It’s time we respected the Australian Alps
As I write this piece, news has just filtered through that Victorian Water Minister Tim Holding has been found alive on Mt Feathertop, in the Victorian Alps. Thank God.
I don’t yet know many details of his bungled trip, but I do know this: Holding is just the latest in a series of backcountry adventurers who’ve failed to pay the Australian Alps the respect they deserve.
For nine months of the year, the Australian Alps are a benign bunch of hillocks which are scarcely fit to be called mountains. Our highest peak, 2228m Mt Kosciuszko, is so rounded that tourist buses were once permitted to drive all the way to the summit.
But in winter, the landscape changes. Apart from snow, and thawed snow which refreezes into treacherous, glassy ice, the main danger is wind. In Australia, we almost never see the floaty snow you get in TV Christmas specials. Our snow-bearing weather systems fairly howl in from Southern Ocean latitudes which sailors used to call “The Roaring Forties”.
At Mount Hotham, the Victorian ski resort which overlooks Feathertop, wind gusts touched 100 km/ this weekend. And that was just an average winter storm.
As often happens, this weekend’s blizzard was preceded by torrential rain. Fresh snow doesn’t bond well to the rain-affected, snap-frozen under layer – creating ideal avalanche conditions.
I don’t believe an avalanche is what got Holding into trouble. But I will say avalanches are an ever-present and oft-ignored danger in Australia’s Alpine environment.
Even in NSW, where the mountains are shaped like humpback whales, avalanches deaths have been recorded as far back as 1956 and as recently as 2008, when an ice-climber was killed at Blue Lake.
At Mt Feathertop, where Holding went for his wintry stroll, the knife-edged ridges and summit mean avalanches are a weekly occurrence in winter. Yes, weekly. Even in mediocre snow seasons like 2009.
Feathertop is like no other Australian mountain. If there was a global “Miss Alpiverse” pageant for pointy snowclad Alpine peaks, it would be our only genuine contender. It might even make the finals.
In the 1980s, at least two experienced hikers were killed either by avalanches, or by segments of the icy summit cornice (the icy overhang caused by winds) breaking off.
I’ve cross-country skied near Mt Feathertop, on the aptly-named Razorback Ridge, which runs from the back-end of Mount Hotham ski resort all the way to Feathertop’s 1922m summit. Let me assure you, it’s not called the Razorback for nothing. In several places, the ridgeline is so narrow that one ski is the sun and the other in the shade. And that’s just the approach to the mountain itself.
Of course, it’s precisely the “extremeness” of the terrain which attracts the likes of Tim Holding. To be perfectly frank, I’m thrilled a minister would choose to spend his leisure time out there rather than, say, bonking some 26 year old in his office like disgraced NSW pants man John Della Bosca.
But a minister should be setting an example to the community. And I’m convinced Mr Holding did not do this.
As I write this piece, the trickle of breaking news suggests Mr Holding was reasonably well equipped, and even performed the classic alpine survival trick of dropping below the treeline until the weather cleared.
I’m still not impressed, and here’s why.
For one thing, it appears he didn’t have adequate footwear, let alone crampons (clip-on ice spikes). I don’t think he had an EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) either.
But the biggest mistake Mr Holding made was venturing out on a morning when temperatures at Mount Hotham was -6.5 with winds in excess of 50 km/h.
Regardless of whether Mr Holding knew the area (which he did), or whether there were other outdoor groups around (which there were), he ignored all the readily-available weather warnings.
Too many people have a “she’ll be right, it’s only Australia mate” attitude when adventuring in our snowy back country in winter – thumbing their noses at rescue budgets and their own safety.
The most tragic case was in August 1999, when four NSW snowboarders died when their snowcave collapsed due to intense snowfall and gale-force winds. Their bodies were found that November.
The Victorian water minister can consider himself extremely lucky he was found just two days after his ordeal began – and that he was found alive.
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