When a blizzard hits three snowshoers in Kosciuszko National Park, a historical tragedy seems destined to repeat itself... But an amusing tale ensues.
Now and again, those of us who live for the great outdoors die by the great outdoors. Knowing this, freak U-turns in the weather, random rockfalls, flash floods and bushfires all stir in us thoughts of mortality, far more so than any city-based car accident or heart attack. As climbers, canyoners, mountaineers and paddlers we revel in inherently dangerous activities, and when we hear of tragedy in our close-knit outdoor community, we pause for solemn contemplation. We grieve.
Well, usually. Not this time though. This time, blown by the howling wind, blinded by driving flurries in the ominous dusk, the aftermath of one particular fatality brings me intense relief, almost joy. Momentarily I feel bad, but only momentarily. It was, after all, a long time ago.
White... everywhere. Not just cloud-layered-over-snow white, but inside-of-a-table-tennis-ball white; hospital-bed-sheets-painted-with-liquid-paper white; Barry-White-drinking-chardonnay-to-the-sound-of-white-noise-on-Whitehaven-Beach kind of white. The only things that aren’t white are the three of us and, somewhere out there, the inside of an emergency shelter.
The epicentre of this alabaster world is Kosciuszko National Park in NSW, home of the highest mountains in Australia and a popular summer hiking destination and winter ski circuit. Things looked very different earlier that morning down at Dead Horse Gap, where an azure August sky hosted patchy cloud as Will, Jen and I strapped on our snowshoes for an invigorating three day walk across the top of the country.
Our plan was ambitious, we knew that. We’d trudge up to the Eagle’s Nest above Thredbo then take the Kozi summit track, including the 2,228m peak if there was time, and continue around the Main Range Circuit to camp at Club Lake. The next day we’d leave the tents and attempt Mt Sentinel, perhaps dig a snow cave in the afternoon for a fun place to sleep, then retrace our footsteps on the Sunday. The forecast was dire, we also knew that, but we had full snow camping equipment, a GPS, maps and a personal locator beacon, and we were confident in our ability to use them. Plus, we had coinciding days off in probably the last good snow of the season, which we were loath to squander.
So, loaded to the gunwales, we set off up the hill beside Bogong Creek, pale sun filtering through the snow gums to sparkle on the late-season powder. It was steep, hard work, but rewarding, and by the time we reached the top of the chairlift the skies had greyed and the pistes frozen to ice in the arctic blasts gusting over the plateau. We dodged the few remaining skiers to take lunch in the lee of a snow bank before striking out north.
It was fun at first, heads bowed into the teeth of a blizzard, the edge of the summit track’s metal grille peeping through the ice like the endoskeleton of some lengthy, long-dead serpent. Soon though, the steel spine disappeared completely and our pace slowed to match that of a family of hypothermic wombats. This left Will as our chief means of navigation, although my confidence in his abilities had been shaken the previous day when, in a scene straight out of The Ascent of Rum Doodle (the famous 1956 pastiche of mountaineering expeditions by W.E. Bowman), he got lost between the train station and my Sydney abode, a distance of approximately 300m. He upped his game when it mattered though, guiding us through the white-out with his Garmin clutched continuously in his slowly freezing fingers, and we were more than happy to re-issue his Pathfinder merit badge.
By the time we reached the junction with the Main Range Circuit at 4pm, the late start, short day and slow pace had left us far short of our goal. From hiking the circuit in summer I was aware of an emergency shelter which lay somewhere along the track to Charlotte’s Pass. I was confident in my recollection, albeit from eight years ago, but for some reason Will’s GPS refused to admit the existence of such a track. I also remembered an unsightly and totally incongruous toilet block near this junction which might provide some refuge, but the blankness was now absolute and the light fading, and it was nowhere to be seen. We followed a compass bearing until we calculated we should be right on top of it, but it seemed to have vanished. It was only when we discerned two snow-covered vents beside us that we realised our error – we were literally right on top of it. The whole block was buried in snow!
With this revelation I knew the sanctuary of the hut was within reach, but the others weren’t so sure. Jen was flagging, finally beginning to lose her heretofore invincible bounciness, and Will, quite correctly, wished to err on the side of caution and set up camp immediately. To confuse matters further, the path of my memory had been replaced by a 30° snow slope which was steepening with every tired step. Walking on a sharp angle is not easy in snowshoes, and as the creek valley dropped away from the saddle the fall line was getting ever more serious, a fact attested to by Jen’s Nalgene bottle; in apparent mockery of her backpack’s ‘easy access’ water bottle pockets, it made a leap for freedom and tumbled joyfully down the gradient and into the white, never to be seen again.
Our options had dwindled to two – continue searching for the fabled shelter or, the majority opinion by a vote of two to one, backtrack to find a flattish spot, erect our three-person tent in 80kph winds and sit out the night, and possibly the whole following day, in extremely close proximity. It was at this point that we spotted the pole: a single, upright post disrupting our milk-bubble universe like a vertical hairline fracture, a glitch, a portal to a parallel dimension of warmth and safety.
