A big 10 days in Victoria, running several AST1 courses of 16 with two instructors. Hung out with a heap of awesome people, and got immersed in the backcountry stoke of the Vic BC Festival. The intensity of the terrain, the breathtaking views, the vibe - we loved it all. Here are some photos from those weeks.
We were heading up to Thredbo for a tour when we received a message from a client with his report of being caught and buried in an avalanche at Etheridge Ridge the previous day. His description was so detailed and he truly thought his life was over, we changed our plans immediately and headed out there to view the site and try to understand how and why the slide happened. Below is an abridged account from the victim and the photos we took today. We are so grateful that the victim shared his story and hope it encourages others to share their observations and experiences so we all can learn and stay safe.
At around 12:30pm I was buried in at least a class 3 avalanche at etheridge ridge. I estimate class 3 as there was more than 1000 tonnes of snow in the slide, perhaps many times that. My wife and I had already ridden several lines on the face during the morning, performing a hand shear test first up with no signs of instability. After several runs she decided she'd had enough so I began snowshoeing back up the face for one last line. I had chosen a small rock lined ridge line to follow up that was quite firm and wind scoured and felt like a safe route. About halfway up there was all of a sudden a thunderous boom and the ENTIRE face top to bottom about 150m wide began to slide. It happened in a split second. I tried to run? to who knows where, but was immediately pulled completely under into darkness and immense pressure. I was tumbled several times with snow pushed hard against my face, but was surprisingly completely calm with the realisation that I was about to be buried and this is how it all ends. As the motion began to slow the weight of the snow began to bear down and there was an eerie silence and with one last tumble I saw the light and I came to rest completely buried in an upright standing position with just my head and 1 arm above the surface. The sudden silence and stillness was deafening, even more suprisingly again I was completely calm and relaxed. I was able to dig my other arm out and reach my pack that had broken it's straps and was pushed up around my head. I took out my shovel and was able to slowly extricate myself. It's funny what a traumatic experience will do to you as once I had dug down to my waist I took my phone out and filmed myself still half buried and while I continued to free myself. Upon freeing my legs it was evident that I had a possible broken ankle but was able to pull myself up onto the debris field and slide on my back down and about 100m clear. During all this my wife performed amazingly, she was already on the phone to 000 and had her transceiver out and in search mode making her way back up the slope. Unfortunately she had been about 300m away waiting down the bottom and had not seen me go under and had not seen my last position. I can't even imagine what she has gone through witnessing the whole thing and having to put into action what we had only just learnt days prior. In the end, 000 had alerted Thredbo medical and they got a crew up on sleds to get us both out and back to safety. Now at home assessing my equipment, one pole is missing the other snapped in half, my snowboard that was strapped to my pack has a destroyed binding and severe gouges in the base and top sheet. There is no doubt the board on my back saved me from being crushed against rocks. Currently sitting at home sipping a scotch with my ankle in a moon boot, season over..... But ALIVE I'm happy for you to share this story as it's important for people to know.
On our first AST1 course in NSW this season, we had an example of a class 1 sign from the carpark that morning - an avalanche under the cornice on East Tate Ridge. Assumed it was a natural slide. Next day though, one of our course participants sent us this video. Rider and photographer unknown...
If you’ve ever gone into the backcountry after a cold clear night, you might have noticed a layer of feather-like crystals sparkling in the chilly winter sun. This is what we know in snow-science-speak as surface hoar. Really it’s frozen dew, and it forms and grows in the shade or overnight in sub-zero temperatures with very light or calm wind and humid air. It may look beautiful, but it has the potential to be a weak layer in the snowpack, on top of which another layer of snow can release as an avalanche.
The winds and damp precip we often get in Australia before a storm will destroy the surface hoar which is why it’s often not a problem here. However if we get a dump of snow directly on top of that surface hoar, without the usual warm front, then we should all be very wary of this red flag during the very cold days after the storm.
Surface hoar as a layer in the snowpack is thin, very weak and commonly forms on hard bed surfaces such as an ice crust, making it slippery. When critically loaded, just one thump will catastrophically collapse all the columns and possibly send the slab on top avalanching down the hill.
In very cold winter climates such as Colorado and Switzerland, the surface hoar can remain as a persistent layer for weeks or months, hidden below multiple layers, ready to release. In Australia, the warmer days we get allow for that buried layer to ‘heal’, bonding to the layers below and above it. So we are not prone to the feared persistent weak layer which is so dangerous in other climates.
Don’t get complacent though – in the right conditions in Australia, surface hoar is a serious factor to consider when planning your travel in the backcountry!
The story of this trip was first published in the September 2 edition of the Australian Town and Country Journal in 1899. (It appears to have been written by a house journalist, probably based on an interview with Kerry because the details of the route are fairly vague). Most of the quotes in this story are sourced from this article.
