Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: Adventure

Australia’s Giants: The Snowy Mountains

The top of the hill I’ve been climbing towards laboriously, knees creaking, back groaning, appeared to be getting closer; and through the opening of the canopy, a view began to reveal itself. I plopped my pack on the ground, with the familiar motion that I’ve been practicing daily for the past eight weeks, and peered out over the treetops, towards the white glow of Australia’s giants. There they stood, towering above, still capped in snow then, in late spring, barely a few hours walk away!

Looking towards the Main Range from Watson's Crag,

Looking towards the Main Range from Watson’s Crag,

Australia’s tallest mountain range, the Main Range, is elevated two kilometres above sea level and is colloquially known as the Snowy Mountains. Its sprawling alpine plateau is the climax of Australia’s greatest mountain range, the Great Divide, and is also the birthplace of one of our great rivers, the Snowy. The unpredictable and often severe climate on these high peaks has sculpted a unique and fragile alpine environment that contains some of Australia’s rarest ‘feldmark’ plant communities.

It also stands as a place rich in history, having provided a meeting place for the local Aboriginal tribes for hundreds of generations, and having served as roaming ground for the early mountain cattlemen whose culture has since become an integral part of our national identity. These mountains are also home to one of our country’s greatest engineering marvels: the Snowy-Hydro Scheme, built by nearly 100 000 workers post WWII. More recently, since the protective hand of national park status has been extended over the ‘Snowies’, it’s become a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, both in winter as well as summer.

The Main Range, viewed from near Mt Tate.

The Main Range, viewed from near Mt Tate.

For me, it was a real relief to finally reach them, after 8 weeks of trekking along the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT). The vehicular tracks that I have been following leading up to the Snowies were about to be replaced by untracked country that offered marvelous walking. Furthermore, my good friend, Robert Vandali was to join me for this section of my journey. After nearly 8 weeks of solitude and dehydrated meals, my stomach and I were looking forward to the rendezvous at Dead Horse Gap.

Rob, in his reliable fashion, turned up to our meeting point with a car full of food. Looking at the bounty in his boot, I felt ravenous. He offered me an endless selection of treats; sticks of salami, blocks of chocolate, fresh fruit, but I think his crowning achievement was the preparation of bacon and eggs that day for breakfast. If my eyes didn’t water, it was only because I was too busy eating.

Loaded up with a week’s worth of food, our packs felt heavy on our climb up to the plateau. On our way towards the Rams Head Range, we spotted two wild horses, grazing peacefully on the grass that had lain underneath snow until only a few weeks previously. Having survived the winter, these brumbies must have been overjoyed with the sun and the freshly revealed grass. Ears flicking, eyes staring, they eventually trotted away when I got too close with my camera.

Wild horses on the Rams Head Range

Wild horses on the Rams Head Range

As we gained elevation, we emerged from the scruffy snowgum forests onto a barren, alpine landscape; dominated by yellow grass, scoured boulders and large snowdrifts loitering on the southerly slopes. The scale of the landscape made us feel like we have entered a land of giants, where the eye may see for an awful long distance, and the legs have much trouble keeping up with the imagination.

Looking back down towards the Threadbo River

Rob looking back down towards the Threadbo River’s Valley

Lake Albina, one of four glacial lakes on the Australian Mainland.

Lake Albina, one of four glacial lakes on the Australian Mainland.

From a natural high point, standing on a particularly prominent boulder, we spotted our night’s accommodation: the bright red Cootapatamba Hut. Nestled in a river valley just south of Mt Kosciuszko, this hut serves as a vital emergency shelter for those that get caught out in ferocious weather. Although we were lucky enough to get mostly clear days for our days high up on the range, the air was crisp; the windchill contributed to an apparent temperature of -10 C. We were grateful we wouldn’t have to pitch our tents that night with icy fingers, and instead could sleep in the womb-like nest that was the hut.

Cootapatamba Hut

Happy to arrive to Cootapatamba hut. The trap door on the top is for winter use, when the bottom door is snowed in.

