Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: Cold

Blizzard on the Bogong High Plains

Snow, snow snow. So much snow!

I spent half the night awake, being kept from a deep slumber by the gusting wind rattling my tent’s fabric. I could barely contain my excitement at the fresh snow, as it came down slowly but steadily throughout the night. Every time a sudden gust woke me, I would feel with my hands through the fabric of my tent the depth of the drift outside. The snow got deeper and the temperature got colder as the hand of my watch ticked a bit closer to dawn.

When I finally arose from my tent that morning, there was about 20cm of fresh snow on the ground. As I broke through the layer of ice that has formed in my water bottle overnight, I decided that this has definitely been the coldest morning of my trip so far. The wind was still howling and I utilised the luxury of Derrick’s Hut to stay warm during breakfast.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. Upon arrival to this campsite only the day before, I wondered how this landscape would look under fresh snow. Secretly, I wished for it to be winter, so I could see this alpine area as a winter wonderland. I never thought I’d get my wish, right before I would ascend to the highest and most exposed section of my walk up to that point: the Bogong High Plains.

The snowpoles were essential aids for navigation in the poor visibility.

The snowpoles were essential aids for navigation in the poor visibility.

The snow poles across this uniform plateau have saved many lives over the years, by guiding the traveller in poor weather. The three metre tall treated pine posts stand as guardians when the track is buried under heavy snow, creating a lifeline that is easy to follow, even in the worst conditions. Without the safety of these poles, a white out up here would be completely disorienting. The homogeneity of these plains means that when visibility is poor, the country looks similar in all directions, making it very difficult to navigate with map and compass. A number of cross country skiers have lost their lives on these plains in poor weather.

A partially frozen pond on the High Plains.

A partially frozen pond on the High Plains.

The wind was ripping across the plains as I left the safety of the tree line, carrying with it a fine, frozen flakes of snow; stinging pellets of ice that made me tuck my chin down and focus on the next step. I was geared up, with no flesh exposed at all, and despite the effort required to make headway in the wind with my behemoth pack, I was barely keeping warm enough.

I was doing my best to blitz my way across the blizzard blasted plains and arrive to the relative shelter of Tawonga Huts, a campsite often used by school groups, with its tin huts for shelter. I was thinking of a cup of hot chocolate and the warmth of my sleeping bag, as I took one step at a time, the wind pushing at me from my right, often nearly knocking me down to the ground.

When I eventually arrived to my destination for the night, I was less than impressed at the state of the hut that was to be my accommodation. It was literally a creaking tin box held together by some rusty bolts; the fireplace long ago removed, the opening for the chimney pipe a gaping hole in the wall, leaving a wicked draft to circulate in the single room. I did my best to hang a tarp over the doorway to block at least some of the chill.

While they provided me with basic shelter, I was half surprised that these huts, with their rusted bolts and creaky corrugated iron sheets held together in the blizzard.

While they provided me with basic shelter, I was half surprised that these huts, with their rusted bolts and creaky corrugated iron sheets even held together in the blizzard.

I was surprised to hear that the wind was still increasing in intensity. As I took refuge inside, the wind had become an angry beast awaken from its long slumber and was set on wrecking havoc with savage howls. The roar was constant, and my flimsy tin hut sang with it in harmony, creaking bolts and rattling roof tiles all contributing to the crude orchestra. I felt as if any moment, one of the wind gusts could lift the roof right off, and I would be sucked through a wormhole to a place of frozen wonders. I knew how Dorothy would have felt the moment before the tornado picked up her house and carried her away from Kansas to the magical world of Oz. In the end, I decided to pitch my free standing tent in the middle of the floor inside the hut, in case the roof did lift off in the middle of the night.

In the morning, I woke to a calm, frozen wonderland. The remnant clouds from the storm were still hovering around, but would occasionally clear to reveal snippets of a blue sky overhead. It was bitterly cold, with inches of hoarfrost on the boulders outside, but the day held promise. Everywhere I looked; there was a titanic magnificence at play; a bright orange cloud here, a rainbow there, a dark snow cloud hovering over there. It was incredible, watching the raw beauty in Nature’s power displayed in such a grand setting.

Frozen snowgum, near Mt Jaithmatung.

Frozen snowgum, near Mt Jaithmatung.

