Adventure in the Alps of Australia

By Aaron Jamieson | July 14, 2015

Explorers venture into the western reaches of the Snowy Mountains’ Main Range to retrace the tracks of Australian’s alpine pioneers

MY INTRODUCTION TO ski touring in the Australian Alps was a vicious one. It was almost midnight in late winter and a storm was rolling in when I set out on foot from Guthega, a ski village in Kosciuszko National Park, with our expedition’s base-camp manager, Teddy Laycock. A couple of days earlier, Teddy had taken our tents and supplies to the Arc of Trees, about 5km away on the flanks of 2196m Mt Twynam.

On the night I arrived, he skied back to Guthega to help me cart the rest of our gear up the range. Driven by the wind roaring across the frozen landscape, horizontal sheets of icy rain slammed against us as we set off. The situation was bleak, but we needed to get to base camp quickly to secure the tents.

We found the trailhead and crossed the first creek without incident, but as we dragged our kits through a patch of bush, our progress slowed. Rain and ice battered the snow underfoot, turning it to slippery sludge. I looked up the dark slope ahead and wondered how difficult it would be to find our tents. With fog and the blizzard restricting our visibility to a few metres, we had to navigate entirely by GPS.

We slowly slogged on through the darkness from waypoint to waypoint. Eventually we reached Illawong Lodge, a historic alpine hut, where we crossed the Snowy River on a suspension bridge. According to Teddy, we were on the home straight, but with a difficult, steep climb ahead. As we climbed the wind picked up, blasting wet, cold air onto our faces, as icy water trickled down our necks and into our boots. We spotted the tents at last. They seemed to be clinging to the edge of the world, pinned to the snow on the mountainside.

Nestled in a grove of snow gums, they whirred in the wind, heaving like fishing boats in the sea. Teddy and I got to work straightaway, anchoring them and building makeshift snow walls around the camp. All the while, the storm – the worst of the season – blasted on, stripping us of enthusiasm for our upcoming month-long adventure. At about 4am, our work was fi nally done. We huddled around a gas stove inside the main tent, melting snow for well-earned cups of hot chocolate.

Australia’s Snowy Mountains alpine region

HOME TO 11 NATIONAL PARKS and nature reserves and the highest peaks on the Australian mainland, the Alps are a unique feature of the mostly fl at Australian landscape. Consisting of a chain of alpine and subalpine ecosystems that straddle south-eastern NSW, eastern Victoria and the ACT, they cover about 16,000sq.km – about one-quarter the size of Tasmania. They comprise two biogeographic subregions: the Snowy Mountains and Brindabella Range in NSW and the ACT, and the Victorian High Country. They are the highest part of the Great Dividing Range, which stretches for 3000km from northern Queensland to western Victoria, and they are the only place on mainland Australia where deep snow falls more or less annually.

Featuring high-altitude peaks and undulating plateaus, as well as deep glacier-carved valleys and glacial lakes, the Alps are geographically signifi cant. Harbouring diverse cold-climate plants and animals, many of which evolved in isolation and are found nowhere else on the planet, they also hold enormous ecological importance.

The region’s climate, remarkable landscapes and distinctive ecosystems are alluring, but it is the area’s rich cultural heritage that inspired me. The Alps have a long history of Aboriginal occupation. People from at least 13 language groups visited the highlands for festivals, ceremonies and trade – particularly during the spring, when they harvested the bogong moths that migrate en masse to the region each year.

Following European settlement, explorers and prospectors fl ocked to the mountains in search of fortunes. The highlands were used as summer grazing lands for cattle and sheep from the 1830s onwards, goldmining towns were established in the 1850s, and timber-getting became a prominent industry from the 1860s. Along with industry came recreation.

The Australian Alps are home to the world’s first alpine ski club – the Kiandra Snow Shoe Club – established in 1861 at Kiandra, a now-abandoned goldmining town in Kosciuszko NP and the birthplace of skiing in Australia. Norwegian prospectors, who arrived in search of gold during the 1850s, introduced the small alpine settlement to the sport, fashioning rudimentary skis from fl at planks of wood. The story goes that those original skis were actually made from fence pickets, and such was the popularity of the sport that by the end of their fi rst winter, there were no fences left in Kiandra.

In the footsteps of Australia’s alpine explorers

INTRIGUED BY THESE stories and eager to follow in the footsteps of Australia’s alpine pioneers, I embarked on a month-long camping, hiking and ski-touring expedition through the Snowy Mountains in August 2014. With me was a group of five other alpine enthusiasts: expedition leader Chris Booth, base-camp manager Teddy Laycock, and long-time skiers Kenny Heatley, Tim Myers and Jake McBride. We divided our expedition into two stages. During the fi rst, we spent two weeks launching full-day exploratory tours through the north-western reaches of the Snowy Mountains Main Range from our camp near Mt Twynam.

Our aim was to find and follow the original routes established by cattle drovers during those far-off 19th-century summers. We wanted to feel the isolation of the pioneering alpine explorers, to experience the awe early back-country skiers must have felt as they traversed little-known passes, and to make history by carving new tracks of our own. During the second stage, we traversed the southern end of the Main Range, moving camp almost daily. This led us to Seaman’s Hut, near the top of 2228m Mt Kosciuszko, the highest peak on the Australian mainland. From there, we pushed on to 2209m Mt Townsend, the second-highest, where we spent four days exploring the highest part of the Australian Alps.

