Beyond The Boundaries
Rugged conditions that test the limits, a shared passion for the mountains, exploring and adventure and finding that next storm, Bill Barker and Buff Farnell show you how it’s done.
I first met Bill Barker some years back at Hotham. I was going cross country skiing to Dinner Plain with a Russian girlfriend and she had no cross country skis, so we dropped by the General Store at Hotham, which at that time had a ski hire and even a controversial independent ski school.
We rock climbed together at Mt Arapiles and other crags of the world. Bill’s a solid bloke who I trust with my life on the end of a rope or watching me as I scoot down a fresh steep bowl of powder. We’ve always had each other’s backs when it gets wild, and of course we’ve skied together a lot at Hotham. It’s our home, we know her in a very deep and intimate way. We know where powder collects after a storm from the northwest, and we know where it all ends up when a southerly wind whips its evil way. We both love the whole experience of living up on top of a mountain and feeling the wrath of a storm, and then going in deep when the sun rises.
I walked into the ski hire and looked for staff. There was no one in sight, so I yelled out. Still nothing. I went downstairs to the bar and the bar guy said yep Bill’s up there in ski hire. I went back in and looked over the counter and there was a guy asleep on the floor with massive long dreads, a worn out pair of Levis and Sorel snow boots with no laces. His name was Bill or bad boy Billy Barker and he became a best mate. We skied around the world in Fernie, Red Mountain, Big White and Whistler in Canada, India, Europe and Japan.
When I first met him, Bill loved parties. In fact, he may have loved parties more than skiing. Well maybe not, but he funded his survival at Hotham for the first few years with minimal work, winning Pool and Dart comps at the General Store so he could buy Beer and Bananas. I just skied. I tried not to work too much, just washed dishes, tuned skis at night and skied by day. Bill and I both skied for legendary Hotham photographer Andrew Barnes. Barnesy saw us skiing, he liked our style so he asked if we could ski for his camera. We did, and we still ski for him now. It’s a beautiful thing when minds meet like that and we can get together after not seeing each other for a few years and it’s just unspoken: we know what to do, we both know what he wants when we’re a kilometre away on another peak and he waves and we ski down through rock bands and cornices; it’s a symbiotic ski art we share.
Now Andrew Barnes is a full-time Paramedic who shoots photos with us when he can. He also runs a website and Facebook page called East Gippsland Outdoors, beautiful nature photography and action sports. Bill is now head of Hotham Ski Patrol. And me? Well I still ski for film makers and photographers and do some light entertainment work with my buddy DJ Eddy.
Now this is not meant to be a potted history of our skiing at Hotham; I just wanted to set the scene. We came to Hotham for adventure. It’s a little harder to get to, it’s steeper than any other mountain in Australia, and it gets great snow. That’s what drew us all up here. I’m sure it’s also why a lot of you guys come to Hotham. I know that because I clock your smiles after the first ride up Heavenly Valley on a fresh snow day. I hear you yelling, and I see your tracks. Well not too many, because I like getting in first, but I’m also happy to share the snow up here in the cathedral that is Hotham. We all get thirsty, and we all need water. It’s the same with fresh snow. And once it gets cut and squashed, we need to leave the lifts and head out into the mighty bowls and ridges of Hotham’s side country.
“Hotham is unique when it comes to access into bowls and valleys: we start up high and then slide, the hike comes later.”
And unlike many areas, it’s better to hoof it out than use skins, just plug steeps, whether you wear snowboard boots or ski boots, to kick steps up the steeper ridges and bowls. It’s the most direct way and can be shared by all.
I remember skiing with Jeff Sweeney, the legendary big wave surfer and snow-wear designer for Quicksilver a few years back. We had come down one of the Two Micks, a classic Hotham cross fall line run with great wind lips and snow pockets. We finished our run in the Swindlers Valley and stopped for a breath and to look back up at where we’d just been. Jeff looked up and down the valley and said “Whoo, the soul factor is through the roof out here.” Andrew Barnes laughed, and Bill and I just nodded.
“Whoo, the soul factor is through the roof out here.”
You don’t have to go far out of the resort up here to get the feeling you need to wash off the grime and problems of everyday life. I remember so many days rising in the dark to my alarm and meeting with Andrew and Bill as we walked up the road in the dark with snow pelting our faces, only to drop down into the valley and find feather quilts deep of fresh snow and trees to give us definition. We would ski for hours with Barnesy yelling out into the wind for us to come in tight, or get air into a glade, or power into a pocket of fresh. Then we’d hike out and find it was 3.00 in the afternoon and we’d been in another world. I’ve skied and alpine climbed in the Indian Himalayas, spent many winters in St Anton and skied in Japan, Canada and the USA. Bill now runs a guiding company in Gulmarg in Kashmir India called Bills Trips (funny name hey?). Barnesy has skied all over the USA, toured through the Grand Tetons and Telluride and lots of backcountry in Australia, but I’m writing this because we all feel like Hotham is our home.
Home always smells good, it feels right, and when it’s a place with such wild peaks and deep snow, I always have my best days here, the days I remember, the days I play over in my mind.
It doesn’t matter if it’s spring and the snow has changed, or if there’s ice; it’s still wild and I’m glad I made the choice to come up to the big peaks and share some time with my ski partners and the friends I’ve made up here.
I only get to ski with Bill a couple of days each winter now because he has to run the ski patrol and make sure you guys are all ok when you tweak your body parts. Bill has everybody’s back now. And Barnesy still shoots through in his Suby when he can and we all get to shoot together. It’s still the same adventure; the mountain sits and waits and we ski. So if you see me on the chair out there, let’s have a chat and maybe a ski run or two for fun and Auld Lang Syne.