A Century Long Obsession with Tasmanian Skiing
by Peta Hen
It’s the time of year when the dark, low clouds in the evening look less ominous and looming, instead sparking hope and excitement. Will it snow? Will it be low enough? Can we go skiing?!
Seventeen-year-old me certainly thought so when an inch-worth of the white stuff dusted the hills of Lachlan in 2005. Although, snowboarding on an old boogie board left a lot to be desired – and me covered in more sheep poo than snow. And while a once-in-a-generation event such as the ‘Big Snow of Hobart’ in 1986 saw many people grab their gear and hit the slopes of Elizabeth Street and the Tasman Bridge, Tasmania has more ‘appropriate’ ski fields, along with a rich history and obsession with the winter activity.
Officially, Tasmania has two ski fields, Mount Mawson in the south of the state and Ben Lomond in the north. However, the first recorded skiing took place at Cradle Mountain in 1914. The tough, cross-country terrain attracted many ski enthusiasts who would trek up to the treacherous snow-covered peaks to partake in the sport. By the 1920s, Tasmania was known as a sought-after skiing destination. When conditions allow, Cradle Mountain offers some of the most scenic backcountry skiing in Tasmania, but head out there prepared and experienced.
Mount Field National Park, an hour out of Hobart and home to Mount Mawson, was Tasmania’s first official centre for winter sports. The Ski Club of Tasmania built its first ski hut at Twilight Tarn in 1926-27, which took a day to reach along the old Pack Track. In 1936, a seven-mile ski race was held at Lake Newdegate as part of the State Championship meeting.
The long-distance event provided highstakes skiing as the weather had turned bad the days prior, leaving conditions wet and misty. Today, while pristine powder snow is rare at Mount Mawson due its lower altitude, the southern Tasmanian ski fields are popular with local winter sports enthusiasts, and luckily for us, also offer the most affordable ski passes in Australia.
While Mt Field may offer the cheapest skiing, Ben Lomond, east of Launceston, offers the most reliable skiing conditions, being at a higher elevation. It was established in 1929 after Frederick Smithies, an avid Launceston bushwalker and skier, proposed a motion to form a winter sports club. The Northern Tasmanian Alpine Club (NTAC) was formed and initially focused on the Pine Lake and Cradle Mountain areas, however, after an excursion to Ben Lomond in 1931, the NTAC decided to shift their efforts to Ben Lomond and build the Carr Villa Chalet in 1932. During this time, skiers had to trek by foot to the slopes – it wouldn’t be until 1963 and the construction of Jacob’s Ladder that a road would connect the villa and growing ski village with the ski fields. In 1971, the club built the ‘Frederick Smithies’ lodge in honour of their founder, but sadly this was lost in a fire in 1996. The present-day lodge is the sixth built by the club and provides avid snow lovers all the creature comforts they need after long days traversing the slopes. The powder of the Ben Lomond plateau may hold Tasmania’s premier alpine ski fields, but there is one final ski destination that the most avid, extreme ski lover used to traverse when the conditions were just right.
Rising at almost 1300 metres above Tasmania’s capital, the old ski tracks of kunanyi/Mt Wellington were not for the faint of heart. Popular with skiers in the 1930s, kunanyi/Mt Wellington provided some incredible scenic skiing for those who could pick the tracks out from between the boulders and rock formations. It’s important to note that not there are no dedicated ski fields on kunanyi/Mt Wellington. The mountain can be extremely dangerous at any time of year, especially in winter.
Tasmania has a solid ski season and it’s evident throughout history that people are determined to ski here – even if it’s down Hobart’s main street during a freak snowstorm. For me, I’m happy enough skidding down a hill on a tarp at Collinsvale. Secretly, I do hold out hope that another 1986 will happen any winter now and I can hit the slopes of Elizabeth Street. My fingers and toes are crossed.