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