Snow-shoe running 

Posted by Nick Thursday, July 21, 2011 9:34:00 PM

Snow-shoeing and snow-show running is an activity that has always seemed pretty cool to me.  The traditional forms of snow enjoyment – downhill skiing and snow-boarding - lack appeal to me for a number of reasons – the crowds, the possibility of severe knee injury that could really stuff up my running, the costs, and a certain lack of physical coordination on my part. Snow shoeing has none of the factors that turn me away from downhill skiing, and is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the high peaks in winter.

Snow running is a lot like sand running, with the quality of the snow surface varying as much as sand conditions would across a beach/ dune area.  On the high plains, the snow is generally hard-packed and even icy, and running is no more difficult than running on hard-packed sand at low tide – a good rhythm and pace is possible, and the main impeding factor will be the bulkier clothes required in cold climates and lack of oxygen.  Below the tree-line (1700-2000m above sea level) and particularly in sheltered areas, the snow can be very loosely packed, and sinking more deeply into foot holes resembles running on dry, fine dunes where progress is extremely difficult.

The two main southern resort areas in NSW offer great snow-shoeing opportunities.  At Perisher, the southern side of the resort (across the road from the main skiing area) offers a network of trails for cross-country skiing and shoeing.  The groomed cross-country ski loops should be avoided, both because of traffic and the damage to the groomed surface impacted by snow shoes, but from Dainers Gap all the way up to the top of Kosciuszko, the southern side of Kosciuszko Rd offers many tracks for the snow-shoer.  NPWS produce an annual guide to the trails (the 2011 edition is currently available here), and the main Kosciuszko National Park site will have links to the most current version.

I headed down to the snow on Thursday night, leaving work slightly early and making it down to Jindabyne where I camped in the car overnight (we have a Toyota Kluger with rear seats that fold down, and combined with a Thermarest, it provides a comfortable sleep).  On the Friday morning, I grabbed a few supplies and headed up to Perisher, where a huge day parking area is available at the resort.  The start of the trails is very close to the car-park – starting near the Fire Station/ Chapel complex.  I headed out along the Porcupine Trail, which leads up to Charlotte Pass, and offers fairly good running conditions.  As with loose sand, running uphill (even slightly) is very hard, and I was soon working up a good sweat and had stripped down to long compression tights (top and bottom) covered by GoreTex pants.

Marked Snow Shoe Trail near Perisher

While its only slightly over 10km up to Charlotte Pass and over the ridge line to the Snowy River valley, it took nearly 2 hours to make the journey.

Loss Snow Cover Makes for Slow Progress - Porcupine Trail

I stopped for lunch (2 High5 Energy Bars) near the frozen Snowy River, used a small tripod to take some shots for an upcoming article in Trail Run magazine, and then headed back down towards Perisher.  There were a couple of cross-country skiers out, but I largely had the entire trail network to myself, and under warm (maybe 5 degrees), clear skies, it was an awesome day to be out exploring.

Snowshoes and Snowgums

Snow Running with the Snowy River in the background

I made a much quicker return to Perisher, running along the snow-covered road, sharing it with Over-snow Tracked Buses ferrying skiers back and forth between the end of the cleared road at Perisher and the resort at Charlotte Pass.  The snow cover on the road was much more hard-packed, and combined with the general drop in elevation, it was less than 90 minutes back to the car at Perisher, where I joined the hundreds of cars making the trek back to Jindabyne.

After a chilly night spent again in the back of the Kluger at the Jindabyne Caravan Park, I headed up early the next morning to Thredbo.  Unlike Perisher where overnight parking is prohibited, Thredbo has overnight parking available, so for multi-day trips to the back country, you can either park at the Ski Tube and catch the train through to Perisher and start from there, or park at Thredbo in the designated overnight areas.  From Thredbo, there are two options for getting up to the top of the mountain – hike via Dead Horse Gap, or catch the chair-lift up to the top.  As the chair-lift option is pretty much cheating, I hiked the few kilometers up the Alpine Way to Dead Hoarse Gap, donned the snow-shoes, and began the hike up the slope.  Parking at Dead Horse Gap is also an option, but the spot is fairly isolated, and car break-in/ damage seemed much more probable at this location.  The first section of the climb up Dead Horse Gap is very energy sapping, and with a pack containing a 4-season tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and food for the next 24 hours, there was no possibility of running. 

