Hotham to Mt Bogong
Several years ago Bill and I had completed a walk from the outskirts of Canberra to Thredbo. This constituted a third of the Australian Alps Walking Trail. This left two thirds of the trail left to do. Both of the other sections were under consideration, the route heading south from Mt Hotham and the route heading north.
We’d done the first walk in early Spring which meant that on many days we encountered snow conditions requiring the use of snow shoes. For this trip we planned to walk in the height of Winter to ensure the firmest possible snow underfoot. The problem with the Australian Alps Walking Track is that the regions above the snowline are relatively brief and that much walking is required through sub alpine forest.
Bill was keen to undertake the walk heading south from Hotham Heights. This was a fine choice as this section is quite rugged but it is also a relatively remote area lacking access to public transport once the trail moves deeper into Victoria. The section between Thredbo and Mt Hotham seemed more sensible as it had guaranteed transport at both ends. This section was rather long and after two days on the Bogong High Plains would involve six extended days on forest trails before a final climb back to the Alps once Thredbo was reached. Most of the evenings would require camping in tents in wintry conditions.
Perusing the maps and guidebooks for the Bogong High Plains it became apparent that outside of the Cradle Mountain Lake St Clair walk in Tasmania this was the only area in Australia in which a week-long walk could be completed solely using huts. A rough itinerary taking us from Mt Hotham to Mt Bogong to Mt Wills was drawn up with an estimated of 6-8 hours walking each day. We would remain in the high country during this time and gain access to most of the spectacular country in the region. The only thing missing was a trip to the well known Mt Feathertop, but we did have the option of visiting this as part of a day walk at the end of the trip.
Because Mt Hotham is a well known Ski Resort transport options were excellent. We booked on the overnight bus which would take us from Sydney’s Central station at 6pm and deliver us to Mt Hotham the following morning. Needless to say a memorable trip was had as we visited ghostly truck stops in the dead of night, abandoned passengers with blithe disregard for their safety and were delivered to Wangaratta in a pre-dawn fog. We were collected by a mini-bus driver and shared the ride with a couple of adventurers who were dropped off at the Mount Lock car park. We opted to visit the village centre where we could make final adjustments to our packs before venturing out.
The morning air was bitterly cold and brought home that this had been an inopportune moment to lose my balaclava. Fortunately I found a white beanie replete with pom pom on the mini bus to take the edge off the chill. While preparing to head out I was approached by a local harbinger of doom whose job it was to warn people from venturing into the wilderness. She performed her job admirably, speaking of the possibility of avalanches, exposure, storms and floods. She made it clear that she certainly wouldn’t be attempting what we had in mind and that she envisaged leading the search party for our frozen bodies in a matter of days. The harbinger certainly provided the motivation to finish our preparations and to get outside as quickly as we could.
Finding the correct amount of layers for winter trips is always difficult as it doesn’t take much to warm up and overheat. Fortunately our first task was to make our way along the slippery road between the village and the carpark. This took about ten minutes and delivered us to the snow making reservoir and the start of a snow run. Ice pinnacles hung menacingly from the rails emphasising the sub zero temperatures and the prevalence of storms.
We gingerly tip toed around the reservoir to the start of the track, a viewing point that provided excellent views of the formidable Mt Feathertop and the aptly named Razorback Track. As we extracted our snow shoes a pack-less couple prepared to head out on what we could only assume to be a day trip, though they quickly disappeared from the established track.
Our major challenge for the initial walk along Loch Spur was avoiding skiers on what appeared to be a well established run. It took us a while to realise that we were indeed encroaching on the skiers’ groove and as a result we were buzzed on several occasions before shifting out of the way. The spur led to Derrick Col and the track swung to the east and began a gradual descent towards Derrick Hut. What was noticeable about our surroundings was that every barren branch was coated in thick ice suggesting the storms that came through this way were intense and bitterly cold. We had the good fortune of benign conditions but the surrounds suggested that it would not always be this way.
There were several steep snow banks on the route that required care and the footing could go from firm to soft in a short distance. An hour into our walk we arrived at Derrick Hut. Disappointingly, lack of maintenance meant that it offered no more than basic shelter as the front door had been removed and some of the windows lacked glass. Perhaps the shoddy treatment was a deliberate attempt to prevent people staying here rather than at the cushy resort five kilometres away but to us it just represented another example of how poorly managed the infrastructure is in Australian National Parks.
Having done no more than cool down and slow our progress we strapped on snowshoes once more and began the long descent along Swindlers Spur. As long as we continued to follow the numbered poles navigation was straightforward but it turned out to be surprisingly easy to lose track of the poles amongst the open forest. Who knew that picking out wooden poles from tree trunks could present a challenge?
