Telemark Tour - Kosciuszko National Park 2014
Eight days out exploring the beautiful and punishing Kosciuszko National Park during mid-winter, was an audacious plan but in the end it paid off!
Gav Owen and I planned this adventure for over two months (early May) and I put a lot of time, effort, money and training (until I tore my plantar fasciitis) into this trip.
Our main goal was to get to the Western Faces and shoot the jagged peaks entitled, Sentinel and Watsons Crags. We were blessed with such a great snow season but this also made the trip more challenge with some daunting encounters with cornices, avalanche prone slopes and crazy weather.
This is something I have dreamed about doing since I was a little adventurer. I remember always taking the essential survival gear (knife, compass, flint, etc), even on short day trips and taking it so seriously. It's something I've always loved doing and this trip is the pinnacle, especially as it combines my three favourite hobbies: photography, skiing and camping.
Our bodies require around 2400 Calories/day to have enough energy (Middle age male with sedentary activity) but because of our high exertion and cold climate we needed to consume about 6,000-7,000 Calories/day. For an eight day trip, this means a lot of food! But Gav introduced me to something called Pemmican, which is what the Native American Indians used to eat on long trips. It is a blend of Tallow and beef jerky (dehydrated beef). The reason why we went to the effort of making and eating it is because of the extreme amount of energy it contains. Tallow contains 3700Kj per 100g, while butter has around 3000Kj per 100g. Recent studies say that animal fat isn't unhealthy, just as long as you can burn those calories. The beef jerky has a reasonably high amount of protein, which is very important for muscle recovery but also improves the taste slightly. I also added some whey protein isolate (unflavoured) protein powder, which contains 90% protein. While fat is a great for slow releasing energy, I also took a lot of chocolate because of the high amount of simple carbohydrates (sugar), which is great for when I need energy ASAP. Above I have some pictures showing the process of making pemmican.
Day 1 - Saturday 12th July
I made my way over to Canberra the day before on a bus, while Gav slowly made his way over from Melbourne (arriving around 2:40am!). We took it easy that morning, with no major rush and left around 9am. As we arrived in Cooma it started to rain heavily but this soon turned to a heavy snow fall closer to Jindabyne. I hired my telemark skis from wilderness sports in Jindabyne, as my all mountain alpine skis aren't suited for backcountry touring.
We arrived at Dead Horse Gap car park at 2:30pm and amazingly the weather started to clear. So we got ready and began the uphill slog. We took the westerly ridge next to the main DHG track, because of the more even gradient. While we ascended we saw a group of Brumbies doing their own thing 1/3rd of the way up. Such incredible creatures! But sadly on a trip a few weeks later I once again saw them but one of them was eating the insides of a brumby that had passed away. But it wasn't just the one, there was another dead brumby a few meters up. They must have gotten stranded up there and don't have the energy to go back down. It's a brutal thing to see. Some might say they are pests but we were the ones that brought them there.
We eventually stopped about midday between South Rams Head and the Dead Horse Gap car park to set up camp (4:15pm) before it got too dark. This was my first time setting up a tent in the snow and it was great fun! So grateful to have such great weather for the first day.
I was inside the Swedish tomato (tent) by 7:30pm and promptly after fell asleep.
Day 2 - Sunday 13th July
It was a super still night, with nearly zero wind but it got cold! The forecast for Thredbo was -6.3 C around sunset, so it would have gotten close to -10 C during the night. As it's lower down, the cold air settles a bit (frost hollow). Also the lack of wind caused a bit of condensation to form inside the tent, which promptly turned to ice and then fell on me. Making my sleeping bag a bit damp in the morning. We woke up at 7am but it was so hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag and put cold clothes on!
We took it easy in the morning, once again :). Enjoying the beautiful scenery surrounding us, while we slowly packed up and Gav desperately searched for his missing basket off his pole. Finally we left around 10:30am.
Straight off we had a nice uphill slog to get above the treeline but we managed to do it reasonably quickly and made it to the flat area between South Rams Head and Southerly Rams Head around 12pm for lunch.
