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The Melbourne Bushies

- Fifty years along the track (1940-90)

Chapter 7 - Skiing - The Bushies Take to the Hills in Winter

Graeme Thornton

As is fitting, the primary activity of the Melbourne Bushwalkers is walking. In the earlier days, during the winter and early spring months, when deep snow lay about the higher mountains, some of the more popular areas were inaccessible to walkers except for those determined and strong-willed enough to use alpine (downhill) skis. These days, another world is opened to bushwalkers, thanks to lightweight touring skis.

Whilst Club members did ski trips in the forties and fifties, by the early sixties skiing was effectively ignored if not actively discouraged by the Club. We were a walking club, not a skiing club. This attitude appears to have been part of those times; other clubs had a similar experience. It was this attitude that lead to the formation of the Winter Group, which specifically provided for those who wished to continue to visit their beloved mountains when the snow lay thick in winter. A significant proportion of the group's membership came from walking clubs. Doug Pocock's comment is characteristic but perhaps a fairly typical view of the time.

'When I joined (in 1961) the attitude was that there were ski clubs and there were bushwalking clubs and never the twain shall meet. I thought that bushies wanted nothing to do with skiers as they were almost immoral staying in lodges and maybe even drinking! ! Also we got to summits by our own efforts but skiers got tows to take them up. Nothing was ever said but it (skiing) was definitely frowned upon.'

Of course, ski touring has had its ups and downs (so to speak). Equipment and availability of suitable accommodation have greatly influenced this over the decades. The early tourers basically went from mountain hut to mountain hut. But the war started in 1939, and that year also saw one of the most devastating bushfires ever recorded. Many of the ski tourers' huts were destroyed, never to be rebuilt. And the traditional japara tent, then prevalent, was not the most reliable under winter snow conditions. The large flat surfaces caught the wind and even a light snowfall would build up on the roof, stressing both materials and occupants. That the Melbourne Bushwalkers' enthusiasm for ski touring started shortly after acquiring Wilkinson Lodge indicates the significance of reliable accommodation. Better equipment and increased affluence and leisure time also contributed to a steady increase in the popularity of ski touring during the sixties. With the introduction of quality plastic-based, then waxless skis in the seventies and eighties, anyone could go touring for a day with minimal preparation.

Ann Sullivan outside Wallaces Hut, circa 1966.
Ann Sullivan outside Wallaces Hut, circa 1966.
Darrell Sullivan collection

Wilky was purchased from the Ski Club of Victoria in 1961 (see 'Wilkinson Lodge', page 65). As far as can be determined, our first tourer to visit Wilky was Alan Bennett. Alan was the first Lodge Manager and every winter from about 1961 to 1966 he would ski into Wilky from Falls Creek for a week's stay. All winter visitors to Wilky up until about 1967 made the journey in and out on alpine touring gear. It was a demanding exercise and no doubt the sight of Wilky during that last but steep descent soon after passing Wallaces Hut helped wash away just a little of the accumulated fatigue.

Touring with alpine gear may have contributed to Sue Taylor (now Forrester) breaking her leg near Marum Point in 1965. Sue was with a party staying at Wilky from 28 August - 4 September; they had skied in on alpine touring skis, taking 5½ hours to do so. This journey time might seem long in comparison with the 1½ - 3 hours on today's cross-country equipment, but it indicates the extra effort required by the older skis. On the Tuesday the group made a trip out toward Mt Nelse. Around Marum Point there was a descent that required locking down the boot heels with cable bindings. Sue either forgot or for some reason omitted to lock hers. Such omission leads to a drastic reduction in control (I've been assured) and the resulting crash ended in Sue breaking her leg. While Sue was being made as comfortable as possible, two of the group skied into Falls Creek for assistance, which was rendered in the form of an SEC snow cat and crew. The party (less Sue) wasn't finally regrouped in Wilky until about 11.00 p.m. that night.

Alan Bennett's visits to Wilky were private trips with a few friends. The first 'official' programmed Club trip into Wilky was in 1963. The group had to take its provisions in to the lodge, as have all subsequent winter parties, before winter snows closed the road to Falls Creek. In 1964 Wilky had two official winter parties and one in 1965. The High Plains in winter were very quiet in those years.

