Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Month: May 2015

Bivvy and dry powder on Mt Wellington, Tasmania

I hit the snowline much sooner than I had expected. There was slush on the road and the chain of cars driving up towards the mountain slowed right down in the treacherous conditions. The snow was only dumped the night before, transforming the forest on the lower slopes of Mt Wellington into a frozen white wonderland. The branches of the shrubs and trees were bowing down under the weight of the snow sitting on them, and there was close to a foot of the dry powder built up on the ground. Due to the maritime climate, powder in Tassie is rare and should be revered almost as much as a campfire on a really cold night!

The weight of the snow on the branches made them hang over the track, creating quite a barrier!

The weight of the snow on the branches made them hang over the track, creating quite a barrier!

While most of the town dwellers were shivering in Hobart and contemplating the oncoming winter, I figured that the rare snow conditions would be a perfect opportunity to rack up some snow experience before my upcoming 25 day off-track, mid-winter trip to the Reserve (aka Cradle Mt-Lake St Clair National Park). I had some new snowshoes and a bivvy that needed testing out. So I packed the bag for an overnighter and hopped in the car to drive up to ‘The Springs’, a picnic site set about two thirds of the way up the mountain, which also acts as one of the main trailheads from which Wellington Park may be explored.

Mt Wellington is a remarkable place. Set 1271m above sea level, it overlooks the city of Hobart and the estuary of one of Tasmania’s largest rivers: the Derwent. Viewed from the summit of kunanyi (an indigenous term for Mt Wellington, translating to ‘the mountain’), the city and the bay appears very far below, almost as if belonging to another world. To be able to follow a sealed road all the way up to the summit of such a special vantage point is a real privilege. On a ‘good’ day, the viewing platform on the summit is crawling with people, happy tourists and town dwellers enjoying the vista and the sacred experience of being on a mountaintop. Of course, after heavy snow dumps, the pinnacle road is closed.

Some of the icicles were 50cm in length.

Some of the icicles were 50cm in length.

I left my car at ‘The Springs’ and started the hike to the summit, some 550 vertical metres above. The snow weighed heavily on the saplings and shrubs lining the path, forming constant barricades across the walking track. The only way to get through was to try and duck under, which would consistently result in my pack hooking on some of the branches and promptly dumping snow right over the top of my head. I pulled up the hood of my jacket and continued trudging through the fresh powder that often came up to my knees.

The sun trying to break through a snow squall near the summit of kunanyi, Tasmania

The sun trying to break through a snow squall near the summit of kunanyi, Tasmania

I was amazed at the transformation of what was a familiar landscape into a foreign world. Icicles up to half a metre in length hung down from the dolerite boulders; the snow sat heavily and silently on everything. The city of Hobart could just be made out nearly a kilometre below, shimmering through the snow squalls and mist. I was anticipating reaching the wind swept summit plateau, where I would feel the full brunt of the elements and encounter the deepest drifts.

The distinctive radio tower emerging from the mist!

The distinctive radio tower emerging from the mist!

Ground blizzard on summit of kunanyi, Tasmania

Ground blizzard on summit of kunanyi, Tasmania

I was not disappointed. The summit plateau was transformed into a frozen wonderland. The drifts covered most of the vegetation, with the occasional shrub or boulder sticking out. The relentless wind carried the drift with it, creating a haunting and biting beauty to the landscape. I have never seen so much snow in my life. I tried to make a snowball, but failed. The powder was dry, and wouldn’t stick. It was cold (-20C accounting for windchill). It was time to take shelter in the lookout building and have lunch.

The frozen wonderland of mt Wellington's summit plateau. The effects of the wind are clearly visible!

The frozen wonderland of mt Wellington’s summit plateau. The effects of the wind are clearly visible!

The summit shelter, with about a metre of snow blowed in.

The summit shelter, with about a metre of snow blowed in.

The aim of my walk was to reach the summit of Collin’s Bonnet by sunrise the next day. Collins Bonnet is the second most prominent peak in Wellington Park, after Wellington itself, and takes a solid 4-6 hours of hiking from Wellington in the conditions I encountered. The depth of the drifts and the overhanging branches onto the walking tracks under the weight of the snow made it slow going. After tripping many times over my snowshoes on the uneven walking surface, I arrived at my campsite in a relatively sheltered saddle. I set up my bivvy and crawled straight in. My hands were cold, as I was waiting for my water to boil. The stars would occasionally peak out from behind the clouds. The gusts would howl through the grove of snowgums I was surrounded by. I set my alarm for 4am, and fell asleep.

Magic!

Magic!

