Saturday afternoon in Selwyn Snow Resort, January 4, 2020. Day felt like midnight. The usually blinding summer sun, still more than three hours from setting, blacked out completely. In its place roared apocalyptic scenes of falling ash, billowing smoke, and red flames licking the dark.

“By four o’clock it was pitch black, we couldn’t see a thing. Me, the kids, a neighbour, and my in-laws all bunkered down in the house and just watched, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do,” recalls Ineke Stephens, who owns a cattle property with her husband and runs boutique holiday accommodation in nearby Adaminaby called Fontenoy Cottages.

“I didn’t see my husband for about 10 hours, he was out riding a motorbike on the property, putting in containment lines. He was moving stock as he went through – which was lucky, because if he didn’t, they would all be gone.”

Fortunately, the Stephens family, their house and most other residential buildings in this northern region of the New South Wales Snowy Mountains survived the chaos of the Black Summer bushfires in January 2020. Their beloved ski hill was not so lucky.

A Facebook post titled “Selwyn Snow Resort Update – Monday 6th January 2020” contained just four images that have been etched into the minds of the mourning community since. Four visions of blackened and charred building rubble.

“It was total annihilation up there. There was no way of saving it,” says Stephens.

The little ski hill that could

Skiing has been part of the fabric of the Selwyn region for more than 100 years. The world’s first ski club – the Kiandra Pioneer Ski Club – was established just a stone’s throw away in Kiandra in 1861. More reliable snow in Selwyn saw the Kiandra facilities transfer over when Selwyn opened in 1966.

It’s a relatively low ski resort (1,614 metres peak elevation), with short runs (800m is the longest) and the smallest skiable area (45 hectares) in New South Wales. But loyal fans don’t see any of that as criticism. They say Selwyn’s boutique offering caters better than any other to beginners, families and casual skiers who don’t want to suffer crowds and lines of nearby Perisher or Thredbo. Selwyn also welcomes snow play, with the biggest toboggan park in Australia.

“When my youngest was just a baby, we took him up and left him at the top of the run while we taught the other two to ski by dragging them up the hills. I don’t think there is anywhere else you could’ve done that,” says Stephens, whose three children visited on regular school trips when attending Adaminaby Public School.

After the bushfires, Selwyn’s ownership the Blyton Group promised to rebuild. But it would take time – two years was the initial estimate. Building in an alpine area is tricky enough to manage around snowfall and rain. But factor in a global pandemic and the project stalled on multiple occasions when workers from Canberra were locked down in 2020.

Finally in 2022, when the resort looked to be moments away from opening, there was yet another heartbreaking setback. Significant early-season snow prevented building works being completed and Selwyn would need to delay reopening for another year. The decision was announced on June 10 a day before the resort’s original forecast opening date.

“We often joke it could be a TV sitcom – ‘Selwyn Stories’ – you can’t make this stuff up,” says Lucy Blyton-Gray, General Manager of the resort.

She laughs now, probably to hold back tears. There’s already been plenty of them after Blyton-Gray, who previously managed hotels in her family’s other ski resort property Charlotte’s Pass, had to refund all Selwyn bookings and tickets for 2022.

“It was not a decision we took lightly, there was still important work to do that could not be safely completed with all that snow. Power and snowmaking and excavating, we couldn’t put workers at risk,” she says.

Unprecedented setbacks

Local businesses have inevitably suffered as they waited for three years for lifts to start spinning again.

“We opened our doors in November 2021 and were gearing up for a massive winter after Selwyn’s rebuild,” says Sarah Hyams, owner of Small Fry Takeaway in Adaminaby.

“That never happened. It was so disappointing – the last-minute announcement. We had kicked off our advertising and were giving people jobs and then had to turn around and say, actually, we can’t open.”

Hyams admits businesses like hers were saved by a fortunately timed influx of some 2,000 workers to the area for the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project. But there has been no silver lining for Stuart Guy, owner of ski hire shop Go Play Outside in Talbingo, about an hour’s drive north of Selwyn. Guy relies almost entirely on skiers and snowboarders travelling to Selwyn to purchase skiwear and hire equipment and snow chains.

“I went from six staff, busy every day in winter and turning over high revenue to absolutely zero,” he says.

“It was sad, I couldn’t re-employ those staff. I just locked the door and didn’t open for three years.”

Guy, like many locals, is wary of getting his hopes up for Selwyn’s forecast winter opening date of 10 June 2023*. Nevertheless, he has stoically prepared his shop with a new-season range of skis, snowboards and accessories. Historically he wouldn’t expect rental bookings to start coming through until May, but already in late April he’s had a surge of enquiries.

*Selwyn announced this week, alongside Thredbo, that lifts will not be turning for skiing and snowboarding on the opening long weekend due to a lack of snow. But the new Visitor’s Centre will open. 

New beginnings

Joseph Griffiths is the Chief Executive Officer of Urban Stays, which in December 2020 took over Providence Park, a tourist park 40 minutes from the ski fields and the closest accommodation to Selwyn. His company used the ski resort closure period as an opportunity to completely refurbish the park. For the first time in 2023, the modernised lodge onsite will offer a full breakfast each morning and a three-course dinner every night except Sunday during snow season. Guests can even order pizzas via an app between 6-9pm and collect it from the main lodge.

“It’s the only quality leisure park on this side of the mountain, and we’re investing a lot into it – upgrading all the room and completely refitting the cabins,” Griffiths says.

But by far the most exciting refurbishment is the ski resort itself. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Selwyn is preparing to emerge from three years of darkness with sparkling new upgrades – under a landmark 40-year lease the Blyton Group signed in 2021 with the New South Wales government.

The headline improvement is Selwyn’s acquisition of new state-of-the-art TT10 snow machines, the first to operate in any resort in the Southern Hemisphere, which can make snow at temperatures more than two degrees warmer than the old system. There are new, faster chairlifts with upgraded lift towers, a sparkling new Selwyn Centre housing all guest facilities and services plus new food and drink offerings.

And the famous toboggan park? It has grown into a multi-purpose snow playground with a 150-metre tubing carousel, skating rink with bumper cars, kids snowmobiles and even an enchanted village.

“The total cost of the rebuild is in the vicinity of $30 million dollars. Everything is brand new, we’ve got state of the art snowmaking equipment, we’ve got terrain for everyone,” Blyton-Gray says.

“We’re very excited to open, but we’re also exhausted. We just can’t wait to get all the people there and see our hard work pay off.”

This article is featured in our 84 page FREE e-mag dedicated to skiing and snowboarding in the southern hemisphere. Download your copy of The Southern Issue here.