Photo journey: ski touring Tasmania under the Aurora Australis

Adventure photographer and backcountry skier, Shaun Mittwollen, captures the Aurora Australis from Tasmania's remote backcountry on a solo mission.

More Aurora Australis goodness. Photo credit: Shaun Mittwollen

The Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent to the Aurora Borealis is the equally spectacular but often overlooked Aurora Australis. Outside Antarctica, perhaps the best place to view these southern lights is from Tasmania whereby chasing the lights has developed a bit of a cult following.

With each good three-day aurora forecast people flock to the Goats Beach carpark, one of the premier viewpoints, from as far afield as China. On any good aurora night it can be quite a festive scene with many car campers staying awake for a potential viewing.

However, as we all know, Tasmania has some spectacular mountains. What I really wanted to do was camp on top of a mountain under the Aurora Australis and better yet, make it a snow covered mountain. 

During my second winter season in Tasmania I finally had such an opportunity. The sun was throwing out some high levels of activity pinpointed by strong signals in the forecast. A G3 level storm! But what about the weather?

During the winter in Tasmania it’s supremely rare to have clear skies from the summit of a mountain. Often the lowlands are free of cloud but Tasmanian mountains have an uncanny ability to attract saturating mist. However on this occasion a rare high pressure had parked itself over the island.

Two days of clear weather. Good snow on Mt Field. It was time to go. 

Lugging a full complement of winter camping gear, food for three days and my obscenely heavy touring skis it was a hot slog up the home trail from the Lake Dobson carpark towards the tiny Mt Mawson club field. A fierce winter sun beat down from above and the weather was utterly superb. A gentle warm breeze wafted warm air through the snow gums carrying with it the characteristic smell of melting snow.

The ascent to Mt Field. Photo credit: Shaun Mittwollen

Throngs of day-trippers and hikers ascended the path alongside me. From Mt Mawson the path deviated towards the right contouring around a beautiful mountain bench towards the Rodway Range. Normally an easy tour I cursed my heavy powder skis. While the Mr Pollards Opus’s are ideal for deep Japanese powder they were not for climbing and touring amongst the Tasmanian mountains.

My goal lay over the Rodway Range on the summit of Mt Field West. A sure bet for ski touring in Tasmania, the mountain range holds reliable snow and decent terrain. Split from Rodway Range, Mt Field West runs parallel separated by a broad horseshoe valley and connecting col that intersects the two ranges.

Season 2017 was a good winter in terms of snowfall and the crossing of Rodway Range was swift. Normally a chaotic boulder field of frost fractured rocks, blowing snow had filled every nook and the traverse was complexity flat. Off to the right, excellent ski terrain tempted me for a line. I dumped my heavy pack and transitioned to downhill mode. A beautiful open bowl fell beneath my skis with good dry snow bottoming out on Tarn Shelf. A detour well worth making.

Skinning at sunset. Photo credit: Shaun Mittwollen

From Rodway Range I took the col down towards the Peterson Memorial Hut bypassing a truly epic couloir that cut left through a protrusion in the rocks. The descent to the hut was awesome; fast and open with easy ski lines through the boulderfield right the way to the doors of the hut. From there it was another ascent up onto the main event. Mt Field West called from above.

While not especially steep the open eastern slopes held good snow and a decent vertical slightly longer than the Rodway Range. Rime ice festooned each windward boulder as a silent show of force the ridgeline receives from the intense polar winds. But on this day there was nothing but views.

As I neared the top of the broad plateau a figure appeared off in the distance.

I was not alone up here.

As I drew closer it was another ski tourer returning from the summit. The mountain legend must have been at least 70; dressed head to toe in classic 80’s touring gear. He had just returned from the summit as a day trip from Mt Mawson. 

The shadows lengthened as the day drew to a close by the time I reached the summit. I had to move quickly to set up camp to be ready for the aurora. Just south of the summit itself a snowy notch looked like an excellent campsite. Highly exposed but with no wind in the forecast it’d be a grand place to sleep.

I cut out a platform and set the tent. The golden rays blanketed warmth on the cooling landscape. To the right, the mountain fell steeply away but almost stripped bare of snow from the constant winds.

Shaun waiting in the tent for the light show. Photo credit: Shaun Mittwollen

As the skyline darkened I was in the tent cooking a hasty dinner looking out the door every few minutes nervously excited to see what may eventuate. Sure enough, a faint green glow appeared behind the last red light on the horizon, only visible on camera at first but growing steadily against the last light.

Mt Field West and the Aurora Australis. Photo credit: Shaun Mittwollen

Then all of a sudden a rapid development. Within the space of about 30 seconds the green glow swirled vertically shooting out incandescent beams skyward towards the stars. The beams were not slow-moving, taking a new form every second at they rotated from left to right. 

I never would have suspected something like this in Australia. 

 
The Aurora Australis viewed from Tasmania while ski touring. Photo credit: Shaun Mittwollen

I stayed up till 1am that night running around like a madman both photographing and enjoying the scene.

But soon fatigue grew and as the aurora faded out once more I decided I’d seen the best of it. It was time to retire to my mountaintop camp. 

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Shaun's a long time adventure lover, backcountry skier and photographer. He's studied marine biology and spent time in Antarctica, Iceland, Nepal, Patagonia and seasons in Japan. Check out his website for more stunning photography.