Monday, February 8, 2010

The Race of Death

By world standards, mountains in Australia are not very tall with the highest peak being Mount Kosciusko at only 2235 metres. However, extreme conditions can occur across the mountain ranges over south-eastern Australia, particularly in the winter months when quite heavy snow can fall over widespread areas. This has led to tragedy in the past, and some hard lessons have been learned about life in the high country.

Image: Mount Wellington towers above Hobart, often carrying a mantle of snow during the winter months.
Image from Wikipedia commons - click to enlarge.
Mount Wellington forms a picturesque backdrop to the City of Hobart, rising to a height of 1270 metres, and often with its peak covered in snow during the winter months. However, because of its southerly latitude, snow producing cold fronts racing up from the far Southern Ocean can reach the area at any time, even during the summer, triggering extreme changes in temperature across the area. When a strong cold front moves through Tasmania snow can extend down to quite low levels, with several recorded cases of snow actually reaching sea level around Hobart.
It was Mount Wellington, with its notoriously capricious weather that formed the stage for a gruelling athletics race in 1903, a race that was to end in a double tragedy.
In the early 1900’s there was an Australia-wide athletics craze, with numerous running and walking competitions staged around the country, involving both sprinting and distance events. Unlike today’s fun running phenomenon, these events normally involved trained and sometimes professional athletes, with prizes given and a good deal of public betting on the side.
However the first major race up Mount Wellington was an all-amateur affair, organised by the Tasmanian Amateur Athletics Association, and with the first prize not money, but a brand new double barrelled shotgun presented by the sponsor Watson Whisky.
The race was organised for Saturday September 19, 1903, and ran from Lower Elizabeth Street to the top of Mount Wellington and back – a distance of some 27 kilometers. The format was what was called a “Go As You Please” race, which meant that the route the runner elected to take was optional - provided he reached the checkpoint at the top of the mountain, he could go any way he wanted.
On the morning before the race, the weather was described as “very unsettled”, with snow drifting down to low levels on the mountain. There was talk of postponing the start, but eventually the field got under way in the early afternoon, with 39 out of the 70 original entrants beginning the race. The pace was a cracker out of the city but naturally began to slow as the runners began the arduous climb up the side of the mountain.

The Organ Pipes - a distinctive rock formation near the summit. Image from Wikipedia commons - click to enlarge.

Then, only part of the way through the climb, it began snowing and the athletes, only lightly clad in athletic singlets and shorts, found themselves in freezing conditions, with a strong south-west wind producing a chill factor that effectively dropped the temperature much further. The going became too tough for several and only 23 out of the 39 starters reached the pinnacle and began the downhill run home.
One member of the group of officials at the summit reported that “He had never met with worse weather on the mountain. With the heavy snow beating on them,(the athletes) their clothes got frozen hard”. Leading at the half way mark was a runner called Charles Beard, but he was followed closely by a group which consisted of Betts, McDonald and Cockshutt. Another athlete, Mark Richards, also reached the summit but complained of feeling faint and dizzy. He was about to drop out but was “encouraged by another competitor” and was persuaded to run on.
As a result of the steep downhill grades on the return journey, the pace picked up considerably, but because of the freezing conditions many of the athletes became exhausted and dropped out. More than half of the 23 men who reached the summit failed to reach the finish, and only a small band eventually raced into the city, applauded by a large crowd. The eventual winner was Cockshutt in the very respectable time of 2hr 44 min.
However the euphoria of the finish of the first organised race up Mount Wellington was soon eclipsed by the news filtering back from the mountain; Mark Richards had collapsed and died part way down, and another athlete, George Radford, was missing. The local police, together with the race promoters, immediately organised search parties, and these continued in failing light and falling snow until well after midnight, but no trace of Radford was found. Next morning the search resumed at sunrise, and a little later, Radford’s body was found in the snow on the “Old Fingerpost Track” where he had fallen backwards and frozen to death.
This double death toll cast a pall of gloom over the race as well as the organisers and a full coronial enquiry was ordered. This found that both Richards and Radford had died from a combination of heart failure and prolonged exposure to below freezing conditions.
Such a tragedy is unlikely to happen today. Recognised distance running events involving either elite athletes or “fun runners” are carefully planned and have medical assistance available to all competitors. In addition, the weather forecasts are routinely monitored, and if extreme conditions, such as very hot or very cold temperatures are forecast, race organisers will incorporate this into their planning.
As far as Tasmania is concerned, not only Mount Wellington, but the state as a whole, can experience great temperature variations. Cold outbreaks can produce snow across many parts of the Tasmanian highlands even during the summer months, and the Bureau of Meteorology issues “Bushwalker’s Alerts” when such a change is expected.
Today the Radford Track on Mount Wellington is both a memorial and a reminder of the tragic events of September 1903.
Reference: Australia's Natural Disasters, Richard Whitaker, New Holland Publications, 2005

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this. I just finished hiking Wellington and noticed the two memorials and was wondering what kind of crazy race this must have been