It was Sunday September 26 when Thredbo closed its lifts for the end of the official 2021 winter season. Most people spent the afternoon celebrating at the pub, which then blended into after parties to see off a strange season. But as usual, I was busy planning an adventure.
Myself and a team of five others (Josh, Zinta, Sarah, Taylor and Luca) met up that evening to go over gear, food and logistics. We would leave early the next day for a two night snow camp. Our three major goals for the trip – to spend some time at Cootapatamba Hut, film a promo video with professional videographer Luca, and tour up Mt Kosciuszko from the south side. We had three days in total to achieve our goals but we knew a storm was coming in on our last day. We’d already moved the trip forward to try and avoid it, but every time I looked at the weather forecast, heavy rain was predicted earlier and earlier. Once we were out in the Main Range I knew we would rarely have reception to track the storm’s movement. We might just have to rely on the old school method, I mused. Just sticking our heads out of our tents and feeling the air. Either way, we were prepped and the trip was going ahead.
Getting to Camp Via Kosciuszko’s Best Rocks
We met the next morning and after a quick briefing, took Thredbo’s Kosciuszko chairlift up to start the day. This chairlift runs even in the summer months to help passengers on their way to the top of Australia. It saved us 560 vertical metres, which is significant when you’ve got heavy packs. We were carrying tents, sleeping bags and mats, cooking equipment, lots of warm clothes, cameras, safety gear and enough food to stop me getting hangry for three days (for the record, that’s a lot). From there we had about 3km to camp, most of which was a gentle uphill. My favourite route goes via Aries Tors, which are beautiful granite rocks sticking straight up. They are absolutely stunning and ideal for a snack stop and photo session.
We continued on our touring skins around North Ramshead and up Central Ramshead, where we caught our first glimpse of Mt Kosciuszko in the distance. I’ll see you tomorrow, I thought. We transitioned to downhill mode on our splitboards and skis, and rode all the way to camp beside the beautiful Cootapatamba Hut.
History of the Big Red Emergency Hut
Cootapatamba Hut sits about 3km below Mt Kosciuszko. Built in 1952, it was originally constructed as an emergency shelter for hydrologists who were working on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. The workers needed to monitor stations in the area and take measurements, even in the middle of winter, which could be treacherous work if a blizzard came in suddenly. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Australia’s Main Range, it’s that the weather changes rapidly and should never be underestimated.
While there may not be many hydrologists around to utilise the hut anymore, it still comes in handy when people are caught out in poor weather on their way back from Mt Kosciuszko. The hut feels cramped with just four people inside, but it once sheltered an unbelievable 19 people during a storm!
Fun Facts About My Favourite Hut
Cootapatamba is one of my favourite huts because of its bright red colour and fun chimney, designed to be the entrance when the front door gets snowed in. I’ve never had to drop in from the top before but the ladder is still fun to climb. Like all Kosciuszko huts, Cootapatamba is designed as an emergency shelter and not to be used during the night unless in dire circumstances. So we set up our tents on the snow nearby and had fun exploring the hut, reading the log book and taking photos. Sarah and Zinta shared a tent, Taylor and myself had another, and Luca and Josh had their own little tent homes.
A lot of people ask me why the hut is called Cootapatamba. The first thing you need to know is that it’s named after the nearby lake at the base of Mt Kosciuszko. Cootapatamba Lake is one of Australia’s five alpine lakes that completely ices over in winter. It’s also Australia’s highest lake! Cootapatamba Lake develops from snow melt off Mt Kosciuszko and runs off downhill into Victoria, eventually becoming the Murray River. The actual name Cootapatamba is an Aboriginal word that roughly translates to, “where the eagle swoops to drink” and there are some traditional stories about giant eagles flying nearby and swooping down to steal children.
The Storm Looms
We built a big snow kitchen with seats, a table, and snow wall, plus a private snow toilet and walls around our tents to help shelter us from the wind. With all that done, we still had a few hours left until sunset so Josh, Taylor, Zinta, Sarah and myself decided to climb up a nearby hill and ride it together, with Luca flying a drone and filming from above. The snow had softened perfectly and was running fast! We party rode down, whooping all the way back into camp. Then it was time to cook up dinner and have a few laughs as the sun started to set and turn the skies orange. With head torches on and Nalgene hot water bottles already in our sleeping bags, we said good night and tucked ourselves into our snow tents.
That night, the wind rattled our tents. We were warm inside, but the flapping of our walls told us the weather was changing. When we woke up for sunrise, we found our little camp engulfed in fog. We set about making breakfast and hoped that the skies would clear. Today was Kosciuszko summit day! After a couple of hours the fog was getting thicker with only the occasional break in the clouds to let some sunshine in.
We used Cootapatamba Hut to shelter from the wind and I wondered if the storm had really come in a full 24 hours earlier than it was supposed to. Sarah said she’d got a touch of reception at the top of the Cootapatamba chimney so we sent her and Taylor up and hot-spotted a phone to try and check the weather! With a bit of patience as internet pages loaded, we saw the storm was indeed moving quickly. There may be some intermittent sunshine later in the afternoon, but the rain would come in that night instead of tomorrow.
We called a team meeting in the hut and made the decision to cut our trip short. We would need to pack up, exit and be back at the Thredbo chairlift before 4pm that same day to avoid the worst of the storm. Would we have time to summit Mt Kosciuszko too? Luca and Zinta said they’d stay to pack up our camp, while Josh, Sarah, Taylor and I would attempt to tick off our final goal. We quickly threw food and gear into packs, put climbing skins on our skis and splitboards and prepared to go into the mist. “We’ll try to be back by midday,” we told our two buddies who were staying. “But just in case – if we’re not back in four hours, you guys head back to Thredbo.”
Into The White
Our team of four departed, aiming for the south side of Mt Kosciuszko – which is the opposite way that most people tackle Kosciuszko in summer. Our first challenge was to find a suitable snow bridge to cross the river. As spring warmed up the snow, it was collapsing into the water and there were only a few spots thick enough to safely cross, one by one.
We started our ascent of Mt Kosciuszko with extremely poor visibility. Our main concern was avoiding Kosciuszko cornice, a huge overhang of snow that forms on one side of the mountain and is prone to spontaneous collapse and avalanche. We wanted to give the cornice plenty of space but that’s easier said than done when everything is white. We used a combination of GPS tracking, skin tracks and local knowledge to navigate it safely. Only a couple of times did the clouds shift to give us the briefest look at our surroundings. Each time we quickly memorised the scene and were soon back in the clouds.
About halfway in and Josh’s skins had loaded up with too much moisture to stick to his skis, so he boot packed some of the way up and then I secured them on with two Ski Straps – otherwise known as a guide’s best friend. From there we continued the climb on the ridge of Kosciuszko and felt the full force of the incoming storm with strong winds, cold temperatures and thick, wet fog that clung to us like plastic wrap. Many times we stopped to eat, drink and talk about how everyone was feeling. But the team was strong and morale was high with copious pocket snacks from Sarah.
Finally the summit point appeared out of the mist! We cheered, snapped a few photos and quickly swapped to downhill mode. It was time to ride off Mt Kosciuszko and return to camp and our friends. On the final descent down Kosciuszko south side to the river, the clouds broke and we had perfect vision of our snowy surrounds. It was an absolute joy to ride in the sunshine with friends. Zinta and Luca spotted us and waved us back to camp. “You’re early!” they laughed. With a summit in the bag, it was time to pack the last of our things and head home to warm beds.