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Trip Report – Club Lake Trip… or was it Blue Lake?

By: Mike Pryjma

Source: Australis (Australia Section) Newsletter (Nov 2017)

This may appear on the surface to have been just another winter mountaineering Club trip to the Snowy Mountains. Don’t be fooled, this was no ordinary trip – it was a significant trip for the Section for a number of reasons.

For starters, it was the only formal Australia Section trip that went ahead in 2017 (so far) – quite extraordinary given a Section membership base of about 550 members! And then it also became the first trip to be undertaken under the protection of the Section’s own public liability insurance policy. This represents a significant milestone in the Section’s history as it the first time such insurance has been held by the Section since its inception in 1956. This insurance afforded Section administrators & trip convenors protection from any possible litigation instigated by a third party against members’ personal assets. Now that’s peace of mind!

Following the cancellation of the August Blue Lake trip due to the Section’s inability to secure this insurance, the fate of the Club Lake trip hung in the balance for quite a while & looked destined to suffer the same fate as the Blue Lake trip.

But 4 weeks out from the trip date the alpine gods smiled & the insurance was confirmed.

Due to the unseasonal heavy snow falls across all alpine areas in Sept/Oct, it became abundantly obvious that the original plan to access Club Lake from Charlottes Pass may indeed be thwarted. The road between Perisher Valley and Charlottes traditionally opens on the long weekend in October each year and the Club Lake trip was deliberately scheduled for the weekend just after that. In recognition of this possibility, additional contingency plans were formulated as part of the planning process to cater for other trip options and access points. In all, plans A, B, C & D were prepared. Ah, the benefits of good & thorough planning!

This year, Club Lake just wasn’t to be – despite leaving the final decision on the objective and access route up until the day before the trip, the road remained closed. After much debate & head scratching, Plan C was chosen as the best trip option under the circumstances – a return to Blue Lake from Guthega – the original August Blue Lake trip plan was in fact enacted!

In total, eleven members gathered from as far afield as Newcastle, Sydney, South Coast NSW, Canberra and Melbourne to enjoy some friendly social interaction as well as undertake some snowshoeing, spring skiing & easy mountaineering.

The trip was originally advertised as a trip suitable for beginners and those with quite limited experience in mountaineering and Club Lake is perfect for such activities due to the varied snow slopes within the amphitheater that surrounds the Lake (and similarly around Blue Lake). The targeted grade was NZ Alpine 1-2. Trips such as these are essential in any mountaineering or alpine club program as how else do people get a foot in the door & experience some mountaineering without spending part of the family inheritance on a guided or training course in New Zealand.

The logistics of the trip were pretty straight forward, yet at times not without challenge. The weather, on departure was ideal, sunny with a pronounced Spring feel – well, basically it was shorts & tee shirt weather. Mode of over-snow travel varied from skis to snowshoes with a couple of the party opting to pull small sleds. The practice of sled pulling is well known around the world in mountaineering & expedition circles, but less so in Australia. At a glance the theory of sleds looks simple enough – you just pull it & it should glide with very little friction across the snow. It is, in fact, that simple on level round, but throw in the vagaries of poor snow cover or none at all as was the case on sections along the Snowy River, and cross slope angle, the sled suddenly assumes a diabolical mind of it own. No manner of coaxing or persuasion will keep the sled on track under these conditions. To cut a long story short, only one sled made it to the camp site. This was a triumph of an engineer-designed sled over a sled of unknown or perhaps dubious design qualities.

The snow cover was ideal with a complete blanket cover from the Illawong suspension bridge all the way to the campsite.

Our base camp was established at E619655 N5970329 at an altitude of 1850m, on an extensive flat snowy bench at the highest treeline on a small ridgeline just to the east of Crummer Spur. The site is approx. 1km ESE of Little Twynam. The Snow Gums here provide the last substantial shelter from winds from the NW, W & S direction and we would personally attest to this fact during a savage storm on days 2and 3 (which we knew was coming).  Multiple tents were set up just behind the trees somewhat like caravans in a caravan park, but with sufficient separation to minimise the impact of those late night noises emanating from the tent next door. With the wind that followed on the second and third nights, those tent noises weren’t as issue anymore as the ‘freight train’, that was the gale, roared through the night. Nine tents for eleven members – pretty unsociable lot, but maybe that’s a trait of the modern mountaineer – or was it because it was seen as an easy trip and no problem carrying that little bit of extra weight? An evening briefing followed, which saw the Activity Safety Plan for the trip dissected & discussed in detail before setting up cooking stations for the evening meal.

Day 2 forecast was for a clear morning with increasing high cloud culminating in rain towards evening. Today was a good climbing day and well worth the one hour walk to Blue Lake. The Lake was still completely covered in snow/ice, but large schrund-like cracks had opened up along many parts of the lake edge – representing a significant hazard for those less experienced in snow environments. No one dared walk out onto the lake to test the ice as such action was described as not a wise thing to do at the previous evening’s briefing. A stark reminder that avalanches do occur in Australia was clearly evident above the lake with the presence of a cornice collapse induced avalanche spreading its debris right down to the lake edge.

Some couldn’t resist a close inspection of the water flows that form the mythical ‘Blue Lake ice’, that is the focus for so many Aussie mountaineers in winter. This late in the season, the ice had shrunk and decayed to a point where it was unclimbable, but at least we can say we saw it.

Climbing was firm in the early morning, but soon softened in the warm spring conditions. A variety of easy multi pitch routes were done, but climbing was cut short mid afternoon with darkening skies, lowering cloud base and increasing wind. The pre-frontal rain trough was about to hit. It came in quickly and caught us a little by surprise in how quickly the rain started & whiteout conditions enveloped us. Some had seen the warning signs earlier & left for camp, whilst others were too engrossed in climbing and left it too late. We were now faced with a walk back to camp in whiteout conditions – a common challenge in alpine areas.

Rain and strong winds (gale force about the top of the range) was the norm for that evening & much of day 3, restricting climbing activities to a few ski runs by those within the party who could actually ski. Camp maintenance became a regular side activity, especially replenishing the snow around the base of tents to prevent tent pegs from ‘popping’ as the snow thawed in the warm conditions. I can personally attest to the fact that it is not very pleasant to be de-robed (or should it be de-tented) in the middle of the night due to a tent peg popping. Daytime temperature were in the order of 4-6C whilst overnight (day1) was just below freezing. Building a ‘dining shelter’ also provided a welcome distraction to the frequent rain squalls.

Day 4, the last day & walk out day, was, as is quite often the case on a travel day, another brilliant day – warm & sunny, ending the trip in the same vain as it started. We can never be absolutely sure of the weather, but we can be definite that we will return again next year to this pristine alpine environment.

Posted: 22/03/18

Posted By: Narina Sutherland