Not all Club visitors to Wilky during winter have been bipeds. In the early seventies Merv Scott was regularly accompanied by his dog, Fly. Sometimes they made the trip in moonlight. It's not recorded what Fly thought of all this but she must have enjoyed it, perhaps it was the self-sufficiency of it all. She used to haul her own food in on a small sled.

One particular weekend trip to Mt Feathertop on 31 July 1965 was pivotal in awakening Club members to the delights of touring on langlauf rather than alpine equipment. The trip was to be a ski-tour from the old Diamantina Hut near the start of the Razorback to Mt Feathertop and return. At the same time as the tourers were making their way northward along the Razorback, a second Club group was setting off from Harrietville to walk up the Bungalow Spur to Feathertop. The two groups should have met at the site of the present Federation Hut at the intersection of the Bungalow Spur and Razorback tracks. The majority of the ski-tourers were on alpine skis fitted with the ubiquitous touring bindings and the weight and difficulty of using these combined to slow the party - so much so that they did not meet up with the walkers. There was, however, one exception among the group: a visitor on langlauf skis that he had brought with him from Canada. The party was so impressed with the relative ease and mobility of the langlaufs that John Brownlie and John Bach immediately set about determining how to get hold of such skis.

As they soon found out, langlauf equipment was just not available through ski shops in Australia. At that time John Bach's father was starting up what is now the Alpine Ski Shop in Hardware Lane. Alpine's order for the 1966 season's equipment included a few sets of langlauf skis; more were ordered for the following season.

It was also necessary to import poles, bindings and boots. The bindings then in use had the same shape as the present 75 mm 'Nordic Norm' but had four pins rather than the present three. The skis were wooden and would be regarded today as 'light touring', so light in fact that they provided Wilky residents with a new evening activity - ski by day, repair by night. Breakages were frequent and some ski pairs ended the season with one ski considerably shorter than its mate.

The arrival of the langlauf bits and pieces was only the beginning: all components had to be assembled and prepared. The skis had to be drilled and bindings screwed on, hopefully in the correct place on the ski. Even the boots had to be prepared. Holes had to be drilled in the soles at places matching the four pins of the bindings. Some reinforced the rubber sole with steel plates in order to slow down, if not eliminate, wear and tear.

This activity must have been quite a social event for, to quote Bob Steel, 'We all assembled at John Brownlie's place in Elsternwick one Saturday afternoon and prepared our skis. Much fun and consternation occurred as we melted the Stockholm tar into the bases of the skis with blow torches, occasionally setting fire to the tar or the skis or both.'

The Stockholm tar on the base of the skis provided a surface that would hold the grip-glide waxes; it also protected the wooden skis against moisture. Unfortunately it did both these tasks relatively poorly and had to be scraped off and renewed periodically, sometimes several times a season. The arrival of 'P-Tex' (plastic) skis in the mid-seventies simplified the waxing process considerably. No longer was it necessary to prepare the base, and the grip-glide waxes held on much better too.

The introduction and acceptance of the 75 mm 'Nordic Norm' ski binding significantly reduced the confusion and difficulty surrounding matching boots to bindings to skis. Up until the late sixties people still frequently adapted their walking boots to ski boots by using special bindings. Loch Wilson (later Bushgear) was making such adaptors up until 1968-69.

Mt Stirling was a popular venue for trying out the newly acquired langlauf skis and waxing technique. There wasn't a large range of waxes available commercially in the mid- to late-sixties. The only wax was a certain klister 'voks'. Klister 'voks' was a cross between a hard stick wax and a normal semi-liquid klister wax. It had the unfortunate attribute of sticking very well to everything it made contact with except for skis or snow. Rod Mattingley remembers one of the first test runs up from Woolybutt Saddle. The ski from the car park at Telephone Box junction along the road to Woolybutt Saddle was easy enough, but Klister 'voks' just wasn't up to the steep climb toward the summit under the prevailing snow conditions. Still, it must have been held in some form of affection (or was it blatant contempt) as there was a little jingle to the effect 'Klister "voks" will do this, Klister "voks" will do that, you can even spread it on your bread'. In the jingle the 'this' and 'that' phrases were adaptable to cover the difficulties present, foreseen or imaginary at the time.