I started to feel a bit drained between the Southerly Rams Head and North Rams Head slog. But after a quick refuel at North Rams Head, we decided to continue on because Aries Tor didn't look so stunning in snow and there wasn't a great view of Kosi.
We continued onto the last peak before Kosciusko (perpendicular to the Cootapatamba Lookout, not Etheridge Ridge) at an elevation of 2,140m. We dug into a snowdrift next to a small rock cluster, to protect us from Westerly winds but it ended up being another beautifully still night. We had stunning views all around us, with North Rams Head to the south, Vic alps to the west, Kosi to the northwest and we could see perishers snow cats headlights while they groomed the slopes to the northeast. We attempted to shoot the sunset but thirty minutes prior to the sunset, clouds rolled in and we had a white out. I remember getting a bit chilly but after eating a packet of pemmican I was warm shortly after.
After the sunset the clouds slowly dispersed and we sat in our tents watching a blood full moon rise, while eating dinner. It was pretty amazing! After dinner I went out for a quick night shoot with the full moon.
Day 3 - Monday 14th July
We woke up at 6am and experienced such a beautiful sunrise. There were zero clouds but such a nice alpine glow and no wind! Gav and I were running around like headless chickens.
We left around 9am and made our way towards the Western Faces while the weather forecast looked good for the next two days.
You can see above how the Kosi ridge towards Mueller's Saddle is full of cornices. I'll explain our confrontation with them later on :\
Our initial plan was to summit Mt. Townsend and hide behind a big granite tor but when we got to the top of the Kosi ridge, we saw Mt Townsend and quickly changed that plan. The southerly face was the only way to ascend it relatively easily and it had a massive cornice to the east, which we didn't want to go anywhere near. So we decided to head up to Alice Rawson Peak from the east, following the ridge. So we had to traverse along Mueller's Peak
Unfortunately the slopes were very icy, with a lot of sastrugi. Especially as we traversed around Mueller's. I was struggling to not slide down the slope in some sections. I had to jam my poles into the ice, so when my skis lost traction I would hit my poles.
It got pretty steep the closer we got to the ridge. Gav's shovel decided to jump out of his backpack, when stopping for a rest. So he went for a nice afternoon jog down the slope haha. Luckily it eventually stopped!
The skin up to the top of ridge was tiring but we knew at the top we would see the majestic Western Faces finally. So we resisted our body's plea to stop and powered up to the top. We aimed for the saddle and once we skinned over the crest, we were greeted with the beautiful vista, which we had been dreaming about for so long.
After a few happy snaps, we started skiing up the ridge but we found a reasonably nice rock outcrop that would protect us from westerly winds and there was a decent view of the Western Faces. So in the end we decided to bunker down there.
We promptly began setting up our fortress. Gav dug into a deep snowdrift and I set up my tent in front, to shield the N/W winds predicted that night because my Swedish tomato can take more of a beating. I dug down as far as I could before I hit rock and then made a small snow wall around the West and North side of the tent.
After all the camp duties were out of the way, we wondered around getting amped up for the sunset. But if you look at the tent setup sequence above, you'll realise how it turned out. Nah, it wasn't horrible but not much golden light got through the thick clouds and then soon after the sunset we had a white out.
After the sunset, before the bad weather arrived. Gav and I were discussing skinning up to Alice Rawson Pass the next day because of a reasonable weather forecast. But that plan changed once we got hit with a white out and the winds quickly picked up that night. So we planned to get off the mountain the next day before the hectic gale force winds prediction for Thursday. The thing with the Western Faces is that when you get westerly winds, it comes along the relatively flat terrain out west, suddenly hits these peaks and channels it over in the gully. So even if the wind is forecast to be around 30m/h at Thredbo (as it was the next day), we experienced winds around 100km/h. So when we read the forecast for Thredbo to be 60km/h+, we knew we had to get off the mountain before that arrived.
