Journalist and ski fanatic Flip Byrnes knows more about snow, and places to ski and snowboard than anyone else you’re ever likely to meet. So it made sense that she finally decided to
write a book, Called Ultimate Skiing And Snowboarding, outlining all the best destinations around the world; including her all-time favourite, Aspen. Flip chats to The Starfish:
Congrats on the book. Why did you decide to write it?
It had been brewing for around 30 years. I’ve really written it in my head on 1000 chairlifts in 500 different resorts drinking five gazillion hot chocolates, in places where I’ve felt “this is so incredible I have to tell somebody about this – no I need to tell everybody.” Especially because I have such a unique viewpoint, living and working in ski areas in three continents as an instructor, in ski area marketing departments and as a ski columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, I can see the big picture of what a ski area offers and where it slots in.
Who will it appeal to, in particular?
Everybody! For a first timer there’s some handy detail on how to get set up and read the resort stats which is really important as there are a few curve balls in there. I’m also writing for the gazillion friends who always asked me where they should go skiing, who like a blue run and might have a family and really enjoy an Aperol Spritz. I’m also writing for myself and my core group of snow friends who really want to know the nitty gritty of how to ride a ski area. So, from beginner to expert.
There are so many alluring snow locations in it; been to every single one?
Yes, bar a handful. I’ve never made it to China and to be honest I don’t know if I ever will; the 5cm of annual natural snowfall just isn’t talking to me. Grandvalira in Andorra is one I am super keen to check out this northern winter and more of Italy.
Other than having good ski runs, what must a destination have to make it to your “ultimate” list?
Defining ‘ultimate’ was paramount as that created the selection criteria for every single resort that made it into the book. What came down to is a ski area had to be the best in its class whether a big hitter like Whistler, or serious on the charm offensive like Nozawa Onsen in Japan and budget friendly Borovets in Bulgaria made it in. Many would sniff at Borovets but if a beginner it has all you need for about half the price of a catered chalet in France – the only catch is it’s not actually a catered chalet in France.
What’s a splendid ski destination you think is under-rated, that you’d recommend for intermediates?
Big Sky Montana. It has so much going on, it’s just about to finish a huge mountain and village overhaul that’s been long overdue. Engleberg in Switzerland is a free ride favourite, it’s where you’ll find the ‘Swedish mafia’ as we call them. Closer to home can I please just give a clap to Charlotte Pass in New South Wales? It’s one of the smaller ski resort but is completely snowbound and for a family experience of holidaying in a snow globe within the southern hemisphere it’s always got my vote. For intermediates the USA is just so service oriented with long, wide slopes, it’s hard to go back once you’ve tasted them.
How old were you when you learned to ski, and where did you go from there?
I was two! I was the youngest of seven and mum and dad were members of a ski lodge at Charlotte Pass, I wore so many hand me down ski suits that by the time they got to me they were ‘retro!’ During university winter breaks I pulled T-bars at Thredbo (I was studying journalism) and had my eye on becoming a snow reporter which I did at Perisher after I graduated. But in our summer I needed to work, that’s how I went to Aspen first as an instructor and waited two years to finally join the communications department.
I would’ve stayed there forever but love intervened and I followed a pro skier to France and that’s when I lived in the French Alps and started writing on skiing for The Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald. I progressed into mountaineering and eventually wanted to finish my great grandfather’s (Antarctic explorer/photographer Frank Hurley’s) trip to the South Pole so did an expedition kite skiing halfway across Greenland, sponsored by The North Face. I feel that there’s another book in there somewhere. Skiing and snowboarding has taken me to the most incredible places.
Since then, how much of your life has been spent in the snow?
Snow has never been out of my life, it’s always been there in some form and if I leave it for too long it calls me back.
What’s one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had on a mountain?
An icecap isn’t a mountain per se, but my transformative moments have been in polar areas. Now my best moments have been on green and blue runs, teaching my daughters to ski.
You say Aspen is the best ski area in the world. What stands out about it?
Other ski aeras may have the town but average mountains, or fantastic skiing but no life off snow. Aspen Snowmass has it all, it’s the entire package. As a former Victorian mining town it oozes charm and has all the cosmopolitan trappings of art galleries, restaurants and bars, you could go there and never ski. Then it also has four mountains, one of them alone (Snowmass) is the third largest ski area in the USA (and the slopes are beautifully prepared). But above all it’s the vibe; it’s a real, working community and town with a lot of soul. Ultimately for me the people make the place.
You were the first Australian snowboard instructor with Aspen Ski Company; hard work, or just great fun?
It was the best time of my life! There is so much camraderie within a ski school and leaving my snow family and moving back into a city was a hard transition. I did work hard though, I’d work in any weather and kind of became the last chance saloon for learners struggling because my motivation to find a way to make people fall in love with snow just knew no limits. Looking back, I must’ve been pretty annoying – I was just full of energy, constantly dialled up to number 10, living my best life and going about it with a lot of ambition.
These days you still do some Aspen-related work; what does that entail?
For the past 11 years, I’ve done their PR for Australia/NZ. Australia is our biggest international market so I write the communications plans, form marketing partnerships, organise media trips – it’s my dream job and a total joy, I’m all in.
What’s another favourite ski destination?
Literally anywhere I am. I haven’t met a ski area yet I don’t like. I had one of my best powder days in Portillo, Chile, so have a soft spot for there.
And where would you suggest are the best two best overseas snow destinations for Australians on more of a budget?
Who’s not on a budget! Even if making top dollar you need to make the Pacific pesos stretch as far as humanly possible, so it’s not so much about where you go, it’s also when. Head to the USA in March to Colorado for their sweet spot of great snow but the value seasons start. In Europe Italy is my pick hands down for the great food, friendly people, excellent prices and the Dolomites views are out of this world. St Gervais, it’s right next to Chamonix and has a colossally huge ski area but everyone goes to Chamonix. That’s because it’s the big international name, but all the French go to St Gervais for better prices and a local feel.
When it comes to snow holidays, do you think it’s still worth going to a travel agent, or just as cheap to DIY online?
That’s easy, you simply can’t DIY a ski holiday cheaper than the ski operators. They buy in bulk and get the best deals, it’s just no question.
It can be very disappointing to arrive at a ski destination and find out that there’s not much snow. With global warming changing the world’s weather patterns and snowfall, did this impact the destinations you included in the book?
Absolutely. For example Kitzbühel in Austria is fantastic peak season, but I simply couldn’t include it as the shoulder seasons early season and late season are too variable. The number to keep in mind especially in Europe is 1800m, you don’t want to book a ski resort below this around Christmas time as it’s simply become a hit and miss situation. The French resorts built in the 1950’s at high altitudes (for example Val Thorens) were shunned as they were considered ugly. They are now absolutely back in vogue.
What’s a lesser-known destination you predict is going to become big in time?
Well, I sometimes wonder about how much more Japan can give. When you go there you’ll see there’s a lot of infrastructure missing so there’s still a lot of developmental potential in places that haven’t been marketed to the west like Shiga Kogen, the largest ski area in Japan. And Scandinavia is definitely having a moment.
You have a mountain-guide husband and two mountain-mad daughters; yet manage to divide your time between Europe and Australia; how tricky is that?!
You have no idea how tricky it can be! Let’s just say that a lot of my credit card spending revolves around accumulating frequent flyer points. Our love is the mountains but a lot of my professional work is in Sydney where the girls are schooling. I just remind myself, you only live once so make it the best you can, regardless of the logistics – you’ll only remember the good bits.
Ultimate Skiing And Snowboarding by Flip Byrnes (Hardie Grant) is out now.