Small hut on Mt Stirling, with child at door. Photo taken about 1989.
Small hut on Mt Stirling, with child at door. Photo taken about 1989.
Tim Dent collection

Using trip previews from the News as a guide, we get the following from the seventies:

In the News, June 1976 Rod Mattingley previewed another 'langlaufing for beginners'. This time for 23-25 July and to Mt Hotham. Clearly lessons were being learnt: '... After last year's disorganised chaos on Mt Stirling, with hopeless beginners trailing along behind mixed up with the Winter Group, we have something more satisfactory to offer this year. We are fortunate to have the exclusive services of Chris Hellerud of Nordic Ski Products to give tuition on ski-touring all Sat. The Shady Scorpion tells me that Chris is a very good instructor . . . '

Later in the seventies Graham Wills-Johnson, Bob Douglas, Geoff Crapper, Rob Harris and Ken MacMahon appear as leaders of programmed ski trips, in addition to the redoubtable Rod Mattingley.

Skiers in the Telephone Box Junction area, Mt Stirling.
Skiers in the Telephone Box Junction area, Mt Stirling. Beginners' trip led by Rodney Mattingley, July 1975. The leading skier is Stan Attwood, followed by Verle-Ann Johnson.
Ken MacMahon collection

In the News, August 1978 'Lopez' had the following to say:

'At the beginners' ski-touring weekend (21-23 July) there were a lot of surprised skiers when they arrived at the Mt Loch car park on the Saturday morning as there was a blizzard blowing. After departing from the frozen car park via heated cars, the procession moved to a slightly less windy place where we were instructed on the elements of skiing without stocks - Geoff Crapper then tried to move uphill, but his wax-less smooth-soled skis failed to grip the icy snow. During the afternoon the group retreated further from Mt Hotham and the elements and pitched tents near J.B. Plain ..

Also in 1978 Bob Douglas organised a 10-day 'marathon' in the Kosciusko National Park. In the company of 11 others he toured from Guthega to Mt Jagungal, then back via the Main Range and Mt Kosciusko.

Having effectively ignored skiing for so long the Club clearly took to it in the early seventies. Mt Hotham features frequently in the above extracts from the News. For three or four years in a row there were beginners' weekends at J.B. Plain near Hotham. They were base camps near the road and would attract 20-50 skiers or would-be skiers. Until the appearance of Chris Hellerud in 1976, it appears that no qualified instruction was given; it was believed that bushies didn't need such formality; besides, if you could walk you could langlauf. This belief was substantially true on the flat and uphill, given a little co-operation from the waxes. On the downhill slopes it was a different matter, falling over or the risky arboreal arrest being the favoured technique in dealing with unwelcome speed.

Geoff Law contemplating ski tracks crossing a hole in the snow.
Geoff Law contemplating ski tracks crossing a hole in the snow. Somewhere near Dicky Cooper Bogong, Kosciusko National Park, September 1979.
Bill Metzenthen collection

The above techniques were just too dangerous on steep slopes. One frequently used variation relied on very careful and precise alignment of the skis along the desired path. After pushing off with the stocks speed was gained rapidly and it was very important not to be distracted from the task in hand by small, unforeseen obstacles. Waxless skis with their patterned bases tended to generate a whine that increased in intensity and pitch with speed. Sometimes the crescendo was hard to ignore and rather off-putting. Times have changed a little since then. With the increasing number of skiers, even tourers are now seen practising the telemark turn. No longer is a bushwalker identifiable from a great distance through style alone.

When discussing bushwalkers and skiing, about one of the last things to come to mind is skiing style. But style we have in abundance, perhaps not a lot of elegance but style it is - very practical, derived from the desire to get about the mountains in winter, and generally refined by the complete absence of professional tuition. Those who have skied with Ken MacMahon will recognise a classic style. One could only watch in amazement as Ken disappeared headlong into a field of boulders, arms and legs waving around in the air. Surely he must have fallen after disappearing from view over the last rock. But no, he heaves into sight again, briefly, no more off balance than before, just to disappear then reappear again until gravity or lack of snow or caution finally stop him. Quite a few have been tutored by Ken (Come on, you can do it') and have thus incorporated parts of his style. This was not necessarily a permanent disadvantage provided a little thought was given before doing anything particularly silly.

