Thousands of years after the first ascent of Kosciuszko by the Ngarigo people*, Paul Strzelecki climbed it in 1840, but it was not until August 1897 that the peak received its first recorded visitors in winter.
In 1942, Elyne Mitchell published her seminal memoir Australia’s Alps and the following year she received a surprising letter from an old man called Edgar Holden. Here is an excerpt:
I am the Holden mentioned in your book and with the late Charles Kerry organized and made up the first winter ascent of Kosciusko from Jindabyne and Friday Flat, tenting there in a season of blizzards and the deepest snow recorded – 70 feet on Cootapatamba … to snatch the one fine day for a dash to the summit.
A report of this famous expedition appeared in the 4 September 1897 edition of The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, which provides some of the information for this story, along with input from Elyne Mitchell.
There were 13 in the party, some travelled down by train from Sydney to Cooma, the leaders, photographer Charles Kerry and Edgar Holden accompanied by their friend Stewart McAllister (a legendary skier), travelled across from Kiandra. Among the locals in the party were men from the local Jindabyne Station and the town copper, along with the guides James Spencer, Jack Bolton and his son Harry.
Just getting to Jindabyne was a trial in itself, taking three days due to a “heavy fog”. The party finally set off on horse back up the Crackenback Valley on 16 August, with five packhorses. They travelled 40 kilometres on the first day. That night it snowed heavily and the next day they “were overtaken by a sudden blizzard of snow, the temperature falling in an astonishing manner…. So severe was the fall that in a period of two hours 20 inches (50 cm) of snow was recorded.”
They managed just 16 kilometres the next day and camped at what is now called Friday Flat – it appears they weren’t necessarily heading for this precise launch point, but it was determined by the weather conditions. The camp was established “under great difficulties, the thermometer registering at sunset 18 deg. (-8 deg .C)”.
With the exception of Kerry, Holden and McAllister, most of the others, including the guides, would have had little or no experience on skis and they were about to undergo a demanding climb into the unknown. While James Spencer, and probably the Boltons, had taken cattle up to the Kosciuszko area in the summer for many years prior to this, and possibly via this route, the layout of the entire region was heavily camouflaged by snow.
They spent the next day “practising snow-shoeing” and at 5am on August 19 they set off up Merritt’s Spur, a gruelling journey of around 2.5 kilometres through heavy forest and entangled undergrowth.**
They soon found that they had to carry their skis and so, as Kerry describes, “there was nothing for it but a bold plunge into the snow, which lay lightly some three feet or more on top of the thick undergrowth.” They took turns ‘breaking trail’ (i.e., falling through into the bracken below the snow) and it took them four and half hours to climb 1,800 vertical feet (550 metres). Anyone who has ridden the Merritt’s chair will have observed how heavy the undergrowth is on this slope.
Degree of difficulty on a scale of ten – eleven!
They would have emerged from the forested country just above the top of today’s upper Merritt’s chair lift. During most winters there is a significant cornice some 150 metres beyond this spot and this they climbed on hands and knees.
They donned their skis and over the top of the next rise or two they surveyed in the distance “a vast sunlit snow plain … and over this trackless expanse ahead of us sped two hares.” At his point, after the initial euphoria of making it to the top it became obvious that they had little water or food.
They apparently had either run out of or were not carrying water, just whisky flasks! As Kerry describes: “We had by this time learned that snow mixed with whisky instantly went into hard ice at the bottom of our flask cups; thus it came about that, in direst need, the first handful of snow went furtively into the writer’s mouth, and thereafter he bemoaned his weakness until presently he discovered that everyone else was doing the same.” (They had earlier agreed not to eat snow as it simply increased thirst).
Adding insult to injury, they all had already eaten any food on the initial climb. When stopping for ‘lunch’, “a similar weakness was disclosed” as their lunches “had mysteriously vanished before a much earlier hunger.”
They pushed on and eventually approached a high point on Etheridge Ridge (known then as Dead Horse Mountain) and clambered to the top to be presented with a magnificent panorama dominated by the looming Kosciuszko.
