This fifth instalment of ski heritage photos takes you back 110 years in New South Wales, when skiing was something done by the 270 miners and their families at Kiandra, who were joined for the Snow Shoe Races by about 50 visitors from other parts of the Monaro and Sydney (Photo 1). Kiandra in winter was completely isolated by deep snow drifts from the rest of NSW and winter visitors often had to ski 15km to get there. Some of these ski enthusiasts successfully pressed the NSW Government to establish a more easily accessible ski resort on the eastern side of the Kosciusko Main Range. Many thousands were introduced to skiing in the period 1909 to 1951 at the Hotel Kosciusko and the Chalet at Charlottes Pass. Closely associated with these two large hotels were three huts – Betts Camp, Seamans Hut and Whites River Hut. This instalment also looks at two skiers who not only significantly raised community awareness as to the vast extent and quality of the snowfields in the Snowy Mountains, but also greatly influenced government to actively develop these snowfields. The first is Charles Kerry (1858 – 1928) whose historic Kiandra skiing photos are well known.
Charles Kerry was born on a rural property on the Monaro Tableland in 1858. A grazier and businessman, he was also an adventurer and an outstanding photographer. He was the first person to promote the Kiandra Snow Shoe carnival outside the Monaro District and to introduce Sydney visitors to skiing at Kiandra. First conducted in 1881, the carnival's races were often won by "ski-runners" who could cover 200m in about 10 seconds. Kerry's earliest known Kiandra photos were taken in 1895 and he personally guided groups of visitors to Kiandra every winter. He drew the attention of the NSW Government to the Kiandra skiing, and the NSW Government Tourist Bureau commenced promoting and organising regular ski trips to Kiandra for the general public.
Charles Kerry was mainly interested in ski touring and is known to have led a cross-country ski trip in August 1899 from Kiandra to the Grey Mare mine and on to the summit of Mt Jagungal (Photo 3, with the Kosciuszko Main Range visible in the background on the left), which was heavily blanketed by snow at the time. He had also played a leading role in the first winter ascent of Mt Kosciuszko two years earlier and encouraged the establishment of Clement Wragge's weather station on the summit. This weather station operated continuously from the Spring of 1897 to 1901. Charles Kerry and Edgar Holden established the Alpine Club in Sydney about 1897 to cater for skiers (or "ski-runners" as they were then known).
Recognising the limitations of Kiandra as a winter holiday destination, he persuaded the government to open up the Kosciuszko area as the main focus for holidays above the winter snow-line. A road was constructed from Jindabyne to the Kosciuszko* Summit and Betts Camp was built in 1905. The Creel (now flooded) was built on the Summit Road in 1907 to house the workmen constructing the Hotel Kosciusko* opened in June 1909. Charles Kerry was elected the first president of the Kosciusko Alpine Club (KAC). [* For over 100 years, the spelling of the name of Australia's highest mountain was Mount Kosciusko. For its entire life the hotel was spelt "Kosciusko". The spelling of the mountain was changed about 1990. Hence the Hotel Kosciusko is on the flanks of Mt. Kosciuszko.]
Percy Hunter, the founder of the NSW Government Tourist Bureau, wrote in 1928 of Charles Kerry's significant contributions to the development of Australian skiing and nominated Kerry "as the father of Australian skiing". Hunter also paid tribute to Kerry's splendid vision for the NSW skifields and his unselfish work in bringing part of that vision to fruition. Hunter noted that Kerry "bridged the gap of the development period and saw far ahead the prospect, which is even now only beginning to open up dimly, of a chain of winter sport centres along the main divide from Kosciusko's hoary summit to Kiandra and across the broad bosom of this peak studded plateau in every direction." The construction of the two tin huts (previously described in Instalment 3) and the Chalet Charlottes Pass were projects that Kerry had strongly promoted as part of this vision.
THE HOTEL KOSCIUSKOThe Hotel Kosciusko not only provided much more accommodation than was ever available at Kiandra, but also had much easier access. There were overnight trains to Cooma and then a couple of hours in service cars would often be sufficient to get visitors to the front door of the hotel (Photo 5).
|Horse-drawn sleds (Photo 6 & Photo 7) would be used over the last few kilometers of the journey following heavy snowfalls.
The Hotel Kosciusko (elevation 1550m) was located in gently undulating terrain that was ideal for ski touring. In the period 1909 – 1920, turning and stopping were mostly achieved by snowplow and stem turns. Groups like the KAC and Millions Club would block-book the hotel for a week and ski together (Photo 8).
