I

n September this year the inaugural Victorian Backcountry Festival was held. There was a fantastic turnout, perhaps around 200 people. Along with being a great opportunity to meet fellow enthusiasts, there were many educational clinics and group tours run over the course of the weekend.

Well done Cam Walker for organising this event and inspiring so many people to get involved. When I found out about the festival, I decided to volunteer to run a backcountry navigation clinic on Saturday morning. My friend Guillaume kindly offered to help out. We had 10 people in total, all very keen to learn essential skills for effective navigation in off-track snow/white-out conditions.

Navigation clinic

Running the Navigation Clinic (Photo: Guillaume Stanguennec)

Some of the topics we covered in the 2 hours of theory and 1.5 hours of practical outside:

  • Reading and understanding topographic maps
  • Identifying terrain features on a map
  • Methods for visualising terrain and slope angles
  • Compass navigation
  • How to plan a route, being conservative about avalanche danger
  • Slope angle measurment methods
  • Conservative (Aiming off) navigation using a compass and gps, the concept of catching features and terrain features you can follow.
  • How to use a compass to take bearings
  • Smart phone applications for navigation purposes
  • Navigation without a compass, orienting using the sun and snow/wind features (not really covered, I forgot to do this one!)
  • Applications of an Altimeter for navigation

I spent a fair bit of time researching questions and methods I could use to try and help keep everyone engaged, and understand where they were coming from and what they wanted to learn. Unlike some other teaching I have done in the past, this time it felt like it was getting close to the right amount of content, and we were able to cover everything fairly comfortably in the time that was available. Plenty of questions were asked, and by the end it seemed like most people had grasped the basic idea of compass navigation. However I still feel like a longer practical component, perhaps a day tour with people planning their own navigation and bearings would also be a valuable option for a future clinic. Maybe next year...

Skiing Saturday afternoon

Skiing on Saturday afternoon (Photo: Guillaume Stanguennec)

On Saturday afternoon after the clinic, I went out for a tour with Peter (from BSAR) and Guillaume. The snow was shockingly similar to sloppy wet concrete, but we still had fun.

On Saturday night, there was a series of talks, followed by some films, presented in a room at the resort. I found the safety talk (by someone from the MSC?) and the talk by a young woman and her experience getting into the backcountry especially interesting.

That night after the talks and films, Guillaume and I headed out under the stars towards Roper's Lookout to find a campsite. It has been a long time since I skied with just the starlight, it is truely a wonderful experience.

Spion Kopje views

Views out towards Spion Kopje (Photo: Guillaume Stanguennec)

In the morning, we packed up the tent just in time to meet Peter again for a day of touring with perfect weather, and a snow pack that had firmed up overnight. Up at the top of the hill, there were some fantastic views of Spion Kopje, and Mt Nelse. We did one run over that side, which turned out to be surprisingly long between the trees. The morning was getting into afternoon, and we decided to head back home, taking a direct route with an interesting steep looking terrain feature at the top. It was at this point that our party (no names!) managed to drop one ski, followed by another ski 20 minutes later! Luckily they were stopped by a ditch and didn't hit anybody or disappear into the valley.

Steep turns

Practicing some jump turns (Photo: Guillaume Stanguennec)

The final run down the creek can only be described as exceedingly enjoyable. The gaps between the snowgums were wide enough to really crank on the speed around the corners. At the bottom, the snow bridge over the creek had evidently collapsed, but there was still enough for us to make it over without skis. We threw our skis across and struggled to step over the creek between the bushes. Getting ready to ascend the other side, putting skins on our skis, it became evident that a pair of skins had gone missing, which had been stashed in the front of a jacket for the descent. My stomach sank at the thought of us climbing back up to look for it and getting back to Melbourne late, but luckily it was found next to the creek, and we were all very happy about that!