“The guides were probably most astonished, for they had been here before and now did not recognise their summer valley. Here was a steep snow gorge … where in its depths should have been Cootapatamba … the winter coverlet rolled on uninterruptedly, until opposite us it rose again in a sheer wall to a narrow plateau fully a mile in length. Over this plateau hung an enormous drift, roofing it in down its entire length…. A little to the left of this there rose a marbled peak to which we took off our hats respectfully, for we know it instinctively.”
Despite describing the peak as being “a little to the left” of their viewing point, he most certainly is describing the Cootapatamba cornice with the peak to the right.
The group then climbed on foot to the top, with Jack Bolton getting there first at 2pm. The Sydney Mail article described the scene:
“As if in consummation of the grandeur of the snowfields, the cairn and survey mark … were found to be entirely buried in frozen snow, which had been blown by the winds into fantastical and stalactitic formations, presenting in the brilliant sunshine a dazzling picture never to be forgotten by the elated explorers.”
The group stayed there for 45 minutes taking in the view from ‘Albury to Cooma’. It is reported that during their return, they sat on their skis for most of the gentle descent until that final tyring climb back down Merritt’s Spur. The Sydney Mail article claims the group arrived back in Jindabyne the same day.
Apparently their ‘gun’ skier, Stewart McAllister, descended Kosciuszko on his skis running a straight line until slowed by the opposing slopes of Etheridge (the author made the mistake of attempting this manoeuvre in 1973 and his stomach still is tied in a knot!).
* There are moves underway to give the peak a dual name and KunamaNamadgi, meaning snow mountain, is the front-runner.
**The skiing equipment used on this expedition was rudimentary, to say the least. The skis were more commonly called snow shoes or butter pats, made from local alpine ash, and ranging up to nine feet in length, with both ends turned up and twisted to a point. The binding comprised a leather and/or metal ‘shoe’ or toe piece combined with a simple leather strap that wrapped around the heel of the most commonly used footwear – gumboots!
The ‘butter pat’ owes its name to the grooved impression left in the snow (by the vertical grooves carved into the bottom of the ski) when the skier made a series of small steps to affect a turn – the grooved impression in the snow apparently resembled the grooves on the under side of the wooden paddles used in the processing of butter. (Source: Norman C Clarke, Kiandra-Gold Fields to Ski Fields).
- PAUL PEARCE
You might know Cam Walker from his Mountain Journal website, the Victorian Backcountry Festival or his work with Mountain Sports Collective. He also works as Campaigns Co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth. Environmentalist, mountain lover and an all-round great guy, he tells a bit about his life and passion for the mountains.
After a day in the backcountry, a really beneficial step is to engage in an honest reflection of how the day worked out. While your memories are fresh, and without the pressure of making a critical decision, you can evaluate what went right and what went wrong – valuable information for your future backcountry trips.
You should seek both positive and negative sentiments. ‘Where did we make good decisions?’ ‘Were there times when we took too much risk?’ This is an opportunity for anyone in your group to speak up about something they felt should have been done differently, to question the actions of the group. By discussing this, it gives everyone cause to reflect on how things might be done better next time.
A challenging thought process is to ask yourself, ‘if there had been an incident, what would the rescuers put in their report?’ Are there any obvious mistakes we made?
We can learn a little something every time we go into the backcountry – it all contributes to your bank of experience and makes for more enjoyable and safer touring.
This is an extremely important step in the Daily Process and not one that can be fully explored here. Ahead are some critical points. To learn more, do one of our Avalanche Skills AST1 courses (starting mid July when there should be enough snow!)
We know there are many hazards in the backcountry and avalanche danger is but one. There are more incidents in the Australian backcountry due to surface conditions than avalanches, and some of the worst are a combination of under-estimating the conditions, over-estimating your ability to deal with them, and human behaviours (mental biases that cause flawed decision-making).
Evaluating slopes for surface condition hazards such as ice and breakable crusts can be predicted to a point by watching the weather, especially temps, looking at slope aspects, and putting the two together. Often it is a matter of timing with conditions changing through the day due to temps and solar.
Mountain Sports Collective mountainsportscollective.org reports on backcountry conditions such as surface conditions, wind and precipitation throughout the Australian season.
For reducing avalanche risk, evaluating and understanding the significance of the following factors can minimise the likelihood or consequences of triggering an avalanche. The importance of being able to rapidly assess terrain for its avalanche risk cannot be overstated as staying safe in the backcountry is all about selecting appropriate terrain for the conditions.