Day 4 - Tuesday 15th July
I had a pretty restless sleep, with the winds changing to a westerly from a northerly around 1am and hitting the side of my tunnel tent pretty hard. We decided to bunker down for a day, as the morning forecast for Wednesday was forecast to have light winds and we wanted to best conditions for the tricky return trip. So I spent the whole day bumming around in my tent for like fourteen hours. To be honest I can't even remember what I got up to, I think I slept for a few hours but you can see below that I also got distracted taking some selfies.
At 1:45pm the snow and wind picked up and the forecast for tomorrow looked worse but we had to get off the mountain tomorrow no matter what. As we were way too exposed and I didn't have enough snow around my tent to make a big snow wall. Had a discussion with Gav about the exact return route we would take to Seaman's Hut. The forecast was now predicting 65km/h winds for Thredbo tomorrow afternoon, so I was getting a bit anxious and keen to get down to a lower altitude. The thing is, we were about 5 hours (white out travel time) away from the closest hut and in this weather triggering the PLB wouldn't help, as a helicopter or snowmobile couldn't get out there with the wind and visibility. So any gear failures or mistakes are pretty bad.
We had all our gear packed except for the tent, sleeping bag and mattress and set our alarm for 6:30am.
Day 5 - Wednesday 16th July
I didn't get much sleep at all and the wind blasted all night until around 4am, when randomly it completely stopped. After that I couldn't fall back to sleep and kept on worrying that it would pick up again. By 6:15am I couldn't stand it anymore and called out to Gav. He was also thinking the exact same thing as me and was wide awake. So we sprung into action, I quickly crammed down some pemmican for breakfast, packed away my gear and by 6:30am we were outside packing the tent up.
We departed around 7am for a pretty intense mental test. The visibility was horrid, with only about 3 meters visibility and at some points I could only see the tips of my skis. We very slowly made our way down the gully towards the bottom and we didn't traverse Mueller's. In no time Gav looked like an iceman, with ice building up on his skis, poles and all over his clothes. I regret not taking a photo of it.
Gav did a great job navigating us back to Seaman's Hut with a compass and GPS. Problem with a white out is, you are so reliant on a GPS, as there are no landmarks to take bearings from. Luckily we had three GPS devices, so if one failed we weren't totally screwed but unfortunately a GPS won't tell you where a cornice or gully is. So Gav fell of two gullies onto frozen creeks and one cornice. Luckily all onto soft snow but the cornice right after Mueller's Saddle was pretty hectic! I could just see the snow in front of me starting to curve downwards and the next second I saw Gav slide off a 5m high cornice and there was no way he could climb back up. So I had to slide down it. I took my telemark skis off, so I wouldn't catch an edge when I slide down and had them in my left hand and poles in my right hand. I was apprehensive but I knew there was no better option. When I was sliding down I hit a bump and lost grip of the bottom telemark ski with big winter gloves on. They still had skins on but the damn things flew down the mountain like rockets. I ran after them in knee deep snow on a steep face (Gav was too far away) but I soon realised I had no chance of finding them with the terrible visibility. I checked my GPS and saw that it continued for kilometers. I retraced my steps and started to realise we were in a high avalanche zone. The snow a few days before had been compacted from high winds, with a icy top layer and then a fresh dump on top that could have easily slipped, especially as we were on the leeward side, were a lot of snow collects.
We kept calm and ate some pemmican but we quickly continued the push towards Seaman's Hut. The wind had picked up but we were a bit protected on the leeward side. I was sinking down to my knees without skis on and it made progress more difficult. Walking along the steep face didn't seem right, so we attempted to climb back up to the ridge but it was so steep we had no chance of getting out. Even when I jammed my boots into the powder and used my one ski to pull me up. It was at that we both realised we need to get out of here because of the risk of a slide. So after looking at the map again, we traversed down into the gully and then planned to follow the gully up to Mt Kosi. But we ended up going directly up towards Seaman's Hut. It was challenge without skis and sinking in the snow but we eventually made it by 12pm and what a relief! Five hours for a retreat, that would take us about 1-2 hours in good weather. Just shows how slow you have to go in a full white out and you can still get into trouble.
