Victoria’s High Country is dotted with huts, some dating back to as early as 1860. These small structures were originally built by cattlemen as a place to stay when they drove their cattle into the mountains to feed during spring and summer.1 Initially the cattleman took tents, but these proved inadequate given the variable weather on the mountains.2 To withstand the conditions, they started building huts, both on the way to their runs and at the runs themselves.3 At first, the huts were simple structures – the earliest were built from timber, then later galvanised iron. They were mostly single room affairs, with most of the space taken up by bunks or sleeping platforms.

Black and white photograph of a wooden hut in disrepair.
Dargo H.P. [i.e. High Plains] Treasures H.S. [i.e. Homestead?] Old Hut, 1967. Photograph by John Collins; H95.200/6

In the twentieth century, as people began visiting the mountains for leisure activities, walkers and ski tourists started to use the huts. Cope Hut, pictured below, was one of the earliest huts to be built specifically for walkers and skiers. Each hut would house a log book where visitors would note the names of their party and the dates they were there. The log books served as a safety measure were something to go awry in the mountains.4

Black and white photograph of a corrugated iron hut with a pitched roof.
Cope Hut (Menzies of the High Plains) 1929, 1991. Photograph by David Tatnall. This item is in copyright; H92.195/8

The Cleve Cole Memorial Hut, on the Bogong High Plains, was constructed in 1937 in honour of a Victorian skiing pioneer who sadly perished on Mount Bogong the previous year. Cleve Cole was the first person to ascend Mount Bogong during winter, which he did with cattleman Walter Maddison, in 1932.5 He had a vision of building a resort for the Ski Club of Victoria on Mt Bogong.6

Postcard showing view over trees to snow capped mountain.
Mt. BOGONG VICTORIAN ALPS; H90.140/382

On 5 August 1936 Cole, and fellow skiers Percy Hull and Howard Mitchell, set out from Mount Hotham with a plan to travel to Mt Bogong. Their destination was the Staircase Hut, where Cole had earlier sent food in preparation for their arrival (The Herald, 17 Aug 1936). Travelling towards Big River, they crossed the Bogong Plains. The men passed through Cope Hut on their journey to Mt Bogong. State Library Victoria holds the Cope Hut visitor book for this time. The Victorian Rover Scouts Party were staying in the hut, and note that Cole, Hull and Mitchell pass through.

Hard cover volume with 'Visitors Book' printed on the front in gold letters
Cope Hut Visitor Book : manuscript, typescript, sketches, paintings, maps 1928-1945 (MS 16143)
Hand written page of Visitor's Book listing the names of men who passed through including Cleve Cole, Mick Hull and Howard Michell (sic)
Cope Hut Visitor Book : manuscript, typescript, sketches, paintings, maps 1928-1945 (MS 16143)

Once they reached Mount Bogong, the three skiers climbed 3,500 feet from Big River to the summit of the mountain. It was here that their trouble began. A blizzard hit, and the men could not locate the cairn (marker) on the summit. Trying to get off the mountain, they were faced with a steep precipice whichever way they looked. With the weather turning bad, they were unable to leave and decided to take shelter on top of the mountain.7

The skiers managed to dig a shelter, 4 feet wide with a snow roof of 3 feet. This became their home for the next three nights, with weather too bad to find a way off the mountain. They kept themselves somewhat warm by lighting meta tablets, a kind of portable fuel used by campers. They staved off hunger with a broth made from Oxo cubes, but their rations were running out.8

Detail of map showing Mount Bogong. The map shows vegetation, various creeks and the locations of huts.
Detail of Bogong High Plains and adjacent peaks, 1937. Staircase hut, which the skiers were trying to reach, is on the north-west side of the mountain.

After four days, they decided to leave their shelter and attempt to find their way to Staircase Hut. Their rations were perilously low – a square of chocolate each, a packet of PK gum, and a pint bottle of rum.9 Eventually they found a way off the mountain, though not in the direction they thought they were travelling. They accidentally descended the south side, and ended up in the valley below. They made very slow progress as they followed the river downstream, contending with steep ravines and icy water crossings.

