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25 Years Celebrating the Australian Alps

 by Klaus Hueneke 

June 2022

25 Celebrating the Australian Alps

Klaus Hueneke

Written for the June edition of the KHA Newsletter.

I celebrate Nature, God, The Force - call it what you will - for creating the mountains and the Great Dividing Range millions of years ago. Without that almighty upthrust and the carving down that followed we would not have so many different habitats and such a rich diversity of animals and plants. 

I celebrate the big picture. On a clear winter’s day, I’ve stood on Australia's highest point and spied snowcovered Mt Bogong, 120 kilometres or more to the south. On another day I’ve done the reverse and seen Mt Kosciuszko from Mt Nelse, even further away. The snow was creamy-white not Fab-white as might be expected. 

There are many stunning vistas, but the Great Alpine Road between Mt St Bernhard and Mt Hotham has some of the best. The view over distant masses as well as frighteningly close abysses, changes every hundred metres. I either slow to a first gear crawl to have time to take it in or race through to stop falling off the edge. One winter I did it in a Schneegestöber (snowstorm) and found myself on the wrong side of the road.

I celebrate the detail. On the Bogong High Plains, it was delicate sun-loving mountain gentian and bunches of alpine celery hidden amongst large clumps of alpine mint bush. On the upper Snowy I've wandered amongst mountain plum pine sprawled over granite boulders, through mountain pepper with its fresh, and hot, red shoots as well as trigger plants poised to trap a tasty morsel.

I celebrate snow and ice, those matter out-of-place phenomena in this parched, sunburnt continent. Whilst working at a ski lodge, a big fall of snow covered all the windows. To let in some light, I dug sky tubes through the snowbank. Some of the snow melted and created metre long icicles in the sky tubes. Oversize kaleidoscopes presented a continually changing play of light and colour.

During a ski tour to Mt. Jagungal we were marooned at Mackays Hut by a metre of new snow. It touched down softly during the night, cocooning trees, fence posts and the hut in a fairy-tale layer of superdown. All we could hear was our heartbeats and a muffled thump in the distance. Next morning the forest was littered with splintered limbs. Getting out, we took turns to make tracks in heavy, claggy snow.

On a walk up to Mt Carruthers I was able to crawl through an icy tunnel. The creek had melted the snow from underneath leaving a vault of small arches within big arches. Here and there a pillar of snow touched the ground. Shades of yellow, green and purple light refracted through the snow creating an ethereal world. Icy cold drips brought me back to reality and into sunshine.

On Round Mountain we created our own vault to sleep in. Using a swordfish snow saw and our skis as rails to get rid of blocks of snow, we dug straight into a large cornice and hollowed out a chamber big enough for a small kitchen and three people. By late afternoon fog rolled in, leaving us stranded in wet woolly gossamer on the side of a cloud.

I celebrate the special places, which Aborigines, if they had been there, might have considered sacred. They are places where, after walking for some time, I have an overwhelming sense of wanting to be very quiet, sink at the knees, lie down and watch the clouds go by. I have felt these vibrations amongst the snow gums near Ropers Hut, on a saddle of the Grey Mare Range, whilst climbing Mt Gingera, near McAlister Springs, on a flat below the Cobberas and on the gentle slopes of Mt Speculation. Quiet meditation is usually followed by pitching camp, making a fire and boiling the billy.

I celebrate the wild animals. Skiing near Kiandra I accidentally stopped on a wombat pad. The wombat came through, didn't like me being on his patch, bared his teeth, growled at me, and kept coming. In imminent danger of being butted, perhaps even rolled, I made way and let him through. Near the Bulls Peaks River, we came across an echidna doing it tough on the snow. It had no hope of digging in and holding fast like a limpet on a rock and could be picked up by an exposed pink leg. My brother did.

I celebrate the freedom of the birds. Near Mt Fainter a small cloud of little ravens lifted off a rocky knob and like a gathering wave rose into the blue sky. Then at a certain high point the wave broke, and they fell back to earth. As they settled another flock about the same size took off from a different outcrop. They also rose and fell, rose and fell, and finally came to rest.

Occasionally a bird would bank slightly, and the sun would glint off its blue-black wings. Some, perhaps the Jonathon Seagulls of the tribe, would fly so close that I could hear the wind in their sails. Then with a sonic whoosh, whoosh, they'd shoot upwards into the blue yonder only to be re-absorbed by the main flock a moment later.

I revere snow gums, the tough muscular Rodin's able to endure winter fury and summer heat. During a blizzard, branches bend right over to become a pendulum of snow, ice and foliage on which only so much can cling. Many branches break, leaving in summer upside down crowns which Douglas Stewart called spider gums. And so they are.

