For many years, I've trekked past Seamans Hut and considered it just another of the many high country shelters should a blizzard strand back country adventurers in Kosciuszko National Park.
Sure, like many who have read the memorial plaque on its stone facade, I knew it was named after Laurie Seaman, a skier who'd come to grief, lost in a snow storm back in 1928, and that his grieving family subsequently arranged for the hut to be built to reduce the chances of a similar tragedy occurring, but that was about it.
However, that all changed this week, when I plucked Nick Brodie's recent offering, Kosciuszko: Two men lost in the wilderness who captured the imagination of the nation (Hardie Grant, 2019), from the top of a very tall pile of books I've been reading my way through during these long weeks of social isolation. The 234-page paperback highlights the tragedy of two young men, Seaman and his skiing companion Evan Hayes, who left the Hotel Kosciuszko on August 14, 1928, and sadly never returned.
What? There were two men? Why hadn't I heard about Hayes? And more pertinently, where was his hut?
The blurb on the back cover promises Kosciuszko to be "a riveting story of one of Australia's forgotten mysteries" but half way through the book, some readers might feel they've been short-changed. For the first 92 pages or so, Brodie meticulously labours through the backgrounds of its two protagonists - Seaman, a well-travelled photojournalist from a wealthy American family, and Hayes, an NSW country boy and son of a unionist, and how they both came to be with a group of skiers staying at the Hotel Kosciuszko in August 1928.
Brodie leads us down many tangents, including the intricacies of early 20th century industrial relations (albeit in relation to Hayes' father who worked in a Lithgow mine) but does keep interest from waning too far with a string of fascinating diversions including that some of Sir Douglas Mawson's surviving 'Antarctic dogs' mixing with wild dingoes in the Snowies not only resulted in "a problem for pastoralists" but also led to several "mistaken sightings of Tasmanian Tigers".
Then there's the unusual facts that Seaman first worked as a survey engineer in Alexander Graham Bell's telephone company, and then as a journalist, met and photographed early 20th century luminaries including Mahatma Gandhi and Japan's Crown Prince Hirohito.
But, just like Brodie, I digress. Back to the mystery.
Despite their cultural differences, Hayes, 29, and Seaman, 34, shared a passion for back country skiing, but what specifically brought them together was the NSW Millions Club, a group which aimed to encourage growth in Sydney beyond a million people.
In the second week of August 1928, about 120 members of the club were crammed into the Hotel Kosciusko (sadly razed in 1951 and located near the current Sponars Chalet) for their annual ski trip. Even back in the 1920s, bunking down at the snow for couple of weeks wasn't cheap, and while many of Seaman's skiing companions were well-heeled, Hayes admitted he had to "practically pawn his shirt" to make the trip.
While for many members of the club, the winter trip as a highly sociable affair, for Hayes it was more about the thrill of venturing into back country. "I am going out amongst the big Alps stuff, I am not going to stay about the hotel," he vowed before leaving Sydney. And that's exactly what he, Seaman and four others did on August 13 when "they abandoned their comfortable lodgings and headed higher into the mountains towards Kosciuszko".
After overnighting at Bett's Camp, the next day at Charlotte Pass the doomed duo waved farewell to their friends and skied off in the direction of Mt Kosciuszko. The weather turned and the two were not seen alive again. Their disappearance triggered the first major search and rescue operation in the Snowy Mountains, involving hundreds of skiers and bushmen and three aircraft.
A scarf and glove offered hope when found late on the 14th, but despite the "sort of regional mobilisation which had probably not been seen since the war", it wasn't until the search had been officially called off, and almost a month after his disappearance, that on September 9 the body of Seaman was found propped up against a rock near Sentinel Rocks on the Etheridge Range.
Among Seaman's belongings was his trusty camera. Expecting photos taken the day he went missing might provide clues to his obvious misadventure, and also help locate Hayes, the film was rushed to Sydney for developing, where two images were salvaged. "He and Evan did what thousands of Australians and visitors to Australia have done. They posed by the cairn and photographed each other at Australia's highest point," reveals Brodie.