On 15 August the men decided that Howard Mitchell should go ahead while the other two sought shelter in a hollowed out log. Cleve Cole was in a bad way, and couldn’t keep walking. Mitchell eventually stumbled into Glen Valley, a mining center, on 17 August. He managed to explain the situation, and a search party was quickly organised.

A rescue party of 18 people set out on 18 August, carrying with them supplies of brandy, eggs and milk (The Riverine Herald, 18 Aug 1936). The country was so rough that horses could not be used. When they eventually found the men, Cole was so delirious he did not recognise his own mate and struggled with the rescuers, not wanting to be taken away (Weekly Times, 29 Aug 1936). The rescuers had to carry the men in their arms for ‘five miles over rough country through tangled scrub which horse men cannot penetrate. At times the rescuers [had to] step perilously from rock to rock with their burden’ (The Herald, 19 Aug 1936). Sadly, from the time of the rescue, Cleve Cole never regained consciousness. The men were taken back to Glen Valley and Cole died that evening (The Age, 20 Aug 1936).

Image titled 'Arrival of rescued man'. Black and white photograph from a newspaper showing several men moving a stretcher.
The Australasian, 22 August 1936, p 10

Soon after this terrible tragedy, the Ski Club of Victoria raised funds to build a hut in honour of Cole (The Argus, 30 Sep 1936). The hut was designed by architect and fellow skier Malcolm McColl (The Sun, 23 Sep 1937) and was completed in time for the 1937 ski season. The hut still stands on Mount Bogong today, with the area surrounding it popular with campers. Many of the other huts are also still standing and can be visited on hiking or camping trips. The Victorian High Country Huts Association works to keep these conserved and maintained – a worthy endeavor to preserve this unique slice of Victorian history.

Black and white photograph of a stone hut sitting behind several trees.
Cleve Cole Memorial Hut, 1937, 1991. Photograph by David Tatnall. This item is in copyright; H92.195/18

References

  1. Siseman, J & Brownlie, J, 1986, Bogong National Park, Algona Publications, Northcote
  2. Holth, T & Holth, J, 1980, Cattlemen of the high country : the story of the mountain cattlemen of the Bogongs, Rigby, Adelaide, p6
  3. As above
  4. Siseman, J & Brownlie, J, 1986, Bogong National Park, Algona Publications, Northcote, p18
  5. Magnussen, F, 2003, Victoria’s alpine heritage huts of the High Plains: Bogong, Dargo and Hotham regions, Staffback, Henty, p96
  6. As above
  7. Australian and New Zealand ski year book, 1936, ‘The Mount Bogong Disaster, 1936’, The Australian and New Zealand ski year book, p45
  8. As above
  9. As above, p46

This article has 2 comments

  1. Thank you for this article Blair.
    Relating to it is the ‘Don Bennett Alpine Collection’ of photographs that I gave to the SLV.
    It is curated and relates to your BLOG.
    My father, Don Bennett, initiated and installed, with many others, see photo collection), the Emergency Radio network at Clevecole, Bivowac, (Bogong); Hotham and Buller.
    I grew up with memories, in Brighton, the Melbourne Base, listening to evening calls from skiers on their trips to Bogong. It kept them safe.
    Some year ago the original emergency radio was found at Cleve Cole by the Bogong Ski Club.
    I have sent your article on to others.
    Wendy Coates

  2. Blair Gatehouse

    Hi Wendy,
    Thanks so much for your comment and for sharing the post with others who might be interested. The emergency radio network must have been a life saver for skiers in those days – how amazing that it was part of your childhood.
    I didn’t come across the photographs you donated during my research (possibly because the collection is not yet digitised), but am now fascinated to have a look. It sounds like a fantastic collection, and very relevant to this blog post.
    Regards,
    Blair

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