Getting there means 24 hours are lost somewhere in limbo and layovers that are more than cause for lethargy. But even with a disappearing day and assured hours of drowsy adjustment, traveling to the Land Down Under presents a unique opportunity for any western traveler, especially those who nordic ski. That’s because in the state of Victoria in southeastern Australia, nearly a four-hour drive north of the country’s second-most populated city, Melbourne, Falls Creek boasts accommodations, trails and most importantly, a winter season with snow.
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the months of June, July and August often bring heat waves rising off the blacktop, but in Falls Creek, this the season for a mixture of snow flurries and sun.
With the promise of the latter from early June to late September — the peak season taking place in July and August — and a decent deal on plane tickets, several Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Gold Team members decided that when it came to the month of August, Falls Creek was where they wanted be.
“The team has never been here before, but one of our SVSEF coaches, Tom Smith, spent a summer coaching down here and told us how great the training was,” Colin Rodgers, SVSEF Gold Team head coach, wrote in an email from Australia. “We decided we had a great opportunity to come here and train this year because the airline tickets were quite inexpensive from the Western USA. Overall the skiing has been great so far!”
Along with Rogers, five Gold Team skiers made the trek to Falls Creek on Aug. 1, including Annie Pokorny, Kelsey Phinney, Mary Rose, Deedra Irwin, and Matt Gelso. The crew planned to remain in Australia for on-snow training until the end of the month, returning to the U.S. on Aug. 29.
This past weekend, the Sun Valley women swept the freestyle-sprint podium at Australian Cross-Country Ski Championships on Saturday, with Phinney winning the International Ski Federation (FIS) Australia/New Zealand Cup race, Rose placing second and Irwin taking third. Norway’s Nora Ulvang finished fourth just ahead of Pokorny in fifth.
On Sunday, Rose and Irwin again reached the podium in the 10 k classic, finishing second and third, 14.9 seconds and 30.5 seconds behind winner Chisa Obayashi of Japan, respectively. Pokorny repeated in fifth.
“The races this past weekend were a very unique experience,” Rose wrote in an email. “Not often do you have a chance to race in the middle of August. The conditions were very challenging for everyone. I took this weekend as a great opportunity to practice skiing through all the sprint heats as well as learning to deal with less than ideal race conditions. Living in the West, I don’t get much opportunity to race in the pouring rain. This was a great learning experience!”
The men’s freestyle sprint and 15 k classic results were not available at press time. Due to a cold, Gelso did not race this past weekend.
While much of the Gold Team’s camp revolved around logging hours and kilometers on snow, Rodgers also anticipated his group would jump into a few races, including the Kangaroo Hoppet 42 k skate marathon on Aug. 27.
According to him, the opportunity to travel to Australia and compete was largely due to the international relationships the SVSEF has fostered.
“Our club has hosted several Australian skiers over the past few seasons (Kat Paul, Casey Wright, Mark Pollock- to name a few) so we have established a good relationship with many of the athletes,” Rodgers wrote. “They have all always told us we should come to Australia to ski. It seemed like a far off dream, but then we started looking at the details and all of a sudden we realized we could make it happen without breaking the bank. The Australian Jr and U23 team is coming to prepare for the Soldier Hollow World Jr/ U23 World Championships in Sun Valley this winter. They will be in Ketchum for about 8 weeks leading into those Championships so we have a nice partnership growing.”
“This is not spending a week on a glacier in summer. This is turning August into February.” — SVSEF Gold Team member Matt Gelso on training on snow in Australia
New to the SVSEF Gold Team, Pokorny reflected that the chance to travel to Australia to train has been somewhat surreal. This year marked one of her first summer snow-skiing experiences.
“This year, with support from SVSEF and the Australian race organizers, I’m able to get my first summer skis AND do it during one of the biggest training blocks of the year,” Pokorny wrote in an email. “I’ve gotten to work on technique and put in big hours while exploring a part of the world I’d never thought I would get to visit, which has made this trip incredibly valuable to me both athletically and personally.”
In his sixth year with the SVSEF Gold Team, Gelso remarked that this camp was much bigger than an average week on snow.
“This is not spending a week on a glacier in summer, this is turning August into February, and it is a new experience for me, but a very positive one for ski training,” Gelso wrote in an email. “Not only getting on snow and getting the feel for skis, but being here for long enough that I can actually make gains is huge.”
Both Pokorny and Gelso pointed out that spending a month skiing in Australia is a memory they won’t forget.
“I have been wrapping my head around the sun being in the northern sky, and the north slopes being the warm, sunny side…. Pretty different,” Gelso wrote. “Also the trees, they have these Snowgum trees that don’t lose their leaves, it feels like the coast, it has taken some time to get used to it all.”
“My favorite part, by far, has been the landscapes we see on our long skis,” Porkorny wrote. “Snow capped mountains over green jungles, burned and growing gum trees, and violently changing weather have kept every training session interesting.”
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.