The Plains of Heaven, located about one kilometer west of the hotel on the south-eastern slopes of Kerry View Hill (elevation 1777m), was a favourite ski area from where skiers could return to the hotel via the Grand Slam run, visible behind the hotel in Photo 4, which they usually schussed, because few skiers then could make linked turns on an Intermediate Standard ski run.
BETTS CAMP AND SKI TOURS TO THE KOSCIUSZKO SUMMIT
The NSW Tourist Bureau had anticipated that groups of skiers might want to venture along the Summit Road on skis and had built a new Betts Camp Hut beside the road in 1905 (Photo 9) to supplement the limited accommodation in the much smaller old Betts Camp Hut that had been built in 1898 on the bullock track to the Summit (Photo 11) and which later burnt down in the summer of 1928. There were also plans to build small shelter huts along the Summit Road, but these did not eventuate until the late 1920's and 1930's.
|Charles Kerry had led the first winter ascent of Mt Kosciuszko on skis, reaching the summit on 19 August 1897 from the Thredbo Valley. The first winter ascent via the Kosciusko Hotel and Betts Camp occurred on 17 July 1910. The members of this party are pictured in Photos 9 and 10. They are standing on the remains of Clement Wragge's weather station on the summit, which operated continuously from the Spring of 1897 to 1901. Note the shape of their ski tips, which are similar to those used at Kiandra. Also, they are holding Kiandra-type steering poles, not stocks.
|Other groups of skiers completed the journey from the Hotel Kosciusko to the Summit and return over the next three years, with overnight stops at Betts Camp. The new (1905) Betts Camp Hut provided accommodation and meals and was reasonably comfortable inside (Photo 12 shows the then Governor-General Lord Denman over-nighting there in 1912). It continued to provide additional accommodation after the Chalet Charlottes Pass was built.
As skiing technique improved from year to year, so also were the travel times reducing for the 34 mile (55km) round trip. In 1913 a trophy to be known as "The Summit of Australia Trophy" (Photo 13) was made available to the KAC to be a perpetual trophy engraved annually with the name of the skier having the fastest time recorded to the summit and return in one day for that year. In 1914, the first year that the summit race was run, the winning time was 15.5 hours. By 1927 the time was down to 8 hours and ten minutes (Dr Ashleigh Davey and Mr Arnold Moulden). One of the fastest times ever recorded was 6 hours and 90 seconds by Ken Breakspear (KAC Member and later an AAC Member as well) in 1938.
Many ski touring parties traveled each year to the summit at a more leisurely pace with overnight stops at Betts Camp.
Following the deaths of two skiers who were caught in a ferocious blizzard whilst undertaking this trip in 1928, a shelter hut now exists about 2km east-north-east of the summit.
SEAMAN'S HUT (Laurie Seaman Memorial Hut)
The deaths of Laurie Seaman (Photo 14, which was taken on the Kosciuszko Summit and Photo 17) and Evan Hayes (Photo 15) on 14 August 1928, were the first skiing fatalities in the history of the Australian Alps. As Hayes and Seaman approached the summit, other skiers in the area saw fog envelop the summit (shortly before 1pm) and reported the onset of blizzard conditions with gale force winds and minor amounts of sleet. The two skiers were not seen alive again, despite a very extensive search. The body of Laurie Seaman was found on 9 September 1928 in amongst rocks about 30m off the Summit Road about 2km east-north-east of the summit. This is close to the location where the memorial hut, financed by his parents, was subsequently built by the NSW Tourist Bureau in Autumn 1929. The body of Evan Hayes was found with his skis in early 1930, near Lake Cootapatamba, south-east of the summit pyramid.
Searchers reported that there was only one set of ski tracks on the summit although the photos recovered from Seaman's camera showed both men at the summit cairn. It seems that Hayes skied to the summit and Seaman walked up the final climb above Rawson Pass to the summit. After taking photographs of each other at the top, they apparently became separated. Seaman appears to have followed the snow pole line back to where his body was found and where he was apparently still waiting for Evan Hayes to return when he passed away.