Some scholars have speculated that after reaching the summit, Hayes, wanting to test himself amongst more of 'the Big alps stuff' agreed to meet Seaman at a pre-arranged spot where Seaman waited, and waited, for his mate, eventually succumbing to the icy blizzard.
It wasn't until December 31, 1929, that Hayes's badly decomposed body was discovered by a boundary rider on a spur of Mt Kosciuszko near Lake Cootapatamba. Hayes's skis remained at the site for a while after the body was removed and a memorial rock cairn and plaque were later added. The exact location is known by few and visited by even fewer. A far cry from Seamans hut which is appreciated by thousands of walkers and skiers each year.
Despite the sluggish start, Kosciuszko eventually delivers on its promise to be "a riveting story of one of Australia's forgotten mysteries" and in doing so provides a detailed insight into the dangers of exploring our high country, especially if ditching the comforts of the hotel and instead venturing into 'the big Alps stuff'.
Take care in the back country this snow season.
CONTACT TIM: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick.
From sundaes to songs: the pull of Kossy
After Seaman and Hayes, the book's third protagonist is Mt Kosciuszko, a place the author romanticises, emphasising its lofty status in the Australian psyche.
"Like Ben Nevis, Fuji or Kilimanjaro, the mere whisper of Kosciuszko conjures a sense of country. Like Sinai it encompasses the mysterious workings of history and eternity, becoming a place in and of lore. To be Australian is in essence to have lived beneath the peak of Kosciuszko," writes Brodie.
But there's more. "By the 1920s Mount Kosciuszko was part of the cultural lexicon of Australia. It was whispered in poetry and blandished in advertisements ... without ever visiting it, no child of Australia could escape Kosciuszko. Nor could any migrant to Australia hope to understand their new home without at least sensing its cultural significance."
Recently this column lamented that Mt Bimberi, the ACT's highest peak, is somewhat stunted by its lack of everyday notoriety. That's not the case with Kossy, which, according to Brodie, had significant "emotional pull" in the early 1900s. There were wartime songs and then fundraising events for wounded soldiers, and even a Kosciuszko carnivalheld in Lismore in 1918 where a snow storm effect was created with confetti and electric fans. Patriotic Australians could also buy a basic refrigerator called a 'Kosciuszko Ice Chest', dance to F.W. Kidd's Dawn on Kosciuszko Waltz and tuck into a lip-smacking dessert from the 'Kosciuszko Sundae Shop' in Sydney.
Other culinary plays upon the mountain included 'Kosciuszkos', a type of cake filled and topped with cream 'like snow' which may have been a forerunner to the 'Tort Kosciuszko', a rich Polish chocolate gateau which made Marguerite Patten's famous Round the World recipe cards in 1967. Have you tried one?
WHERE IN THE REGION?
Clue: That town hall and clock tower are still there
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Steve Leahy of Macquarie who was first to correctly identify the location of last week's photo, sent in by Paddy McAlpin of Pambula as the main street of Bombala way back in 1923. The photo features Paddy's grandfather Harry Laman mid-way through a cycle from Sydney to Eden via Canberra. Apparently at the end of his epic ride he caught the coastal steamer back from Tathra to Sydney. Today's photo is from the same trip, but in a different town.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday June 27, 2020, wins bragging rights. Tickets to Dendy Cinemas will once again be given as a prize when the cinemas reopen.
Several readers including Jonathan Miller of Curtin, Craig Collins of Coombs, and Peter Clarke of Lyons have recently stopped in their tracks, startled by the sight of this 'giant rabbit', formed by the shape of a couple of trees on a hill just north of Oakey Hill.
According to Peter, the huge hare is best viewed looking west from the south end of Curtin Ridge. What a ripper.