From Cootapatamba hut, we continued in a northerly direction, towards Mt Kosciuszko. When we picked up the steel walkway that formed the main track, we also met an endless line of day walkers and tourists, all heading to the top of Australia. I received some odd looks from passers-by, no doubt wondering why I was choosing to carry such a hefty load of supplies when the ski-village was only a quick cable-car ride away. Further ahead, a motorised crane was clearing the track, wiping away the snow and with it, the memories of winter.

The road to Kosciuszko

The road to Mt Kosciuszko

The ‘road’ to the summit of Mt Kosciuszko spirals gently around the peak; my footsteps were equally unhurried. The scale of the journey I have undertaken to arrive at the climax of Australia’s greatest mountain range was beginning to dawn on me. As we drew close to the summit cairn, I could clearly see the distant but unmistakable shape of Mt Bogong to the south west, over 100km away, where I had stood three weeks previously. Far beyond Mt Bogong and invisible to my naked eye stood the Cross Cut Saw, Mt Howitt, Mt Clear, Mt Selwyn and eventually, near the start of the AAWT, the Baw Baw Plateau. Close to two months of walking had brought me to this point. Although the objective at first seemed unfathomable, I was finally here. As I stepped up onto the summit cairn, the words that escaped me were spoken like a true Australian:

“I have walked a bloody long way!”

Rob and myself, on the top of Australia,

Me and Rob, on the summit of Mt Kosciuszko

On a high point, near Mt Tate, the Main Range behind.

Me, on a high point, near Mt Tate, the Main Range behind.

Our next day on the Snowies gave us a real taste for mountain weather; a relentless wind dried out our lips till they were cracked with blood, forcing us to hide our heads underneath the hoods of our jackets. As we followed the track across the climactic ridge of the Great Divide, our boots tread upon the path lined by ‘feldmark’ communities, the hardiest of the alpine flora. These highly adapted survivors live on the most exposed ridges, where the wind whips away the protective cover of snow during the winter storms. Yet, life triumphs through hardship, and as we strode past, we saw that quite a few of these plants were flowering, bringing with them the promise of a warm summer and sunshine.

Rob, geared up against the wind.

Rob, geared up against the wind.

Spring Flowers, Rams Head Range

Spring Flowers, Rams Head Range

The landscape rolled by underneath our feet, a relatively barren plateau dotted with the occasional wildflower. The undulating terrain had great boulders strewn across it, like a bad tempered giant has had a tantrum and scattered dinosaur eggs everywhere. The power of the landscape dwarfed our tiny footsteps, freeing us to observe our surroundings with neutrality. Here is what I wrote in my diary that day:

“Up here the eye is attracted to the horizon that is far and distant. It’s this sense of openness that I love about walking in the mountains; the wide horizons that appear as an endless chain. It creates a place of perspective, where one may observe the world objectively, without influence. A place to weigh up one’s existence against all that is eternal. Herein lies the power of mountains.”

 

An adventurous glider pilot, he swooped right over our heads!

An adventurous glider pilot who swooped right over our heads!

White’s River Hut became our next night’s haven. Nestled in the valley of the Munyang River, the hut was more like a house inside, with insulated walls and sheets of board inside that were painted white. The focus of the main room was a large, cylindrical and very stocky wood fire heater set in a stone lined, semi circular fire place. Two glass windows brightened the room that was both clean and spacious. A side room contained a bunk bed where we set up our mats and sleeping bags. Being early afternoon, I made the most of the opportunity and promptly took a refreshing nap after lunch. The bed sagged and the wire springs creaked when you moved, but it was mid afternoon and I was napping in a bed! Unbelievable luxury!

We played cards after an oversized dinner. The loser’s punishment was sitting on a rather uncomfortable wooden stump that served as a rudimentary chair. It was a strong motivator to play well. It was a jovial evening, wiping away any sense of hardship of the last couple of months while we laughed and munched on chocolate, the full moon shining over the serene valley outside our hut.

As I closed my eyes that night, the creaky springs of the bed playing a gentle chime, I couldn’t help but feel that I was close on the home stretch of my journey. A quiet satisfaction was growing in me, as a successful completion of my walk was appearing more likely with every passing day.

