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Gold, A Mountain Hospice And Snowfield Heritage In The Victorian Alps

This fourth installment of ski heritage photos takes you back more than 100 years to a time when gold and gold mining brought prospectors and miners into the Victorian Alps. They needed shelter and basic services such as banks, hotels and the mail. Winter journeys were, of necessity, undertaken on skis or snow shoes as shown in Photo 1, which is portion of the 1889 Tom Roberts painting, The Mailman to Omeo (Snow Shoes). The mailman in Photo 1 has just departed from the Hospice at Mount St. Bernard and is heading towards Omeo via Mount Hotham, but more about that shortly. This fourth installment also looks at ski exploration in the Victorian Alps in the 1920's and summarises two ski trips "Across the Bogongs" in Victoria, first described in Ski Year Books by Mr. W.F. Waters of the Ski Club of Victoria. 

AAC 4-2 Mining Machinery Scan0078Alluvial gold was discovered in the Livingstone Creek, near Omeo, in 1852 and the population of Omeo had exceeded 300 persons by 1857. Gold was also discovered on the Dargo High Plains at Grant and Crooked River. By 1861 there were 466 persons on the Dargo High Plains diggings and 387 at Omeo and Swifts Creek. As the Ovens River Valley and Beechworth were important goldfields with good links to Melbourne, bridle tracks were quickly cut to link Harrietville in the Ovens Valley with Omeo and the Dargo High Plains. The track junction was at Mount St. Bernard (1540m altitude) and its location is shown in the locality plan presented as Photo 9. A hospice was built there in 1863/64 with log walls and shingle roof. It was run by 'Mother' Morrell and 'Sailor Bill' Boustead and provided food and overnight shelter to travellers. A flock of European mountain goats provided meat and milk, whilst vegetables were grown at Mount St. Bernard to augment the wheat and wine brought in by pack-horse from Harrietville.

Access beyond the Hospice was difficult to impossible between the months of May to November, depending on weather and snow conditions. The tendency for ice to develop on CRB Hill, Mount Blowhard and other exposed slopes, lead to the local development of snow shoes suited to the harsh conditions. They were oblong, being about 37cm long and about 17cm wide. "They were made of pine, two pieces on edge, and three cross pieces mortised in, the whole being covered with light sheet-tin or zinc, to stop the snow from sticking." (R.J.Tobias, long-term Harrietville resident, in the SCV 1926/27 Yearbook).

Quartz reef mining had supplanted alluvial mining in the Omeo District by 1882 and heavy machinery was needed to crush the quartz and release the gold. Such machinery could not be moved along bridle tracks – roads were needed (Photo 2). The bridle track to Omeo was reconstructed and the first buggy crossed from Harrietville to Omeo, using the new road, in April 1883.

AAC 4-3 Hospice StBern Fair Scan0077A second building was constructed at the Hospice to accommodate the increased numbers of road users (Photo 3). The building on the left is the original 1860's building and the larger building was first occupied in 1884. The fences around the various vegetable plots and goat paddocks can be seen and the flock of goats is visible in Photo 4.AAC 4-4 Goats 2 Hospice pre 1934 Scan0015


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Omeo to Harrietville

AAC 4-6 Coach near Hotham Scan0024During the warmer months of each year, the inhabitants of Omeo had the choice of two routes if they wanted to travel to Melbourne. The route via Mount St. Bernard cost 72 shillings and the route via Bairnsdale cost 99 shillings. The fare included coach travel to the nearest railway station and then rail travel to Melbourne. In 1885 those traveling via Mount St. Bernard boarded the Melbourne train at Myrtleford, whilst those traveling via Bairnsdale boarded their train at Sale. Photo 5 is a postcard showing the coach at Harrietville, whilst Photo 6 shows it near Mount Hotham.

