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Blue Lake - That Day the Mountain Fell

2:22:30 PM
I wasn't going to post this just yet, but with all you lot now wanting to head out there you've just got to read this before you go.

That Day the Mountain Fell
By Nicholas Reese

That day the mountain fell
There was something in the air.
We stopped, that sound? Just like the knell
Of doom, in which we were to share.
That's when the mountain fell.

A tremble neath our feet
That makes the heartbeat stop.
A tear most horrible though neat,
A crack that parts the mountain top -
That starts the heart to beat.

The avalanche starts down;
Relentless, surges on.
The snowface crumbles, smashed and broken,
The debris rumbles tonne on tonne.
No mercy has been shown.

Alan E.J. Andrews
from Skiing the Western Faces of Koscuisko (sic)

I write this story for a few reasons. I feel the most important one is make the story known (my version at least) so that this type of situation may be avoided in the future by those who share the love of skiing the wild back country of Kosciusko National Park (KNP). Another is to tell my story so that those who were not there will gain some insight into what happened to dispel myth, rumor and speculation. The final, and perhaps the most selfish reason, is to purge my own demons.

Blue Lake is in the heart of the Main Range in KNP. It is a glacial cirque, which is a small circular valley surrounded by steep cliffs with a lake in the centre. If you had been standing on the spot sixteen thousand years ago you would have seen that the valley would have contained a glacier. As the last ice age retreated, so too did the glacier, finally melting to reveal the valley. To the north of Blue Lake, Mount Twynam and Little Twynam rise majestically above the surrounding landscape. To the east, there are easy slopes that descend into the Snowy River, with the Charlotte Pass ski resort just up and over the next hill.

Blue Lake is a popular destination for many visitors to KNP due to its natural beauty and remote ambiance. During summer it is visited by walkers who find it a perfect destination to sit and lunch and reflect on the wonders of the mountains. Rock climbers find the buttresses of the western walls a worthy spot to test their skills. In winter, especially in seasons of heavy snow fall when the central lake freezes over, back country skiers challenge themselves on the surrounding steep slopes of powder snow, and would-be mountaineers don crampons and ice axes and dream of harder mountains whilst picking their way up ice covered rocks.

I had planned a trip to Blue Lake for quite a while. I'm a member of both the Canberra Climbers Association and the Canberra Cross Country Ski Club and I had been wanting to get up there to take photos for a proposed new climbing guide book, and to recce the route in so as to lead a tour for the ski club. I needed a partner to ski in with, and had made contact with Owen Hrabanek though the ski club he was wondering if anyone did any ice climbing and if there were any trips planned. I'd never met Owen before, but he said he had rock climbing experience and was a trainee Volunteer Ski Patroller at Perisher, so I knew he would be fit and would definitely be able to ski. You need at least one partner for safety reasons when traveling in the back country, and I was willing to go with Owen as the route would not be difficult, and is often the case with climbing, he was the only one willing to go with me on the day.

I met Owen as planned at the Guthega carpark at seven o'clock on Sunday morning, 17th of August, 2008. Guthega is a quiet ski resort to the west of Perisher on the Snowy River and is a favourite starting point for back country skiers heading onto the Main Range of KNP. Our plan for the day was to follow the Snowy River up to where the Blue Lake creek cut in, then follow the creek up to Blue Lake itself. I had brought along all the gear for ice climbing ropes, crampons, harnesses and ice axes and we divvied it up between us to even up the load. I'm a very careful back country skier (and had competed a NSW TAFE Ski Tour Leaders' course only a few weeks before) and so had emergency equipment with me such as a snow shovel, first aid kit, emergency shelter, cooking equipment and food. This made for a heavy pack on my part, but nothing I took was superfluous for what we were planning to do.

The day was shaping up to be perfect for back country ski touring sunny, no clouds whatsover, a very light wind, and excellent snow cover. I had been watching the weather map like a hawk for days and knew that there was a high pressure system moving over the top of us everything was falling into place for a perfect day on the Main Range.