Meanwhile, further north, the lone figure of Mt Jagungal waited for me, patiently, quietly…

Looking towards Mt Jagungal

Looking towards Mt Jagungal

 

The Viking-Wonongatta Circuit: steaks and a bottle of beer…

Every solo adventure needs an intermission, a break in the routine of self discovery; often it’s in the form of shared company that so often leads to the creation of new stories and camaraderie.

The Viking, Victorian Alps

The Viking, Victorian Alps

The intermission in my journey through the Australian Alps was brought to me by my friend Jimmy Harris, who is a keen alpine walker and photographer himself. Along with his good spirits and easy-going attitude, he brought with him two premium rump steaks and a bottle of single malt scotch.

We were sitting around the campfire we conjured from the bountiful scatterings of dead snowgum branches. It was the end of winter, and the lack of visitors to the Mt Speculation campsite meant that firewood was plentiful. Sitting near the roaring fire, we toasted with the scotch to our good fortune. We were out in the mountains, away from the noise and hassles of the city.

We choose a large and mostly flat rock as a hot plate, cooking our steaks to perfection, complete with a smoky flame grilled taste. After three weeks of dehydrated meals, the first bite into the juicy steak was a mouthwatering moment of pure joy. We washed it down with another cup of scotch, and after many good yarns, went to sleep relatively early in anticipation of our upcoming Viking-Wonongatta Circuit, which would take us the next four days to complete.

View from the Crosscut Saw, Victorian Alps

View from the Crosscut Saw, Victorian Alps

I had met Jimmy on one of my work trips on the Overland Track in Tasmania. I guided him and his wife along with an adventurous group of punters only the previous summer, where Jimmy and I agreed to undertake a walk together in the Victorian Alps, if we got the chance. As it turned out, the dates happened to line up to suit both of us, and he agreed to join me for the challenging Viking-Wonongatta Circuit during my Australian Alps Traverse, which involved going off-track in some very remote country.

“How do you know we’re going the right way?”-he asked during a particularly steep section of the descent from the rocky summit of the Viking, towards the Wonongatta River.

As I began rattling off various techniques about how to follow a heavily wooded ridge, when visibility is reduced to a less than a hundred metres, I suddenly realised we were no longer following it. Amidst all my confidence in my navigational ability, I had lost our lifeline-ridge through the dense forest. Although we picked up the correct ridge shortly afterwards by sidling the slope, it was a wake-up call to both of us not to be overly complacent.

“I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to undertake this circuit on my own.” Jimmy said shortly afterwards.

“I don’t know if I would’ve been comfortable doing this solo either” I replied.

We both laughed and from that point on Jimmy undertook the role of secondary navigator, with gps in hand. He fulfilled his navigational role with great prudence for the rest of the trip, correcting my lead where it was necessary. I wonder whether he saw his role as a matter of pure survival, as I continued to drag him further and further into dense undergrowth, days away from any chance of rescue.

The Devil's Staircase, near Mt Howitt.

The Devil’s Staircase, near Mt Howitt.

The beauty of walking in the Victorian High Country in spring is that most of the access tracks which are often overrun by vehicles in summer, are still closed, leaving the walker to enjoy the surroundings in serenity.

The Viking-Razor area (the two most prominent peaks in the area) is a declared wilderness zone, meaning that there is minimum track maintenance and signage, adding to the sense of adventure. The ruggedness of the terrain also makes for a sense of isolation and immersion into Nature that is so hard to come by these ‘modern’ days. During my three weeks spent in the region between the Bluff and Mt Hotham, I only met three other people besides my friend Jimmy. It is remote country and any traveller needs to be completely self sufficient.

The cross cut saw after some fresh snow.

The cross cut saw after some fresh snow.

The hills here are also much more prominent than most other parts of the Victorian High Country, which are often characterised by densely vegetated forests and have a gentle, rolling nature. Here, the dominant peaks of the Viking, Mt Howitt and the Crosscut Saw rise well above the tree line. The alpine grasses become the primary vegetation and many wildflowers bloom in summer. Some of the mountains also have steep escarpments, which again set this area apart from many of their smaller and less spectacular cousins. This section of the high country has been and will be a mecca for bushwalkers, not only for the awe inspiring views and challenging terrain but also due to its lack of vehicular access. In Victoria, this is as close as you can get to true wilderness.