The mid-seventies and onwards saw the Bushies taking to skiing in large numbers. It was quite an adventure touring around with some of the groups. Part of the fun was just watching people negotiate fairly straightforward obstacles. To a certain degree it was expected that everyone would provide their share of entertainment. Woe betide anyone seen taking a more cautious route around a difficult patch that the others had negotiated with varying degrees of success. Sometimes they would be asked to go back and do it the 'proper way'.

The obligation to entertain could sometimes be taken too far, even if not deliberately. In July 1980 Graham Hodgson was a member of a rather large party touring around the Horn on Mt Buffalo. Graham has a reputation of being rather tough in relation to the cold; this was perhaps fortunate. At one part of the route it was necessary for the group to descend towards a creek. The track went down at a steepish angle but almost parallel to the creek; it did, however, have a decided camber towards the creek. Most of the group made the descent more or less satisfactorily and so did Graham, except right at the last moment he slipped and slid quite quickly in the general direction of the stream. It looked almost certain that he would go straight into the icy waters, but no, providence decreed that he come to rest feet dangling above the water. Without warning, providence changed its mind, and into the stream he fell. From the expression on his face even Graham was having trouble convincing himself that the water wasn't painfully cold. Fortunately there was a fairly complete set of exchange clothes scattered among members of the group, but Graham did seem to be in more of a hurry than normal to get back to the warmth of the cars and civilisation.

In the late seventies and early eighties, when technique was a rare commodity, Chris Thompson stood out from the rest with his natural ability. A sentiment to this effect is recorded in Wilky's logbook. On the way into Wilky Chris, Gary Wills, Geoff Law and Bill Metzenthen had made a few detours to practise technique. The latter two had clearly been a little less successful than Chris. The logbook entry simply read:

Score (number of falls)

The entry was made by Geoff, and a little frustration with personal performance was expressed by the rather larger size of the 0 in comparison with the other digits.

Chris came close to experiencing his last ski trip one day in 1982 on a tour into the Barry Ranges via The Twins. The Twins can be seen from various vantage points on the Harrietville side of the Mt Hotham and Dargo roads. They are easily recognised from a distance because of their steep sides projecting well above the tree-line. It was on one of those steep and ice-covered slopes that Chris fell and accelerated out of the view of his startled companions. His unplanned descent started above the tree-line but finished below it, good fortune taking him between rocks and trees and away from vertical drops. He climbed back up to his companions in a very thoughtful mood. Merilyn Whimpey found it very unnerving just to stand where Chris first fell and watch his slow progress back up.

Mastery of technique can be a subjective, if not ephemeral thing. On a tour in the Tawonga Huts - Mt Fainter area over the Melbourne Show Day period in 1980, Pearson Creswell was heard to shout the skiers' equivalent to 'Eureka!'. He'd discovered the secret of the elusive telemark turn, or so he claimed. Upon further investigation it turned out that in order to provide some sideways stability for the naturally weak lateral stance of the telemark, Pearson had found that if you plant your pole firmly at the beginning of the turn and lean on it at about a 45 ° angle all the way through the turn - and if the pole doesn't break - you've done a telemark turn. He defended this assertion stoutly, despite the grave doubts cast by his companions as to its legitimacy. Word has it that Pearson was seen for many a year after that practising telemark variations that relied a little less on the column strength of his poles.

Chris Hellerud put a lot of effort into promoting his beloved Nordic skiing. He often gave free lessons on technique and waxing at Mt Baw Baw and other mountains in the seventies, including at a Club beginners' trip to Mt Hotham in 1976 (Rod Mattingley's July 1976 trip referred to previously).

