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|Blue Lake - That Day the Mountain Fell
||Wednesday, 20 August 2008 At 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 iced over and covered with snow. The scenery was magnificent. Towering Mount Twynam to the north; the vast, featureless expanse of the frozen lake; and the imposing snow covered crags on the western wall of the cirque. There was another back country skier taking a break nearby, and we rested while chatting and watching his mate ski down the slopes to the north. We watched as he carved beautiful turns down a steep section, then a high traverse across the slope above the lake, before tearing down the hill to join our small group. The two new guys were hooting. They were quite young and competent and were obviously having a ball, and their good humor was infectious. We all started taking photos, exchanging cameras so we all had our partners in the picture. We ended up goofing off with them, taking their lead by doing silly poses, handstands and the like while taking shots with the main wall of the cirque in the back ground. I secretly wished I was like these two guys again – young, full of piss and vinegar, having a great time and not a care in the world. The weather and conditions were so good that it made everyone want to jump up and down.
Me and Owen on Blue Lake - the cornice that was to fall is circled
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