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Out of bounds

Sunday June 13, 2021 - 02:45 EST

Avalanches? In Australia? They are real and they can be deadly. But a group of back-country adventurers is trying to keep skiers, boarders and bushwalkers safe when they head out into the alpine wilderness.


Winter has arrived hard and fast in the Australian mountains.


The air is cold. The snow is piling up.


Optimism is radiating through the ski resorts and mountain towns of New South Wales and Victoria.


This winter could make amends for the poor snowfall and COVID travel restrictions that frustrated last year's snow season.


But there's a growing cohort looking beyond the boundaries of the ski resorts into what is known as the back country ? the alpine wilderness beyond the reach of chairlifts and roads.


Whether it is searching for steep, untracked slopes or just wanting to get away from the hustle and costs of the commercial ski resorts, the allure of the back country is strong.


But where the resorts are carefully manicured by a fleet of snow groomers and supervised by ski patrollers, the back country is wild and remote.


In past decades, skiing there was the domain of a few hardy cross-country and telemark skiers.


But modern alpine touring equipment for skiers is instantly familiar to anyone who has skied downhill at a resort.


Snowshoes have become lighter and easier to use.


Similarly, the growth of splitboarding (where a snowboard can be 'split' in two and used like skis to go uphill or traverse flat land) has put the back country in reach for many more people.  


It also exposes them to more danger.


Hypothermia is a significant risk, as is falling on sheets of ice that develop over wind-blown slopes.


Avalanches are far less common, but they have claimed lives in the Australian Alps.


Simon Murray could have been one of them.


"It was 2009, I'd been skiing with some local guys out the back of Mount Loch, behind Mount Hotham. I said goodbye to them, as I was going to stay in a hut and they were going back home," Mr Murray recalls.


He decided to take one last run as he made his way back to the hut alone.


"As I skied into the top of this little drop ... well, it is almost as though that's the last thing I remember.


"Before I knew it, like lightning, a tree (was) coming at me. I don't think I even realised that I was in an avalanche until I hit the tree."


Mr Murray was knocked out. When he regained consciousness, he was still mangled in the tree.


"I don't know how long I was up there for, but getting hit by the tree saved me [from being buried]. I was hanging by a rucksack loop. Very lucky."


He didn't tell anyone about the incident for a long time.


"I thought, 'You've just done everything your mates told you not to do'."


But when two snowboarders died on Mount Bogong a few years later in circumstances that felt all too familiar, Mr Murray's perspective changed.


"When that happened, something dropped for me. That was me ? and it has happened to them."


He felt guilt for surviving when they hadn't.


"I was lucky enough to walk away and I probably could've been more proactive in making sure other people don't meet that demise."


That thought was the start of what has become the Mountain Safety Collective (MSC).


It has grown from Mr Murray and his local ski buddies wanting to share information about snow conditions into a formal alpine hazard warning service.


Led by professional avalanche forecaster Canadian-Australian Craig Sheppard, the service provides daily warnings for two Victorian back-country areas and the New South Wales main range.


For each region there is detailed information about the three main hazards: weather conditions, surface conditions (such as ice) and avalanches.


The warnings distinguish between alpine terrain, which is above the tree line, and the sub-alpine terrain below.


"We're trying to get information to the public about back-country conditions so they can go out with more information and hopefully make better decisions about what hazards they're going to face," Mr Sheppard says.


The process relies on both data and field work.


The amount of snowfall, the rate at which it falls, changes in temperature, humidity and wind speeds are all assessed.


Field teams, comprising of ski patrollers and avalanche safety training providers, make local assessments of the snowpack and its layers.


"Generally speaking, an avalanche occurs when there is new snow sitting on an older surface and there is not a bond, so one layer slides on another layer," Mr Sheppard explains.


"I come from Canada; we have a laser focus on the avalanche hazard. Avalanches are a hazard here in Australia, but they're a small part of the hazard."


When making the forecasts, Mr Sheppard is just as focused on the other hazards, such as "getting caught out in the weather or ... icy conditions where if you lose purchase and start sliding down the mountain there's a severe risk of trauma".


Pieta Herring is an avalanche safety instructor and commercial back-country guide based in Jindabyne as well as MSC's NSW regional director.


"Back-country touring is one of the fastest-growing segments in the snow industry worldwide, and we're seeing similar trends here," she says.


"Pick a sunny winter's day on a weekend and go to the top of Mount Twynam (near Mount Kosciuszko) and you'll see people dotted all over the back country."


As well as new equipment making the back country more accessible, she believes social media is driving the trend, too.


"You're seeing professional skiers and snowboarders out there, ripping it up, making it look amazing and people want a piece of that."


She's excited by the enthusiasm but urges newcomers to the back country to do their research.


"Put a lot of effort into planning your trip. If you're a first timer, dial it back. Be cautious, be conservative."


Mount Hotham Ski Patrol director Bill Barker, a stalwart of the local back-country scene, has witnessed the growth in popularity and how it is changing the risks.


"In the past, people wouldn't go touring into the back country until several days after a storm when conditions have stabilised, so there was way less chance of them being out there when it is dangerous," he says.


"What's happening now, people are so keen for it, they're getting out there at the riskiest time ? either during or straight after a storm.


"That's why we've seen more incidents in recent years and we're likely to see more in the coming years."


Parks Victoria ranger Julien Atherstone, who works in the Alpine National Park, welcomes the addition of MSC's warnings as a tool to help people heading into remote areas.


"Every year we have multiple incidents where people are caught unaware in these environments," he says, pointing out that information is equally relevant for bushwalkers heading into the high country.


"The key issues people are going to face are things like quite rapidly changing weather, including complete whiteout conditions and incredibly heavy snow falls.


"They can also get deep snow that accumulates very quick and slows their progress to almost negligible, and they can get ice conditions that can prove very hazardous if they don't have the right equipment."


Just last week, four bushwalkers had to be rescued from Kosciuszko National Park after they became lost while hiking in the snow not far from the Charlotte Pass ski resort.


All were able to walk out safely once they were reached, but it took Fire & Rescue NSW, police and ambulance officers working through the night in deep snow and freezing temperatures.


Despite widespread agreement MSC's alpine warning service is invaluable, setting it up has been far from straight-forward.


Emergency services and government authorities were wary of a bunch of mountain locals wanting to issue formal warnings.


Yet none of the existing services had the knowledge or qualifications to do it themselves.


A breakthrough came when Emergency Management Victoria declared avalanches were not officially an emergency, paving the way for MSC to provide their precautionary warnings.


It also meant emergency services would retain responsibility for search and rescue efforts should an avalanche, or other incidents, occur.


The other breakthrough was the involvement of Craig Sheppard.


His family's relocation from Canada to Australia initially had the professional avalanche forecaster wondering what he might do for work.


Now at the helm of MSC, his qualifications and skills have brought MSC's initiative in line with international standards.


Those developments led to crucial funding and support from Outdoors Victoria and Parks Victoria, but so far there is no such support from their counterparts in New South Wales.


That means MSC is relying on subscription fees from members and commercial sponsorship deals to make ends meet.


"We treat our service like a community radio station, where you can subscribe if you want to, but you don't have to and we'll still play music for you," Mr Murray jokes.


So long as enough snow falls, there'll be more people than ever heading into the back country this winter ? more than 6,000, based on MSC's membership statistics alone.


The alpine hazard warnings are a crucial part of ensuring they come back safely.


"It's great that there is this cultural shift in Australia, that people do recognise that hazards exist," Mr Sheppard says.


"In my time here, I've seen it change and it's awesome to be part of.


"I love being in the back country and I hope this helps people get out and back safely."


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