Snow business

Obermyer cable-knit beanie and Salomon
Obermyer cable-knit beanie and Salomon "Arctic Origins" pole from Paul Reader, Photo: Jennifer Soo

Like every other Sydney snow fiend at this time of year, Rebel Penfold-Russell's thoughts turn to making the trek from her North Bondi home to the local ski slopes. It's a trek that, in skiing parlance, could be a double black diamond - often a nightmare six-hour-plus run down the Hume beginning with a choked peak-hour M5 motorway, skirting Canberra, then out along the country highway to Cooma and ending with a crawl into Jindabyne and beyond. But still we go in the hundreds of thousands.

"We ski overseas every year, but we will always ski in Australia - it's home," says Penfold-Russell, a property developer and film producer. "Our son Jasper races and it is fabulous to watch him learn skills and have camaraderie with other Aussie skiers his age."

According to the Australian Alpine Club, skiing in Thredbo, Perisher and any of the main commercial resorts in Australia is more expensive than even the best resorts in the world. Australian ski resorts occupied the top five places of a 2011 survey of the world's most expensive ski lift prices, followed by Vail in the US and Whistler in Canada. Meanwhile, New Zealand lures 120,000 Australian skiers and snowboarders across the ditch each year with promises of cheap lift passes. And they're not the only ones reeling in Australians. We are consistently in the top two international inbound markets for big overseas resorts including Whistler, Park City and Aspen in the US, and Japan's Niseko.

So, given the expense and the arduous drive, why do Sydneysiders still flock to the Snowy Mountains each winter ready to be overcharged and, some say, under-serviced, for a week of pot luck that can include anything from rain-damaged slush to knee-deep powder?

"You have to remember that nothing is guaranteed when you go on a ski trip," says Liberty Skis importer Simon Blondel, who spent his teenage years living in Perisher when his father Ashley was CEO of the resort. "You can spend thousands of dollars going overseas and still have crap snow."

It is no wonder we pay more to ski in New South Wales, with high wages and the cost of snowmaking in a country better known for its beaches. Snowmaking ensures Australians can ski the entire season, but it comes at a price. Perisher has invested $22 million dollars in snowmaking over the past seven years, with another $1.7 million on new automated snowmaking and 40 new snowmaking guns for the 2013 season. Thredbo has also invested heavily, spending $8 million in the past six years and $30 million to date on its snowmaking system.

"The ski industry in Australia is both labour and capital intensive," says Ashley Blondel, who was CEO of Perisher from 1996 to 2006 and head of the Australian Ski Areas Association from 2003 to 2006. "The equipment is imported from overseas - every snow groomer and chairlift. And we are mandated by occupational health and safety to have more lift operators on any class of lift than most other places worldwide. You don't just have to pay more for lift operators - you have to have more of them."

To some Sydneysiders, where you ski in New South Wales is a measure of social standing as important as which school you or your kids went to. "Snowcialites" go to Thredbo for the alpine village après-ski scene, most ski-club members go to Perisher for the ski-in, ski-out remote lodges and those who like to fly under the radar go to Charlotte Pass or Guthega. Beginners go to Selwyn.

Former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid's Perisher ski lodge may have put Perisher in the headlines for less than salubrious reasons in recent times, but Paul Keating and family were skiing Perisher back in the '90s and the Packers are, not surprisingly, regulars (James Packer has a 73 per cent stake in the resort), as is Today presenter, Lisa Wilkinson. Sydney stylists Megan Morton and Pip Edwards are often spotted at Thredbo, where property developer families the Roberts (Multiplex) and the Caseys (St Hilliers) are also a fixture.

The Scots College, Redlands and Presbyterian Ladies College (PLC) all offer winter campuses for would-be Torah Brights and Zali Steggalls in the Snowy Mountains, where they race in the Interschools Championships against rivals at Cranbrook, PLC and Kings, sporting lycra race suits while the Jindabyne school locals arrive in baggy pants and hand-me-down twin-tip skis.

"I run a year-round business but there's a definite difference in clientele when Sydneysiders come to play," says long-time Jindabyne local Diana McInnes, who owns the upmarket Design and Detail home décor and fashion store in Jindabyne's old town centre. "The till likes it when the winter people arrive but I don't care if you have a black Amex or latest-series BMW, you are a customer and everyone gets treated the same."

Penfold-Russell and her husband, Ian Lowe, first invested in Thredbo in 1993 and now own two residential properties on the coveted Crackenback Ridge slope side area of Thredbo. Enter their winter abode and expect to mingle with celebrity chef Pete Evans, raconteur Warren Fahey and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert director Stephan Elliott, who regularly stay.