It was still dark when I started for the summit of Collin’s Bonnet (1240m,). The snow poles made it possible to follow the track that was obscured by the snow sitting over it. The clouds have relentlessly set in, and the wind was howling when I reached the summit at 6:15am. The sun didn’t show for our date. With thoughts of a warm breakfast, I headed back to my campsite.

In the end, my mission to Wellington was a success: I got to trial my bivvy, snowshoes, and got to experience some rare conditions on kunanyi (the mountain). I feel just a bit better prepared for my 25 day adventure in June!

Sunset in the heart of the Alps

Dawn awoke me with a kiss of frost

The mountains around me stood silent watch

White crowned peaks, swift rivers below,

The secrets of the wind shall never be known.

King Billy I, Victorian Alps

King Billy I, Victorian Alps

The sun was setting on my left, casting a deep shadow into the valley. I was moving along Mt Eadley Stone’s ridgeline, picking my footing quickly but precisely along the rocky track. Hiking high up on the summit ridge with a blue sky, a fresh breeze and mountains all around, I felt life pulsate through my veins with great force. Camera slung across my shoulder, I was aiming to beat the sun to the summit of the Bluff and snap some photos. It would be my first sunset from a mountaintop during my 74 day Australian Alps adventure. It certainly wasn’t the last.

Spring snow on the slopes of Mt King Billy I

Spring snow on the slopes of Mt King Billy I

The double peak of the Bluff-Mt Eadley Stone massif is situated in the heart of the Victorian Alps. Here, the usually mellow Great Dividing Range shoots up from wild river valleys into some dramatically steep hills. The Bluff as such is surrounded by some of Australia’s most impressive mountains: Mt Buller, Mt Howitt, Mt Speculation, Mt Cobbler, Mt McDonald, Mt Clear, and the undulating knife blade ridge of the Crosscut Saw. The vista from the Bluff creates the effect of being surrounded by a titanic amphitheatre formed by the spine of the Great Dividing Range. The remote wilderness of the area means that even by taking in an immense view with a 50km radius, signs of the human world are minimal. The only blemish on the wilderness is on the upper slopes of Mt Buller, where the ski village can be disconcerted by the keen eye.

Dead snowgums with Mt Buller's snow capped peak in the background.

Dead snowgums with Mt Buller’s snow capped peak in the background.

In such a setting, my mind was set free, and I appreciated the surroundings with a calm disposition. Dominating the scenery along the track were the twisted figures of an incredibly tough tree: the Snowgum (Eucalyptus Pauciflora). The pain of living in harsh alpine conditions is written into every woody fibre of these plants. The age of any individual tree can be estimated by the girth of its trunk, for most of these trees stand at a uniform height. It is a rare case where gaining extra height would prove a disadvantage, for it would leave the taller plant exposed to the howling, icy winds. Tormented by wind and cold, they have twisted their trunks into all kinds of fantastic shapes, as if pleading for their suffering to end.

Snowgum, with Mt McDonald in background

Snowgum, with Mt McDonald in background

As I got closer to the summit I caught sight of an immense wedge-tailed eagle. She was hovering barely ten metres above the summit, trying to make way in the headwind, her wings spread out completely motionless as if she was levitating. She was so close I could see individual feathers being ruffled by the wind surging past. My trance of staring at the eagle didn’t last long however, the wind changed and suddenly she was lifted up and started circling, rising quickly and soon disappearing from sight.

Sunsets on mountaintops is one of the most sacred experiences we can witness.

Sunsets on mountaintops is one of the most sacred experiences we can witness.

‘I feel pretty good for day 17’ I remember thinking to myself. Although I was still less than a quarter of the way through my traverse of the Australian Alps, the nomadic routine has begun to establish itself. With each passing day, my body felt a little stronger and a little fitter. Rather than stressing about the weight of my pack or the discomforts of the weather, I was beginning to pay more attention to my surroundings. An ability to shift my focus away from my own being and extend my attention to other things around me was a key step in truly enjoying my journey through the Alps. Standing there, on the summit of the Bluff, as the sun sank a bit closer to the horizon, and a golden glow was cast across the landscape, a deep sense of calm came over me. I was amazed at the transformation that took place, as the mountains draped themselves in their night cloaks of twilight.

The golden afternoon sun on Mt Eadley Stone.

The golden afternoon sun on Mt Eadley Stone.

Eventually, my mind became free of thought, ready to accept whatever was going to fall my way. Time became irrelevant and my mind became, for those brief moments at least, unbound and truly free.

Snowgum at sunset, The Bluff, Victorian Alps

Snowgum at sunset, The Bluff, Victorian Alps