The tide is running out
Paul Pearce reflects on the amazing snow cover Australia had back in the 'good old days' in his article 'The Tide is Running Out'.
Most of us know that our beloved snow is on a downward spiral. We know it because the experts have been telling us this for some time. Organisations like the CSIRO have been releasing studies with findings that report total area covered by snow shrinking by up to 85% by 2050 and the average 112-day ski season shrinking by 80 days over the same period. What all these studies also seem to agree on is that there has been a marked reduction in snow cover
since the 1950s, so let’s look at some historical snapshots to see what it was like in the ‘good old days’.
In Klaus Hueneke’s People of the Australian High Country, he quotes Ross Bolton (a member of a family that lived and worked on the Snowy Plain and mined at Diggers Creek, as early as the 1870s) recalling that they sourced timber on the nearby Grey Mare range: “You’d go there in the summer time and the trees were cut off ten feet up and you’d think it was giants there. They cut ‘em off on top of the snow.”
Comments on snow depth often appeared in the reports of early 19th century travellers, like the pastoralist Steward Ryrie Jnr. who, in February 1840, climbed the spur that followed the defunct Thredbo/Chalet chairlift, to view the Main Range: “…on gaining the summit saw one of the highest points covered with snow …[Mt Twynam]”. He then mentions travelling over “scattered patches of snow” and describes the largest drift: “… it covered about half an acre of ground and was from ten to fifteen feet deep.”
And note the report from Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, a botanist and who is one of the early travellers on the Main Range: “On Mount Kosciusco … I found in January 1855, large glacier masses in the deep ravines towards the top and downwards about 500 feet. These ice masses, I am convinced, do not melt completely at any time….”
There are many stories and accounts of snow in the 19th century and they all present a similar picture – there was lots more snow in our alpine regions in those bygone days. So lets look at more recent times, before the marked trend of reduction set in.
Where better to start than with backcountry legend Elyne Mitchell. Elyne and her husband Tom lived at Towong Hill, at the foot of the Snowies on the Victorian side and in the late 1930s and early 40s were the first to ski many of the iconic runs down the western faces, particularly off the back of Charlottes Peak and Mt Twynam.
All of these runs are still huge and skiable today but the snowline is rising relentlessly, year by year. In her seminal book, Australia’s Alps (1942), she describes her first run off the daunting north east face of Twynam West Ridge, down to and below a subsidiary ridge: “We had already dropped 1200 feet and here we shot down another thousand … just above the mountain ash trees and near the roar of the turbulent Watson’s Gorge Creek.” Today, the snow runs out well before any forest, among a tangle of scrub.
Perhaps an even better gauge of the snow cover in these early years of backcountry skiing is Mitchell’s recollection of a trip she and Tom did in 1937. They left on horseback from Biggara near their home in Towong up along the Murray Valley to Mt Pinnibar (1859m), which lies west of the Tom Groggin station. “We spent two full days exploring Mount Pinnibar and needed two more…. It is a great skiing mountain and one day, when the Murray Valley Highway is pushed through to join the coast roads, it will pass the feet of Pinnibar, and it will be possible to ski in the morning in Victoria, lunch at Groggin and then spend a pleasant afternoon sampling the snows of New South Wales.” Ah, we wish.
Today there is still snow on Pinnibar in winter, but less reliable and, of course, the Murray Valley Highway doesn’t pass at its feet.
However, the snow cover remained in heroic proportions for a couple of decades after the adventures of the Mitchells and here are two standout examples of extraordinary snow coverage since WWII.
In 1946, snow tourer Keith Breakspear skied most of the 70km from Cooma Railway Station to Alpine Hut in the Jangungal Wilderness. Apparently, the average snow cover near Cooma was 30 cm and there were drifts of over a metre.
In 1949, according to mountain historian Klaus Hueneke, a Mr C.C. Old and four companions skied from Alpine Hut to Berridale – there is never enough snow cover to contemplate skiing in the Berridale region now. It should be added, this party had originally intended to ski down via Whites River hut to the Chalet! Talk about ending up on the wrong side of the hill!
Let’s all celebrate these wonderful stories and that still continuing bounty of snow that arrives each winter, while we still have it.
June 5, 2021, 7:13 am