 

PART OF THE INSPIRATION for our expedition came from stories we’d heard about the people who helped popularise skiing in the Alps during the 1950s, making it the popular pastime it is today. One such man was Colin Myers, a passionate skier and back-country explorer who is known for setting up the fi rst rope-tow at Kiandra. Colin eventually founded the Selwyn Snowfi elds, a ski resort still in operation.

Before there were any commercial ski fi elds in NSW, Colin regularly explored the mountains surrounding Kiandra and occasionally ventured further afi eld to the Victorian High Country in search of downhill runs. It was on one of his trips to Mt Hotham, in 1956, that the seed of innovation was planted, which would lead him to forever transform skiing in the Snowy Mountains.

When Colin set off for Mt Hotham, travelling overland through the mountains was not as easy as it is today. The roads were treacherous, the weather unpredictable, and the available equipment much more basic. With a flat tyre their only real mishap, Colin and his companions eventually made it to Dinner Plain, about 11km shy of Hotham Heights. With the road snowed in from there, they left their suitcases in a cattleman’s shelter, packed what they needed into a rucksack, and set off on skis towards the village. Daylight was fading and, much like my first night in the Alps, a blizzard was rolling in. Wearing leather lace-up ski boots and kangaroo-skin vests for warmth, they pushed on for hours through the storm.

Covered with wet snow and blasted by strong winds, they had no choice but to continue through the night until they arrived in the light of early morning. Their effort was worthwhile. Upon seeing Hotham’s newly installed rope-tow, Colin was inspired. He returned to Kiandra, and with true Aussie improvisation, used a six-cylinder engine from a Dodge car and the gearbox from a Matilda tank to construct one of the fi rst rope-tows in NSW. The ‘tank tow’ was the catalyst for the subsequent skiing boom in Kiandra.

WITHOUT QUESTION, SKIING is in the Myers family’s blood. Selwyn Snowfi elds remains a family business, now run by Colin’s daughter Janelle Heatley and her husband, Bob. Continuing the family penchant for innovative engineering, Bob built one of Australia’s fi rst snowmaking machines – made from an old orchard irrigation system – at Selwyn. Today, the family-run snowfi elds are home to one of the most advanced snowmaking systems in the country. Wanting to experience some of the adversities and the challenges Colin faced in the mountains, two of his grandsons, Kenny Heatley and Tim Myers, took part in my expedition. They share Colin’s passion for the landscape, which was the driving force behind many of his forays into the back country. Colin’s stories of adventure and exploration are part of their family folklore, and at our base camp near Mount Twynam, the pair fondly recalled listening to their grandfather’s stories about a week-long ski adventure he’d had in this section of the range some 60 years before.

“It was all good fun,” Colin had told them, remembering the long hikes, cold weather and feelings of solitude. From base camp and our second camp pitched higher in the range, we explored Carruthers Peak, Mt Sentinel, Watsons Crags and The Crags. The terrain was steep and the vistas were of rugged spurs separated by long, white slopes. Enormous ice walls and jagged cliff faces descended to rocky valley floors, and forest- clad hills rose to icy ridgelines. Blessed with clear skies, we hiked and skied here for days. The higher we ventured, the further we felt from home, in a spectacular, remote wilderness. “Now I understand why Colin loved it out here,” Kenny said to me, smiling. We were sunburnt, half frozen and exhausted, but awestruck.

BACK-COUNTRY SKIING GREW in popularity in Australia during the 1970s and ’80s. At that time, many of the old drovers’ huts dotted across the Alps were converted to makeshift lodges for skiers. Today, a number of them have been decommissioned and others destroyed by fi re, but those that remain are primarily maintained as emergency shelters for skiers and hikers. In the Kosciuszko area, about 90 still stand. During the second stage of our expedition, we visited Seaman’s Hut, on Etheridge Ridge. The sturdy, granite building was erected in 1929 as a refuge for hikers and skiers, to memorialise Laurie Seaman and Evan Hayes, two skiers who died of exposure during a blizzard in the area a year earlier. We pitched camp alongside the hut, overlooking a stark expanse of white. Once night fell, the wide plains refl ected the light of the countless stars piercing the infi nite blackness above us. Pure and clear, the night sky drifted slowly above our tents.

Camped here, it was fascinating to reflect on what life must have been like for the pioneers. With the exception of the hut, there were no traces of human existence in the landscape and I pondered that, over the years, many drovers, goldminers, loggers and skiers must have looked out and seen the same white hills and starkly silhouetted peaks. The following day was the most challenging of our expedition. Physically and mentally exhausted, and faced with a long traverse along a jagged, icy face, fear began to take hold. Two members of our team lost control and slid metres down an icy slope. The distant valley fl oor stretched ominously below us. Exposure, cold conditions and harsh sunlight can be frightening when they weigh on a faltering resolve.

The hike was almost impossibly difficult and each fall was met with a painful scraping from rock-hard ice. Tim laughed and said, jokingly, “There’s no way Colin would have done this!” We pushed on, armed with ice axes and crampons. We were well equipped for the conditions. I thought about those early mountain goers, facing similar conditions but with far more basic equipment. Our efforts were at last rewarded when we reached the saddle of Mt Townsend – the goal of the second part of our expedition – at about midday. We searched the outcrops for a suitable campsite and discovered a sanctuary of jumbled rock and snow. We were camped, and, all around us, the ridges of the lower Alps stretched for kilometres. We were close to the westernmost reaches of the snowline and we could see vast expanses of ski terrain and a paradise of boulder-scattered slopes, cliffs and ridges, just waiting to be explored.

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