Before long we have teams out searching for evidence of the missing men. All the crews are well equipped with tents, food, warm clothes and whatever else they need if they are caught out in the open. I remain at Seaman’s Hut manning the radio and controlling the movement of the teams. At this stage it is a stunningly beautiful day with blue skies, warm sun and no wind. This clear beauty however, is not to last – at about 3.00 pm the skies darken rapidly and within minutes conditions turn deadly, complete with gale force winds, snow and sleet. And with this there is a huge drop in temperature.
One of the crews radios in that they have suffered a casualty and a NSW policeman on a quad bike drives off into the blizzard to retrieve the injured person. Back at Seaman’s Hut we make the decision to bring the search teams back in as conditions deteriorate. However, this is not as easy as it sounds as some teams are three to four kilometres away and are now struggling in the freezing temperatures, high wind and zero visibility conditions.
One team radios in with a situation report, or ‘sitrep’, saying they can’t see anything and as a result are going to try and sit it out. I grab a map and realise they could only be a few kilometres away, quickly determining that if they walk on a rough south westerly bearing they will soon come across the track that leads up to the hut. I instruct them to continue on until they reach the track where, hopefully, I will pick them up in a troopie.
I leave the communications to someone else just as one team emerges from the grey of the blizzard and thankfully takes refuge in the safety and warmth of the hut. Walking over to the troopie I am nearly blown off my feet but manage to grab onto the door and open it.
I carefully turn the vehicle around and drive slowly down the track as the radio cackles and buzzes in my ear. The conditions are abominable – even driving in this weather is dangerous, as I can see nothing beyond the bonnet of the vehicle. I simply crawl along in low range four wheel drive at about walking pace as the winds buffet the vehicle, threatening to blow it onto its side.
About a kilometre down the track I make radio contact with the search team who, by my calculations, should be no more than a couple of hundred metres away. I switch on the flashing emergency lights and peer out into the swirling snow and sleet but can see nothing. I continue driving down the slope thinking that maybe the team has not been able to stay on the bearing but after a while turn the vehicle around and come back up the hill.
The radio again crackles into life. The search team believe they are close to the road but due to the conditions can’t find it. I tell them to stay where they are and to look out for the flashing lights as I believe that they must be very close by now. Still, visibility is zero and I am at a loss to work out how I will find them, or they will find me.
Then, for a fleeting second, the snowstorm stops and visibility increases. The radio again bursts into life as the search team excitedly tell me they can see the vehicle and they are now heading my way. Within a couple of minutes they are safe and warm in the back of the troopie and I drive back to the hut. Another day and another time and some of these searchers may have found themselves in serious trouble, or dead. It is a sobering thought.
Back at the hut another team returns. They are covered in snow and are tired and cold. Someone sets up a kettle and is making hot soup while the search team huddles around the wood fire to get warmth back into their extremities. Before long all the teams are accounted for and we are grateful for the shelter from the storm in the warm confines of the little hut. If the missing snowboarders were out in weather similar to this then the hopes of finding them alive are slim to non-existent.
With the winds gathering speed and the temperatures dropping rapidly to well below zero, we decide to pull out for the day and drive back to Thredbo where we can set up our tents for the night. Once this is done a few of us wander off to a pub for a couple of beers. While in the pub the weather outside becomes wilder and wilder.
Extract taken from Meditations in Orange by JG Montgomery (Pendragon Publishing & Design 2104). Now available from Paperchain (Manuka), the National Portrait Gallery, Bookpassion (Belconnen), Smiths Alternative Bookshop and from www.pendragonpublishing.com.au