Note that each skier has a single steering pole and not a pair of stocks. (Photo 10)
Enthusiasts had been skiing at Mt. Buffalo since the 1890’s using Staker’s Track for access onto the Buffalo Plateau and staying in the hut shown in Photo 11. This “old hut” (it doesn’t seem to have had a name) was located near to the site where the Chalet (Photo 12) was built in 1910 and the “old hut” was later demolished by the Authorities. Pioneer skier R.W. Wilkinson tells of an early morning ski trip in the 1890’s from the “old hut” to the Horn, with its magnificent panoramic view of the Victorian Alps.
From its opening in 1910 until the the 1950’s, the Buffalo Chalet was the most easily accessible ski resort for Victorians, offering train travel from the main population centres to the foot of the mountain at Porepunkah and a connecting bus that took skiers and skaters to the door of the Chalet. In 1910 it had twenty times the amount of on-snow accommodation then available elsewhere in Victoria and introduced large numbers of Victorians to both winter sports. Many of Victoria’s ski pioneers of the 1920’s to the 1950’s, learnt to ski on the Buffalo Plateau.
The Heritage Sub-Committee has been unable to discover any information about skiing at the Hospice in the years following 1912 that lead up to the foundation of the Ski Club of Victoria in 1924 and the sale of the Hospice in 1925 to Barney Rush. The Hospice was refurbished to meet the growing demand for winter accommodation created by the increasing popularity of skiing. Photo 13 is a picture of the Hospice used to publicise it. The skier in this picture holding a steering pole, suggests the photo may have been taken in the 1920’s or even earlier, but the photo was still being used in 1932. Mick Hull received it as a postcard in May 1932, confirming his group’s ski booking for 1932 at St Bernard.
Mick Hull had visited the Hospice in the summer of 1929 and, after a week learning to ski at the Buffalo Chalet in 1931, did ski there in July 1932 (Photo 14), August 1932 and again in August 1933. In July 1932 Mick Hull’s party drove to Harrietville and hired horses to take them to the snowline near the Hospice. The horses walked briskly up the steep road for about two hours until they began to flounder in wet snow halfway up their legs near the eight-mile post (13km) from Harrietville. The skiers dismounted, “tied the stirrups across saddles, leaving the reins slack enough and turned the horses downhill with a slap on the rump. Off they went with harness jingling, bound for home and a feed.” They skied the remaining 5 miles (8 km) to the Hospice with their packs on their backs.
In his book “Mountain Memories”, Mick Hull speaks highly of the skiing at the Hospice. Its ski slopes were quite sheltered, so that if a blizzard were to be blowing from the north, one simply skied in comparative comfort on the southern slopes. There was also a variety of tours that could be made, such as to The Twins, Rene’s Lookout and toward the Dargo High Plains. During Mick’s August visit, his group attempted skiing along the Hotham road from St. Bernard, but their skis lacked metal edges and they were stopped by the ice on Mount Blowhard before they could reach Mount Hotham, their goal.
Victorian on-snow ski accommodation had also substantially increased in 1925 by the construction of a 28 bed commercial lodge at about 1500m altitude in the snow country below Mount Feathertop. Known as the Feathertop Bungalow, it was operated by a company seeking to build a major recreational complex on Mount Feathertop, but the company could not obtain long term tenure of the land and the Bungalow was sold to the Victorian Railways, who operated it until it was burnt down in the 1939 fires.
The increasing traffic on the Great Alpine Road caused the Country Roads Board (CRB) to build a stone cottage on Hotham at about 1800m altitude, which was christened ‘Hotham Heights’ when opened in December 1925. Bill Spargo was the local CRB overseer who, as part of his CRB road maintenance duties, also managed the cottage, firstly for visitors during the seven months of each year when the road was open and then, from 1928, it operated for 12 months of the year with Bill Spargo as full-time accommodation manager. With the Great Alpine Road seasonally blocked by snow, winter access to Hotham Heights in the 1930’s, either involved horses (Photo 15), or a long cross-country ski trip with packs.
‘Hotham Heights’ was able to cater for 20 visitors at a time. The Victorian Railways took it over from the CRB in 1933 so that it could be operated in conjunction with the Feathertop Bungalow and the Buffalo Chalet, with integrated travel and catering arrangements. The 1934 Ski Year Book said “Until Mount Bogong is more fully explored, Hotham will probably be regarded by skiers as having the best snow “ with a long snow season.
The Friday 13 January 1939 bushfires devastated the Victorian Alps. The Mount St. Bernard Hospice, Feathertop Bungalow and ‘Hotham Heights’ were all burnt to the ground, fortunately without any fatalities. Half of Omeo was also burnt down, including the hospital and many businesses in Day Avenue, including the three-storey Golden Age Hotel. Of the three destroyed buildings in the snowfields near Mount Hotham, only ‘Hotham Heights’ was replaced. Amazingly, a larger Hotham Heights Chalet was completed by the Victorian Railways in time for the opening of the 1939 ski season on the King’s Birthday weekend in June 1939. Photo 17 shows the rebuilt chalet with some of Hotham’s famous ski runs in the background. They are (from left to right) Australia Drift, Harris’ Horror and Avalanche Gully.