The ski tracks seen by the searchers the next day, suggested that Hayes lost the pole line in the fog and was pushed off-course in a south-easterly direction towards Merritt's Lookout over-looking the Thredbo Valley, by gale force winds from the north-west. Hayes apparently realized his mistake and followed his ski tracks back to Rawson Pass where he seems to have missed the snow pole line once more in the fog and headed south, away from the Summit Road, rather than east. In the wild, blizzard conditions reported on that afternoon, such an error is understandable.
he ski tracks seen by the searchers the next day, suggested that Hayes lost the pole line in the fog and was pushed off-course in a south-easterly direction towards Merritt's Lookout over-looking the Thredbo Valley, by gale force winds from the north-west. Hayes apparently realized his mistake and followed his ski tracks back to Rawson Pass where he seems to have missed the snow pole line once more in the fog and headed south, away from the Summit Road, rather than east. In the wild, blizzard conditions reported on that afternoon, such an error is understandable.
|The Laurie Seaman Memorial Hut has saved the lives of countless people since it was built in 1929. Whilst the area looks serene in Photo 16, it can be lashed by violent storms, that can develop with very little warning. Gusts of wind can be so powerful, as to blow adults off their feet. The fog that often accompanies these storms, makes navigation very difficult. You may be pointing in the correct direction but the wind pushes you sideways off-course. The fog prevents you from realizing what is happening. Huts like Seaman's are a safe haven under such conditions, which may persist for several days.
OPENING THE CHALET AT CHARLOTTES PASS
As skiing standards improved in Australia and many skiers completed the trip to the summit, there was increasing demand to ski the challenging slopes of the Kosciusko Main Range. Skiers wanted a new base closer to the Main Range than Betts Camp and generally agreed that Charlottes Pass was the ideal location. Many ski-tourers and downhill skiers wanted to explore the rugged Western Faces of the Main Range (Photo 18). By 1927, the Ski Club of Australia had raised sufficient money to build a Chalet at Charlottes Pass and commenced negotiations with the NSW Government since the site was on Crown Land.
The initial building, set just below the tree-line (Photos 19 and 20), was constructed in 3 months and could accommodate approximately 40 guests. The accommodation was dormitory-style and Photo 21 shows the Men's Dormitory in 1930. It was understood that if Government operated it as a hotel, the number of beds would have to be increased to make it economically viable, and this happened over the following years. By 1935 the Chalet had more than doubled in size (Photo 22).
|The main building material used in the Chalet was timber and unfortunately it burnt down during the 1938 ski season on the night of August 8. The fire commenced near the boiler room and that part of the building was well alight before the fire was noticed. The building did not have access to sufficient water to stop the fire spreading and the entire building was engulfed in flames (Photo No. 23). The NSW Government replaced the building in time for the 1939 Ski Season. The replacement chalet is largely of masonry construction with adequate fire-fighting facilities. It did not have any 28 bed dormitories like its predecessor had contained and accommodation was mostly in 2 to 6 bedded rooms with en-suite facilities.
|The Chalet was the premier ski location in NSW and had a small ski school. The first Australian ski tow commenced operating in August 1937. It was a rope tow installed on the Cresta run at Mt Buffalo. The Chalet, Charlottes Pass then built a J-Bar lift which operated in the 1939 ski season and can be seen in the view of the rebuilt Chalet in Photo 24 and Photo 25. The new ski lift greatly increased the amount of downhill skiing that skiers could do in a day.
WHITES RIVER HUT
Whites River Hut was built in 1935, at an altitude of about 1700m, by Bill Napthali and Fred Clarke who held the grazing lease over the area. In 1937 the Kosciusko Alpine Club (KAC) acquired an interest in this hut to use it exclusively for skiing in winter and added the bunk room at the northern end plus closing in the verandah (Photo 26). Prior to the construction of the Schlink Pass Road from the Guthega Power Station in the 1950's, the thick scrub in the lower part of Whites River valley (Photo 27) meant that the usual access to and from Pounds Creek Hut, was via the Guthega River Valley, Consett Stephen Pass and the Rolling Ground. The upper part of the Whites River Valley provided ideal ski touring conditions when Photo 28 was taken in August 1945.
Compared with huts like Tin Hut and Pounds Creek Hut in the late 1930's, Whites River Hut was quite palatial. It had lined walls, an open fire with an effective chimney, proper mattresses, sprung bunks, under-cover wood storage, a fuel stove, a kerosene lamp and supplies of non-perishable food. All of this was possible because the hut was administered and cared for by the KAC who controlled the bookings to prevent over-crowding.
|The hut was still in excellent condition in 1970 (Photo 29), with the interior matching Elyne Mitchell's Australia Alps description, that was based on her 1941 visit. Since 1970 there has been a population explosion in the numbers of cross-country skiers using the valley of Whites River to access "back country areas such as Dicky Cooper Bogong, The Kerries, the broad open uplands of the Valentine River Valley and Mt. Jagungal. The hut has suffered significant wear-and-tear and it is reported that the voluntary Whites caretaker group is battling to keep the hut in an acceptable condition.
|In addition to the magnificent ski slopes that surround it (Photo 30), Whites River Hut is a valuable link in the chain of huts flanking the east side of the Main Range – Pounds Creek Hut, Whites River, Tin Hut and Mawsons Hut.
