Mountains of Australia

Know the wild, know yourself.

Tag: Wind

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

 

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.

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!