None who have persevered with cross-country skiing have regretted the effort. To be up in our magnificent alpine country free to go just about anywhere there is snow is almost the ultimate terrestrial freedom. And having discovered the delights of touring, it can rapidly become addictive, if not obsessive in the first few years. As an example, a sizeable group of Club members camped beside the Swampy Plains River the Friday night before Melbourne Cup Day, 1980. Most of the group were on a walk being led by Graham Mascas around the Geehi Valley. They were to start from Olsen's Lookout on the road to Geehi Reservoir, circumnavigate the Geehi in clockwise direction and then traverse the Main Range as far as Mt Alice Rawson. The trip was to finish with the steep descent down Lady Northcote's Canyon to the Geehi and up to the cars at Olsen's Lookout. Among them were four would-be skiers: Graham Wills-Johnson, Helen Dean, Geoff Law and me. We received a considerable ribbing from the walkers during breakfast Saturday morning. The general question was, 'where's the snow then?', amid much mirth and gesticulation toward the very lightly snow-clad and mostly rocky western flanks of Mt Townsend and The Abotts. They seemed to have a point - at the time.

We parked at Dead Horse Gap and climbed up into the Ramsheads until we struck snow. Initially we camped on snow grass about 10 metres below the snowline. The Ramsheads are an idyllic spot at any time of the year, but there is something special in spring. Perhaps it is that unique combination of soft snow grass to camp on with skiable snow but a few paces away. Perhaps it is the vegetation awaking after a winter's hibernation. It may even be the presence of the odd enormous snow gums with buttresses 4-5 metres around that clearly have survived for a century or so. They look so serene having survived all and living as they do on the highest limits of survival. Of course it is all these things together, and a place to return to time and again.

That year the weather turned bleak and it snowed heavily for a day, resulting in our camp being 500 metres above the snowline rather than 10 metres below it. Our delight and smiles broadened at our good for-tune. At the same time the walking party was having a fairly severe time of it and had to retreat from the Main Range. To complicate matters the Alpine Way was blocked by a rock, mud and tree slide on the Khancoban side of the Geehi turnoff, thus forcing everyone (including us) to make a very long detour home along the Snowy River via Suggan Buggan and Buchan. Geoff and Graham were both afflicted with a rather painful bout of snow blindness, most likely due to the extra long hours of intense sunlight at that time of the year.

A feature of the mid-eighties was the instigation of 'Rawson's ski weekend' at Mt St Gwinear in the Baw Baw National Park. Given fair snow (not guaranteed at Baw Baw), touring in that area is a delight. Set amid snow gums and granite boulders it epitomises cross-country skiing in Australia. The Bushies are generally ensconced in the Corranderk Lodge at Rawson. Mostly we are the sole occupants of that lodge but occasionally other unfortunates are given some of the spare rooms. One year half a dozen 'bikies' turned up on Saturday night and the Bushies had thoughts of a noisy sleepless night. As it transpired half a dozen 'bides' were no match for one and a half dozen Bushies and the 'bikies' retired relatively early and peaceably.

Sandra Mutimer was the organiser of most of these trips. She would generally divide the group up into beginners, intermediates and advanced. The latter two groups were left to look after themselves but Sandra stoically took the beginners - at least for the Saturday if not the Sunday. Some of these Saturdays must have been quite stressful for on one particular Sunday morning an advanced group were en route toward Mt Baw Baw when they heard a noise coming from deep within the 'Shelter Rock' east of Mt St Phillack. Upon investigation it was found to be coming from a single occupant, Sandra, setting out her groundsheet. She claimed she wasn't reacting to the strain of the previous day by doing a Marlene Dietrich 'I-wish-to-be-alone' impersonation, but was just sheltering from the wind.

I've only covered a small fraction of the Bushies' 30-odd-year skiing history. Our equipment has evolved and diversified but I'm not at all sure that the Club's view of skiers has changed very much from that quoted by Doug Pocock in 1961, '... staying in lodges and maybe even drinking . . .' A greater proportion of the Bushies now participate in skiing so the skier's behaviour is not so much remarked upon. There is, however, still a puritanic element running deep - some skiers now stay in tents and imbibe. But the call of the mountains and the driving desire of some to walk through trackless white fields among alpine forests and snow gums that remains the same as it has always been.