Warming to snow

It's one of the more foolish things I've ever done. It was the onset of winter in 1991 and I was a first-year student living on campus at the Australian National University (ANU). Hailing from more northern climes, I hadn't seen snow before, so when I awoke early one June morning to news that the season's first snow was falling on the Brindabellas, I was faced with a tough choice.

Should I grab my textbooks and trundle off to my early-morning macroeconomics lecture? Or should I scrape the ice off my clapped-out Mitsubishi Sigma and head up into the Brindies in search of the fabled white stuff? So, while half my mates were still in the land of nod and the other half were still staggering back down University Avenue after an all night session at Mooseheads, to the beeps on the 7am ABC radio news and to puffs of black smoke billowing out of the Sigma's wobbly exhaust, I headed south.

...some of the students told reporters of how they had spent their time reading Tolstoy and Shakespeare, and how they rationed their jelly beans.'

Down the Tuggeranong Parkway I zoomed (well, as fast as a Sigma with a head gasket strapped together with gaffer tape would allow) and after around an hour's drive, about midway between Gibraltar Falls and Corin Dam, fluffy white flakes began landing on my windscreen. Snow! It really was snowing.

Almost immediately, I stopped the car and, by habit, manually locked my door. I was overjoyed to be immersed in my first snow flurry. Only after trying to catch my third snow flake with an open mouth (Have you tried it? It's not as easy as you'd expect) did I realise I had somehow forgotten to turn the engine off before locking the door. Oops!

So there I was standing alone on an icy verge on the Corin Road, dressed in barely more than a pair of tracky-dacks, a footy jumper and a pair of Dunlop Volleys. I didn't even have the prudence to bring gloves, a beanie or even a jacket. Heck, I wasn't even wearing socks.

How could I get back in the car? This was pre-mobile phone days, so there was no chance of calling the NRMA or a friend for assistance. After double-checking all the windows were wound tightly up (not that I had a coat hanger handy, anyway), I eventually eyed off a bricksized rock. Should I? Or shouldn't I?

I couldn't afford a new window and the happy chaps at the Dickson Motor Registry were unlikely to pass the Sigma in my upcoming rego check if the driver's window was slithers of glass held together with cling wrap. Damn! I put the rock down.

The one saving grace of my dilemma was that at least an idling engine was a source of warmth. So, after the brief (it only lasted 10 minutes!) snow flurry passed, I sat on the Sigma's toasty warm bonnet. Thankfully, I wasn't the only Canberran keen to head for the hills that morning and after about 40 minutes another car approached. Inside was a sympathetic Coca-Cola sales rep who, too, had heard the white stuff was falling and had driven up for a gander.

Somehow, I convinced him (I think I resorted to saying I thought Pepsi tasted like bath water laced with chemicals) to take me all the way back to campus - where I located the spare car key I'd stashed away in my top drawer in case of emergency. By now it was almost 10am, and a few of my mates were starting to stir from their slumber. I twisted the arm of one of these, to drive me back to my car. Amazing the power a promised case of beer has on a cash-strapped and thirsty university student.

When we arrived back at my still-spluttering Sigma, the snow was long gone but the petrol gauge was hovering on empty. I coasted back down the mountain in neutral to the nearest petrol station. Phew! I even made it back in time for my 1pm economics tutorial (although, much to my chagrin, at formal dinner later that week it was suggested that perhaps majoring in commonsense might be more beneficial). I was not the first, nor will I be the last to be caught out by a snowfall in the Brindies. One of the most publicised incidents occurred in July 1964, when 10 students, also from the ANU, hired the Mount Franklin Ski Chalet (sadly razed during the 2003 bushfires) for a weekend. After their arrival, snow fell heavily over much of the weekend, leaving them snowed-in. Apparently the snow was so deep that rescue vehicles (alerted when the students didn't return on the Sunday evening) struggled to get through the snow drifts - even with the assistance of graders. Members of the seasoned Canberra Alpine Club (CAC) were eventually called into to assist by skiing to the chalet.

