Kosciusko – August 1932: “Never to my dying day will I forget the skies of the Southern Alps.”

Kosciusko – August 1932

One who has never visited the snow country can have no conception of its solemn beauty.

We leave Cooma in a crowded growling bus, chattering its way over hills and plains, brown as if painted by Rembrandt. Granite rocks dropped in clusters of tombstones squat on the surface of the earth, and great, dark, obsequious trees, like shrouded mourners round the graves. Wind-swept desolation. Our driver says it was once desert country. Scurrying wastes of sand, now tethered by tender roots of grass on which the dunnish sheep browse and merge intermittently with the still cairns. Miles of granite hewed into smooth masses by the powerful hand of the wind, blowing even now.

We reach Berridale, a shy village hidden behind huge rows of gaunt poplars. English trees, naked before the tourists, elms, oaks, beeches. A squat hotel, boasting a 6 x 4 bar wherein one has a thimble of lager for 6d and listens to those great tuning forks, the poplars, shaking in the wind.

Jindabyne, the Snowy River, what romance in the name, mustangs, ringing hoofs, leaping trout – Picturesque, we grant, but the Man from Snowy River lies full length on a bench in the sun, behind him, behind him the white-washed wall of the hotel gleams yellow. A dog lazily scratches fleas. The store, the garage with its mechanical broncho, the blacksmith’s shop, all sprawl lazily like cats too warm to move. His Majesty’s post-office sadly supports its leaning frame on a gentle rise. Slinking in and out between lucky-stones and fresh dark trees the Snowy indifferently finds the sea.

Eight miles we climb, a rising crescendo of grinding gears, relieved by staccato twitterings as we see patches of snow alongside the road, carelessly flung there by the gods. An Olympian paper-chase leading to our goal.

Gears still grind their music, changing at last to a treble and a squeal from the playing brakes. We top the hill and the hotel appears stuck on a quilt of snow. Snow covers the valley and Colin [Wills] and I goo with delight, our eyes popping.

The eight buses pull up and disgorge their passengers into the slush. 260 feet drag mud into the vestibule. We get our rooms, eat, go to the ballroom where the expert tells us how to ski, and how to fall. We are fitted to the skis and trust to them for our safe-keeping. Ill founded trust! They behave like rutting females, dashing hither and thither. We pick our flanks off the snow and half an hour later are asserting masculine powers over the skis.

Snow begins to fall. Feathery foolish stuff, too light to land. Overnight it continues. On Sunday morning it drives into our faces with a bleak blasting howl. My ears feel as they have been chewed beyond pain. They are icy cold and slimy. Jess’s eyebrows and eyelashes support icicles, a handkerchief half out of my pocket is frozen stiff. Colin falls and rolls in the snow, his face rises white and laughing out of a drift. The hairs on my moustache are ice-coated. Our clothes carry a thin layer of frozen-hard snow, which cracks in the folds of the cloth. We are tremendously warm and happy, we fall, we trip, and sprawl, the snow is accommodatingly soft and as glorious to muzzle into as a woman’s breast. We laugh and yodel. Ha-e-e-e! It is easy to ski; the snow is soft, thick and slow. Perfect snow sent to us. We thank the Lord.

Snow fell throughout the day, 6 inches of marvellous clinging purity.

Monday dawned a cloudless day. We experienced fine weather for the rest of the week.

The sky was fit to worship. Never was sky so transparent, nor colour so pure. The far distant mountains are lines with a needle point against the sky. Atmosphere as experienced in the Blue Mountains is unknown. Miles and miles of etched clarity backed by a heaven of marvellous amethyst, now turquoise, now an infinite blue. One wants to be enveloped in the glorious glaring nothing. Never to my dying day will I forget the skies of the Southern Alps. The finest days in the country elsewhere cannot emulate such masterpieces. As we know them the heaven’s colours are neutralised by dust, destroying the limpid purity. There, no dust trammels the scene and the snow reflects the brilliancy of the sun back into the heavens creating a magic dome of unpaintable magnificence.

Forgive the rhapsody, for such beauty is well nigh breath taking. The country is by far more fascinating than the sport it has to offer.