Backcountry legend Elyne Mitchell, in her Discoverers of the Snowy Mountains, also provided some valuable coverage of this unique event, based on a remarkable correspondence had in 1943 with one of the expeditioners, the then 79 year old Edgar Holden, and through her access to an article he had written in the October 2 1899 edition of the Dalgety Review (mailed to her by Holden).
In addition to Edgar Holden, a great skier and friend of Kerry, the Jagungal summiteers featured some of the best-known stockmen and skiing identities of the Snowy in those days.
Of particular note were Harry Bolton, stockman, skier and guide from Snowy Plain, and Stewart McAllister, manager of the Grey Mare mine, guide for the expedition and recognised as the best skier in the district. (Holden was no slouch on skis either, apparently having developed what was, in effect, a Telemark turn, when others still grappled with a single pole between their legs, if you will excuse the expression!)
They set out on horseback from Jindabyne on August 4, travelling north along the Eucumbene River and spent their first night “at a solitary miner’s hut” at Snowy Plain, about 30 kilometres from Jindabyne, via the Kalkite Gap and crossing the Gungarlin River (The hut was the home of John Bolton, Harry’s father.
Bad weather was developing.
“Owing to the preceding rains, it was found that the mountain passes and ‘sidlings’ had become treacherous, even to the sure-footed Monaro horses; but save a few nasty falls and the excitement of attending the fording of swollen mountain torrents of doubtful depth, the day’s journey was accomplished … drenched to the skin from the alternative mountain mists and sleet storms….”
Left: Full page picture story of the trip using Kerry’s photos that appeared in the September 2 1899 edition of the Australian Town and Country Journal that accompanied the article that reported on the trip
They intended to journey the next day up onto the ”Bogong Mountains” and to stay at the Grey Mare mining camp (staying in the old Grey Mare hut, approximately 2 kilometres south of the current hut), which had been arranged prior to the trip. The unidentified author of the Town and Country article is vague about specific routes but it seems likely that they headed for the Brassy Mountains, because this was the general route often taken by McAllister, who used to ski from the mine down to Jindabyne once a week to collect the mail (as reported to Elyne Mitchell by Edgar Holden).
Originally, they planned to remain on horseback until they reached the foot of these ranges but heavy snow set in and they donned their “Norwegian snow shoes”.
On this second day, as they approached the “Brassy Gap” (between the Big Brassy and Brassy peaks) “a veritable inferno presented itself.” They were confronted by 80 kph winds and swirling snowdrifts, which forced them back to the Snowy Plain hut. A few of the members abandoned the expedition and headed home.
“Next morning, diminished in numbers, but firmer in purpose, the party made a second and successful attempt, encountering on route their enemy the blizzard from a different quarter. Soon after midday the temperature fell to 10 deg. Fahrenheit, the intense cold freezing beards and moustaches solid, with masses of ice and Alpena stocks becoming glued to inmittened (sic) fingers in the most uncomfortable fashion.”
Then conditions worsened.
“All these were minor discomforts, however, and faded into significance when, late in the day, the party became enveloped in a dense fog and temporarily lost the run both of each other and of their direction.”
The group stuck together by continually calling out to each other (“vociferous hailings”) and when one of the group showed signs of hypothermia (“snow-sleep”), this “necessitated his experiencing a somewhat rough handling ere he was set going again.” Tough love!
They travelled west, most likely between Cup and Saucer Hill and Mailbox Hill, and then approximately 5 kilometres (as the crow flies) across to Grey Mare hut.
Almost miraculously, given the whiteout and blizzard conditions, and little or no navigation equipment, their guide led them to the hut (“a mere dotlet in the virgin snowfield”) where they were snowed in for the next two nights.
During their “incarceration” the author claimed the temperature dropped as low as 1 deg. Fahrenheit and they kept the fire going having found a brush fence to burn.
To supplement their rations, there was “abundantly generous tucker, including fresh meat, which had been killed in April and hung frozen in the storehouse, animal heat was sustained – animal spirits too.”
The sun came out on the third day and, 10 kilometres away to the north, the object of their journey made its appearance.
“The landscape began to unfold itself and Big Bogong … shaped gauntly out of the mist.”
Holden informed Elyne Mitchell that six or seven feet of snow had fallen during the storm, with some of the snow gums at higher levels almost buried. Holden told her that Stewart McAllister assured them this was not unusual and perhaps confirming this ‘ …high up in the branches of a tree in a sheltered spot, was discovered the skeleton of a horse …’.
The group then travelled up through snow gums (“glades of half-buried Alpine eucalypti”) and approached the mountain from the east.
“Emerging from the timber limit, it was found that one enormous spur leading to the summit had been softened in contour by the tremendous snowfall and that snow-shoeing upon it was actually practicable to within a hundred yards of the cairn itself.”
