It was with a deep sense of personal loss that I stood and watched my new tent disappear into the greyness during the savage Kosciusko blizzard.
Only hours earlier, we five had rendezvoused at the bottom of Thredbo's Crackenback chairlift. Queen's Birthday long weekend, 1993, was ushered in by storms which ripped through much of south-eastern Australia. The lift attendant told us, “The weather up top is extreme.” We knew what he meant when we were blasted by snow and wind as the chairlift unloaded us “up top.”
A relative novice, this was my first ski tour to Kozzie, though trip leader Chris was making his 20th annual pilgrimage. With the temperature down to –8 degrees celsius, and wind gusting around 80kms an hour, the obvious thing seemed to be to ski out to North Ramshead and camp in some sheltered nook.
Our nook was well above the tree line, however, and rather exposed. As my tentmate Alan and I shovelled and stomped the metre-deep snow to flatten an area for the tent, I wondered which of the 500 Eskimo words for snow describes snow which refuses to compact. Only with some mental effort could I ignore the absolute certainty that the snow pegs would simply not hold.
What happened next took my breath away. The half-pegged tent was snatched from our hands with rude force. The tent - my tent - tumbled away in ghostly semi-flight, as if beckoned by some new master. I lumbered after it through the soft snow, but to no avail. I stopped and watched it disappear. I looked back. Visibility was barely 40 metres and the others were almost whited out from view. Anxious not to lose sight of them, I retraced my steps. My tracks were already filling with falling snow.
Meanwhile, like Cold Warriors, Chris and Alan fixed skis and boldly sallied forth to recapture the renegade tent. They returned some 15 minutes later, defeated, dishevelled, and quite frozen. The wind howled in maniacal glee.
Alan and I set about excavating a snow cave in a large snowdrift. The work warmed us and we became progressively insulated from the fury outside. Several hours later, we stopped and admired our candle-lit, refrigerated Taj Mahal. Dismissing the notion of a night nav exercise, we crawled into our sleeping bags. My thoughts returned to my tent. What would my partner say? Where would I find $700 to replace it? Maybe I could buy a de luxe model with pockets in the fly that you fill up with snow?
It's a funny thing but snow that doesn't compact well enough to hold snow pegs doesn't seem to make for good snow caves either. Around midnight, Alan's insistence that the ceiling was collapsing began to penetrate my slumber. We have to get out. We have to get out? Comatose, I peered above. The downward bulge of nearly a metre looked quite normal to me. Slowly, however, I started to realise that tonnes of freezing snow were threatening to press down on our prostrated bodies. We had no way of knowing how much further it would sink, or how fast. Alan later described it as a claustrophobe's worst nightmare.
It seemed to take forever to evacuate the snow cave. The reduced headspace meant that only one of us could move at a time. We struggled to don layers of thermals and waterproofs, then prise Alan's upright snow shovel from the icy grip of the sinking snow. While Alan slummed it in Stan's tent, I crammed in with Chris and Therese, unable to move and suddenly wracked with excruciating stomach cramps. I did not sleep a wink.
... Finally morning! It was still snowing, and still very cold. After breakfast and some Shellite-induced pyrotechnics, I crawled back into our snow cave to assess the damage. The cave's roof had continued its downward slump. But for Alan's vigilance, we would have woken with ice pressing against our faces, and much of our gear hopelessly wedged. With difficulty, I backed out.
I noticed that the wind had abated and visibility had improved somewhat. We decided to conduct a line search for the tent, following a bearing of 100 degrees (the direction the wind had been blowing the day before). The mountain was painted white. There would be little chance of finding anything. Looking around, I felt like a magpie might, staring into an empty sauce bottle.
After 200 metres there was no sign of the tent. 500 metres ... nothing. We came to a rocky outcrop, the last obstacle before the big, long drop into the Thredbo Valley. If the tent had been lifted over the outcrop into the valley it would now be kilometres away, unrecoverable. We looked behind the rocks. Still nothing.
With Chris out in front, we skied around the rocks. Nothing again. Then, with the eyes of a kea, Chris noticed “something that should not have been there” — the brass tip of a pole end. In the tent's six-legged flight the pole end had come free from its foot. The tent had fallen into the lee of the rocks and was now all but buried. We set to work, and dug out the tent. Despite its 800 metre flight, it was undamaged.
With renewed cheer, we doubled back and strode diagonally across the schriebund, intent on sampling the simple comforts of Seaman's Hut, the highest building in Australia. There we made ourselves at home, socialising and warming ourselves by the resident potbelly stove. We exchanged lies with the Jeans Brigade who had skied out for the day from Charlotte's Pass. Outside, the wind tore past with unremitting savagery. Outside, even the simplest tasks were an incredible trial. Like putting on gloves or fastening skis. It was just how I imagined the Antarctic. We decided against a side trip to the summit.
By morning, everything inside the hut was covered in two inches of spindrift. It was time to head back to Thredbo. As soon as we dropped below the hut, the wind vanished. The cloud vanished. The valley, now visible in its entirety, assumed the appearance of a snowy wilderness, all the more stunning beneath a blue sky. The snow — perfect! This was what we had come for. Presented with challenging slopes and cornices, we indulged in some extreme skiing. In my case, this was limited to aggressive snow ploughing, but the others got airborne, landing in an impressive range of body positions.
At last, beginning to suffer from adventure overload, we reluctantly moved on. All the usual ugly reminders of human attempts to dominate nature came into view. A Channel 10 helicopter whirred by. The feet of a cameraman dangled as he took footage of the year's first snow. Flying low, the chopper whipped up a mini powder storm in an attempt to get a close-up of an outward bound group of skiers, who had no doubt travelled for hours seeking a wilderness experience.
Ahead of us lay the chairlift that would take our packs to the bottom of the mountain. This was reputedly Australia's longest downhill slope. It was time for some more aggressive snow ploughing.