AAC 4-7 Med res Mailman descreened Col adj Scan0002We have only sketchy information about skiing at Mount St. Bernard in the 1880's and 1890's. Mr. R. W. Wilkinson tells us, in the 1934 Ski Year Book, about his snow memories from that time. He hired a packhorse in Harrietville for a half-crown (two shillings and sixpence) to take his belongings to St. Bernard for a winter holiday. "The ski at St. Bernard were of split woolly-butt, shaped and well turned up at the point, with leather boot-top fastenings for our feet but innocent of heel straps. Armed with a pole, long and strong, we journeyed to Hotham and Loch (seven and nine miles away respectively). Our only waxes were soap and floor polish." He describes how, "When there was bad weather on top, we followed the old Bairnsdale track down the Dargo for many miles, a sheltered and beautiful trip, with its richly verdured and diversified gullies under snow". He also states that the lessee of the Hospice worked a mine on the Dargo in the winter as well as keeping the Hospice open for the few winter visitors who spent one or more nights there.

The Hospice lessee would have used either skis or snow shoes to get to his mine in winter, but we do not know which. At this time, it is quite likely that skis were being used by miners for both access and recreation on the winter snows on the Dargo High Plains and elsewhere in the Victorian Alps, but very little information has been recorded in easily accessed records.

Once the coaches stopped running from Harrietville in May each year, the mail between Harrietville to Omeo was conveyed on foot through the snow, with the mailman and his dog making the five day return trip once a week and staying over-night at the Mount St. Bernard Hospice and at Cobungra Station. Tom Roberts, a leading Australian impressionist, visited the Hospice in early winter 1889 to paint the mailman on his trip to Omeo through the snow. This work (Photo 7) is of great historic significance. It is an accurate record of the conditions encountered by the Harrietville to Omeo mailman in winter, because Tom Roberts completed his landscapes at the actual site and not in a studio. If you take a copy of Photo 7 to the top of the CRB Hill, you can readily identify the location on the Great Alpine Road (looking towards Mount Hotham) from where Tom Roberts captured this scene. The direction and length of the shadows cast by the mailman and the trees, suggest the time was about 9am to 10am, which is consistent with the mailman having set out earlier that morning from the Hospice, bound for Omeo.

AAC 4-8 Mail 1933 Charlotte's Scan0017The mail has been carried by dog sled on flatter, snow-covered terrain in Australia. Photo 8 shows the mail being carried from the Chalet, Charlottes Pass, by dog sled in 1933.

AAC 4-9 Petersen 1900 Crop Hull p14 Scan0008The 1932 Ski Year Book contains an article written by an "Old Timer" who, in the 1890's, had lived in the Saltpetre Creek gold mining camp, on the western slopes of Mount Gibbo (summit 1750m altitude), about 45km north-east of Benambra. The first fall of snow in the district was expected on 24 May each year and the snow persisted until mid-October. He stated that the skis were called "snow shoes" and everyone made their own from local timber, by a process he described in the article. A steering pole was used to avoid crashing into the trees that lined the access tracks. "Although the ski were crude and our knowledge of skiing was limited, the ski served a useful purpose in the Gibbo District. The mail boy came in and went out over the range on his 'snowshoes' every Sunday and, if one wanted to trace the elusive dingo, a day was often spent on snowshoes."

The first recorded winter ski crossing of the Victorian Alps was made in 1900 by the Petersen brothers, Peter and Harry. Leaving their mine at Square Mountain (marked as Petersens' Mine in Photo 9) they travelled on home-made skis to Brandy Creek where other miners were working underground through the winter. They crossed Mount Hotham and descended the Bon Accord Spur into Harrietville the next day. They returned up the St Bernard road then down into the left branch of the Dargo River and through miles of rough country. They then climbed out of the Dargo Gorge and returned to their mine. (Hull, 1990).


Buffalo & Hotham

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Note that each skier has a single steering pole and not a pair of stocks. (Photo 10)


AAC 4-11 Hut on Buffalo Scan0002Enthusiasts 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.

AAC 4-12 Buffalo Chalet Med res Scan0026From 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.
AAC 4-13 Hull P9 Hospice 1932 Scan0027The 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.

AAC 4-14 St Bernard Hull 1932 Scan0025Mick 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.

AAC 4-15 Hull p21 Sharpened Hotham Heights Scan0020The 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.