As we neared the valley the snow began to give way to rock, necessitating a change out of snowshoes for the walk in to Dibbins Hut. This old fashioned log cabin was sturdy in its construction with a high triangular roof and slat walls. My judgement was that it was a somewhat dank and dark place that wouldn’t be overly pleasant to stay at.
Our progress had been okay up until this point but the challenging part of the day had only just begun. After crossing the Cobungra River the track began an incessant climb towards the Bogong High Plains. With an overladen and uncomfortable pack and legs feeling the strain I struggled with the 445 metre ascent and it was several hours before we arrived at the scenic plateau.
The next section was certainly a scenic highlight of the trip, involving a long stretch of walking across the icy slopes of the plain in late afternoon light rendered dramatic by dark overhanging clouds. The only cues on the treeless plain were the line of poles that marked the way forward towards the gentle rise of Mt Jim. Thin tussock barely poked through the scoured landscape, the only features the intricate rime sculptures. Thankfully a small tarn poked through the snow, allowing us to refill empty water bottles and to take in the quiet surrounds.
Eventually we reached the track junction that marked the joining of multiple tracks including to Tawonga Hut. We turned to the east and began a seemingly interminable walk over rolling hills blanketed in thick snow. Since leaving the boundary of the Mt Hotham Resort we hadn’t encountered another walker. As we reached another dog leg on the poled route we spied in the distance a cross country skier making his way towards us. But if we were expecting a friendly greeting we were sorely mistaken as the skier seemed to deliberately veer away from us to ensure that our paths did not cross. I was entertained by Bill’s affront at this snubbing of track etiquette and to top it off, the skier did not give us a second glance as he passed by at a distance of 50 metres, seemingly talking on a mobile phone. This was our introduction to the world of cross country skiers.
While Bill was travelling well with a good base of fitness, I was struggling in a way that I’d never encountered before. On the recent trip to Tasmania I’d noticed some sharp pain in my back which seemed to be due to the way I’d organised my gear in the pack. Because I was preoccupied with deactivated muscles causing my kneecaps to slip I didn’t focus too much on the back pain. But there was no ignoring the discomfort now. It was as if the design of the Aarn Pack was concentrating the weight onto both my neck and mid back. Ideally, pack weight is carried predominantly on the hips and shoulders. Instead I was keeling over in a stupefied state, wondering what was going on. Thankfully Cope Saddle and the small refuge hut was not too far away. When we arrived I pleaded that we stay the night as the idea of pushing on was too much to endure. Thankfully Bill agreed and we dropped our packs.
We set about making the extremely basic shelter as comfortable as we could, shifting the wood box to provide enough room to sleep on the floor. A small bench allowed us to prepare meals and warm drinks before arranging our mattresses and getting into our sleeping bags. A cold night was a given but we had warm gear to keep the chill at bay until morning broke.
When I planned the daily distances for this walk I envisaged that we would reach the hut situated underneath Mt Bogong on the second night. We were still 30 kms away from Cleve Cole Hut from our position on the Bogong High Plains and it was obvious that we wouldn’t be making that mark in the next twelve hours. For some reason I always ignore the time difference between walking in shoes in summer and walking in snow shoes in winter. As efficient as snow shoes are, shorter distances travelled each day needs to be planned for.
Fortunately there were numerous huts in the area meaning that we could adjust our plans as we progressed and fully enjoy the unique scenery. Furthermore, our ambitions were to optimise our time in the snow country by going no further than Mt Bogong. While it was possible to go onto Mt Wills this would have involved a long descent into a valley, a climb that we would have had to do twice if undertaken as an out and back.
It hadn’t snowed overnight but there had been a frost, giving the snow a brittle crust and a polished sheen. Working out the route from the saddle was a little difficult as the most obvious tracks went to the north or followed the Cope West Aqueduct to the south. Thankfully, Bill picked up the poled route heading east and we fell into following the line. A thick mist diffused the early morning sunlight so that we walked through a world of barely differentiated whiteness. The poles were no more visible than needles as we threaded our way across a featureless landscape.
Shortly after we left the tinderbox Bill made a show of point to the right at nearby Mt Cope. Ordinarily it would have been tempting to climb a mountain peak of 1837 metres. After all our final destination Mount Bogong was only 150 metres higher. Part of our disinterest was borne of our awareness that we were attempting to make up time and to wander away on side trips would be to continue to lose ground. It made sense to push on while the going was good.
