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