Owen and I started off on our skis up the eastern bank of the Snowy River. Blue Cow Creek to the south of the resort had been snowed over, so there was no need to use the much feared and talked about flying fox to get to the other side. The snow was hard packed and still icy from the night before, but we knew that as the sun rose it would soften up the surface and make ski travel much easier. We were able to make an almost direct route to the Illawong suspension bridge a couple of kilometres up the river. We needed to cross over to the western bank of the Snowy River and the suspension bridge is often the only way to get to the other side. When we reached the suspension bridge I was surprised to see that sections of the Snowy River had been covered completely by snow, and that other skiers, gamer than I, had used these natural snow bridges to cross the river. There had obviously been a lot of snow this season.

After crossing to the western bank of The Snowy we more or less stayed on the contour, neither climbing nor descending, and followed the river south. We were not going at the pace that I had hoped to achieve, as Owen was skiing on older alpine touring gear he was having trouble with one of the bindings which forced him to stop regularly and was also using skins. Skins are material attachments that adhere to the bottom of skis to enable the user to climb straight up hills without slipping back, but on the straight and level or downhill they slow the skis down considerably. I was using almost-new back country skis that look like downhill skis, but have a patterned base that grips into the snow and allows the user to climb hills, but do not noticeably slow the skier down when skiing level or downhill. I did my brand new official ski tour leader best to break the trail the whole way, and stop regularly to allow Owen to catch up. After starting so early we had plenty of time up our sleeves, and the return route would be mostly downhill and quite fast, so I was not worried about our progress. The weather was so good that it was just great to be out on skis.

By the time we reached the junction of Blue Lake Creek and The Snowy we were a little tired, so we decided to rest and eat before making the final slog up to Blue Lake. This done, we donned our packs again, and I elected to walk up the steeper sections of the hill towards Hedley Tarn another glacial lake that is down hill from, and fed by, Blue Lake. There were sections where the snow cover was quite icy, and with such a heavy backpack, walking was the easier option. We reached Hedley Tarn and were starting to flag a little, but on checking the map we realised that we only had to ski around the contour of the hill in front of us and we would be at Blue Lake shortly. We marveled at the snow cover and striking scenery. By then we were above the tree line and were confronted by endless hills covered with the best snow cover I could remember seeing.

Owen traversing above Hedley Tarn

Blue Lake itself came into view around midday, and we elected to stop and lunch at the point where the creek exits the lake, which was completely i

2:25:26 PM
(Part 2)

The two guys headed off and left Owen and I to ourselves. We sat down and ate lunch and surveyed the crags for ice climbing potential while discussing where the best place to climb would be. I looked directly across frozen lake at the main cliff line of the western wall, a distance of around five hundred metres, and noticed that there were big cornices built up along the top of the cliff line in the gullys between the buttresses (sections of rock protruding from the cliff line). A cornice is like a big lip that protrudes out horizontally from the top of a vertical snow bank. The wind blows the snow over the top of the cliff and it gradually accumulates until it looks like a frozen wave caught in the process of breaking. They are well known for being unstable and many a mountaineer has met their end by unknowing walking too close to the top of one and falling through, such as the legendary Hermann Buhl, who fell to his death through a cornice on Chogolisa in the Himalayas in 1957.

There was a vertical gully about sixty metres wide in the centre of the cliffline which at its top had biggest cornice of all. The snow covered cliff dropped about forty metres vertically below it with some protruding boulders, with another forty metres of very steep snow covered ground below that. Climbers know the buttress immediately to the south of this area as Grey Buttress. I remarked to Owen that there was no way we were going anywhere near those cornices and that the safest place to climb would be on the less steep northern side of the cirque. We scanned the safer looking area for rocks with the tell-tale glint of ice that would allow our ice axes and crampons to bite as we climbed.

