Photo credit: Tom Putt

Legend has it that an early gold prospector and skiing pioneer, William Spargo, was the first man to live through a winter on Mt Hotham. Sacked from his job managing a ski lodge in 1934, the “Hermit of Hotham Heights” retreated into the bush to live alone in a simple hut before eventually striking it rich and pioneering another Victorian tradition: moving to Queensland to retire.
Our brief is less onerous: survive for one night on the same mountain. “Let me know if you’re feeling cold,” says our host and founder of Alpine Nature Experience, Jean-Francois Rupp, as we follow his footsteps through the snow. “I’ll assign you burpees.” Any exercise beyond penguin-like plodding might prove hazardous with the jagged teeth of snowshoes strapped to our hiking boots, but we’re more than warmed up by the time we reach our unlikely salvation, a few hundred metres off the Great Alpine Road.
Nestled among century-old snowgums overlooking the Dargo Valley, Rupp has one-upped Spargo and built an off-grid eco-village. The centrepiece is a towering Nordic tipi, capable of standing up to strong winds and snow-loading, in which guests dine around a central wood-burning stove. Outside, a rough-sawn timber and corrugated iron bar faces a fire pit dug into the snow. Alpine Nature Experience also offers tree-tent glamping in the warmer months, plus a fully supported and guided three-night hike from Falls Creek to Mt Hotham.
This afternoon’s activities package is called Snowshoe to Fondue. In a tragi-comic testament to our tepid antipodean winters, the igloos Rupp built as part of the overnight Igloo to Skidoo offering melted in a rainstorm. Never mind: semi-permanent tent-like snowdomes made by local joiners in Wangaratta provide heated havens for us overnighters.
We’re greeted with a glass of homemade mulled wine as the orange glow of sunset spreads across the alps. The smell of homemade soup draws us to the tipi, full of lanterns and logs, pots bubbling on the fire, cowskin rugs hanging from timber beams and fluffy blankets spread around.
This fondue night was largely inspired by Rupp’s childhood in the French Alps. His grandparents had a chalet in Tignes, a mountain village near the Italian border, and would host family and friends who came to ski. “My grandmother was a great cook,” he says. “She kept a book of what she cooked for guests, so she wouldn’t make them the same thing twice.” The menu here is more set, but Grandma’s fondue recipe still rules. French fondue requires only three ingredients: cheese, garlic and wine. “Have you ever seen a French chef cook with water?” Rupp asks.
Swiss fondue, he takes pleasure in explaining, is too filling, overly complicated and can include such silliness as chocolate. The Swiss ribbing is a theme of the night, which makes the Swiss flag that hangs in the tipi all the more perplexing, until a guest points out it’s actually the lookalike flag of the Haute-Savoie region in France, where Rupp grew up. (“It’s a trap,” they whisper.) The cheese we melt for the fondue is French, but almost everything else we eat and drink is local, from the Harrietville Bakery almond slice dessert to the sourdough from Nord Bakery in Albury to the Rutherglen wine and the Bright Brewery beer.
After dinner Rupp tells the story of his youthful hikes near the border of Switzerland and Italy, where he and his friends would collect stems from a rare alpine flower to make into a traditional French liqueur called Génépi. We round off the evening with a sample from a Génépi distillery in the French Alps that dates to 1898. “It’s pretty much medicinal,” shrugs Rupp.
Lights from the distant ski lodges shine like demonic eyes between the snow gums as we follow the beam of our headtorches to bed. My snowdome is a cosy retreat as a storm intensifies overhead. I stoke the logs in my stove and crawl into my -10°C-rated double sleeping bag, placing sheep skins on top until I’m at the approximate melting point of cheese, then fall asleep to the most incredible racket, the wind shaking the dome senseless and the rain lashing down.I half expect to find the eco-village in tatters when I pull back the canvas in the morning, but all is calm. Snow sparkles in the sun, and in the tipi Rupp is frothing milk for coffee. A skidoo arrives to whisk me away as fresh snow falls. I bet Spargo never had it this good.

Read the story here