Of course, those of us in the hut already know that the hot, spiced wine is ready. The smell of cinnamon and star anise and mulling wine has been wafting up from the billy on the canister stove for the last half hour, and though we have been preparing vegetables for the camp oven (or – impressively – baking pizzas with a strange asbestos heat distributor), our noses and thoughts have been on glühwein.
Still, there are a few of us outside, so I stuff my fingers back into my gloves, pull the fluffy earflaps of my beanie further down on my head, and pull the wooden door open with only a slight creak.
Outside, my breath fogs, and I quickly shut the hut door behind me. It is actually lighter out here than inside, and my boots crunch against the thick frost as I traverse the few metres to my fellow walker. She’s lying down in the frost, staring up at the heavens, breath obscuring her vision in intervals, and she asks if I could point out any of the constellations in this hemisphere. I peer upwards, and can recognise the Milky Way and the Southern Cross, but the super moon is washing out much of the complexity of the sky.
Another walker is kneeling down next to his tripod, adjusting the exposure on his camera to capture both the rise of the super moon and the high country hut below, smoke trailing upwards from the chimney. He looks up as I deliver the call for hot glühwein.
“It wouldn’t be a winter solstice without it!”
We’ve camped ourselves only a few kilometres from the highway, beside a beautiful old log hut built by high country cattlemen in 1938, and a woodshed made of flattened kerosene tins beside it. I’d settled on Vickery’s Hut, after my original suggestion of Gooandra Homestead turned out to be the same location as the ANUMC Mid Winter Feast.
Still, I wanted a hut close to the road, so that we could carry in glühwein and a cast iron camp oven to celebrate the winter solstice properly. So after trawling the Kosciuszko Huts website and squinting at my bushwalking parent’s map spread out across the living room floor, I decided to wander out to Vickery’s: a hut that apparently most people have never been to, and isn’t even marked on half the maps, in spite of being so pretty and so very close to the Snowy Mountains Highway.
We started the day very casually, at midday. It was a glorious Saturday, with a folk music playlist and a late lunch at Tumut. It was then a mere 50km past the Snowy Hydro’s Blowering Reservoir to Prosser’s Firetrail, and a brief 4WD to the turn off. It was the most casual walk in that I’ve ever had the pleasure of strolling down, with less than 3km along a firetrail in the late afternoon, and crossing only a short (though chilly!) section of the Jounama Creek less than a kilometre from the hut.
We set up tents immediately, and the moment that the sun dropped a heavy frost began to set in. The temperature, in spite of being at only 920 metres above sea level, would have already been zero when we arrived. Certainly, by morning, drink bottles, left over vegetables, the top two centimetres of a 44 gallon drum of water and even people’s eggs had partially frozen!
But the hut was gloriously warm. We had ignited a roaring fire and a dozen candles, and were soon comparing two different attempts at glühwein over pizza, corned beef and vegetables. We spent the evening alternating between chatting inside (soon enough, over brownies, Tim Tams and a particularly delicious apple schnapps) and setting up tripods to take photos outside of the impressive frost, the picturesque hut and the super moon (the full moon closest to Earth in the year, and thus the largest and brightest in the sky).
Eventually we retreated to sleeping bags, with some of us sleeping much more warmly than others. The ground insulation, whether Thermarest, foam mat or Exped Synmat, seemed to make more difference than the sleeping bag. Nevertheless, we all survived, and had a lazy morning of coffees, bacon and fried (defrosted) eggs.
By the time that we left, the tents were still frozen, so we shook them off as best we could. The walk back, being uphill, was harder, though our packs were much lighter and we made it back to the cars in good time.
If the Snowy Mountains Highway, with the Monaro Highway to the south and the Hume Highway to the north, make an enormous oval, then Canberra and Vickery’s Hut are at the opposite points of the shortest width. In fact, we were only 70km from our origin, as the crow flies, but to go by road north took 260km, and the road south the same, to just one kilometre difference! Thus, for the return trip we meandered south, gaining elevation before we hit the true high country around the abandoned mining town of Kiandra.
This is the landscape of stunted snowgums, rolling tussocks of alpine grass and winding, freezing creeks of snowmelt water. Another surprisingly common sight up in this high, gently sloped section of the Kosciuszko National Park are brumbies, two herds of which we, squealing (for my part), spotted from the road.
We stopped for a short heritage walk of the empty Kiandra, faces bent and hands in pockets against the icy wind. Our clear morning had turned to a dark and roiling sky, which added to the ruins of the old buildings. This was the ghost of short lived gold mining prospects, but more significantly, where the first skiing in Australia had taken off thanks to Scandinavian immigrants.
It was raining soon after we returned to the car, and continued while we descended from the high country down to Cooma. We enjoyed our hot chocolates and lattes, though the café we had snuggled ourselves into turned out to serve an expensive lunch menu and – unfathomably – refused to serve the pies at the table, preferring instead to proffer them in paper bags at the exit.
A stop in at Rhythm Snow Sports – because it would have been wrong for an Australian National University Mountaineering Club trip NOT to have stopped at Australia’s largest ski and snowboard store – and then a sleepy drive back to Canberra (thankfully, with not so tired drivers).
And I’m sure, curled awkwardly into car seats, that at least some of our half-dreams were of glühwein.