Slope Angle As long as there is no exposure from above, you can effectively lower avalanche risk by choosing low angled slopes – less than 30 degrees.
Slope Size The larger the slope the larger the potential slide.
Slope Shape Avalanches initiate more frequently from convex slopes. Concave slopes and planar slopes are generally safer but if sufficiently steep may still avalanche.
Orientation to Wind Slopes lee to wind can become loaded during strong wind events and develop wind slabs. Cross loading of slopes is also a major concern and learning to identify these conditions is essential as these slopes often present as the best riding.
Orientation to the sun In Australia north facing slopes are our solar aspects. On days with sunshine or high thin cloud the sun’s rays can be your friend or your foe. They may soften icy slopes after a melt freeze cycle on the one hand but on the other add weight to the snowpack and significantly increase avalanche danger as seen last year in the Etheridge Ridge slide.
Supported or unsupported slopes A sufficiently dense treed slope (tight to ski through) can lower avalanche risk. Convex roll features are an example of an unsupported slope and avoiding these will lower the risk.
Terrain traps Avoid areas where terrain traps such as cliffs,creeks, gullies and benches would increase the consequences of an avalanche.
If an avalanche forecast is available (it must be provided by a qualified avalanche forecaster), you can select areas where more favourable conditions exist – for example, a west-facing line in the alpine could be a good choice if a wind slab problem is listed on east aspects.
Snow profiles and snowpack tests can evaluate the state of the snowpack. The use of these tests by recreational users can be problematic due to the difficulty of selecting safe, representative test sites and because there is significant potential for making a false assessment. Professionals are trained to use snowpack tests to rule terrain out as opposed to ruling it in. If there is any question of avalanche hazard, a better option is to choose safer terrain as described above.
It is important to use good travel habits regardless of the conditions. That way these strategies become routine behaviours or habits and will protect you from surprise events. Used diligently, they reduce the likelihood of getting caught out and minimise the severity of the situation, whether it be an avalanche or other backcountry hazards.
GOOD COMMUNICATION: Keep open lines of communication and involve all members in decision making. Many groups use two-way radios to stay in contact.
ONE AT A TIME: Wherever possible, expose only one person at a time to avalanche terrain. In big terrain, be strategic about spreading out to reduce the potential consequences of an avalanche.
GROUP UP IN SAFE SPOTS: Group up out of avalanche terrain but also keep in mind your position for a potential rescue. If you descend too far or out of view, you may not see an incident and it could take a long time to climb back up if a rescue is required.
PLAN AN ESCAPE ROUTE: When in avalanche terrain, plan an escape route before you commit to a slope.
USE TERRAIN WISELY: Exploit terrain features to your advantage. Utilise high ground, such as ridges and ribs rather than being sucked into gullies. Maintain situational awareness of the terrain, including what is above and below you.
ACTIVELY LOOK FOR INSTABILITIES: Do stability tests regularly as you travel. Jump on small rolls and slopes with little to no consequence, do hand shear and compression tests, to see if you can get the snow to fail.
Five minutes can be a long time in the Australian backcountry. Most forecasts for weather, snow conditions and avalanche hazard cover a wide geographical area. It is common for conditions to vary from one part of the region to another. Regional variabilities and uncertainties in forecasts make verifying the conditions an important step in your daily process. The aim is to determine whether the conditions are different than expected and if so, make appropriate changes to your plan. These changes may range from aborting the trip to adjusting the plan to a lower risk option with greater emphasis on slope evaluation and maintaining good travel habits.
It is good to verify the conditions before leaving the trailhead, however unexpected hazards often only become apparent during travel, in which case modifying the plan to take these changes into account is a must. You may find few options are available and that you are already exposed to the hazard. Communication amongst your group becomes all-important and is key to implementing a change or retreat.
Factors which can affect your plan include the amount of new snow, temperature, wind loading, visibility, snow conditions, snowpack instability, avalanche occurrences. As you travel, keep observing and evaluating, and communicating your thoughts to the others in your group. Stay alert and open to changing the day’s plan. No plan should ever be set in concrete in the backcountry!
NEXT WEEK: STEP 5 USE GOOD TRAVEL HABITS