One of the stranger moments of the trip came when we had to cross the Bogong High Plains Road. It was odd to feel our snowshoes scrape across a hard road surface and to know that we were on one of the few roads in Australia to effectively be closed over winter. We picked up the side track that cut the road and were soon at the site of Cope Hut. Set amongst an impressive band of eucalyptus, Cope Hut is one of the most stately huts that I’ve visited in Australia, though it is far from being fit for purpose. Corrugated iron walls and single pane glass were all the insulation provided from winter storms. When we had a look at the insides it was to discover the design faults were as basic as having multiple holes in the walls where snow and rain could pour through. But a closer look revealed a sturdy looking fire place and the high ceiling at least provided a sense of spaciousness even as it would have made heating the hut much more difficult than it needed to be.
We were keen to push on so we kept the morning break short. We briefly lost track of the poles but the route sloped towards the river and we chose the obvious place to cross, following the vehicle track towards the large buildings of the Rover Chalet. Snow drifts lapped at the yellow doors of the olive green edifices and there was no sign of habitation. We did discover a family of characters built out of snow, including a albino wallaby. It would be as close as we would come to spotting wildlife.
Shortly after leaving the Chalet we encountered a group of cross country skiers who had been dropped off at Langford Gap. They would be spending a week at the chalet and were seasoned skiers who had been coming to this area for many years. Their first comment to us was “snow shoes good, snow skies better”. As the group was somewhat spread out we were privy to a number of separate encounters, most of which led us to the conclusion that we were being condescended to. From their perspective the only reason to come to this area was to ski. More than this, the notion of camping or staying in huts was looked down upon, as if skiing denoted social standing. We’d come a long way to be made aware that there was no of the lack of egalitarian culture in the Australian bush. It was another enlightening aspect of the trip.
The route was following the Langford West Aqueduct and at times involved being perched at the top of a high snow bank, a steep wall on one side and an channel of icy water on the other. It was a section that required sure footing and a steady nerve. For the most part though the route was a standard four wheel drive track most of which was under compact snow. Perhaps our snow shoe tracks were disturbing the smooth grooves the skiers were using but I considered that a bonus.
Though we were in the snowiest part of Australia we were mindful that only the ridges or high routes were covered. To the west the valleys had a dun coloured uniformity. The fragility of the icy layer was reinforced in track sections that were denuded of snow and left us to ponder whether it would be quicker to ditch the shoes.
The five kilometre walk from Cope Hut to Langford Gap took about 2 hours. Langford Gap was something of a road junction with the Bogong High Plains Road nearby as well as a car park. Despite the presence of a small refuge hut nearby we didn’t feel inclined to stop. Although there was a tent pitched outside the hut there was nobody around. There were a couple of walkers lurking about the Bogong Plains road when we passed through the area but they didn’t come close enough to acknowledge.
Two kilometres upstream we encountered the dam on Langford East Aqueduct and its picturesque setting made it an ideal setting for lunch. A thin iron walkway provided a place to dump packs and sit down for a few minutes. The skies had partially cleared and the reflections in the water indicated very still conditions.
Soon after leaving the dame we arrived at the key route finding challenge of the day. The guidebook described the covered footbridge across the aqueduct which we had to cross. Unfortunately we were unable to find any indication of marked poles and decided to follow the unmarked track that followed the aqueduct back the way we came. We missed the key descriptor in the guidebook which was to walk northwards along a foot track through snowgum forest. The foot track was obviously under snow and without a pole we were soon off route and making it up as we went along.
Eschewing a walk through enclosed forest we chose a section of open marshes to the north-north-west of the bridge until we began a steady climb up mild slopes. We managed to find a marker that seemed to be for the benefit of skiers and were heartened by this. Cresting the hill we were surprised to see evidence of a road and in the distance there was a gradual stream of cross country skiers. Checking the map we discovered that we’d stumbled on the Big River Track, meaning that we were about two kilometres off course.
Over the next half hour we made the painful climb uphill while the Falls Creek skiers glided by on their afternoon outing. By this stage we really felt like plodders, though there was the compensation of soon linking up with the AAWT and the reassuring line of poles. We resolved to stick to the track and to properly read the route descriptions and maps.
Shortly after we encountered a couple of skiers who were referring to their map and considering the route required to take the AAWT. With their day packs and sense of certainty, they glided off on their cross country adventure while we recalibrated our sense of direction. By now it was getting late in the afternoon and our rate of progress dictated that the next hut that we encountered should be our overnight stop. There were two huts equidistant from where we were, Johnston Hut and Edmondson Hut. Johnston Hut was described as being locked while Edmondson Hut was described as being well insulated and comfortable. This made for a fairly easy decision about where to go.
To reach Edmondson Hut we needed to walk across a vast plain called The Park all of which was blanketed in a pristine layer of hard packed snow. This was another treeless plain like the Bogong High Plains and the uniformity made it quite mesmerising to walk through. The only points of differentiation were the occasional track markers, firstly to the left for Heaphy Spur and secondly to the right for Johnston Hut, which I assumed at this stage we would never get to visit. Shortly after the Johnston Hut turn off the route to Edmondson Hut banked sharply away from the AAWT. While the AAWT sidled the relentless slopes of Mt Nelse, the track to Edmondson dropped away quite steeply into a broad gully dominated by clumps of eucalyptus. The hut was not visible until we were almost on top of it and in its secluded position it was obvious that it would be well protected from any storms.