AAC 4-16 Repaired Hoth Heights YB33 Scan003'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.AAC 4-17 Hotham Heights Med Res 1940 Hull p157 Scan0012

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AAC 4-19 Razorback take 2 Gilchrist Scan0037Parties of four to five skiers, lead by Mr W.F. Waters, undertook two winter ski exploration trips across the Bogong High Plains culminating in an ascent of the Mount Bogong massif containing Victoria's highest peak. These historic ski tours were first reported in articles written by Mr. Waters for the Ski Club of Victoria's Year Books and then reproduced in the Australian Ski Year Books for 1928 and 1929. Mount Bogong (1986m altitude) had not yet been climbed on skis when the first exploration tour was made in August 1927. "The proposed ten days' tour was to commence at Harrietville, with the ascent of Mount Feathertop, thence to Mount Hotham, via the Razorback, and thence across the Bogong High Plains to Glen Wills and Omeo, and to include a trip to Mount Fainter, and an attempt to ascend Mount Bogong if circumstances permitted – the total distance to be covered on ski being about seventy miles" (113 km).

They found that the snow line was well down into the valleys and were able to don their skis within a couple of miles of Harrietville as they headed the 5.5 miles (9 km) up the Bungalow Spur on a fine afternoon. Arriving at the Bungalow in moonlight, they found it to be unoccupied and snowed in. They had to gain entrance by burrowing a tunnel under the roof of the back verandah. The next morning they climbed to the top of Mount Feathertop (1922m altitude) and enjoyed the magnificent 360 degree view under a clear sky.

It started snowing overnight and by morning visibility was only about 40 yards (about 35 m) due to the fog that accompanied the falling snow. The fog became denser as they began heading along the razorback towards Mount Hotham. Photo 19, taken from the Great Alpine Road looking towards Mount Feathertop, shows the steep slopes running off both sides of the Razorback. This is definitely not the place to be trying to find one's way in fog. They returned to Harrietville and followed the road "to Mount St. Bernard, from whence, if stormy conditions continued, we could follow the line of telegraph poles to Mount Hotham. The road for fully ten miles to the Hospice was under snow and gave continuous skiing, whereas in a normal winter the snow line is said to be not more than four miles from the Hospice."

AAC 4-20 Tawonga YB 28 p 173 Scan0030They left the Hospice the next day and headed for Hotham Heights in glorious sunshine. In the late afternoon there was a wonderful view over the nearer snow-clad peaks of the Victorian Alps from Mount Hotham, but a fog crawled up out of the valleys and hid all peaks but the top of Feathertop. A blizzard developed during the night which detained them at Hotham Heights for two more days. The weather cleared on the second afternoon and there was brilliant moonlight overnight.

In bright sunshine they headed for Blair's Hut, where lunch was had and then on to Tawonga Hut which involved a 2,000 feet climb (600m) and which was reached just after dark. Mr. Waters wrote, "We anticipated that there would be a lot of snow around it, but were not prepared for conditions as we found them. It was completely covered, and only about two feet of the chimney was visible above the snow. It was impossible to burrow down to the doorway, so we entered via the chimney" (Photo 20). They had covered about 11 miles (18 km) that day.

AAC 4-21 Kelly Hut Hull p14 Scan0009The following morning was fine and they set out to cover the 11 miles (18 km) to Kelly's Hut in strong sunshine which made the snow sticky requiring them to wax their skis on three occasions. "The journey across was a pleasant succession of long runs and occasional climbs. All the creeks were completely covered by snow and ice. Many of the eight feet (2.4 m) snow poles were hidden, but the average depth of snow on the plains appeared to be about five feet"(1.5 m). They skied past Fitzgerald's Hut to Kelly's Hut (Photo 21), which was almost snowed in, when they arrived late in the day.

AAC 4-23 Bogong Map YB28 p177 Scan0032Time had run out and their hopes of climbing Mount Bogong had to be deferred to another visit, owing to the lack of time. About nine inches of snow fell overnight. The next morning they skied in overcast weather (Photo 22) to the snow line and then walked about six miles (10 km) to the Big River Bridge, where a car was waiting to take them to Omeo and then on to Melbourne.

The same party of four met at Kelly's Hut one year later, on 12 August 1928, to wait for a break in the weather so that they could climb Mount Bogong in clear weather along their chosen, but unmarked, route. Dense fog and high winds confined them to the immediate vicinity of the hut for four days. A start was made on the 17th, which broke fine and clear.

