‘Like swimming outside the flags’: Inexperienced skiers flock to remote backcountry

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More and more people are venturing into the backcountry of NSW and Victoria ski fields, spurred by the outsized influence of action footage on social media and a desire to escape pricey lift tickets and crowded chair lifts.

But experts say the inexperienced skier, hikers and snowboarders who are venturing beyond the boundaries of patrolled ski fields may not be aware of the risks.

Skiing and snowboarding in the Australian alpine backcountry, the Snowy Mountains main range.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen.

"I've seen the amount of people in the backcountry building over the last eight years or so, and it's really getting busier in the last couple of years," said Doug Chatten – a former National Parks and Wildlife Service search and rescue team member and Snowy Mountains Backcountry tours owner.

"It's busier now but you can still have a wilderness experience but there is a risk with social media and people looking to get the badge of honour increasing the curve of the aspirations and getting themselves into trouble."

Mr Chatten said people could build up their skills over time to safely enjoy the backcountry, but novices needed to "dial themselves back a bit and not act like it's a ski resort".

"No one is impervious to a mechanical failure in their gear, or getting lost. It just happens sometimes. You need to have enough scope in your kit to survive for 24 hours, you can't assume search and rescue can deploy immediately.

"You also need to pay attention to the weather warnings and white-out conditions, have crampons for icy steep surfaces, know how to navigate with maps, watch snow surface conditions and instability in the snowpack and make sure you're realistic with time management for journey times from a to b."

A snowboarder ascending Mount Tate in the Snowy Mountains.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen.

Former Olympic skier Zali Steggall, now federal MP for Warringah, said although Australia's alps weren't the same scale as many famous ski fields around the world, people still needed to be careful.

"Australians need to understand that skiing in backcountry or off the marked runs is like swimming outside the flags at our beaches," Ms Steggall said.

"As a skier who has spent many years on ski slopes from France to Australia, the mountains can be unpredictable no matter where you are."

Crossing the Guthega River, skiing and snowboarding in the Australian alpine backcountry, the Snowy Mountains main range.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen.

Avalanche trainer with Snowsafety, Adam West, said coronavirus travel restrictions, and increasing access to cheaper equipment had pushed more people in remote areas.

"The restrictions on getting into the sport aren't there anymore. And with COVID we saw a massive influx of inquiries in February and March, when people were thinking of escaping the city and getting their fix , saying 'I'll just go and get the gear and go skiing in the backcountry', but without actually understanding the risks," Mr West said.

"Wether it's ignorance is bliss or, you know, our defence systems are being lowered due to the fact that social media people seeing what's on Facebook and thinking everyone can do it and we just follow suit. We've been lucky that there's been no fatalities."

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