First they had to cross a still-exposed stream and achieved this by throwing their skis across and then jumping the gap.
It took them about 90 minutes to cover the last kilometre to the peak and the following description gives a marvellous view of what one sees from the top of that lonely mountain.
Photo taken by Charles Kerry on top of Jagungal looking towards the main range
“As far as the eye could reach were snow-capped mountains and abysmal gorges – Kosciusko, 30 miles distant, the Victorian Bogong, 60 miles distant, and the principal peaks of both colonies appeared as within a stone’s throw. Fully 100 miles of the Murray Valley lay at the foot of the mountain, and the whole landscape, in blue and white, was flecked by vaporous cloud-masses thrown here and there at random.”
The team descended the mountain (a little over 2km from the cairn to the river) in quick fashion but one of their number did it very fast.
“The tremendous speed which it was known would be attained decided most of the party to ride their break- sticks hobby horse fashion, but Mr. W.S. McAllister, being requested to give the party a hair-raising exhibition of his skill as a ski-boler, cast aside all encumbrances, and covered the distance in 75 seconds.”
The Town and Country article reported, without further immediate detail, that they began the return journey the next day.
“The party beat all their previous records by accomplishing the return journey to Jindabyne, 17 miles on snow shoes and 18 miles on horseback, in one continuous stretch, swimming their horses across the Eucumbene River in full flood at midnight, arriving at their destination safely, but nearly unrecognisable from snow-tan and exposure.”
Rather than travelling “in one continuous stretch”, Holden told Elyne Mitchell that they spent the night at Jack Bolton’s hut on Snowy Plain, “being roused early on a dark morning because the rivers were rising.” They most likely would have travelled east/southeast from Jagungal, down off the ranges (Mitchell suggests toward Rocky Plains Creek) before travelling south to the Bolton Hut.
The next day they forded the Gungarlin River, rode down through the Kalkite Gap and crossed the rapidly rising Eucumbene River. By any measure, it was a fast and challenging return journey.
They don’t make ‘em like they used to.
It should be noted that, two years previously, the main actors in this story also accomplished the first recorded winter ascent of Kosciuszko. And that is another story worth telling.
Author: Paul Pearce
In the 19th century, Mt Kosciuszko was approached only by the hardy few, mainly via Crackenback Valley and up the Merritt’s ridge from Friday Flat, or by taking the longer but ‘easier’ route along the West Point track. There were no roads.
Today, the road up to the Perisher and Charlotte snowfields partly follows this historic route.
In December 1897 Charles Kerry, a leading photographer*, wrote an article published in the Sydney Mail describing his journey up to Kosciuszko along the West Point track. With his photographer’s eye, he recorded a unique view of this area when it was still largely untouched wilderness.
Kerry helped organise this now famous expedition that established a manned weather station on top of Kosciuszko, led by the redoubtable Clement Wragge (often referred to by his contemporaries as Inclement Wragge, due to his stormy moods).
The West Point track is named after its starting point, which was the area below today’s Waste Point, signalled by that prominent concrete tower one sees early on the road up to Perisher. The party’s guide was the famous cattleman, James Spencer, whose family had settled this West Point area in the early 1860s.
What follows is a description of what Kerry saw on this summer journey into our alpine wilderness.
While there appears to be no evidence to prove it, and Kerry is vague about their route at this point, they most likely travelled around a kilometre up along the flat eastern bank of the Thredbo River from the bridge and over to an already settled grazing area (the remains of a 19th century farm house with an impressive stone chimney and stone foundations are located here in an open field).
It is feasible that they then turned in a northerly direction and traversed up onto the northern tip of the Ramshead Range and around in a broad circle (above the current road) to their first rest stop at Sawpit.
It seems more likely, however, that they followed the general direction of Sawpit Creek, which drains through a gap in the range into the Thredbo River, and travelled high on the southerly ridge along this gap, known as the Pallaibo or Sawpit Gorge (there is a walking track down along the creek called the Pallaibo Track which runs six kilometres from the river up to Sawpit).
While it is likely that many of the cattlemen in those days would have negotiated the landscape on horseback directly up to the Sawpit Creek rest area from the West Point flats (down near today’s Creel Bay) the Kerry/Wragge party left directly from Jindabyne and the country on the other side of the Thredbo River near today’s road would have been too steep and narrow for passage by a wagon.
The Pallaibo Gorge route is perhaps confirmed by the reference to a rest stop: “We halted for a snack at Sawpit Gully – 4000ft. elevation….” If they had tried to travel via today’s route to the Sawpit Creek rest stop, they would have needed more than a “snack.” Furthermore, Sawpit Gully is east facing and would only be approached if travelling from the east.
From its rest stop, the group would have climbed up to the top on the southern side of the gully (the gradient is relatively gentle approximately 150 metres from the end of the gully) and most likely followed the path of the current road into Wilson Valley. They then skirted east from Rennix Gap into lightly wooded grasslands before again turning south.
