Of ice and men

Glorious granite . . . rock formations highlight the rugged beauty of Kosciuszko National Park.
Glorious granite . . . rock formations highlight the rugged beauty of Kosciuszko National Park. 

A trek to the ill-fated Charlottes Pass chairlift reveals harsh beauty and the folly of an ambitious dream, writes Ben Stubbs.

In the summer of 1964-5, two workers from Charlottes Pass were riding the recently built chairlift that was to connect their ski resort with the outside world. Gliding past the snow gums and gardens of granite in the Kosciuszko National Park, this ambitious engineering project finally seemed to be running smoothly. As they travelled over the tops of the Rams Head Range, however, their complacency came to an abrupt end. Approaching tower 15, the two men watched in horror as the chair in front of them tore from the cable and crumpled on the rocks below.

A maintenance worker on duty spotted the fall just in time and stopped the lift before the next chair fell, sparing the workers a grisly end. This was just one of the dramas that besieged the project in its troubled two years of operation. The £1.2 million (in 1963 terms) chairlift was abandoned not long after the tower 15 incident and the remains of the costly endeavour were forgotten and left to the mercy of the winds that blow through the saddle above Charlottes Pass.

We are in the Kosciuszko National Park to explore the ruins of a chairlift that has been sitting dormant for more than 40 years. Beyond the well-worn path that leads to the top of Mount Stillwell there is no marked track to the ruins, which is still a relatively unknown walk in the national park. To get to the chairlift we follow the photocopied instructions from my uncle towards the escarpment on Rams Head. The wind licks across the rocks in front of us and batters all but the hardiest of plants into submission. One of the main reasons the chairlift failed was because it stood in the path of these westerly winds, which hit the chairs and lifted them nearly horizontal as they ploughed between the towers.

Walking from the chalet at Charlottes Pass we have charted a course to the top of the 2054 metre Mount Stillwell. Wading through knee-high heath, the indiscernible track reveals a carpet of wildflowers that are in bloom during summer: we are treated to fields of yellow lollipop billy buttons, white alpine daisies, mountain celery and waxy bluebells across the hills. These brightly coloured patches are in stark contrast to the gnarled trees and prostrated tussocks on the ridge that seem to be the sort of vegetation suited to only the bleakest of conditions.

Proving that the wildlife in the park is not of the soft and cuddly variety either, we are spooked at the top of the rise by a white-lipped snake slithering in the grass underneath our feet. There is a snail-trail of cars below us on the Kosciuszko Road only a few kilometres away. On the opposite ridge, thousands of tourists visit the national park in summer and content themselves with the Lakes Walk and the congested ascent of Mount Kosciuszko without knowing anything of the intrigue and untracked beauty to the east of the Main Range.

As we continue along a deserted valley, through boggy fields and past a solitary hare that darts to safety in the rocks, we can't find the flattened tussocks or signs of other visitors anywhere so we follow the path set out by the snow poles. With crows circling above we walk towards our destination as the clouds skid past the peaks like giant tyre marks.

Trekking up through a corridor of granite tors we catch our first glimpse of the chairlift. Hopping over the cable that would have once guided its path, we see the rusted orange scraps that remain. The pylons, bull-wheels and cement blocks litter the top of the bluff like a twisted jigsaw of steel. We can see the base of the restaurant, which was once at the mid-point of the chairlift, providing spectacular views for skiers down into the Thredbo Valley.

Today all that is left is the snapped flooring of a 40-year-old toilet and the cinder blocks that weren't carted back down the slopes.

Like the alpine ghost town of Kiandra that flourished during the gold rush of the 1800s, there is an eeriness to this abandoned eyesore that is disconcerting. Everything looks to have been dropped in a hurry and left to the indiscriminate rot of winter.

In 1963 the chairlift was hailed as the saviour of the ski fields. Engineers brought in helicopters, over-snow transport vehicles and 130 men to begin the construction of what was entered in the Guinness Book Of Records as the world's longest chairlift. This ambitious six-kilometre project would span the Alpine Way and open up a pocket of virgin skiing territory to the world.

From the beginning they were met with opposition. Stories of month-long blizzards, skiers falling from the chairs and daring mountain rescues with bazooka spear guns were told about the unravelling of a scheme that was on everyone's lips in the early '60s. As we hike down to the escarpment past the deserted towers there is no information available or remembrance plaques. It seems that the disastrous tales of the chairlift have been buried by the snowstorms throughout the years.

Looking out towards the valleys of skeletal gums above Thredbo, we track around the edge of a marsh that is sodden with giant tufts of dead mountain grass. In the muddy water we notice the pincers of freshwater crayfish.

At the top of the rise the sun drops below the peak of the main range that leads to Mount Kosciuszko. The most spectacular of the mountains is Carruthers Peak, still dusted with snow in its deepest crevices. In the distance we see two trekkers walking towards Thredbo. They're the only other people we've seen all day.

With the light beginning to wane, we link back up with the ski poles and wander past 60-centimetre-deep snow drifts that persist on some of the sheltered ledges, even in the middle of summer.

We ford icy tributaries that funnel snow-melt into the grass-like slicks of slow-moving oil and decide to camp before night falls. We set up the tent on a flat bank of Wrights Creek in the twilight, the earth rolls away from the sun and it's so quiet in the valley below Mount Stillwell that it seems we can nearly hear the groan of the Earth rotating into darkness, leaving us in the pastel-coloured shadows of evening.

When all the daylight is finally leached from the hills, the winds pick up again carrying a wintry chill despite the season. They lash the sides of the tent incessantly, keeping us awake for most of the night. We descend deeper into our sleeping bags as the clouds roll in, threatening to rain. It is still relatively placid compared with nature's mood swings during winter; however we're given a reminder of the harsh alpine weather in the Kosciuszko National Park no matter what time of year it is.

After a fitful night, the first morning light reveals the ominous grey of a storm front on the horizon. We pack up quickly and head back towards Mount Stillwell.

Zipping our jackets, we hurry through murky bogs, not wanting to underestimate the force of the weather that once stood in the way of the ambitious Charlottes Pass chairlift, its hollowed ruins now lying behind us.

The writer travelled with assistance from Tourism NSW.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The easiest place to start the walk is at Charlottes Pass on Kosciuszko Road. This is about three hours' drive from Canberra. Cooma Airport was not running commercial flights at the time of writing.

Staying there

It is possible to camp in the Kosciuszko National Park provided it is not in the drainage of the glacial lakes. Charlottes Pass, Thredbo and Jindabyne all have accommodation options throughout summer. See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au.

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