The winds are clean and crisp, filling one’s lungs with superabundant energy and delicious life.

We breast a hill; we are on the Plains of Heaven, God what a view! A blast sweeps off the Main Range forcing our lungs to capacity; we could tear a horse in two.

We turn and descend, gather speed, faster, faster, plonk! We unravel the tangle of skis and limbs. Gurgle with glee.

Would that I had the style of a Stevenson or other to tell of the beauties of leafless trees reaching their stringy fingers to the sky. Fingers clawing, supplicating, for the life that was once theirs and is now gone forever. The scene is Buddha-like in its indifferent serenity, a very god; compelling worship.

I would go alone to these places, Dainer’s Gap and the Plains of Heaven and stand seeking to imbibe the essence of such beauty, to become omniscient and humble, to identify myself with the calm life around, and could only murmur “oh, god.”

Jess and I left for the Chalet on Monday Aug. 22 passing through Dainer’s Gap, Smiggins Holes, Piper’s Gap, Piper’s Plain, about 4 miles of it! The Perishers Gap, the Perisher Plain, about 2 miles to Bett’s Camp arriving at 2.30pm.

This camp was once an accommodation house before the chalet was built, and is now used merely as an emergency hut. It was disgustingly dirty, the beds, a tangled mass of sheets and blankets, jam and butter splodged about the tables, the lavatory chock-a-bloc, and the entrance and bathroom full of snow. The previous Saturday Aug 13, a party were trapped by a blizzard and stayed at Bett’s overnight.

The Chalet is about 23 miles further on. A roaring gale began to blow as we left Bett’s. Across the plain 3 of our party were blown to the ground. At each gust of wind we stood stock still, huddled like horses in blasts of rain. Clouds were racing over Mt. Guthrie licking its summit as they dashed north. We would stop and look, oft times being blown backwards on our skis. Huge black brutes edged with blazing light, fifty miles an hour or more, casting great ugly bruises of shadow across our track through the valley. The Chalet seemed to be on wheels, receding at each step we took. All were just about done in. With feeble hurrahs our skis were undone and we slumped into the dining room at 3.30pm to polish off promptly a bottle of beer each. What if it was 2/6 per! We made a slow trip, 5½ hours but the snow was soft and there was not one run downhill.

The storm brought up hail and sleet. Tuesday saw us kept indoors, fog being so thick as to limit visibility to 5 yards. Unfortunately we had to return the next day, money being scarce.

6.15am Wednesday I was up and climbed Mt. Stilwell which is just behind the Chalet. I took the camera with me to get photos of the Main Range but the clouds were very low and covered everything.

Dawn broke while I was perched on the mountain, and filled the misty valley with a vast veil of light. Mt. Guthrie showed up dimly behind the gossamer on one side, on the other Mt. Twynam squatted with its head wrapped in cotton wool clouds. It was well worth the early rising to see white shining plains and white mountains shrouded in luminous mist, and I dare say I was the highest human in Australia at that hour. A most icy wind blew incessantly from the direction of Mt. Kosciusko, numbing hands to a painful degree, most discomforting when my gloves were off.

The trees were poor stunted shrubs caked with ice blown hard in ridges on the edges of the twigs. These last of trees appear like growths of coral behind which extend long lines of wind swept snow, perfectly streamlined.

Underfoot the snow crunched, packed hard by eternal wind, the sleet had frozen into a solid gravel surface holding here and there patches of soft dust snow fallen overnight. I made my way back and had breakfast. We left for the hotel at 10am. Ruc sac containing the necessities of luggage for Jess and I weighing down my back. The snow across the plain from the chalet was icy and jagged, scraping off in no time all the wax which had been melted on to the bottoms of our skis. Two miles of slithering and scraping, occasionally on foot, for the skis would not hold on the glistening surface, to arrive at Bett’s Camp. More intolerably hard plains to the Perisher Gap, where snow covered mountains glistened in the sunlight – so many huge iced cakes. The icing gathered in rolls, sooth and shiny. Across Spencer’s plain it looks but few steps, but we cover 4 miles before it is behind.