A FRIEND FROM ANOTHER ERA
In August 1928, two men by the names of Evan Hayes and Laurie Seaman were skiing with friends between Charlotte’s Pass and Mt Kosciuszko. Proficient skiers, they forged ahead of the rest of the group intent on summiting the mountain, but that afternoon a bitter storm descended over the plateau. Only expecting to be out for the day, they carried no shelter, food supplies or even a compass, and when they failed to return that evening a full-scale search and rescue operation ensued.
Hundreds were involved in combing the area over the following ten days but no trace of the men’s bodies was found until September, when Laurie Seaman’s frozen corpse was discovered by a school party, crouched behind a large rock on the Etheridge Range. Evan Hayes’ skeletonised remains stayed hidden for another 15 months before they were spotted by a shepherd on a spur of Mt Kosciuszko above Lake Cootapatamba.
The last photographs on Seaman’s camera showed the two men posing at the summit cairn, after which they had evidently separated. The theory is that Seaman, the less experienced of the two, walked down while Hayes skied. They arranged to meet at a rendezvous point, presumably Seaman’s final resting place. Hayes must have become disoriented in the blizzard and gone some distance in the wrong direction. Despite being close to safety and soaked to the skin by sleet, he turned back to find his companion. He never reached Seaman, who by choosing to wait rather than continue without Hayes, joined him in becoming Australia’s first skiing fatality.
Distraught yet practical, Seaman’s parents offered to pay for a memorial chalet to be built on the spot where their son perished, in order that others caught in the same situation might be saved. Seaman’s Hut opened in May 1929.
“The chalet was a most appropriate gift,” said Mr Frank Chaffey, Chief Secretary of NSW. “It would serve a most useful purpose, and perhaps would be the means of preventing a similar tragedy occurring again.”
LOST BUT FOUND AT SEAMAN’S
White... everywhere. A 360° vista of purity, of innocence; a blank canvas on which to write our future. As we stand vacillating in the blizzard, poor Laurie Seaman’s fate is at the forefront of my mind, along with the fervent hope that we are not about to follow in his footsteps. Yet that is precisely what we are doing, for Seaman would have stumbled along this exact bearing ninety years ago, almost to the day. Sadly, for him shelter was too far. For us, it is surely within reach.
I wade uphill toward the thin wooden post, wind-blown icicles jabbing horizontally from its shaft. Could this be a way marker for lost travellers? From the pole I peer east into the emptiness, squinting through my goggles. There, I see it – another thin streak of hope. My heart surges and I plough on. There’s another, and another. When the wind briefly blows a hole in the cloud, revealing a procession of markers curving around the mountain’s shoulder, I close my eyes and sigh with relief. The hut lies just out of sight, I know now for sure. Thanks to the generosity and forethought of Mr and Mrs Seaman, we are safe.
Seaman’s hut is a squat, two-roomed structure built from blocks of local granite. A few wooden tables and a cupboard are its only furniture, but to us it is more beautiful than a split-level Tuscan villa overlooking Rose Bay. Nowadays intended only for day use or as an emergency overnight shelter, we quickly decide that this is enough of a crisis to warrant our presence inside. While the ferocious wind billows the pink-tinged clouds into a stunning sunset panorama, we huddle up next to the pot-bellied stove and send up a prayer to those bereaved parents whose tragic loss has proven our gain.
The next morning the storm has not abated one iota; in fact it is fiercer than ever. Plans are cobbled together and as swiftly discarded: we should backtrack and stay the next night in Cootapatamba Hut; no, we should hunker down in Seaman’s today and go the whole way back to Dead Horse Gap on Sunday; to hell with it – we should get out while we can by following the poles all the way to Charlotte’s Pass, another 6km through blinding nothingness and wind strong enough to bowl us over. That’s the go!
Before this trip I’d had a pleasant mental image of snowshoeing: treading softly through sun-dappled glades carpeted with powder snow to reach the welcoming wooden huts in plenty of time for long evenings of carousing. The reality has been somewhat different. By the time we reach Charlotte’s Pass the weather has improved slightly (actually the slopes look awesome, making me wish I had a folding snowboard in my backpack) but our car is now approximately 12km away as the currawong flies, or 75km by road. All the Snow Cats going to Perisher are full so we end up hiking another 9km along the snow road, arriving just on dusk to catch the Skitube back to Bullock’s Flat. We christen our route the Three Resorts Slog – it’s destined to be a classic.
A FORTUNATE TWIST, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED
Sadly, 1928 was not to be the last year of misfortune in the vicinity of Seaman’s Hut. In 1999, four backcountry snowboarders were caught in a storm about 1.5km south-east of the shelter. They were competent outdoorsmen and dug themselves a snow cave, just as we had planned to do. They made a fatal mistake though – they dug into the leeward side of the slope, rather than the windward side, which meant that falling snow piled up over their ventilation holes instead of being blown away by the wind. Cosy and warm in their sleeping bags, safe out of the wind, all four went to sleep and quietly suffocated, never to awaken. Their bodies were found when the snow melted, three months later. I wonder, would we have made the same mistake?