"Thredbo's never going to be Val d'Isere, but you make it fabulous because of the community of people who live here," says Penfold-Russell, who produced a documentary with the local historical society on Thredbo's 50-year anniversary in 2007. "Thredbo was settled after World War II in 1957 by Europeans escaping the post war," she says. "It's a community built on hard work and trust."

Whether you choose to stay in Jindabyne, Thredbo or Perisher, it is the sense of winter kinship that keeps many returning year after year. Jodie Evans, daughter of the late wine identity Len Evans, who went on to open her own restaurant in Thredbo called Reds, clearly remembers seeing people galvanised into action by tragedy.

"Unfortunately I saw the Thredbo landslide in 1997 - that was a very big part of my time there," says Evans. "We used Roslyn Lodge to feed the rescue workers and had a roster of 90 volunteers for two weeks. It was a massive community effort. There is a great respect for people in Thredbo who were there during the landslide. Some still show up on that day each year to quietly pay their respects."

Postcodes, job status, brand of car and type of school mean nothing when two ski lodges are flattened, 18 people lie dead in the rubble and everyone pitches in shoulder to shoulder to help rebuild a shattered community like Thredbo did in 1997.

Today, you'll find some of that community on a bluebird day at Dead Horse Gap munching on local sausages thrown on a portable barbecue cooked by Tony Tressider. A snow-apparel distributor, Tressider calls Manly his summer home and skis most northern winters in Verbier, Switzerland.

Each winter Tressider returns to the open paddocks of his farm on the Alpine Way, close to Thredbo and Perisher, to sell designer ski brands Moncler, J.Lindeberg and POC at the Snowsport retail shop he and his Swedish wife Lena Boström own at both resorts.

Locals, season workers on their day off and friends in town descend the off-piste Dead Horse Gap ski run from the top of Thredbo, then navigate the snow gum forest to the creek below, where bottles of Wildbrumby Schnapps and local beer are cooling off in the snow. "The barbie started as a way to entertain our clients when they are in town," says Tressider. "Then it grew to include locals and their friends."

The feeling of skiing such remote runs among snow gums found only between 1300 and 1800 metres above sea level is a quintessential Australian ski experience. "Some of the best runs I've ever had have been in Thredbo on a perfect day," says Mary-Lou Alvarez, whose parents were founding members of the Southern Alps Ski Club - a democratic lodge that offers members and their guests discounted accommodation each winter. "Skiing in Thredbo for me in a good season is absolutely comparable with anywhere else in the world."

Last year, when the snow didn't stop falling, was one of the good seasons Alvarez is talking about. In 2012, the Australian ski fields experienced more than 2.3 million skier days (one skier day equals one lift-pass sale) and 1.39 million of those were in New South Wales resorts. With lift-pass prices for Perisher and Thredbo costing about $100 dollars a day, that's big business potential for overseas resorts that recognise Australian skiers as a targetable market.

Blondel says local resorts are working to improve their offerings and reduce their prices in a bid to keep Australians skiing in Australia. "We are lucky we have snow in Australia and to make the most of it we should enjoy it instead of whingeing," he says. "The best thing that has happened is when the $699 season pass was launched in Perisher in 2011 and everyone else followed. The resorts need to work more like this together."

One thing Thredbo has that Perisher lacks is a serious après scene. There is annual talk of a $112 million village that will bring 800 ski-in, ski-out beds to Perisher with entertainment and dining. Approved in 2009, construction is yet to start.

Australian ski resorts are also focusing on improving their food offerings, in response to constant feedback from guests. Canberra's artisan baker Bean & Grain has opened in Thredbo Village and is renovating in time for the 2013 season.

Former Thredbo Alpine Hotel head chef Jean Michel Gerst is reported to be taking on the restaurant lease at the Knickerbocker in Thredbo this year, and Pete Evans is also lending his hand at Lake Crackenback Resort & Spa for a Voyager Estate degustation with the resort's head chef Greg Pieper.

But despite the mooted improvements, many veteran Australian skiers still talk longingly about the halcyon days of the '80s, when champagne flowed at breakfast courtesy of Len Evans, who was the wine consultant to then Thredbo owners Lend Lease and the Thredbo Alpine Hotel.

"He used to have huge parties and build a champagne snow bar on the mountain. All the food was skied down on platters by the ski instructors," says Jodie Evans, who is drawn back to Thredbo every year and recalls the days when Kerri-Anne Kennerley would arrive each opening weekend and belt out a number in the bar. "People who learn to ski in Australia will always have a loyalty to it. I met people when I was 13 who I still see there now."

This story Snow business first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.