Dead Horse Gap Trail

It’s about a 9km journey back towards Thredbo to reach the high country near Rams Head, and I made it up by lunchtime.  Rather than carry a lot of water, I only carried 600ml of hydration in a Nathan Hand-Held, with a weak Endura mix to provide an ongoing source of energy.  At the top of the climb near Thredbo Top Station, I stopped for a late lunch (a double Backcountry dehydrated meal) and also defrosted 600ml of water to refill the hand-held.  The day was wonderful, with visibility all the way through to the Victorian High Country on the other side of the Murray Gorge, and reasonably warm conditions that made hiking extremely pleasant. 

Near Rams Head

After a relaxed lunch, I made the ~6km hike over to Seamans Hut to get the tent setup for the night.  It was the first time I was putting the tent up in snow, and wanted plenty of time to be able to setup everything properly in daylight.  I was at the hut by 3:30, and had a coffee and some chocolate before setting up the tent.  There was a conveniently cleared spot right near the hut that fitted the tent (a North Face Mountain 25 4-season), and I soon had the tent up and was in the Hut enjoying the fire and the company of 4 other back-country adventurers (2 cross-country skiers, 2 kite snow-boarders) who were staying in the hut. 

A full moon soon rose, and the high-country covered in snow and bathed in the light of a full moon is a truly wonderful sight.  I took a few snaps using the small tripod I was carrying, and the light is so strong it actually looks like daylight in some shots.

Seamans Hut Under Moonlight

After a dinner of another Backcountry meal and Nutella-smothered pita bread, we spent some time around the fire chatting before I headed off to the tent for an early night.  I’ve got a -15 sleeping bag, and have previously used it in temperatures that low, so the forecast overnight low of -5 wasn’t going to be a problem.  A strong wind came up overnight, and the tent handled the 35-knot gusts well.  I’d used eight 30cm snow pegs to held the tent down, and was glad I had situated the tent in a protected hollow.

I woke around 6, and the wind had dropped off for a while, making packing up the tent pretty easy.  After another Backcountry meal for breakfast, I left the hut for the quick trip to the top of Kosciuszko.  The path from Seamans Hut to Rawsons Pass was clearly marked with poles, but from Rawsons Pass to the top of Kosciuszko, it was near white-out conditions, and navigation was purely but GPS and sticking to a direction that lead up hill.  While its only a 200m ascent to the top, and the circular path that leads to the summit outside the snow season is a pretty easy ascent, the direct ascent was pretty difficult, and despite the crampons on the snow-shoes, I had to adjust the climb at some points to avoid the steeper parts of the mountain.

Upon reaching the top, the horizontal icicles on the side of the  Kosciuszko monument were remarkable - they extended about 8 metes directly to the side.  Over the last month, there had been pretty extreme wind conditions, and the gusts that had carved these ice sculptures must have been truly staggering.  After a few shots using the tripod, the cold and wind prompted a fairly quick depart from Australia's highest point.  While reaching the Kosciuszko summit is a pretty unremarkable feat, the conditions of the day made reaching the summit reasonably tiring if not challenging. 

Top of Kosciuszko  

The hike back to Thredbo Top Station was fairly easy, aided by a trailing northerly wind and a general declining terrain.  The high country was pretty empty, with the only a few cross-country skiers and the kite snow-boarders out.  The conditions cleared throughout the morning, and the Kosciuszko peak was visible from a few kilometres away.

Looking back towards Kosciuszko

I stopped short of the Thredbo Top Station to defrost another refill for handheld, and then completed a fast descent between the ski-runs of Thredbo down to Friday Flats and back to the car around lunchtime.  With only a couple of hour gap between the wind, white-out conditions and isolation at the top of Kosciuszko  to the bustle of Thredbo, it felt weird to jump between the two worlds so quickly.  Five hours later I was back home in Sydney, completing a really enjoyable weekend.

In an upcoming issue of Trail Run magazine, I'll go into some more depth about gear choices, different venues for snow-shoeing in Australia, so stay tuned for more coverage...

The MapMyRun routes for the Perisher and Thredbo routes are below for anyone keen to try some snow-shoeing around the same area.

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