Snow Business

WRITTEN BY: Ben Smithurst

PHOTOS BY: Mark Watson

Triggering snowflakes on an off-road mission to Guthega for the first heavy snowfall of the season. 

It announced itself as an angry blob, as purple and black as a bruise, pulsing and writhing in the Southern Ocean. Synoptic charts showed bitter Antarctic winds sheeting the continent. SES workers cleared their calendars, frozen birds fell from the skies, shattering like wineglasses, and even southeast Queenslanders embraced the Ugg.

Technically, winter had arrived a week ago—but now, finally, winter was coming. In the NSW High Country, all heads turned towards the peaks: a meagre early-season dusting of white eroded by drizzle, chairlifts dangling over dull green slopes. The blob promised real snow. The phone began to ring at max*d’s east coast headquarters. The editor answered.

“It’s going to dump,” said Mark Watson, an intrepid and award-winning photographer whose usual remit is hanging from Patagonian glaciers for adventure magazines.

“I still can’t go overseas because of COVID, so I think we should take the new D-MAX offroad in a blizzard,” he said. “Let’s go to Jindy to chase power line trails before they close the roads for the season.”

The trip was a go. The blob was coming. It was just like the movie posters said for another The Blob—the 1950s horror film version. “It’s indescribable! Indestructible! Nothing can stop it!” Bring it on.

WEAPON OF CHOICE

The D-MAX X-TERRAIN is an imposing machine: that legendary 3.0-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine, its easy 140kW/450Nm combo, its shouty insistence on ALL-CAPS upper case lettering. But then, it’s got a lot to raise its voice about. Isuzu UTE’s halo model has already developed an impressive reputation—as well as pocketing the 2021 & 2022 Drive Car of The Year – Dual Cab Ute Award.

“There’s no doubt that Australians loved even the old Isuzu D-MAX,” said Drive’s judges. “Now, though, they have something to get genuinely excited about thanks to a quality offering that feels both insulated and premium while also being robust and solid. The new D-MAX pushed its way bullishly to the top of the segment thanks to standard inclusions, value for money and a quality drive experience.”

What it hasn’t pushed its way bullishly to the top of yet, at least, was snowbound Australia. So when the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather klaxons began blaring in early June, the X-TERRAIN was the obvious choice for the D-MAX’s first foray into the frost.

Even so, our alpine options were limited. Victoria’s snowfields had joined the rest of the state in a snap lockdown, and despite southeast Queensland’s scrambling for fur-lined footwear, the Gold Coast hinterland won’t see snow any time soon. Temperatures there were in the low 20s. Brr. New South Wales’ Snowy Mountains were calling.

Even as the blob bore down, though, there was no guarantee that the white stuff would arrive within our assigned window. With the max*d calendar able to accommodate only two days in the snowfields, we arrived late on our first afternoon to find Guthega grimly grassy.

Nevertheless, it’s a great region to follow your nose in when you’re behind the wheel of a capable and confident 4WD. Blob or no blob, it’s beautiful.

At 1765m, Charlotte Pass is Australia’s highest ski resort. It’s snowbound for most of the winter. Before the access road—Kosciuszko Road—closes, however, it kisses a series of serene, almost Scottish, valleys chequered with rust and burgundy scrub and crossed by trout streams. At its end, above the village, is a small, cul-de-sac-sized loop of bitumen, and there across the valley you see Kosciuszko. It’s not unusual, even a week before the ski season officially begins, for the peaks to be capped with disappointingly small yarmulkes of white.

As recently as 1977, this road went all the way to within metres of the summit. For a time, Kosciuszko was the only ‘continent’s-highest-mountain’ you could conquer inside a taxi. No more. But that lofty loop of tarmac, 42km from Jindabyne remains Australia’s highest piece of road, at around 1860m, just eight kilometres from the mountain it surveys.

On the way up there’s Perisher Valley, a splinter road off to Guthega, and assorted other places to explore. In fact, the area in and around the Kosciuszko National Park is a feast of fun 4WD tracks, many out of Adaminaby. Trails and camps and river crossings also abound down near Geehi, closer to Thredbo, though many are closed in winter. But snow is our mission—and with little having arrived in advance, our aim is to get as high up as we can.

2021 Isuzu D-MAX X-TERRAIN model shown.

TAKE A LONG LINE

It’s a 4WDing truism that power lines often host fun trails in the firebreak gaps below them, cut—as if by a 12-storey Victa—through heavily wooded hillsides. And so, after exploring a handful of side trails and tracks around a lightly powdered Guthega Road, we spend the night back down in Jindabyne, hoping for more.

The X-TERRAIN’s 9.0-inch touchscreen is bright and quicksilver fast, with resolution crisper than a July dip in Lake Jindabyne. My iPhone, wirelessly connected to Apple CarPlay®, teases us with snowbound roadsides on Google Maps on the road up in the morning, and today there’s a proper pay off. We dabble down to old river crossings, explore power line trails, and duck into stacks of (ungated, obviously, and legally accessible) side tracks.

Our Volcanic Amber X-TERRAIN looks magical against the monochrome background. We’re extra careful—we have full recovery gear, and chains, should our non-optimised Bridgestone Dueler HT 684II’s begin to slip—but they’re not needed.

Nor do we fancy a frigid, stiff-fingered chain fitting. It’s joyous, and joyously cold. Built in Thailand, and beloved in our Sunburnt Country, the D-MAX couldn’t be more at home in the icy Australian Alps.

DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTROM

Midway through the morning the snow begins in earnest. By midday it’s a bona fide blizzard. We speak to some rangers, who are closing more access roads, and send us east, back towards sea level. After half an hour of top-shelf fun roosting snow turns, plumes of spindrift peeling skyward from our road-spec radials, we’re ready.

“These are the biggest flakes I’ve ever seen in Australia,” says the photographer, a veteran of glaciers and overland Scandinavian caribou-counting expeditions, “and I’ve covered elections.” More season-long road closures have been enacted, and the radio warns of lesser vehicles cascading past their limits—and regularly off the road, understeering into Armco.

The blizzard intensifies. As flakes the size of small bats patter against the windscreen and fill in tyre tracks in seconds, local radio begins to issue alerts. Highway speeds are down to walking pace, long hold-ups are the norm, and snowploughs speed past, creating 2ft bow wave barrels of dirty sleet. Like Jabba the Hutt on a centrifuge, Clive Palmer in a china shop, or an ice cream cake on a souped-up lazy susan, the blob is causing chaos. The X-TERRAIN barely notices. 

Coming down the mountain, the D-MAX’s IDAS (Intelligent Driver Assistance System) technology makes light work of the slippery surfaces, even on steep and snowed-in roadsides where the division between gravel and verge is impossible to define. We pass the site of yesterday’s excursions, now under proper cover, but have no time to go back. As we descend into Jindabyne it’s icy cold, and the snowfall is thicker than the only doona in a world of blankets.

It snows all the way to Cooma. Five hours later, we’re back in Sydney. In blob, we trust. “It’s a big one, super powerful,” I say to Watson. “It’s indescribable! Indestructible! Nothing can stop it!” But enough about the D-MAX.

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