Friday 30 July 2010

Snowed Under

[walkers head towards Mt Field East, a light 21st century dusting of snow on the gound]

One winter, nearly 31 years ago, something very unusual happened in Mt Field National Park in southern Tasmania. The night of Friday August 10th 1979 saw more than a metre of snow fall on its mountains. Driven by a freezing south-westerly wind, the snow smothered the park from low levels to the heights of Mt Mawson, changing the shape, sound and look of the mountains entirely.

Skiers keen to spend their Saturday taking advantage of this amazing snow cover – one John Davis among them – must have rubbed their mittens in anticipation. With the whole area skiable, many skiers were ascending and descending the slopes when, without warning, a snow cornice above the Golden Stairs collapsed. John Davis and some other skiers were trapped beneath. While the others were rescued, John remained buried in the snow and died. His was the first death by avalanche recorded in Tasmania: a grisly and unwanted statistic that is unlikely to be added to, given climate change and the kinds of snow seasons Tasmania has experienced this century.

My first year in Tasmania was the year after this tragic death. Every visitor to the ski-field was told the story, and most had a grim desire to see the site. I was among those who gingerly climbed the Golden Stairs in snow, subsequently skiing cross-country towards Mt Field West. But from the mid 1980s onwards, skiing at Mt Mawson was starting to become a hit-and-miss affair. And this century not many winters have seen a good ski season.

I returned to the area earlier this July, enjoying an icy excursion into the highlands, ‘though not via the Golden Stairs. Like the gaping jaws of Sydney’s Luna Park after the ghost train tragedy, the “stairs” have a sad taint. The route is now closed.

While it was cold wandering over to Tarn Shelf – this was July after all – there was barely enough snow for a miniature snowman. The visit confirmed that I’d never invest in ski gear for use in Tasmania. It also had me reflecting afresh on John Davis’ dreadful luck.

New Zealand is another matter altogether. While their glaciers are shrinking, skiing is alive and well. And avalanches still manage to claim many lives every year. Even in late spring, trampers on many of Aotearoa’s mountainous tracks are advised to check avalanche forecasts. In some places bridges and other infrastructure are removed over winter to prevent them being swept away by avalanche.

[walking through an avalanche prone area on NZ's Routeburn Track ... and it's almost summer!]

It is sobering to walk through an avalanche zone, especially when Kiwis tell you with a smile that a football sized snow-ball at terminal velocity will take your head off. “But the good thing is, you won’t hear it coming” one added, with typically dry gallows humour.

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