Through her articles and books in the period 1938 to 1985, Elyne Mitchell significantly raised community awareness as to the vast extent and quality of the snowfields in the Snowy Mountains. She inspired two generations to ski to remote places such as Mt. Jagungal, the Cascades and Watsons Crags.
Elyne Mitchell (1913 – 2002) began skiing in 1936 with her husband and friends. As they lived on a large rural property on the Murray River at the western edge of the Snowy Mountains, they were able to spend much of each winter in the mountains. They carried their gear on pack-horses, riding from one exciting new slope to another and staying in huts or camping in the snow. Within a couple of years, her skiing had reached such a high standard as to win the Canadian Downhill Skiing Championship in 1938 (Photo 32). Elyne continued to ski up to the age of 77 years.
Elyne's book, Australia's Alps was first published in 1942 (reprinted in 1946 with a second edition in 1962), at a time when very few members of the General Public were aware of the rugged grandeur of the Snowy Mountains, and also the untapped skiing potential of the vast "back country" away from the established hotels and chalets. The book sold very well and had a major positive impact on the Australian Community, skiers and non-skiers alike.
In 1944 Elyne Mitchell strongly supported the creation of the Kosciusko National Park by writing Soil and Civilization pleading "for a sensitive appreciation and use of our continent, and preservation of our catchment areas". By 1985 Elyne could see "that closing huge areas at the head of river systems, even the greatest river system, and making them into national parks, is not the complete answer to the problems of conservation". Elyne then commented, "Where there has been over-grazing and much burning, something other than stopping both has to be done, and just what that should be is not easily learnt. Certainly it is not by shutting the area up so effectively that there is no one but a too small park staff to cope with rabbits, wild pigs, feral cats and dogs, and noxious weeds – and fires when they occur. In the last few years I have thought that the complete elimination of cattle and cattlemen has not worked out. Dense scrub, dangerously impenetrable for fire-fighting, is growing in many places that were once clear, brought about by the fact that that country has been burnt, and it now provides far more tinder in a dry year. The numbers of tourists walking causes eroding paths. The numbers of campers pollute lakes and streams. Closed up as a national park, the Snowy Mountains are virtually unprotected from weeds because there is insufficient money to have them sprayed. Problems that were recognized in 1944 are now possibly worse, and the answers are not yet found. One wonders why the cattle and cattlemen should be forced out, while tourists and campers are totally uncontrolled."
Elyne then considers possible solutions. "I can only suggest that perhaps the careful leasing of land below the tree-line, to responsible cattlemen, could result in better care of the mountains. It would be in the interests of these men to control noxious weeds and vermin, which no national park can afford to do." She then considers possible control of visitors. In conclusion, "Finally I would say that it seems absolutely disastrous to enclose large tracts of land in national parks which no government can afford to look after correctly." (Discoverers of the Snowy Mountains, MACMILLAN 1985, pp210 – 212).
Since Elyne wrote these words in 1985, skiers and walkers have observed that the dense scrub is steadily extending through what had previously been open woodland and across what had been alpine meadows that in past years presented magnificent wildflower displays in summer. The slopes surrounding Whites River Hut provide an excellent example. Compare the open slopes in Elyne Mitchell's 1941 photo (Photo 30 in this installment) with the current thick scrub on many of what were the open slopes visible in her photo. It is now necessary to climb quite some distance up-slope from Whites in the direction of the Rolling Ground to find great skiing.
The alpine bushfires are becoming more intense and almost impossible to control. For example, the 2003 alpine fires burnt for several weeks, destroying many huts of heritage significance and threatening ski villages several times. Ironically the grassy, scrub-free ski runs turned out to be the best fire breaks.
Christine Nixon, the Head of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction Authority, on 28 April 2009, questioned the size of national parks and has called for a fundamental "rethink" of the community's relationship with national parks.
In the early hours of 18 April 1951, fire broke out in the swichboard of the Hotel Kosciusko. The destruction was almost complete and an important era in the History of Australian Skiing had ended. Increased interest in downhill skiing meant that this site was of limited suitability and the Hotel Kosciusko was not rebuilt.