High up in the homeland

I’ve just finished reading Nick Brodie’s terrific book, Kosciuszko an account of two skiers who were lost in the wilderness near the summit of Mt Kosciuszko in 1928. Similar to fifteen young men, the book shines a light onto a tragedy that has been largely forgotten, and also a window into the times. I was drawn to this book through my own connections to Kosciuszko as a geography student, as an Outward-bound participant, and my own ill-fated attempt to reach the summit in winter.

Its an easy read, just on 200pages, and gives a wonderful balanced account of how this tragedy captivated the country. Laurie Seaman and Evan Hayes, both members of the Millions Ski Club (the Millions Club being an initiative to encourage urban development in Sydney so it could become a million city), we experienced skiers, who set off with a group on a day ski tour. They became separated from their group, as their fitness and experience put distance between. Without too many spoilers, they were then last seen cresting over Charlottes Pass, waving to the group.

Brodie describes how their disappearance and subsequent search became headline news; in part because they were wealthy members of the Sydney elite, in part because the sport of skiing was relatively new, and deaths were uncommon, and in part it was an era of great technological change. Telephony was becoming more widespread, as was flight. Photography was more common (in fact the two men effectively photographed their deaths). These advances shifted the story from something local and delayed to something that was relatively immediate and accessible. Journalists were able wire in updates to stories from the Koscuiszko Hotel. Photos gave the story currency and humanity. It made me reflect on the work that we have been doing in collective trauma. Why are some deaths more emotional than others?  This paragraph, from a editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald is particularly poignant:

                “ The impression created by this tragic affair is the more profound because of the unusual character of the occurrence. Constantly we hear of persons being killed in motor accidents. These fatalities excite sympathy and regret, but they are commonplace: they are part of the risk of living in the age of swift mechanical transport. The Koscuiszko tragedy is on a different plane. Its something foreign to our experience” p164

This rings true when we think about what happened at Dreamworld, or Bourke St. These events are so out of the realm of our everyday experience.

I also found that the heroic/honeymoon/disillusionment cycle played out. There was the heroics about the skiing party returning, the organisation of the search parties, and then the funerals. Then the criticisms came; why was there no phone line between the Hotel and the shelter hut, why did it take so long to organise the search etc. These themes in emergency management are clearly not new.

As I read the descriptions of the weather, it brought back memories. Not necessarily pleasant ones. Most of my trips to the summit have been in summer, and as it was described in the book Seven Summits (an account of the first person to summit all highest mountains on each continent), a walk in the park. The landscape is ethereal and bleak. Forgive me while I indulge myself in account of our winter journey.

My great friend and fellow adventurer, Stephen Gow and I decided in 1998 to attempt to ski to the summit of Koscuiszko in winter. We were fit, young (ish), and had spent many winters skiing backcountry in the Victorian Alps (including a trip to the summit of Mt Bogong in winter). We were well prepared, and experienced. When we arrived in Thredbo, and the chair lift that we were going to take up to the main range was closed “due to bad weather” that should have rung an alarm bell. But no, we pushed on and took the skitube up to Perisher, and then the bus to Charlottes Pass, where the Chalet was the last habitation before the mountain. The bus drivers parting words to us were “Are you sure you want to go out into this, fellas” We said yes. There was reasonable visibility, and it was only 6km to Seaman’s Hut, where we had planned to camp. Off we went.

The reality was, it was late in the afternoon, the weather as deteriorating, I hadn’t been on skis for some time, and it was a climb of 330 metres up. What should have been an hour and a half skiing became nearly 3hours. We could now only see one snow pole ahead, in the gloom. The packs were heavier, and the higher we went, the stronger the winds became, and there was no snow, only ice. Progress became challenging as the wind knocked us over. Then, out of the gloom, a small, squat shape. Seamans Hut. In my joy and desire to get there, I struck out on the skis, only to be knocked over about 50metres rom the Hut. I lay on the ice, and thought, I’ll just have a little rest here. Steve had reached the hut, and dumped his pack inside and came back for. I insisted that I was fine, and I would just lie here for a little bit and rest. I just wanted to sleep. Steve wrestled my pack off me, took it to the hut, then came back and hauled me up. Once I was upright, I realised the dangerous situation I was in.

Seamans Hut was a godsend. We decided that we would overnight there, rather than trying to find a camping site in the now dark. The hut had a fire, which we quickly lit, and got into our sleeping bags. That night, I couldn’t sleep for the sound of the blizzard howling around us. I kept telling myself the hut had survived 60 years, and it wasn’t going to blow down this night. I wasn’t reassured. I was about to be married, and I started to fear for my life. The metre or so thick walls held, and the roof stayed on.

The next morning, we tried to go outside, only to get knocked down by the wind. You could not stand up in it. It was probably gusting over 100kmh.We also could not see any snowpoles. We were staying put. Fortunately, we had 5days supply of food, and the hut was well stocked with wood. So cards were played, books were read, wind was listened to, and food was cooked. Late on the fourth day, the wind started to drop, and we were able get outside and explore. We gave up any attempt to reach the summit, and worked out the way back to Charlottes Pass. It was too late to set off, so we had one more night in the hut, but more reassured that our ordeal was at an end. The next morning was beautiful sunshine, and we skied downhill back to habitation. When I think of our own experience, I can see how easily Hayes and Seaman’s journey turned to tragedy. But that tragedy averted another one exactly 70 years after, because Laurie’s father donated funds to build a very, very solid survival hut.

Its been a while since I have written. I haven’t really had the headspace to think or write. Having had a decent break of 5 weeks of not doing much, there’s a little bit of space there again.

PS, if you want to learn the correct pronunciation of Koscuiszko, check this out.

2 thoughts on “High up in the homeland

  1. Thanks for sharing John.
    Will be keen to read that book – as a young person many hikes (no skiing) in the high country. Weather could turn severe even in “warmer” months. We’d swim the Murrumbidgee (near NSW/ACT border) in July to remind us what hypothermia was – vivid memories of my lungs shutting down despite being a strong swimmer (mad DofE doings not recommended).
    Re. collective trauma – as we are still learning I also recall grief and trauma in general populace is not new to living memory. Years ago researched a uni history essay about 1821 popular response to death and funeral of “Queen Caroline” – 1st Princess of Wales. Although 200 years ago, still many of the same CTE elements you, Kate and Agathe identify in the CTE Best Practice Guidelines and memorial making behaviours (thinking of Shona’s work).


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