Weather News

Shelter the only hope when weather turns wild in Tasmania's vast wilderness

James Dunlevie, Thursday July 18, 2019 - 06:28 EST
ABC image
A dual-language sign warns that weather conditions are changeable in the Lake St Clair National Park. - ABC

The warning sign at the start of one of Tasmania's most popular walking trails spells it out, in several languages — with photos to drive the point home.



On the left, a photo of the boardwalk at Pelion Gap, in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, with visibility all the way to the horizon and a blue sky overhead.

On the right, an image of the same location, 48 hours later — the trail lost in the snow, the horizon whited out by mist and sleet.

The weather in Tasmania is the joker in the pack for those who venture into the wilderness — it has caught many out, with fatal consequences for those who are under-prepared for conditions which can deteriorate inside an hour.

Such has been the case this week, with walkers wrong-footed by a cold front which delivered waist-deep snow and thick fog — setting off a large rescue operation.



Melbourne man Michael Bowman, a 57-year-old "experienced bushwalker", had told of his intention to walk in the Mt Cuvier region, but his next-of-kin raised the alarm when he did not return as planned.

After a large-scale operation, .

Police said Mr Bowman had become separated in thick fog from his pack, which also contained his emergency beacon, accounting for why it had not been activated.

He spent a night exposed in "very cold" and snowy conditions, before managing to trace his footsteps back to his tent, sleeping bag and dwindling food supplies — where he remained for nine or 10 days until being found.



Tragic story behind Scott-Kilvert Memorial Hut

The vast mountainous area of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park is more popular than ever — with .

Over and over, those planning walks in the Tasmanian wilderness are urged to carry a detailed map and equip themselves with gear that is up to the task.

This does not always happen.

When things don't go to plan, shelter can be the key to getting out alive — those who have a fit-for-purpose tent or can find their way to one of a few huts that dot the landscape have been known to make it through.

The small dwelling, in various states of condition and built by game trappers or by those looking out for their fellow travellers, offer respite from the weather.

A tragedy during a high school expedition in 1965 rammed home the importance of having a place for those caught in the weather to hide.



Students and teachers from a northern Tasmanian high school set off on a five-day walk, in the northern half of the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park.



Years later, on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, Mark Whittle would tell an assembly at Riverside High School he was one of a party of 16 "excited students" who, with three teachers, set off on the Sunday in May, the weather "cloudy with some light rain" — with Thursday their expected arrival.

"It was quite a climb for a start," Mr Whittle recalled.

"We arrived at the old Pelion Hut and stayed there for two nights … on the Tuesday, we walked to Windermere Hut and encountered very muddy sections of track on the way. It snowed during that night."

As the expedition went on, the weather deteriorated. By Thursday, the supposed last day of the trip, the party awoke at Waterfall Valley Hut when snow and rain was falling.

"We had no idea of what lay in front of us that day," Mr Whittle told the assembly.

What came next was heartbreaking.

'Vision has returned to me many times'

The party left the hut, forging on towards Cradle Mountain, where "we encountered freezing blizzard-like conditions with gusty wind picking up the fallen snow and driving it into our faces," Mr Whittle recounted.

"We had trouble keeping upright because the very strong wind was tending to blow us off our feet. It was very tiring trying to progress forward while sinking above our knees in the soft, deep snow."

Exhausted and showing signs of hypothermia, the exhausted group headed towards Hanson's Peak, about 4 kilometres from their ultimate destination of Waldheim, where shelter beckoned.



But the party, by now broken into three groups, were hit by strong winds, Mr Whittle said.

"On the way up to Hanson's Peak, [student] David Kilvert, who was really struggling to keep going, collapsed for the first time and then had to be assisted by Miss Bayes, and then by other boys."

Twenty-seven-year-old trainee teacher Ewen Scott took over care of David Kilvert, telling the rest of the party "you go on and leave David with me", Mr Whittle said.

"In insisting that we leave him and go on with the others, Mr Scott shielded us from what, I now realise, he knew was the likely outcome of David's rapidly deteriorating physical condition.

"As we left, Mr Scott was carrying David. They fell and began to get up again. This vision has returned to me many times."

The next morning, three students stumbled into Waldheim, waking the ranger.

"Tragically, David Kilvert's body was found that morning lying in snow below the track which leads down from Hanson's Peak towards the Dove Lake car-park," Mr Whittle said in his 2015 address.

"Ewen Scott's lacerated body was discovered lying face-down in boronia bushes just off the track near Dove Lake."

The following year, the shell-shocked school, aided by public donations, built the Scott-Kilvert Memorial Hut at Lake Rodway.



'Pure luck' aided rescue crews

Police said yesterday the search for Mr Bowman could have had a "very different outcome".

Mark Allen was piloting the helicopter looking for the missing 57-year-old.

"We'd gone out for our last run before having to return to Hobart due to light and weather … it was just pure luck that we got through to a clear patch of weather," he told ABC Hobart.

"Alpine flying is hard work, you've got altitude, high winds, snow and visibility. If you think of your normal flight as a sailing cruise, this was like white-water rafting."

Paramedic Ingrid Pajak was also in the helicopter, which had doors open to facilitate better visibility to the ground.

"We don't fly in straight lines, we pick holes to up and down, gaps in the cloud, anywhere we can navigate and be safe.

"There is a lot of turning, trying to find a way through.

"It's not the most pleasant conditions … but the ground teams have been in there for three or four days, ploughing through the snow, I've done that many times and I'd prefer to be in the helicopter," she said.



She was the first to spot a tent in a deep snow drift, down from Mount Cuvier — with Mr Bowman waving nearby.

"It was clear he was happy," she said.

Once onboard, Mr Bowman told his rescuers hours earlier he had heard the rescue helicopter pass just a few hundred metres from his location — but due to the thick cloud he could not see it, and the rescuers could not see him.

"I can only imagine how upsetting and distressing it would have been if I was in his position hearing the helicopter fly away and not return," Andy Summers, the team's intensive care paramedic, said.

"It is an absolute credit to him and his preparation and his ability to cope over the last few days to keep himself healthy and warm until we could get in.

"Once we had him in the aircraft and flying away, we were over the moon."


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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