Here they encountered heavy mist and rain but pushed on, “but at the 6000ft. level, while still distant 12 miles from the summit, matters became so serious that a halt was called, and in the midst of a drenching downpour of rain and a thick fog we hastily formed a camp in a clump of alpine gums.”
The party moved up again early the next morning “ … and in a very short time we were on the track and in full view of the grand panorama of peaks, ravines and snowfields of the uplands.”
From Kerry’s mention of a well-known geographical feature, Pretty Point, we know that they travelled parallel but a couple of kilometres east of the Kosciuszko road and just a few kilometres from Smiggin Holes. Here they encountered a troubling sight.
“Passing a sheltered nook lying under a granite peak, known as Pretty Point, we had a sad and striking illustration of the vicissitudes of the mountain climate. Piled together in groups… were the remains of several hundred sheep, caught in a fearful snow storm (the previous January) and frozen to death in one night.”
They began to head closer to the western flank of the Ramshead Range proper, first along the undulating hills and plains of the Prussian Plain and Prussian Flat, which lie to the east of Perisher Valley, and then, according to Kerry, they travelled between Mt Wheatley and Porcupine Rocks (Mt Wheatley sits opposite the lifts on Perisher’s front valley).
It’s fascinating to note the word ‘Prussian’ in this area, which is also the name of a local creek, relates not to the German region but to a bullock. Their guide’s father, James Spencer Sr., named the area after one of his much-loved bullocks. Pipers Creek, another local stream, was also named after one of Spencer’s bullocks! (Referenced in an article in the Canberra Times, 8 November 1987).
The party now moved beyond 1800 metres and the last of the trees, and its members had an urgent task to complete.
“A little beyond the 6000ft. level the Alpine gum limit is reached. Beyond this nothing larger than stunted heather grows, so in the last forest clump we secured poles and pegs for our tents, as the nature of the expedition necessitated a camp on the actual summit.” Talk about last minute preparations!
After riding through Charlotte Pass the party crossed the upper reaches of the Snowy and apparently headed along the side of the Rams Head range towards the Etheridge Gap. (Early hand-drawn maps show an alternative path skirting around the eastern side of Mt Stillwell, which sits above the Charlotte ski area, and the wagon which, was a few days behind, may well have taken this alternate route.)
“We crossed the held of the Snowy beside a drift which formed part of its winter covering and still hides a part of the river, which flows under a series of beautiful arches of snow and ripples peacefully down a grassy valley. Crossing the opposite slope of this through daffodils and Alpine buttercups, we mounted the Rams Head Range, and stood within half a mile of Kosciusko.”
On this first day, according to Kerry, the temperature rose to 80 degrees F. at 3 pm and fell that night to 15 degrees below.
“On one of our coldest nights … one Queensland representative was able to count up 29 separate garments on his person, among these being 11 shirts, sweaters, and under garments, three pairs socks, and three full suits of clothes. That he looked corpulent goes without saying….”
They survived up on the summit for several days before the dray arrived with the bulk of the equipment, including the main “Arctic tent”, and their sleeping bags (the dray had been delayed by a capsize on one of the approach slopes).
They were very proud of the tent, made of “hurricane canvas” and their sleeping bags, which “are made of long woollen sheep skins carefully cleaned and tanned and sewn into bags about 7ft. 6 in. long. The wool is turned inwards, the outside covered in canvas.”
(The tent lasted two months before a storm threatened to blow it off the mountain and so they cut down the centre pole, flattening the tent and weighting it down over their equipment. The party then crawled along the Etheridge Range and descended to the Thredbo River. The following year a permanent hut was built to replace the tent.)
Kerry and those not directly involved in the weather recording stayed quite some time on the mountain travelling around the various peaks and lakes in the vicinity and he waxed lyrical about much that he saw,
“The gorgeousness of sunrise and sunset as seen from Kosciusko was a scene never to be forgotten. On a bright, clear evening our panoramic view of 100 miles over the Monaro plains and 70 to 80 down the Murray valley gave place to a pillowy sea of clouds, which the setting sun touched with a deep purple. These sunk until Kosciusko and a few sister peaks were the only islands in this vast sea. Sunrise was, if possible, even more beautiful still.”
This description from 120 years ago will resonate with those of you who have toured in this region.
The saga of the Wragge weather station can be read in an earlier article on the Alpine Access Australia website, but Charles Kerry’s description of the trip from Jindabyne to Kosciuszko to establish the station stands as one of the first recorded in any detail.
He was instrumental in persuading the NSW Government to establish ski and snow holidays in NSW, including the construction of a road from Jindabyne to the Kosciuszko summit in 1905. Apart from all if this, he was famous for his pioneering photographic images, including those of the Snowy Mountains.
Author: PAUL PEARCE