It's been on my bucket list for years. Ever since I first caught a glance of its beacon-like red chimney on a trek up Mt Kosciuszko over three decades ago, I've wanted to visit Cootapatamba Hut.
In fact, I've been planning to walk to the hut with the yowie clan this spring, and to document it as one of this column's occasional series on huts of Kosciuszko National Park.
However, those plans changed earlier this month with the arrival of the bumper snowfalls, hailed by some as "the best spring snowfalls of this century". The big dump hasn't only partially buried the hut, but it has also made walking in difficult, even with snow shoes. So while our alpine adventure may need to wait a month or three, the big snow has lured many experienced cross-country skiers into the high country.
One such alpine adventurer is Peter Blunt of Theodore, who argues: "You don't have to go to Himalayas, or New Zealand or the Alps, there's a lot of adventurous things to do right here in Australia."
To prove his point, the energetic outdoorsman has created a local version of the "seven summits challenge" (where serious climbers attempt to summit the highest peaks on each of the seven continents), which involves clambering up seven of Australia's highest snow-covered peaks.
With Kosciuszko's howling summit already under his belt, Blunt and fellow Canberra adventurer Charlie Freer recently tackled Mt Townsend, the rugged peak which celebrated 19th Century Austrian-born painter Eugene von Guerard who famously mistook as Kosciuszko's northern summit. And you can't really blame him, with a rocky summit only 19 metres lower than Kosciuszko, Townsend is much more dramatic, or in von Guerard's words: "The grandest, the loftiest, and the most imposing of all the mountain crags which constitute the Australian Alps."
Setting off under blue skies from Thredbo early morning, Blunt and Freer covered the 11 kilometres to Townsend with little trouble and were on the summit by lunchtime. According to Blunt, "fresh powder made the uphills easy and the gentle downhills a dream" and they were "only slowed down by the icy ridges near Muellers Peak".
On top of Townsend's 2209-metre peak, Blunt was enamoured with the extensive vista. "Dazzling light, huge sky, pristine white and hardly a sign of civilisation in the enormous landscape, it was hard to tear ourselves away," he explains.
On the descent, the duo continued to revel in the high spirits of their lofty quest. "It's stark, incredibly harsh, but stunningly beautiful," says Blunt, adding "everything up there is shiny and crisp, the snow brand new".
However, with a cold front closing in to the south-west, they made a beeline for the safety of Cootapatamba Hut and its conspicuous chimney.
"Along the way we could see the weather rolling in," recalls Blunt, who reports "the last rays of sun lit up tree skeletons burnt from the '03 fires, highlighting thin and quite surreal sheets of ice clinging to the trees."
Although the duo were well-prepared for bad weather, the imminent arrival of the blizzard prompted Blunt and Freer to bunk down inside the hut instead of their snow tents.
Now, if you're thinking Cootapatamba might be one of those rustic huts, romanticised in glossy coffee table books, and complete with sheepskin rugs and deer antlers on the walls, think again.
"First built as a Snowy Mountains Authority survey shelter, Cootapatamba is a genuine survival shelter, designed to catch people leaving the summit of Kosciuszko during poor weather," explains Blunt, who along with Freer had to clamber up a rickety ladder to enter the hut.
"Although there is a door, when the snow gets deep, the only access is via the chimney ... [and] once inside [down another ladder] it's like a giant coffin.
"With no windows and just a basic set of bunks in the tiny 2.5 metre by 2.5 metre crate-like weatherboard box, it's sufficiently cosy to keep you out of the weather but it's not the sort of place you'd come for a luxury holiday," he muses.
Hunkering down inside the hut proved to be the right decision, with a blizzard raging all night. "We drank hot chocolate, cosy, warm and sheltered inside," reveals Blunt, adding, "in the middle of the night I could feel the hut being buffeted by strong gusts and found spindrift on my sleeping bag that had been forced in through the narrow breathing vent on the downwind side of the hut."