We got inside the hut and it was great to lay all our wet gear out to dry. We eventually got the fire going and reminisced the journey. The forecast didn't look very promising, so we accepted the reality that we might be stuck in the hut till Saturday (cabin fever!).
Day 6 - Thursday 17th July
We woke up at 8am and had a relatively comfy sleep. We didn't get up to much, just killed time by reading, listening to audiobooks, figuring out mensa questions on Gav's phone and so on. I wouldn't want to do it every day but it wasn't so bad. It was kinda like a massive meditation sesh heh. Had a bit of time to just let my brain relax.
Day 7 - Friday 18th July
Yet another full day stuck in the hut but we were still sane. The wind changed to a westerly, so snow would creep its way into the hut.
Around lunch time, my toilet visit was way overdue. So mid conversation with Gav I had to bolt outside into the blizzard. I won't go into too much detail hehe but it's hard enough exposing your warm skin to gale force winds and snow (like being sand blasted) but to make it worse, I didn't take any toilet paper with me, as compressed snow does the job. But because the snow was so fluffy I couldn't compressed it, so I had to find some ice. This took time and my hands were exposed the whole time and wet. So they froze! I ran back inside with my pants partially up and in agony. My hand had swollen up, turned white and was continually throbbing. I had to quickly boil some water and hold it for half an hour before they defrosted.
The windows had about 10cm of ice stuck to it and nearly blocked all of the daylight but by 1pm the wind died down and we could actually see the sun between clouds. So Gav and I frantically got into action and started shoveling snow off the footsteps and clearing the ice off the windows. Once we had light inside, we had a massive boost in energy and started chopping wood, cleaning the hut and any other choirs we could think of.
An hour later we saw blue skies and we were so ecstatic. So we went outside and took some snaps and for the first time, could see the beautiful scenery that had surrounded us for the past few days. Around 4pm we started to get some golden light and we couldn't get the grins off our faces. We have been just chilling inside a dark hut for three straight days eating pemmican, so to see light and especially golden light, was very special. Even though it was still freezing and gale force winds, we shut off all our senses and let those shutters rip.
Day 8 - Saturday 19th July
This was one of the coldest nights and the wind was howling. It was so strong that snow blew through the main door, piled up about two meters high (even with skis blocking the gap in the door) and then even came through the second door, onto my sleeping bag. So we had to dig ourselves out of the hut. But the daunting realisation that we would be stuck in the hut for another day, was hard to swallow. There was no way we would go out in that wind, unless we had no other option. As I had to walk through the fluffy snow, which would take a bit longer and even if we layered up, the wind and snow would force its way through any gap in our clothing and in no time we could have hyperthermia. So it wasn't worth the risk. I had enough food for another two days if a rationed it and could share some with Gav. So we weren't panicking but we were discussing our options if the blizzard was still around Monday.
But incredible around 10am the wind died down and the sun appeared through the clouds. It was incredible how quickly it cleared. Gav and I quickly decided we had enough time to safely return and hoped the weather would stay clear. We frantically started packing up and cleaning up the hut.
I initially tried skiing back with one ski but I lost my right ski, so my left leg wasn't strong enough to take all that weight for an extended period. So eventually I just strapped the ski to my pack and walked but luckily the snow was pretty compact from all the wind, so I didn't sink too much. We kept a pretty solid pace all the way to the main range track, even overtaking other telemark skiers. Once we got closer to Thredbo, Gav went west to get the car via dead horse gap and I walked down Thredbo resort. It was a bit humiliating walking down the ski runs with only one ski and I had a few people stop and ask what happened. I got to the bottom around 2pm and was so relieved!
It was such an incredible experience and to do it all with such a great guy as Gav, was the icing on the cake. He has so much experience and always stayed calm and collected. Even in the tense situations we worked great as a team and after being stuck with him in a hut for four days, we never got irritated with each other. It's definitely a trip we will both remember forever.
Thank you for taking the time to read my winter experience and I hope it inspires you to go on your own adventures.
"Think outside, no box required"