neerim South.
The first 50 kilometres of the way home are windy and narrow. I found myself still in snowboarding mode, considering whether to slow down or maintain pace so as not to come to a standstill, feeling a slight reflex in my heels when taking a left turn, a twitter in my toes when turning right.
It seems I was still thinking of the long, steep home run on Playground, the tilted slope at the end of Champagne, and the teetering, tree-enclosed madness of Slalom. I’m sure I’ll be thinking of them for a long time to come.