Joseph Thompson's frozen body was found, a month after he had disappeared, with his legs sticking out of a snow drift.

The dead goldminer's upper body was buried under more than a metre of snow, which had to be chiselled off with a pick before Thompson could be extricated from his accidental grave.

Thompson was one of at least 50 men, or possibly many more, to die in a series of storms to hit the Otago goldfields in the winter of 1863. They are among the deadliest storms recorded in New Zealand.

Ex-tropical cyclone Giselle in 1968 was the worst, with 58 lives lost, mostly as a result of the sinking of the interisland ferry Wahine.

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The Old Man Range/Kopuwai Conservation Area carries heavy snow in winter. Photo / Department of Conservation
The Old Man Range/Kopuwai Conservation Area carries heavy snow in winter. Photo / Department of Conservation

In Otago, July 1863 brought sustained mountain snowfall followed by a thaw which rushed down the rivers. The Clutha (called the Molyneux at the time) rose overnight by 6m, the Shotover went up by more than 10m. Arrowtown was swamped and Lake Wakatipu rose nearly 2m, flooding Queenstown.

Miners camped on river beaches were washed away and drowned. Even those higher up were not safe.

"The past month has been fraught with serious calamity on the Shotover and Arrow goldfields, and in too many cases human life has been sacrificed, from a series of floods and landslips ...," the Lake Wakatipu Mail wrote in early August 1863.

Three men were killed when their hut was swept away. A bank had collapsed in a usually small creek in the Shotover River valley, unleashing the pent-up rainwater behind it in an avalanche of stones and mud.

The disaster was witnessed by a goldminer who had earlier left his own hut and struggled across the flooded creek to another. The avalanche left no trace of his hut, while two others - above the surviving hut which he was visiting - were levelled and partly carried away.

The Mail listed 32 deaths, naming all but one of the men. Most were Irish.

Despite the tragedy, the Mail quickly returned to hailing the fantastic finds of gold, which was "everywhere apparent throughout the whole district".

It was just two years since the 1861 rush at Gabriel's Gully had set Otago and Dunedin on the path to golden riches.

The Old Man Range/Kopuwai lies above the Clutha River in Central Otago. Map / topomap.co.nz
The Old Man Range/Kopuwai lies above the Clutha River in Central Otago. Map / topomap.co.nz

Prospectors began probing up on to the Old Man Range/Kopuwai, which lies above the Clutha River, late in 1862 when spring floods washed over the river beaches, according to goldfields historian Kae Lewis. The Potters Gully goldfield, near the Campbells Creek diggings, were the highest and most remote in New Zealand.

The highest point on the range is 1682m above sea level. It carries heavy snow in winter, called the "Great Glacier" by the miners, and is a ski-touring adventure playground today. It also connects with the area where, two years ago, a group of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts got stuck in snow and had to be rescued.

Winter conditions for the hundreds of diggers on the range would have been tough: clothes that couldn't keep out the wet and cold, no firewood nearby, and exorbitant prices for food packed over the range by horses.

Blizzards swept the goldfields in August 1863. Coach drivers couldn't find the valley roads and drove into drifts. At least 40 miners were initially thought to have been killed - later reports said they survived - when a snow bank collapsed on to tents in Serpentine Gully in the vicinity of Dunstan (today's Clyde).

Despite the often miserable conditions, miners kept working on the Old Man Range and in the Pomahaka area, south of the Potters and Campbell Creek diggings.

Campbell Creek miner John Pederick wrote in his diary in mid-August 1863, part of which is being reproduced by the Department of Conservation for a new display, "The snow is a fearful depth on the range. I believe it is in some places twenty feet [6m] deep."

"Last Wednesday two men was [sic] travelling over the range and one of them got weary and tired and could not go any further. His mate pulled him along a long way but he could not pull him any further. The poor fellow layed [sic] down in the snow to die and told his mate not to stop with him to die also but try to make [it] to some tent."

Londoner John Penfold left Campbell Creek on August 12, 1863 to cross the range to Deep Creek Gorge, possibly the site of the mining supply town of Chamounix. A heavy snow storm began about an hour after he left Campbells and he died on the way down from the summit, according to an inquest report in the Otago Daily Times. A man who travelled with him survived but suffered severe frostbite.

Penfold's body was found by a man who transported supplies to the diggings. His jacket was lying at his side, almost underneath a track marker.

At Pomahaka, a man was killed when his tent was engulfed in a small avalanche. The tent had a chimney and his mate escaped up this, suffering burns from the fire beneath. There were numerous reports of frostbite from around the goldfields and a number of people had limbs amputated.

Deaths continued as late as December as new snow storms blew in. Police Sergeant Garvey died in late September. He became separated from his colleagues during a snow storm on a goldfields patrol in the Kakanui Range northeast of Kopuwai. Six days later searchers found his body lying beside a rock, his horse nearly a kilometre away.

As the snow thawed, several bodies of missing men emerged. One was Nicholas Cordts, also known as "Nicholas the Russian", whose body was interred at the Potters goldfield. In January 1864 a skeleton, thought to have been someone who died at the time of the "great storm", was found on a track leading to Teviot.

There has been debate about how many people died in the storms. McLintock's encyclopedia says the Otago Witness counted more than 100 deaths, while unofficial estimates at the time put the toll at between 100 and 200, but court records stated there were 37 ascertained deaths.

In 1927, the Herald reported that a memorial cairn, to remember the "party of about a dozen miners" who died on the Old Man Range in the "great snow storm of 1863" would be erected at Gorge Creek. The site is beside State Highway 8, north of Roxburgh.

The memorial at Gorge Ck, beside State Highway 8, to the miners who died in the snow storms of 1863. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
The memorial at Gorge Ck, beside State Highway 8, to the miners who died in the snow storms of 1863. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
NZ Herald report in 1927 on the plan for a memorial to the miners who died in the 1863 snow storm on the Old Man Range.
NZ Herald report in 1927 on the plan for a memorial to the miners who died in the 1863 snow storm on the Old Man Range.

Department of Conservation ranger Chrissy Wickes says a new interpretation panel has been designed and she hopes it will be erected this year.

She said many things about the great storm remained uncertain. How many men died? Where were they buried? Where was the town of Chamounix?