By this time it was a quarter to one, but we were in no hurry to move, soaking up the sunshine and recuperating from the long haul we had just done with heavy packs. Owen then spotted another back country skier on the top of Grey Buttress, just to the left of the large cornice and drew my attention to him. At the same time, another skier appeared right above the centre of the largest cornice to the north of Grey Buttress. We both sensed the immediate danger that the second guy was in. I callously remarked that this was going to be a good photo opportunity. I seriously thought that he would just fall through the cornice and end up sliding down the slope below it, probably none the worse for wear. We were too far away to yell a warning, and by the time I thought about it, it was too late.

At that exact instance the cornice began to peal off from the left hand side of the cliff line. A big crack appeared in the snow right across the cliff as it broke like a wave. The guy, whom I now know to be Tom Carr-Boyd, was still on top of the cornice as it started to drop and he made an attempt to turn back, too late. We watched him fall for about twenty metres, then lost sight of him as snow was thrown into the air by the massive force. For the time that we could see him, he appeared to have turned back and faced the snow-covered cliff as he fell, and looked as though he was either scrabbling for holds, or was trying to swim his way to the top of the moving snow.

For a second or two we were stunned as we watched the falling cornice trigger secondary avalanches on the steep slope below. I have been asked since whether there was a lot of noise caused by the avalanche, or whether I heard yelling or warnings shouted by the others, but all I can remember is silence. There must have been some sound, but I think I suffered sensory overload watching the drama unfold before us.

I watched the skier who was on top of Grey Buttress immediately launch himself off the cliff, carve a few turns on the near vertical face, then stop on the right hand side of the avalanche debris field. I remember being mightily impressed by his skiing skills.

I swore loudly and yelled at Owen for us to get over there. We donned our skis and I yelled again at Owen to grab our snow shovel. We were about five hundred metres from where the bottom of the avalanche debris field stopped, but the ground was flat as it was the frozen lake surface and we moved very quickly. After a couple of hundred metres Owen yelled that he was going to try and get mobile phone reception and call for help, and threw the snow shovel over to me and turned back to climb Little Twynam, the hill to the north of our position.

I arrived at the bottom of the avalanche debris field, which had pushed out over the flat surface of the frozen lake for at least fifty metres, and was up to two metres thick, and I kept swearing over and over to myself in an attempt to get a grip on the situation. It was surreal, the volume of debris was enormous and couldn't believe that that much snow had dropped off the hill. The avalanche debris field extended for at least another fifty metres up the hill and stopped where the cliff line became more vertical. I climbed as fast as I could up the right hand side of the debris field, scanning it as I went to see if there was any sign of the guy who had just fallen. I tried to move out onto the debris field as broken blocks of snow obscured visibility somewhat, but its loose blocky nature forced me to move off it as I kept sinking up to my thighs, and I continued climbing up the clearer snow slope, scanning as I went. At the time I saw no sign of a person or any equipment in the avalanche debris. I could see the other guy at the top of the debris field, working at a frantic pace, but I did not know whether he had found the other guy or not.

Looking down onto the debris field where it has flowed out onto the lake - my ski is circled to give and indication of scale

I know from the literature and associated statistics that you have to find an avalanche victim as quickly as possible. The survival rate drops rapidly between fifteen and thirty minutes. Some avalanche victims end up close to the surface, and are easy to dig out (or in fact extract themselves). Others are able to form a pocket of air around their heads which enables them to keep breathing until they are found. Others are not so lucky. One of the characteristics of an avalanche is that when it is moving it is quite fluid, and one of the recommended techniques is to discard any equipment (skis, ski poles, etc.) and attempt to swim to the surface of it (literally). Once the avalanche stops it compresses itself and becomes quite compact underneath, much like when you pick up a handful of snow and crush it into a hard snow ball. This can trap the victim so that they cannot move, and may even compact so hard around the torso that it is impossible to breath, even if there is an air pocket.