Of course, even in wilderness one may find traces of civilization. During our ascent out of the Wonongatta Valley towards Macalister Springs, we picked up numerous tins of beer cans, crushed and broken under countless tyres of four wheel drivers that drive through here in summer. While these access roads allow appreciation of this area for a wider audience, vehicular access often invites those who do not respect the pristine beauty of these hills adequately. Entering wild places should be a sacred privilege, not an entitlement to hoon, destroy and not give a damn.

Then again, we were glad to find one particular item during our walk. Lying in front of us on the track was a full bottle of unopened beer, pre chilled in the brisk spring air. Jimmy picked it up just as we were nearing Vallejo Gartner Hut near Macalister Springs. We’ve had a long day of climbing and some very bleak clouds were approaching. We were puzzled by the unopened bottle and wondered about the story of how it got there. Did someone leave it there on purpose, hoping that a thirsty hiker may quench their thirst or did it simply fall out of someone’s pack? Either case, we picked it up and took it with us to the hut.

Mt Speculation, from the Crosscut Saw.

Mt Speculation, from the Crosscut Saw.

Just as the clouds opened up and frozen snowflakes started plummeting from the sky, we reached the hut and quickly set a fire inside. We cracked the beer open with a satisfying twist of the cap. It was a surreal experience, being in total comfort and bliss while the sky caved in outside.

We stayed up late that night, swapping stories of our respective journeys that have brought us to that particular point in time. As is always the case when we open up to others, common ground was found and the foundation for a strong friendship was laid.

Vallejo Gartner Hut after a snow shower.

Vallejo Gartner Hut after a snow shower.

As for me, the temptation to experience the storm outside was simply too great to resist. Just as Jimmy got ready for bed, I strapped on my boots and with all the relevant safety gear in my day pack, left the hut to climb to the nearby summit of Mt Howitt. It would be nearly midnight by the time I had returned to the hut.

The storm has abated and a dense fog sat in the air as I ascended. It was still, quiet and freezing cold as I reached the summit. I stood up there, staring out into the darkness. I didn’t particularly mind that I couldn’t see much. Some things are invisible to the naked eye.

A resilient snowgum survives even in the most exposed conditions.

A resilient snowgum survives even in the most exposed conditions.

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!

The call of the Australian Alps Walking Track

It was only last year, in 2014 that I fully succumbed to the call of the mountains. I was 26 and the promise of the unknown was beckoning me towards discovery.

Through chance I learnt about a remote and rugged walking route, the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT). The route is notoriously difficult and only attempted by about 100 people every year, roughly half of whom succeed in walking it end to end. Walkers need to be prepared to deal with extremes in weather, including bush fires as well as snow storms.

Mt McDonald, with twisted snowgum in foreground, Victorian Alps

Mt McDonald, with twisted snowgum in foreground, Victorian Alps

Upon reading about the AAWT, I was instantly hooked. Here was a challenge that I could really sink my teeth into. I began to research the walk more carefully, planning down to the last details.

I soon learnt that the key difficulty of the walk lies in its provisioning. Due to its remoteness, the AAWT does not pass by any towns where re-supply is possible. There are a few alpine ski villages encountered, but their shops are more suited to stocking up on sugary snacks than proper backpacking food.

The solution to the provisioning problem is to place food drops along the route prior to commencing the walk. This way, only about a week’s worth of food needs to be carried at any one time, which is manageable. However, considering the food portions needed to fuel a hungry hiker, even the weight of a single week’s worth of food becomes considerable. Preparing the correct food for my proposed 10 week walk was a major task that I will detail in later posts.

During my research I also discovered that most of the access roads to the AAWT are closed over the winter due to snowfall. Since I was to commence my walk in early spring, before these mountain roads are re-opened, I had to stash my food drops in autumn, prior to the seasonal road closures. Therefore, all my food had to be prepared and packaged about 4 months before I actually started the walk.