As I struck out to ascend Mt Jaithmatung, I marveled at the toughness and adaptability of the flora that exist on these plains. For much of the winter, the leaves of trees become frozen solid, and anything living on the ground is compressed under metres of stifling snow. Then in summer, the blistering heat sets in and the plants must survive with barely any water at all. A hardy and rugged life these beings lead. Much tougher than us, puny humans who with even all our gear and warm clothing always complain about the cold and the heat, although we spend barely a few days up here at a time, after which we return to our comfortable homes and routine lives.

Cope Saddle Hut

The snow didn’t last long,;barely a day later, most of it has already melted.

The High Plains still held a surprise for me that day. I was taking my steps carefully through the snow, doing my best to follow the track hidden underneath. The transformation that has taken place in the previous 24 hours was remarkable. From the promise and warmth of spring, to the cold heart of winter; the transition was sudden and complete. It was because of the stillness of the landscape that I was surprised to see movement through the trees.

They were large, dark shapes, with four legs. As I got closer, they lifted their heads and watched me with suspicion. I was amused at how concerned these animals were about me, when they were many times my size.

The two wild horses turned out to be a mare and her foal, grazing peacefully. I decided not to approach too closely for an intrusive photo; their lives were already difficult enough without the extra hassle. They watched me till I was a safer distance away, then meandered on to look for some more suitable, less snowy grass. I continued on my journey, elevated and warmer with every step.

A wild horse grazing after a snow storm.

A wild horse grazing after a snow storm.

Winter in the Wilderness

The air was still, finally calm. The recent storms have left their signatures on the landscape; a thin dusting of snow covered the dramatic cliffs of the Du Cane Range as they spread out in front of me in a titanic amphitheatre.

Mt Geryon and the Pool of Memories

Mt Geryon and the Pool of Memories

These mountains are wild, that much is certain.

A brooding Cradle Mountain

A brooding Cradle Mountain

This World Heritage Listed landscape assumed its most recent and rather handsome shape during the last ice age, about 20 000 years ago, when giant glaciers scoured the slopes of these mountains. The glaciers originating from here would slowly grind their way down the valley and meet in a deep rift that now forms Australia’s deepest lake: Lake St Clair.

The Du Cane Range and Lake St Clair in the distance

The Du Cane Range and Lake St Clair in the distance

When the last ice age ended, the glaciers disappeared, but they left clues to their existence. The glacial valleys and moraines left behind as relics of the last ice age now accommodate an amazing abundance of life that thrives in Tasmania’s harsh alpine conditions.

A frozen Scoparia bush

A frozen Scoparia bush

The mountains here often stand with their head in the clouds. The deeper snow drifts on their slopes that build up during the winter can last quite late into the spring. The sun is only visible for about 10 hours a day in mid winter. It sits at a low angle in the sky, creating longer shadows and a picturesque effect. Snow covers the peaks and adds to the challenge of ascent. The changeable weather is part of the charm and the challenge of this area that bushwalkers refer to simply as ‘The Reserve’.

The tricky ridgeline from Mt Massif to Castle Crag.

The tricky ridgeline from Mt Massif to Castle Crag.

In ‘The Reserve’, wilderness still exists. The crumbling dolerite peaks stand like ancient guardians over wild river valleys thick with impenetrable scrub. Bus sized boulders are scattered on ridge lines above the tree line, like a million broken dinosaur eggs.

Dolerite boulder, Mt Oakleigh in background.

Dolerite boulder, Mt Oakleigh in background.

Out here, solitude can be embraced and the worries of the world are left behind. Freedom ensues.

A tricky ridgeline to walk.

A tricky ridgeline , Du Cane Range, Tasmania

I climbed up here into these mountains to understand Winter: to feel the cold, as it slowly crept under my skin numbing my fingers and toes.   I saw the frozen kiss of night settle on the surface of glacial tarns as a delicate layer of ice. In the morning, I saw the sun fighting to climb above the clouds.

Mt Gould at dawn

Mt Gould at dawn

Some moments are best captured with a photograph.

Some moments, are just perfect.

Some moments, are just perfect.

The value of wilderness isn’t measured in currency; it’s measured in freedom.

I can only hope that  ‘The Reserve’ will continue to exist in its relatively unaltered form for many more generations. Here, we can escape and imagine a world that is more than ordinary.

Little Horn, Cradle Mt

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!