I made it to the top of the avalanche debris field where the guy was probing like mad with his ski pole. I yelled at him if he knew where the other guy was, and he indicated that he had seen him go down in the area that he was working on. I asked if the person we were searching for had their skis on, and the answer was no. I mentioned that that was probably a better thing as survivability in an avalanche is greater without skis on. I did not ask my fellow rescuers name, I was too aware of the time constraints that were on us and just got to work. The guy who was probing indicated that he had set up snow cairns (blocks on top of each other) to indicate the area he was working on. I ripped the bottom half of my extendable ski pole out of its handle, and started probing with it upside down. I started working further down on an area he had not probed. I then realised that I need to be able to probe deeper, so pushed the basket off the bottom of my ski pole, then inserted it back into the handle so that it was like a spear, giving me about one and a half metres of probe depth. About this time I also realised we should be working in a slightly more co-ordinated fashion, and the two

2:36:17 PM
Vale Tom.

Thank you Capt-mulch for taking the time to compile and post your very personal/sad TR.
My thoughts/condolences again go to the family and friends of Tom.

3:44:47 PM
Sorry all - I think I've fixed all the speling mistakes now...
3:45:52 PM
Ta Nick. Moist eyes at work.

3:55:26 PM
Well written Nick, thanks for sharing.

4:32:18 PM
Thanks for sharing Nick.

Phil Box
4:47:59 PM
Have a pat on the shoulder from me mate for a job well done.

5:50:14 PM
No wonder you were promoted from Lieutenant, Nicholas. Well done mate. Must have been quite a cathartic experience, writing that.

I'd promote you again but Major Mulch sounds a bit dicky.

Phil Box
7:45:46 AM
On 20/08/2008 wallwombat wrote:
>No wonder you were promoted from Lieutenant, Nicholas. Well done mate.
>Must have been quite a cathartic experience, writing that.
>I'd promote you again but Major Mulch sounds a bit dicky.

How about we just knight him and also give him a pretensious name like Archibald. Sir Archibald Mulch of Snowdonia, yeah that has a nice Marx Brothers ring to it doncha think. We can then simply shorten it to Archy, spoken in a high pitch winey English snob voice. Yeah that'll do it. That would certainly pop his monacle off his eye wouldn't it by jove.

7:57:46 AM
Just call him Mulchy in a "high pitch winey English snob voice".

Works for me.

9:21:33 AM
Thankyou. Not very often I find myself crying at work.
9:30:18 AM
I have spoken to a couple of NZ guides who have swum up through avalanches and it worked for them, apparently it's one of the best things you can do. One guide told me he'd swum up through 5 - pulling the tigers tail an awful lot.

Great retelling of the story Capt Mulch, great perspective and honesty. All jokes aside, you're a nice person. Death in such a beautiful place on such a glorious day and in such a healthy, fit individual just seems so much sadder.

9:53:58 AM
Thanks for sharing your story mate, and a very good decision on your part not to go anywhere near that section of cliff.

It provides a stern reminder to all of us backcountry users of the real dangers of the alpine environment and to ensure your safety is always put first over a good line etc.

The bad thing about being a climber (especially of the alpine variety) is that one day, whether you like it or not, you'll be involved in a rescue or similar :(

1:08:05 PM
Thanks for that Nick. I hope the process of writing it helped sort your head out. Must catch up for a climb and a beer soon!


1:29:37 PM
very moving, i think the effort you (both) put in is least his family know everything that could have been done was.

my thoughts for his family, and especialy his brother...

Blue lake is an extremely pretty its even more meaningful.
1:46:55 PM
Just as a matter of interest - do people not use transceivers over your way?
1:56:42 PM
Vey moving tail, thanks for sharing it and long lasting peace to all.

2:18:52 PM
I've never seen one used - though I'm very interested in them now. I've been reading up on the their use and have looked at a few online for around the $300-450 dollar mark. Can anyone recommend one and some tips on their use? I think the other thing is that we haven't had snow like this for so long that these young back country skiers don't even think about them. Any thoughts or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
2:31:27 PM
Cap'n - a good source for things second hand and alpine is in the 'classifieds' section of the various chapter newsletters of the NZAC. AT gear, transceivers, tools, crampons etc come up quite often. As a side bonus there are often a few peculiar mountain tales and speccy pics to trawl through as well. I bought my transceiver through this method.

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