On regular pilgrimages to the snow, I've always fallen short of making it to Charlotte Pass, Australia's highest ski resort. With the Kosciuszko Road closed at Perisher during winter, and the rugged realms of Charlotte Pass another 11km beyond, it's always seemed that bridge too far.
Sure, I've visited Charlotte Pass in summer, often as a stepping stone to those back-breaking treks up over the main range, but never under its winter cloak.
If reports from others are to be believed, I've been missing out. Apparently it's a place where ski tourers explore the silent untracked back country and downhill daredevils race down some of Australia's highest runs, all in a village atmosphere. Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?
Well, I recently decided to finally bite the bullet and find out for myself. Would Charlotte Pass be the winter nirvana promised by so many?
During winter the only way to travel the 11km from Perisher to the resort is in one of seven Oversnow vehicles.
I clamber up into Piston Billy, one of the newer vehicles which resembles a cross between a Landcruiser on steroids and an army tank, tighten my seat belt, and off we go. There are about 20 others along for the ride, and by the anxious look on their faces, most are also snowmobile first-timers.
When you think of a state-of-the-art machine traversing the snow, you'd think it'd be a smooth ride, but it's bumpier than you expect, and also much noisier. By the time we reach top speed (about 40km/h) like a giant flightless wasp we buzz past the last of the snow gums, their trunks twisted and tortured from centuries of blizzards, and up above the tree line. It's like driving through a 3D postcard.
Compared with the first wave of skiing pioneers, our journey to the roof of Australia is one of luxury. In the early 1900s travellers braved frigid conditions in horse-drawn sleighs that were replaced in 1937 by a snow plough caterpillar tractor pulling a car body in a sleigh.
However, in 1947, Charlotte Pass skiers thought all their Christmases had come at once, when a fleet of snowmobiles originally intended for the Second World War arrived, complete with camouflage paint. They proved unsuccessful as spare parts were impossible to source.
However, most memorable among the long-list of contraptions carting skiers on the Perisher-Charlotte route was the aptly-named Ice Box of the 1960s. It was basically a tractor towing a railway carriage on skis. According to Rick Walkom in Skiing Off the Roof: The Kosciuszko Chalet at Charlotte Pass and its place in the history of the Australian snowfields (Arlberg Press, 1991), "it was so cold passengers often jumped out and walked behind".
Thankfully there's no chance of that today as we chug over Spencers Creek, where the official snow depths are measured by Snowy Hydro. In summer, the view down the valley with the creek surrounded by mountain peaks is one of the most photographed landscape scenes in the Snowies. Today, the creek is completely frozen over, but the view is just as idyllic.
Suddenly, the two passengers seated next to me feverishly point ahead, trying to catch the driver's attention. I immediately look up. There's another Oversnow vehicle headed straight toward us.
But our alert driver appears to already have the situation under control and with all the smugness of a veteran ice trucker, he picks a line and guns it. It's akin to a jousting competition with the side mirrors of each vehicle as lances, and at less than an arms width's apart we successfully pass each other. Phew!
Over one more rise the sight of the landmark dome on the Kosciuszko Chalet Hotel heralds our arrival. Out the front are a line of deck chairs, the sort you'd expect to see around the pool on a tropical island, not at Australia's highest snow resort. There are no lift queues, no hustle and bustle, just snow as far as the eye can see - which up here is a long way.
With a daytripper pass to Charlotte Pass you can opt for a day's skiing or a guided snow shoe expedition. I opt for the latter and a short walk from the top of the Kosciuszko Triple Chair brings us to a lookout.
"That's the full sweep of the main range," our guide explains while pointing out the peaks of Mt Kosciuszko and the more imposing summits of Mt Clarke and Mt Townsend and Carruthers Peak laid out before us.
What's more, almost as remarkable as the view, especially given the wild weather which often howls through here, are two more deck chairs perched atop the platform. Really!
Continuing on the Top of the World ski run, we pass the hulking remains of the first (1938) mechanical lift in Australia. Stopping every few minutes for yet another Instagrammable moment, our pace is near glacial. But on a bluebird day, I wouldn't want it any other way.
Near the summer-only amenities block at the end of the Kosciuszko Road, which is almost entirely buried in snow, we pass several overly-rugged-up folk hauling sleds laden with gear embarking on back country adventures. But for us, it's a stroll back down towards the village, where I score one of those ubiquitous deck chairs and watch the last of the downhill skiers reluctantly snow plough down the hill.
They don't want to leave. Nor do I, but the lifts are about to stop spinning for another day and the Piston Billy is calling.
I'm a Charlotte Pass convert, next time I may even save up and bunk down for a night or two in the historic chalet.
Truly an island in the snow, deck chairs and all.
Charlotte Pass Snow Resort: Located at the end of Kosciuszko Road. In winter the resort can only be accessed via Oversnow transport from Perisher Resort (chains are required to be carried by all 2WD from the Thredbo River to Perisher), a 210km drive south-west of Canberra. charlottepass.com.au
Daytripper options: While there are a range of overnight accommodation options at Charlotte Pass, including at the historic chalet, you can also explore this winter wonderland on a day trip. Daytripper passes ex-Perisher including return Oversnow transport, lunch and either full mountain lift pass or a 2.5 hour snow shoe from $109 for an adult, or $68 for a child. charlottepass.com.au/day-tripper.html
Kosciuszko Chalet Hotel: Known as "the Grand Old Lady of the Mountains", the original 1930 chalet was burned to the ground in 1938 and (thankfully) rebuilt.
It's all in name: There are several theories as to the origins of "Charlotte Pass", but most high country aficionados believe it is named after Charlotte Adams, who, in 1881, was officially recorded as the first white woman to climb Mt Kosciuszko.
Spencers Creek: Located between Perisher and Charlotte Pass, this mountain stream is named after drover James Spencer, who, according to local legend, one day attempted to cross the swollen stream on his horse and fell in.
Snow depth: Spencers Creek is also one of three locations in the Snowies where Snowy Hydro measures the snow depth. You can compare current and historical depths here: snowyhydro.com.au/our-energy/water/inflows/snow-depths-calculator/
Ghost horse: One of the most endearing myths around Charlotte Pass is of a wild horse whose whining can be heard above the roar of a blizzard, helping direct lost adventurers to safety.
Ghost Lift: In 1964, a chair lift carried skiers from the Alpine Way (from a point a few kilometres east of Thredbo) all the way up to Charlotte Pass. Unfortunately when the chair broke down the operators had great difficulty rescuing passengers and the lift was decommissioned after just a year in service. Today, very little of the lift remains. Some of it even ended up at Jamberoo Recreation Park on the south coast, but that's a story for another day.
WHERE IN THE SNOWIES?
Cryptic Clue: Good coffee can also gift you a lift
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Simon Spinetti, of Kaleen, who was the first reader to correctly identify last week's photo the "non-winter" toilets at the end of Kosciuszko Road near Charlotte Pass buried in snow.
"I remember the days when there were no toilets up there or at Rawson's Pass," Simon says.
"It used to be a painful wait or a quiet run to some bushes when the need hit when tramping around the main range."
For comparison purposes, here is a similar view of the amenities in summer.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday, July 20, 2019 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.
Despite the crowds enjoying the big dump of snow at the NSW ski resorts this week, not all adventurous Canberrans are snow-bound this winter.
On a recent walk to warmer climes, Maureen and Ray Blackmore stumbled upon this rock overhang at Bosom Beach (blush), near Currarong on the south coast. "It looks just like a clam shell," the Blackmores say.
"Incredibly, right next to the clam is was a rock resembling a hungry shark."
Wow, I love a double-banger simulacra.