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. TheSydney 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!).