Wow what a day! Hoppet day dawned clear and still, such a contrast to the previous 6 weeks when strong winds, heavy snowfalls and blizzards had been blasting Falls Creek, a small ski alpine area 4 hours north east of Melbourne, Australia.
Over 1,000 skiers from 25 nations and 4 continents gathered at Falls Creek to participate in the 28th Kangaroo Hoppet. Great weather and deep snow enabled the full 42km course to be exceptionally well-groomed. Where possible the track is groomed double width especially on the exciting descent down the “Bladerunner” off Heathy Spur.
The Kangaroo Hoppet comprises of 3 simultaneous races; the 42km Kangaroo Hoppet main race that qualifies for a gold stamp in the Worldloppet passport, the 21km Birkebeiner (the Birkie) which qualifies for a silver stamp and the 7km Joey Hoppet. All 3 races had increased participant this year.
At 9.30am the elite and fastest hundred Hoppet skiers flew across the start line. 1 minute later the next 100 skiers rushed forward and onwards every minute until the 5 Hoppet waves had begun. 1 minute between waves doesn’t sound like much time but it certainly spreads each starting field and decreases the chance of skiers crashing into each other, breaking poles, skis and bodies. Birkie skiers start from 9.40am in waves with 1 minute breaks and Joey skiers begin at 9.50am in a similar fashion. By 10am all skiers were skiing as fast as they could in stunning conditions.
Overnight the temperature lowered to -2 degrees (Celsius) and warmed to 4 degrees so it was crisp fast snow at the start with softening conditions by the second lap for the majority of Hoppet skiers.
All skiers initially headed out to Sun Valley for the first 7 kilometres which is mostly flat and a good way to warm up. Joey skiers consisting of all ages from tiny babies being towed in pulks participating in the Pouch class to toddlers just beginning to walk then head back to the Nordic Bowl to finish their event whilst Hoppet and Birkie skiers skied across the magnificent dam wall high above the frozen water of Rocky Valley Reservoir. The next 3 kms to Watchbed Creek is flat and great to get into a comfortable rhythm as skiers are found their pace.
Just after Watchbed Creek drink station, Birkie skiers turn left and head up towards the infamous Paralyser whilst Hoppet skiers turn right and have another 2kms of cruising before re-joining the Birkie skiers and begin the slow 3km climb up the Paralyser. The snow is now slow so skiers had to find a comfortable rhythmic groove and just keep on plodding and grinding up that long hill. Finally, the course breaks out of the beautiful snowgums (an alpine eucalyptus tree with knarly shaped trunk and branches) into a large open area known as The Park and the gradient eases.
After The Park drink station the refreshed Hoppet skiers turn right and complete an extra loop around Johnsons for some superb views of the Snowy Mountains including Mt Kosciuszko ( the highest mountain in Australia – 2,228metres/7315feet).
Just after re-joining the Birke skiers a final, treeless climb looms. On reaching the crest of Heathy Spur, you feel on top of the world looking around and seeing snow covered mountains in all directions and…. knowing there’s lots of downhills ahead. Yeah. The exciting downs continue along the broad Heathy Spur with one final climb ‘til the Bladerunner, a series of tight downhill corners which most people brake, skid, plough, step turn to go around and down. Finally, the shaking legs get back onto flat ground for a relax and the cruising speed increases as the dam wall is crossed and back into the Nordic Bowl starting area.
The Birkie skiers can relax as they cross the finish line, however Hoppet skiers having skied some 26kms head out for another 16km of skiing. Out to Sun Valley again, then across the dam wall, along the flat Bogong High Plains Road again, past Watchbed Creek (and a refreshing drink & food station) but this time instead of heading up the Paralyser it’s a much gentler series of undulations along the Pauls Track for the final 5 kms back to the finish line.
The Nordic Bowl was a hive of activity with skiers standing along the edge of the downhill finish area and around the BBQ in the sunshine cheering family and friends across the finish line whilst discussing race experiences and attempted tactics with fellow skiers.
Congratulations to the race organisers and volunteers who gave up a significant amount of time to prepare a superb course and arrange a great race. Well done to the Hoppet skiers who stopped during the event at the 35km mark to assist a Russian skier who had collapsed. The racers performed CPR whilst waiting for the Ski Patrol to arrive with a defibrillator. The medical equipment enabled the successful restoration of the skier’s heart rhythm. I very big thanks to those involved and the equipment used to save this skier’s life and facilitate his recovering in a Melbourne hospital.
Overall the Kangaroo Hoppet was a huge success with many skiers skiing their first Hoppet, Birkie or Joey race. The after race evening celebrations and festivities were again held in the community hall in Mount Beauty. A great get together of rested participants. Well done to all the skiers who participated in this magnificent event. See you all next year!
By Marg Hayes & Bruce Wharrie