The skiers eventually reached the ''stranded'' students who, far from being concerned, were reportedly having a blast of a time. In his comprehensive chronicle of skiing in the ACT high country, Skis on the Brindabellas (Tabletop Press, 1994) historian Matthew Higgins writes that, ''some of the students told reporters of how they had spent their time reading Tolstoy and Shakespeare, and how they rationed their jelly beans.'' One of the CAC skiers, John Wanless, who captured a photo that shows the extraordinary depth of the snow, and who still lives in Canberra, remembers the day very well.

''The students weren't in genuine trouble,'' he says. ''I'm not even sure they wanted to be rescued.''

Although the heady days of the skiing on the Brindabellas are long gone (they even had annual ski championships and a basic tow powered by the motor of an Austin A40), waking up to the sight of snow on the Brindabellas is still regarded as one of the few delights of enduring a frigid Canberra winter.

One Canberran who loves heading to the hills as it soon as it snows is Lynda McPadden of Hackett. ''Over the years the family and I have often driven up to the Brindabellas to Piccadilly Circus and beyond to see, feel and enjoy the magic of the snow,'' she says. ''The gentle snowflakes falling are magical. Some years there has been enough snow to throw a few snowballs, make a snow person and even have a little sled ride! Then to jump back in the warm car and drive home.''

So where's the best spot to see the snow? While many would agree with McPadden's choice of Piccadilly Circus and nearby Bulls Head, Brett McNamara, Manager of National Parks with the ACT Parks and Conservation Service, strongly encourages Canberrans to avoid venturing into the Brindies following a snowfall, to ''admire them from afar'' and, instead, make a beeline for Mount Selwyn in northern Kosciuszko. ''If you wake and see snow on the Brindies, and you're after a bit of snow play it's best to head to Selwyn as there'll likely be snow there as well,'' he says. ''Selwyn and the other NSW ski fields are geared up for snow play. Sure it's further, but it's safer.''

According to McNamara, such snowfalls often result in traffic jams on narrow mountain roads and are a panel beater's delight as unprepared and inexperienced drivers slip and slide off the road and sometimes into each other.

''Another option is to explore the snow on foot, of course, ensuring appropriate preparations such as not going alone, taking adequate survival supplies and advising someone of your route,'' McNamara suggests. It is advice I strongly endorse. Following my June 1991 calamity on the Corin Road, a year later, much wiser, and with snow forecast to a low altitude, I set off on foot with a friend up the Camel's Hump track in Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Clad in warm and water-proof clothing (yes, even socks!), it snowed almost the entire way from the car park to the 1416-metre-high peak, and back. It was an afternoon I will never forget. I even had the foresight to turn off my car before locking it.

Fact file

Snow road closures in the ACT: In the interests of public safety, ACT Parks close some roads within Namadgi National Park including Corin Road and Mt Franklin Road due to, or in anticipation of, significant snow falls. Call the Park's Visitor Centre on 6207 2900 for up-to-date information. They are also the best port of call for advice on winter walks within the park.

Mt Franklin Road: Although winter gate closures on the Mt Franklin Road in the Brindabellas prevents vehicular access, following snow falls it does provide excellent cross-country skiing opportunities.

Best weekends

Plan Ahead

What: A celebration of the winter solstice.

Where: The Henge. Corner of Macs Reef Road and Federal Highway, Bywong (about 10 minutes north of Dickson) When: Next Saturday, June 22, 4pm-8pm. Sure it's not the ''official'' solstice (that's the day before), but being a Saturday it'll give you more time to party!

Expect: A BIG crowd. A barbecue will be available on which to cook your BYO dinner. The Henge will also provide mulled wine to sip as well as marshmallows (yum!) to toast over the fire pit which is located in the middle of the man-made stone circle.

Cost: Free and suitable for the whole family.

Did you know: Unlike its more famous prehistoric namesake on Salisbury Plain England, Bywong's Henge, created by Robbie and Tracey Wallace from local blue limestone rocks is only one-year-old. Although the innovative couple did most of the planning for their henge using drawings from the layout of the real Stonehenge, it is not a replica as they also ''engaged a degree of creative licence''.

More: see thehenge.com.au.


Email: timtheyowieman@bigpond.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write to me c/o The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie Street, Fyshwick.