A typical 4WD track along the route of the AAWT

A typical 4WD track along the route of the AAWT

Acquiring the correct equipment needed to deal with the wild weather conditions in the Australian Alps was another element of the preparation. After much advice from fellow hikers and online forums, I purchased my shelter, sleeping bag, boots, backpack and all other gear required to be comfortable in the mountains for the duration of my walk. When my rucksack was finally packed, it was heavy but I was satisfied that it contained everything that I required to complete the walk safely and comfortably.

Physically, I felt ready for the AAWT.  Having spent the better part of the summer walking as a guide on Tasmania’s Overland Track, I felt strong and confident that my body was ready for the challenge of an extended walk with a heavy pack.

As my day of departure got closer and closer, there was no nervousness, only elation. I was about to trade my complex city comforts for a much simpler, nomadic lifestyle.
Instead of hot showers in a steaming bathroom I would enjoy swims in ice cold mountain streams; instead of a comfortable bed, I would sleep on the peaks of mountains, where I’d watch the birth and death of the sun, as it rose and as it set; instead of waking up to the sound of an alarm bell, I would let the birds wake me up with song; and instead of sinking into a couch, I would walk on lonely ridge tops and feel the solitude of a million years.

When the day finally came and I swung my pack on, I was answering the call of the mountains. I was finally going home.

Sunset on Mt Buller, Victorian Alps

Sunset on Mt Buller, Victorian Alps

The love of mountains

I was six years old when my spirit for mountaineering first revealed itself. It was an event that nearly ended my life.

Mt Geryon and the Pool of Memories

Surprisingly, when I return in my mind to the memory of that crisp winter morning, I encounter no pain, only a mechanical sequence of events. The emotion from that day has been drained over the course of the last 20 years, leaving only a dry visual reel.

It begins with my brother and I walking through the woods. It was cold, being the beginning of winter and we could see our breath in the air. Our hands were in our pockets, in an attempt to keep them warm.

I can no longer remember which one of us got the idea first. The cliff towered over us, sticking out high above the forest floor. Our feet kicked up the dry leaves as we strode through the trees, strangely attracted towards the sheer rock.

We both knew we were going to climb it, even before we agreed to it. Our sense of adventure was burning high and we were keen to pit our muscles against the cliff to see if we could conquer it. Our task was simple; we had to get to the top.

We commenced the climb strategically, me climbing first, my brother spotting from below. Being much stronger, he had no trouble supporting some of my weight as we began moving up. Soon we were hanging onto bare rock and the ground was far below.

I remember that it was difficult, and that I was scared. We were less than halfway up, yet my arms were tired and I was relying more and more on my brother to hold me up from below. With his help, we climbed on.

My brother slipped without a sound. Without his support underneath me, it was as if I was trying to cling onto thin air. I fell swiftly and tumbled to the ground in jolts.

My head hurt and my brother had a scared expression on his face. He picked me up but I screamed too loud about the pain in my head. There was blood on the rocks.

I spent five days in hospital after my head was stitched back together. I remember Mum sitting beside my bed. On the second day she brought me a plush puppy whose collar said ‘I love you’. I didn’t speak English at the time, but I knew what the words meant.

I was released the day before Christmas with an impressive scar on the top of my head that I will always carry around with me.

My scar is a personal reminder that venturing into the unknown always entails an element of risk. By acknowledging and assessing these risks, we are able to reduce the danger they pose to us. If we ignore them, the consequences may be serious. I was lucky enough to learn this lesson when I was six years old.
Although the risks associated with any mountaineering venture may be great, the reward is even greater; discovery. Through stepping outside our comfort zone, we not only discover new places, but also come to appreciate the inner workings of our own minds. Often, the greatest obstacles that need to be overcome are not physical, but hidden in our own heads.

The stories you will find here on Mountains of Australia speak not only of exploring mountainous wilderness, but also about the process of self discovery. I hope to share my belief that we have a lot to gain by pushing our own boundaries and stepping outside the world we are comfortable in.

Please, take a look around and welcome to the wilderness.

Snowgum at sunset, The Bluff, Victorian Alps

Snowgum at sunset, The Bluff, Victorian Alps