Sunday 22 September 2013

A Smaller Grandeur

[Late season snow at Mt Mawson, Tasmania] 

Chamonix, Zermatt, Grindelwald, Mt Field. To borrow from Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others. Yes, they are all associated with snow, and with skiing. But the similarities end there.

After returning from the grandeur of the French and Swiss Alps, you’d hardly be surprised if I raised a condescending smile at the mention of Tasmania’s snow, and the modest mountains – like Mt Field – that occasionally wear enough of it for skiing.

Still Mt Field is where I find myself when duty calls after some late season snow. I’m part of a group of about ten volunteers rostered on to run the tow and provide a ski patrol for the Mt Mawson run. We arrive early on a frosty and clear Saturday morning, stump up the “jeep track” from Lake Dobson, and are well-warmed even before the work starts.

The rope tow is a device that owes more to Heath Robinson than any 21st – or even the 20th – century technology. It comprises several hundred metres of thick rope; a set of poles, pulleys and wheels; more hundreds of metres of electricals; a few safety switches and a diesel powered engine/generator housed in a shed.

At times you run it literally: running from the generator shed to the stop buttons; from there to the top gate; from that to the ticket and belt-issue hut. In between there’s a lot of standing around, lending half an ear to any changes in the engine’s chugging; monitoring the occasional belch of soot; checking that skiers and snow-boarders aren’t getting tangled up anywhere.

[Skiing/snowboarding at Mt Mawson] 

The whole thing is a little like a men’s shed, but spread horizontally up the mountain. We volunteers are soon all on first name terms, sharing stories as well as tasks. We also get to know more than half of the skiers by name (there are only 30 or so). It’s my first time on tow duty, and the village feel and the all-in involvement is nothing like any ski resort I’ve ever been to. It’s certainly a million miles away from the slick hustle of somewhere like Zermatt, with its dozens of gondolas and cable cars; its high-altitude hotels; its thousands of visitors – even in summer.

[A fraction of Zermatt's ski infrastructure] 
After a few hours of dutiful running and standing around, I take some time out and wander with my camera into the backcountry. Wander doesn’t really convey it. It’s more of a giraffe stalk, legs lifting high in a vain attempt not to post-hole. The already insubstantial snow is softening in the warm sun, and every second step finds me up to my thighs in snow.

[Some of Mt Mawson's more intimate snow] 
Uphill is clearly not the way to go, so I try heading down and across the slope. Perhaps momentum and speed may allow me to glide across the surface like an elf. Immediately I fall into a waist deep drift, more legless than Legolas, and have to twist and roll sideways to extricate myself. Clearly without skis – or the snow-shoes that Tim remembered he’d forgotten about twenty minutes into our drive up – I’m not going very far.

I settle for what’s within easy reach, glad to be far enough from the ski tow that I can’t hear the burble of its engine. Snow, smooth and untrammelled lies silent between, against and around dolerite boulders. Snow gums and prickly bushes sprout clear of the snow, contrasting starkly. The sun angles down from a brilliantly blue sky, kissing the snow’s skin. There’s grandeur too in small scenes.

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