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Going downhill at 50

by Carol Middleton

(published in The Age travel section 17 August 1996)

Skiing begins at forty. Fifty in my case. There is a funny kind of stubborn determination to take new and adventurous challenges as you hit middle age and, after a misspent youth processing words, I felt ready for some healthy outdoor physical activity. I chose the three-day skiing program for the over-40s at Mt Buffalo.

The attraction was that I would be in a small group of virgin skiers of roughly my own age, far from the fashions and the nightclubs and the hyper trails of the busy ski resorts, and that I could enjoy the traditional winter luxury of the Mt Buffalo Chalet.

I had been to Mt Buffalo before, had slipped over that 1337m cliff on the edge of a rope, in another age-defying exercise called abseiling. That was easy. Skiing requires more skill, even on the gentle slopes at Cresta Valley where we were put through our paces by instructors Kerry Lee Dodd and Rhonda Sloan.

The instructors for the program, which is in its third season, are all over 40 themselves, and all have great patience and a commitment to making a skier out of every one of their pupils. Rhonda told us the story of one 70-year-old skier, suffering a terminal illness, who was literally supported by two instructors while she learnt to ski. As long as the student doesn't give up, the instructor won't either.

The groups are kept small - ours had only five members - so everyone has plenty of individual attention. The course is designed for those who would like to ski or to pick it up again. The oldest person in our group was Dennis, a very fit 73-year-old Sydneysider, who shamed us all by abstaining from all the sticky delights of the Chalet cuisine, and going to bed at 9pm. We were unable to persuade him to take part in the Chalet's nightly activities, including the hands-on massage session that was a hot favorite with the rest of the guests.

With no television in the guest rooms, and diehards relegated to the smallest room in the place to watch the box, everyone is encouraged to socialise in the bar before dinner and maybe get together afterwards for table tennis, gluhwein (a spiced red wine), billy tea and damper ("I couldn't eat a thing") or even a dance in the ballroom.

Each morning, keen to meet the challenge of a day on the ski slopes, we would drag ourselves away from the endless lazy Chalet breakfasts, when we would work our way conscientiously through juices, cereals, fruit, porridge and a long list of cooked dishes, followed by tea, coffee and toast, with the excuse that we were about to work it off on the mountain. Meals at the chalet are more haute cuisine than country cooking, with the right-sized portions to tempt you right to the final course.

Mount Buffalo’s Cresta Valley area, where the ski lessons are held, is serviced by five lifts in all (three pomas and two chair lifts), three of which are designed specially for beginners. We were confined to the novice poma and slope, starting off tentatively on the flat and slowly working up to the downhill run. Kerry or Rhonda would frequently show us how to make our turns on the slopes by taking hold of our hands and skiing backwards in front of us down the hill. I found that very reassuring.

By the second day, I was riding up the hill on the poma lift, and skiing down the gentle slope with less fear each time, and hopefully a little more grace. Gradually I found myself stopping, turning right or left to order, and avoiding obstacles and people.

But then, on the second night, it rained. The snow thawed and froze over again, forming an icy and, as it turned out, treacherous surface to ski on. The instructors offered to take us over to Falls Creek for the day, where we would be able to practise on better snow cover. Only two of our group accepted the offer. I wish I had.

On my first descent of the day, I gathered such speed on the icy surface that I lost control of my skis, and plunged headlong. I had fallen many times before – and accepted that as part of the learning process - but this time it was not as painless. I had fractured my ankle. Fortunately, one of the ski school instructors, who works as a nurse in the warmer months, iced and bandaged my ankle in the first aid room, and told me how to take care of it until I could get to my doctor in Melbourne.

Skiing, I figured, is a risky business and I was one of the unlucky ones. I cannot fault the instructors, who were very careful with us and thorough in checking equipment.

It seems I am not destined to be a champion skier. But Mount Buffalo offers a wonderful holiday retreat, even for those with no desire to take to the slopes. The location alone is spectacular in all seasons, and guests can take a different guided walk into the Mount Buffalo National Park every morning of the week, throughout the year.

The Chalet, perched like an eagle's nest  on the edge of the gorge above the Ovens Valley, has 360-degree views, and the lounge rooms have huge windows for contemplating the world. I would have been happy to spend hours in the quiet reading room, or in front of one of the log fires in the bar and lounges, reliving the days when life moved more slowly, more elegantly and with better taste.

There is wood panelling throughout the building and, in spite of the Chalet's timber clad exterior, the feeling is one of solidity and permanence. The 102 bedrooms do not all have the same sense of luxury as the reception rooms, although I did not check out the "more spacious view and tower rooms", mentioned in the brochure. Some single rooms are rather narrow, with just one single bed. But here the bedrooms are really only for sleeping, and the comfort is old-fashioned guesthouse style. The radiators were pumping out such vast amounts of heat that I left my window open to the clean, cold mountain air.

Mt Buffalo Chalet has been a popular holiday destination since it opened in 1910. It was operated by various government departments, in conjunction with the railways, until July 1993, when it was taken over by Dean and Gillian Belle. In the three years since they moved in, they have restored the grand old lady to her former glory, at the same time producing two children and entertaining a multitude of visitors. For an entrepreneur with such enthusiasm and creativity, Dean is a very relaxed host, spending much of his day chatting to the guests.

“Skiing Begins at 40” is just one of the programs run by the Chalet throughout the year. Others are Opera in the Alps, Luxury Walking Holidays, Alpine Photography Week, Wild

Flower Week and Murder Mystery weekends.

When it came time to leave, addresses were exchanged and promises made to return. This a place where those promises are usually kept, a good place for a wedding or mid-lifers setting themselves unreasonable goals.


(photograph by Bee Williamson:

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© copyright 2003

Carol Middleton