Amazing as it may seem, young men lived year-round on the summit of Australia's highest point over a century ago. From 1897 to 1902 they sent weather recordings to Australia's most engaging meteorologist, Clement Wragge.
Dynamic and unconventional, Wragge was English-born. In 1881, on behalf of the Scottish Meteorological Society, he established an observatory on top of Britain's highest peak, Ben Nevis (1343m). There was also a comparative sea-level station at nearby Fort William.
The principle was that important ''upper'' atmosphere studies could be made and compared (through simultaneous readings of instruments) with the findings of the sea-level station, to aid forecasts. British scientists welcomed the results; Wragge was awarded a gold medal by the Society.
Wragge came to Australia and in 1887 was appointed Queensland's government meteorologist. He established an extensive network of weather stations in the colony and offshore, and published Australia-wide forecasts. It was Wragge who began the practice of naming cyclones.
Vegetarian, interested in eastern religions, green in environmental views, Wragge was hardly the typical Victorian-era man. This lack of orthodoxy combined with a lack of tact put him at odds with his intercolonial peers.
Wragge soon pursued the principle of high level/sea level weather stations in South Australia and Tasmania. He then unveiled his plans for a station on Kosciuszko. In the context of his times, decades before weather balloons or satellites, his ideas were sensible.
The Kosciuszko project involved a summit station on Kosciuszko and a comparative station at Merimbula. With private sponsorship, Wragge launched the expedition. In December 1897, with tent and instruments Wragge and his companions ascended Kosciuszko. Charles Kerry, a Sydney photographer and Snowy Mountains publicist, was with him. Mountain stockman James Spencer was their guide.
They arrived in freezing conditions and one of the Queenslanders went to bed one night wearing 29 items of clothing!
By December 10 the array of instruments was operating. Wragge left the summit the next day for Merimbula. For the next five years he directed the stations from Queensland. At Kosciuszko the observatory was run by the generally young men (including Wragge's sons, at times) who pursued their science in one of the harshest environments in Australia.
The tent observatory stood unscathed for only two months. In February 1898 a terrific storm hit Kosciuszko and shredded the tents. Clearly, if the observatory was to continue, the NSW government would have to fund a permanent building. Premier George Reid obliged.
By April 1898 a hut was standing. The simple structure had a number of adaptations to the severe summit weather, and outside, boulders were piled against the walls to prevent the place being blown away.
Despite the fears of locals who deemed it utter madness to try to live on Kosciuszko in winter, observers Newth, Bernard Ingleby, and H.I. Jensen saw out the season.
They did have to adapt the building. The hut's door was often snowed under, so an ingenious enclosed stairway, with a hatch at the top, was built, providing roof-level access. Although the observatory is now long gone, this form of access can still be seen today at Cootapatamba Hut, south of the summit.
The routine of the observers' lives was dictated by the 24-hour schedule of instrument readings ordered by Wragge. This was no easy task, especially during night-time blizzards.
In summer the work was easier. In summer too, tourists on horseback came to visit the observatory and were warmly welcomed by the socially-starved observers.
In winter, communication was very difficult, yet remarkably the observers did maintain the link to Jindabyne. Every few weeks the weathermen would ski over the alpine plateau, descend to the Thredbo River valley and ride to Jindabyne where they would post data to Wragge and purchase provisions.
Newth was the first man to do this winter journey solo. In 1899 he and Rupert Wragge saved brother Egerton's life when Egerton became hopelessly lost during a return trip from the town - the 19-year-old narrowly survived hypothermia.
The beauty and wonder of nature at Kosciuszko more than made up for the privations. The views, whether of wildflower-strewn slopes in summer or almost endless snowscapes in winter, inspired all.
Natural phenomena were many. Refraction turned the sun into weird shapes at dawn and dusk. Luminous electrical discharges (St Elmo's Fire) were another curiosity; observers waved metal objects about in the highly charged fogs and watched the sparks jump. Jensen remembered seeing Newth take a crosscut saw outside and ''each tooth of it became a living flame''.
But with funding short and little published data, scepticism increased. In June 1902 the NSW government cut its support for Wragge's observatory and demanded that the instruments and stores be brought down from the mountain.
Meanwhile the Queensland government ceased funding of its weather bureau and Clement Wragge left in 1903. Failing to get the federal job in 1906, he settled in New Zealand in 1910 and died in 1922.
Wragge's project, though unsuccessful, was part of the long scientific thrust into the high country. It also helped open the summit area to tourism. There's no memorial on the summit today, but visitors still travel across signposted Wragge's Creek (just below Smiggin Holes) on their way to Mt Kosciuszko.
- Matthew Higgins is a former Canberra historian. His most recent book is 'Bold Horizon: high-country place, people and story'
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