Their route took them seven miles over the summit of Mount Nelse, with its views of Kosciusko and Jagungal to the north-east, then onto Timm’s Lookout (about 1800m altitude), with its panoramic view of Mount Bogong (Photo 23). The black line marks their approximate route out of the Big River Valley and up to the summit, which is marked by a cross on the photo.

AAC 4-24 Big River YB29 p153 Scan0034Mount Bogong is, unfortunately, not connected to the Bogong High Plains. The Big River has cut a gorge several hundred metres deep that cuts off Mount Bogong from the Bogong High Plains. Even if skiers and walkers take a major detour to the west from Mount Nelse North, so as to skirt around the headwaters of the Big River by remaining on the ridge crests, there is the Bogong Creek Saddle at less than 1500m altitude, on the undulating ridge crest linking Mount Bogong with the Spion Kopje Spur at the north end of the Bogong High Plains. Waters and his party believed that the most direct and fastest route involved dropping down a ridge below Timm’s Lookout (1800 m altitude) into the deep gorge of the Big River and crossing it at about 1150 m altitude. They had discovered a river flat suitable for pitching a tent there, during a summer walking tour. Since the ridges facing Mount Bogong below Timms Spur also face north and since 1928 was a lean year for snow, the skiers had to carry their skis for much of the 650 m descent to the Big River. They pitched their tent on this river flat as night fell (Photo 24).

They were awoken at dawn next morning by the “wonderful mimicry” of the lyre birds, that had several dancing mounds in the scrub close to the tent. The tent and their heavy camping equipment remained on the flat, as they intended getting back to the Big River before dark that night.

AAC 4- 25 Crampons Bogong Take 3  YB29 p151 Scan0033The first 150 m up out of the gorge were very steep with no snow cover. The snow line was then encountered and skis could be used on the long, steep climb. The tree line was reached at about 1580 m altitude. Mr. Waters wrote, “For the next 500 feet” (150 m ascent) “the spur was very steep, and knife-edged; on the western side sheer cliffs dropping into a head of the Kiewa River, and on the east side a very steep and long slope, down to the Big River. The snow there was crusted and icy, and several nasty side-slips necessitated the use of crampons.” (Photo 25). The toe irons of the bindings are firmly attached to the skis whilst the heel is free to lift as part of the striding motion. The crampons appear to be attached to the skis so that they grip whenever the skier’s heel comes down onto the ski after the ski has been slid forward. Note that the rear skier in Photo 25 has his rear heel lifted as he slides the rear ski forward. The crampons can be seen attached under the ski at the point on which the skier’s heel will press at the end of each step.

“The weather up till then had been perfect, but we saw with dismay that far above on the Summit, thick fog was blowing over and we feared that our chances of obtaining a clear view from Victoria’s most commanding viewpoint were likely to be lost. While still a mile from the Summit, fog again descended, and we had to bunch together to keep in touch.”

The cairn on the Summit of Mount Bogong was reached at 12.30pm, just as the fog lifted completely, the ascent having taken four hours. “All the higher peaks of the Victorian Alps were plainly visible, but all showed patches bare of snow unusually high up for that time of the winter. On Buffalo scarcely any snow could be seen.”

After a stay on the summit of 75 minutes, they skied down the route they had ascended. “The steep descent of the razor-backed spur provided a few mild thrills, with sheer cliffs on one fall and steep slopes on the other.” In three and a half hours from the Summit they were back in camp on the Big River. Some rain fell over night and they broke camp early to cover as much distance as possible before the weather deteriorated further. After a quick glimpse of Bogong from Timm’s Lookout, they covered the seven miles (11 km) back to Kelly’s Hut in good time, with “nothing worse than several heavy showers of stinging sleet”. The following day they skied to the snow line and then walked out to the Big River Bridge and traveled back to Melbourne.

Note: The modern Alpine Walking Track to Mount Bogong via the Cleve Cole Hut, crosses the Big River at about 1050 m altitude, even further downstream than where Mr. Waters and his companions camped in 1928.