She did it on heavy wooden skis and simple Kandahar cable bindings. Even today, these vast slopes of the western faces of the Main Range are skied by the very few but throughout her long life, Elyne came to know this remote alpine area with the familiarity of her own back yard.
Once bitten by the bug, backcountry skiing and exploration became her lifelong passion.
Elyne was the daughter of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Chauvel, the leader of the Australian Army Light Horse in the First World War. She married an upper Murray valley local and leading skier, Tom Mitchell, in 1935 and lived on the family property at Towong Hill for the remainder of her very interesting life.
She was the author of 22 books on subjects ranging across skiing, history, ecology and fiction, including her quite famous Silver Brumby series of children’s books.
Her introduction to skiing began in 1935 when she and Tom rode up to Mt Buller on horseback and she was left by him and his mates to get into her skis for the first time on her own, with no lesson on what to do next!
She was a fast learner. The next winter they rode from their property up the Hannel Spur and toured across to Charlottes Pass. The next year she represented Australia in the Inter-Dominion race with New Zealand. The year after, she won the Canadian Women’s National Downhill. This woman could ski and she was tough – during her years of skiing she broke her leg twice and suffered numerous other injuries pursuing her passion.
The few years before the outbreak of World War II seem to have been her happiest, when she and Tom constantly toured and skied over Main Range terrain from Townsend in the south up to Grey Mare mountain and Mt Jagungal in the north and across to Mt Pinnibar due west of the Tom Groggin station, which is on the Murray River.
There were no roads up onto the range then, just cattlemen’s trails, many, doubtless following earlier age-old indigenous tracks. Her most common entry points to the Main Range were by the aforementioned Hannel Spur, or up along the ridges of the Grey Mare range (near today’s Geehi Dam) and also via Wolsey Gap which was closer to their home.
Tom went to war and had the great misfortune to be an officer in the AIF’s 8th Division that surrendered to the Japanese in Singapore in 1941. He spent the remainder of the war in Changi prison.
The war years were very tough ones for Elyne. As well as fearing for her husband, she had to run the cattle property. These were the lonely years when she began her long career as an author but also a time when she continued her love affair with the nearby mountains. This was when she first ventured down the Western Fall.
“A long schuss in light powder snow over a firm base, and then two quick turns brought us to the drop into the narrow gully. I swung down into it and found myself almost in a funnel, somewhat icy, in which I could only swing banked turns on one side and then the other. It narrowed swiftly and then suddenly rushed me out on to a steep, sticky snow slope. Below were some rocks with only a narrow opening to let me through on to a practically invisible slope beyond.”
This was Elyne’s first venture onto the western faces and she was describing her descent down Strezlecki Creek off the saddle between Twynam West Ridge and the Sentinel.
She climbed out and proceeded to ski down the gully between Carruthers West Ridge and the Sentinel, after some lunch, of course!
“The top of our gully… was icy, and I made my first turn with great caution. Below, far below, was what looked like a hanging valley. Then I … swung down and down, still further wondering to find myself skiing on the wall-like side of the Main Range with the strangely bottomless feeling that these great gullies give.”
This was a drop of 1000 vertical feet or 300-plus metres, with an exhausting climb out on heavy skis and rudimentary skins – the second big climb on the same day. Tough.
Two weeks later she skied the northern face of Twynam West Ridge mentioned above.
After the war and Tom’s return, their adventures continued but in the years to come one gets the impression she never quite recaptured the full delight of skiing with her partner. In 1958, Tom suffered a serious leg injury on the property and never skied again. Elyne skied well into old age and enjoyed teaching each of her four children how to ski and enjoy the mountains around them.
These two were also responsible for naming a couple of the iconic places on the Main Range. In 1934, Tom Mitchell and his mate George Day did the first known descent of Mt Townsend and on their way out of Lady Northcote Canyon on the opposite side towards Mt Lee they named the face they climbed ‘Little Austria’ for its Arlberg-like appearance.
Elyne named “the sharp, narrow peak that guards the gully below the Twynam/Carruthers saddle Sentinel Peak.” These days it’s just called the Sentinel. In fact another famous ski tourer, Bert Schlink, called it the Razorback but her name stuck.
The Mitchells not only dared to ski many of the forbidding runs of the Western Faces but also undertook some hair-raising adventures in summer. In 1948 they and two others drove two army jeeps from their home at Towong Hill 120 kilometres to the Chalet at Charlottes Pass. There were no roads, just steep terrain, heavy bush, numerous river-crossings and bogs.
Elyne Mitchell died in March 2002 at the age of 88, having established a legacy of unbowed optimism and courage. Once you know her story, it is hard not to ponder her exploits whenever one tours the Main Range.
These days, the word ‘legend’ is too easily used to describe some often soon-forgotten feat or person of note. Legend is most fitting when applied to Elyne Mitchell. She embodies the term both in her exploits on the snow and in the way she lived her life. - Paul Pearce