Midday now and excessively hot. The snow is thawing and is soft and slushy. We have to push ourselves down hills, sometimes striking a hard patch over which we shoot at increased speed to pull up dead on more slush – an over! More miles and terrific glare. Sun glasses are donned and with bent heads we struggle across Smiggins Plain to the foot of a climb to Dainer’s Gap. I am just about done-in, the pack feels like a piano, I am dizzy with glare and fatigue, but the bus leaves within an hour and we still have 2½ miles to go.

Jess is in front pace making. I curse and wish I hadn’t climbed round the mountains before breakfast. Twice, no three times, I fall over, while going up hill, too tired to keep my skis apart. I curse Jess for being ahead and with horrible, spiteful effort pass her. I feel like lying down and ignoring bus, time and everything else. Automatically we reach Dainer’s Gap and start the run down hill to the Hotel. Normally the road is icy and fast. Today it is slow mush and calls for effort to descend. Push – push – I push myself over. Dried spittle clucks around my tongue. We lurch into the hotel with half an hour to spare. Have mouthful of food and board the car for Cooma, so worn out as to be actually glad to get away. The snow has rapidly disappeared around the hotel, leaving great bare patches of rock and dank grass. We turn the corner and Kosciusko is lost to view.

More notes on Kosciusko

No doubt you already know that the snow covered mountain down south was so named because of its fancied resemblance to the North Pole, Kosciusko.

Hills are dreadfully bald, due no doubt to the dandruffy like substance which accumulates on the brow of the hills and on the heads of the ranges.

The hotel is a large rambling place built to provide cover for the passage ways which abound. These passage ways serve the dual purpose of allowing Mr. Speet (the manager) to take his “constitutional” within, and for the accommodation of ill-positioned trophies.

One must “keep moving in a blizzard.” Thanks to the practice in dodging Mr. Speet around the corridors, incessant movement becomes second nature.

A bar is discovered conveniently situated near the surgery, and but a few steps from the drying room wherein are placed all the guests who inadvertently get “soaked.” The bar when full resembles a club sandwich. Wood, meat, wood, meat, wood, all tightly packed and garnished with hiccoughs.

The lucky Irish charm must always be carried by a novice else the snow will probably bite him in the back or severely maul his thumbs and ankles.

Most everybody has a snow blind. This handy little invention ensures, when pulled down, such privacy as is indispensable while on the snow.

Solemn information is given that the snow must not be eaten. I take it there is not enough to feed all the guests and is very difficult to import, tariff being high and what not.

Skis are provided free to Govt. tourists, a wise provision which encourages people to crack their necks and thus cause no end of employment in State Hospitals, Funeral parlours, flower shops and the like.

Bett’s Camp was erected to accommodate a tin of baked beans left on the spot by Charles Bett and his partners after a game of strip poker during the winter of ’68. The tin is still untouched, even by the most hungry and blizzard blasted skier who may happen along. Such respect. However, icicles on toast and a lovely cup of warm snow are provided on presentation of one’s dole-ticket to the concierge, if about.

The Chalet was discovered by the Man for Snowy River and respectfully dedicated to the Govt. During the service “Banjo” Patterson played his ukulele as the sun went down on the historic scene.

It is now used exclusively by honey-mooning couples, and known chiefly for the fact that whiskey is 19/6 per. This latter state of affairs has given rise to a thriving industry. St. Bernard dogs are reared in huge numbers and as soon as the pups are born the little barrel of rum which is always round their necks is snatched off and enthusiastically drunk to the accompaniment of rousing sea-chanties by the entire population.

At present the snow fields are sadly underdeveloped. One can blame the under-secretary for land, obviously. With a little expense and enterprise the govt. could have slalom flags growing all over the place, and the snow jazzed up and dyed like a dazzle boat. Safety zones dotted hither and thither around the isobars where one could order anything from Swedish Plonk to gin-titters. Classes of gay Oberland yodellers led by Charlie Lawrence or the local milkman, and shoals of Swiss miss carving bubbles in gruyere. Peanut vendors selling as a side line, hundred and thousands to Millions Club members and service stations for the trading in of old skis on new skies. That’ll be the day!

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