Beyond The Bluff near Mt Howitt, there is a magnificent old snow gum with many branches. Its spiralling, flexing arms rise out of a large bulbous lignotuber, which, if one were to dig deep, is probably fed by roots as convoluted and sinuous as the branches. The eight arms splay out in all directions, some almost touching the ground, to form a dome, perhaps 30 metres across. Others call it King Billy, to me it is the Shiva tree.

I celebrate the clarity of the night sky. Some night's stars hang as close as ballroom chandeliers. In late summer Orion slowly dips away to the northwest, the Southern Cross creeps along overhead and Scorpio climbs into view to the southeast. Orion's star-studded belt is a dead giveaway, and the twinkling Pleiades may just be visible in the northwest. By the middle of winter Scorpio has unleashed its tail and is directly overhead.

I celebrate, but try and avoid, the agony and the ecstasy of crossing icy rivers. Wading the flooded Tooma River on a long ski tour my companion, Ted Winter, chose to wade in boots, trousers and all, whilst I disrobed below the navel. At first the water was knee deep, then it rose to more delicate parts and finally stopped just under my chest. On the other side Ted took off for Wheelers Hut whilst I pulled socks and trousers over frozen stumps. I found him half an hour later wrapped around a welcoming fire still with all his clothes on but with steam rising. 'Would you like a cup of tea?' Would I ever. I am in awe of cornices, the standing waves of the high tops. Small ones are safe for a run, jump and land in soft snow; big ones may mean a ride into oblivion. The ones on the Kerries were fun; the one on Mt Nelse was serious. Skiing across below I stayed well clear. Large and small chunks had broken off and snowballed down the steep slope. The large chunks could have taken me with them, whilst the small ones had etched delicate patterns of filigree into the pristine surface. Danger and beauty lay side by side. I’ve been captivated and brain altered by mountain huts. The ones made of logs or slabs stand out; Pretty Plain with its enormous hip roof; cute Four Mile with metal strips nailed over the cracks, Kennedy's looking down the peaceful Mitta Mitta River; Wheelers built by a man with one arm; Coolamine Cheese House with its grass insulation; old Wallaces with numerous initials carved into body and handworn tables and stools. I've used them to get warm, cook a meal, dry out wet clothes, recover from exhaustion, sing a song with friends, scribble notes for a book and pass on the lore of the high country.

I celebrate my companions. John Marsh invited me on a ski tour to Mt Tabletop and to get me up early would bring a cup of tea. Ted Winter taught me the value of a packet of dates especially when skiing at night. Graham Scully always asked me a simple, caring thing - how are you feeling? Neil Wilson loved a full body wash using a billy and a face washer, even in a crowded mountain hut. For twenty years we moved through the landscape as one. Winter and summer. When he died part of me died too.

I respect the writers and poets who have gone before me. David Campbell wrote of 'ice-trees burning' - perhaps the most evocative phrase yet written. Mark O'Connor was taken by the 'pubic-shaped fold in the hills', the place suitable for a mountain hut. Ted Winter loved Jagungal, just ‘say it as you will which means a kingsized hill’ and Alan Andrews wrote of 'the day the mountain fell'. Elyne Mitchell was smitten for life. Tor Holth wrote about the cattlemen just in the nick of time.

I celebrate the photographers who opened my eyes. Charles Kerry took his cumbersome plate camera to the Hotel Kosciusko and the Kiandra snowshoe carnival. Helmut Gritscher juxtaposed ski instructors at play and dead snow gums in a blizzard. Colin Totterdell spent hours on hands and knees capturing the world of flowers whilst Harry Nankin stepped right back and brought us photos of range upon range. Mike Edmondson and Ross Dunstan waited patiently for the five minutes of purple light at sunset.

I celebrate all the old timers I've interviewed. Cecil Piper spoke of the hush before the dawn. Selby Alley told the story of 12 warm men, 17 frozen dogs below the floorboards, 11 shivering horses and 1200 sheep at Mawsons Hut. Tom Taylor kept pebbles in his pocket for counting stock. Whenever another hundred had gone through a gate he transferred a pebble to the other pocket. Bill Hughes, the miner's son from Kiandra, led a group of Sydney doctors on the first winter journey from Kiandra to Kosciusko. I celebrate the men and women who built the Kiewa and Snowy Mountains Scheme and provide me with power to cook breakfast and dinner. They built the Alpine Way and the roads across the high plains that we enjoy today. They created the dams that supply the water for the food we eat. 

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