After the storm cleared, the next afternoon Blunt and Freer safely navigated their way back to Thredbo Top Station. "As we descended the downhill ski runs the weather improved and the sun even came out," reports Blunt, adding "in just one and a half days we had experienced all the weather of the Snowies – blistering sunshine to blizzard, and the full range of snow conditions from sheet ice to brilliant dry powder."
Although Blunt had successfully ticked another peak off his list, his night in Cootapatamba serves as a reminder to us all of just how wild Australia's high country can be in winter, or any time of the year, for that matter.
"Several years ago I encountered an international party of mountaineers who set off, against local advice, into a blizzard to climb Kosciuszko which was their last of the Seven Summits of the world," recalls Blunt, adding "they didn't make it and had to be rescued by police and parks' staff."
"Some people think exploring the Australian Alps is like a walk in the park, but when bad weather hits, it can be deadly," he warns, adding "always be prepared."
When it warms up and it's safe to do so, I still plan to take the family for a day walk to Cootaptamba Hut. And who knows, depending on the weather, we may even need to climb up its quirky chimney to gain entry. The kids will enjoy that.
Cootapatamba: Translated from Aboriginal language, the word "cootapatamba" means "the icy waters where the eagle swoops to drink", referring to an eagle creator spirit from Aboriginal Dreamtime creation stories. Lake Cootapatamba (frozen during winter) is located near the hut, and at 2042 metres above sea level, is Australia's highest.
That chimney: Located above the tree line where there is no timber, unlike most high country huts Cootapatamba Hut has no internal fireplace. The "chimney" is actually a vertical shaft whose sole purpose is to the access the hut after big snow falls.
Did You Know? According to the Kosciuszko Huts Association website, "19 people recently survived a storm inside the hut, a number it is almost impossible to imagine actually getting in." Heck, talk about being packed in like sardines.
Making the best of it: Blunt and Freer aren't the only Canberrans to venture back country this spring. In fact, this column has been swamped by photos and tales of other cross-country skiers like Bob Salijevic returning from trips of a lifetime. "There were buckets of snow and we were marooned for three days at Mackays Hut during the big blizzard", reports Salijevic, the president of the huts association. "It was ferocious."
Paul Gottlieb confirms that is indeed himself, along with fellow scout John Granger, posing outside the "Wombat Hotel" in the grainy 1961 photo which appeared in this column on September 2.
While Gottlieb, a former Canberran who moved to Brno in the Czech Republic three years ago, can also confirm the story about the wombat crawling into their tent and wreaking havoc in the middle of the night, he is unable to provide any leads as to the location of the "Wombat Motel".
Gottlieb does, however, recall other aspects of the scouting adventure. "We had a really miserable day on that hike because it rained all day and we were sopping wet and initially couldn't find any dry grass or twigs to start a fire," he recalls. "We eventfully got a fire going and dried a few branches and kept ourselves warm."
It was a blast of nostalgia for Gottlieb who says "the 4th Canberra scout troop was fantastic and we all loved it".
"It had some wonderful scout masters, including Ray "Skip" Whitrod, in particular, who was then the Commissioner of the Commonwealth Police of Australia and who had a great influence on us all."
Gottlieb further reports that his dad (Kurt) was a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia "who came to Stromlo during the war and worked as an engineer on optical munitions at Mt Stromlo" adding, "he stayed on after the war and became the design engineer for the telescopes and ran the workshop."
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Clue: A garden of sorts.
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Congratulations to Ian McKenzie of Fisher who was first to correctly identify last week's photo as the old EF Davis and Son produce store, originally from Banyette Street, Bowral, but currently home to an antique European furniture store at Mount Ashby Estate near Moss Vale. "It also featured as a location for the 1982 Ginger Meggs movie," reveals McKenzie who just beat Carmel Wroe of Macgregor to this week's bragging rights.
The Mount Ashby Estate boutique vineyard and cellar door is at 128 Nowra Rd, Moss Vale and at less than two hours' drive from Canberra, makes for a lovely weekend drive. Sit around the French farmhouse tables within the restored original dairy and enjoy the view of the vineyard surrounded by grazing dairy cattle. Divine!
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday September 16 will be the winner.