Edmondson Hut would have made an excellent summer campsite, well designed to ensure the coolest possible conditions. As a winter locale it was an icebox. Snow topped the window ledges on all sides and the door entrance had been shovelled out to allow entry. Even so, getting into the hut involved navigating a couple of precarious ice steps. Before going anywhere water had to be collected from the nearby creek. This involved a sharp drop into the high banked stream where the snow walls could be measured in terms of metres rather than feet. Even in mid afternoon the air was cooling in the deep shadows.
To give it its due Edmondson Hut was the best of all the huts we’d encountered in Australia. It almost seemed built for purpose, well insulated as promised but containing a well designed bunk area, an almost usable fireplace and two tables on which to prepare meals.
None of this was enough to tempt Jed, a cross country skier who had set up his tent under the eucalyptus trees one hundred metres away from the hut. When I arrived at the hut Bill was already having a chat to him about what he’d been up to. He said that he made it his practice to spend a week each year camping in the high plains over winter. He would set himself up at a base and then spend his days touring the high plains by ski. This seemed like an elegant way to go about best appreciating the special attributes of this area, vast spaces interspersed with interesting features such as spurs and mountains. Utilising his skis he would be in a position to cover a large distances and visit places that through walkers or day trippers wouldn't contemplate. We had immediate respect for our solitary colleague.
I was greatly relieved to reach the end of the tramping day. The Aarn Pack was excruciating to wear and my neck felt numb and immobilised. The saddlebags designed to be worn on the front were unwieldy when putting the pack on, making each short break a tedious affair of reapplying a bevy of straps. Having reached the mid-point of our trip it was possible to conceive of our trip to Mt Bogong as an overnight out and back venture. As such it should be possible to leave behind any excess baggage at Mt Edmondson while we undertook the Mt Bogong ascent. It was remarkable how much gear I was able to unload as non-essential and it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that I’d over-packed on a remarkable scale. Had we been stuck in a snowstorm for a week I’d have eaten quite comfortably. The extras were quite literally a rod for my back.
Bill was able to provide some relief by supplying me with a tube of deep heat. When applied this acted as a soothing balm that released much of the discomfort. It made the thought of continuing almost bearable. On the plus side, neither of us were experiencing any problems with slippage of knee caps. We put this down to the modulating effects of the snow shoes which encourage a steady gait and careful placement of each footstep. And of course the presence of snow is a great leveller of ground, ensuring unprecedented consistency underfoot.
As with many huts we had been warned that due to the presence of mice it would be wise to hang food up on the hooks provided. For reasons best known to myself I had taken a couple of muesli bars with me to the bunk area and had placed these next to my head. Throughout the night I was interrupted my rustling sounds near my head and when I eventually turned on my headlight it reveal a mouse dragging a muesli bar towards a crack in the wall. The mouse seemed unperturbed to be discovered mid theft and merely seemed to redouble its efforts to escape with the goods. I reached over and went “yoink”, snatching the bar out of the tiny paws of the rodent. Only then did the outmatched animal retreat behind the opening. Doing a count of bars I discovered that the mouse had successfully removed two muesli bars. So think about the resourcefulness at play here. The mouse was hunting, gathering and stockpiling. It wasn’t seeking the gratification of the immediate feed and had no intention of eating the food until it was safely out of harm’s way. I was most impressed with both the planning and execution. I almost felt guilty of relieving the diligent beast of its reward when I was so overladen with food and carry a few excess kilos on top of that.
Morning light breached the sleeping sanctuary and we woke to assess the overnight damage. The other phenomena we had been warned about was boots freezing overnight. There is nothing worse than attempting to put tender feet into unwieldy frozen clumps. Bill had been much more diligent than I had, keeping his boots inside his sleeping bag, while I had left mine on the floor. Though not as susceptible as some other boots I’d worn over the years there was certainly stiffness in the tongue and a layer of rime on the laces. Our snow shoes which had been left outside the hut were in even worse condition and the rubber straps where unyielding, making for a slow shodding.
Rather than return to the track turnoff I suggest that we cut across the slope and pick up the AAWT as it sidles underneath Mt Nelse. When we reach the poles Bill is adamant that this isn’t the track and that we need to backtrack to the track junction and head east. I don’t have a map in front of me to check these assertions and the formlessness of walking in the undifferentiated whiteness of snow slopes can be disorientating. In the spirit of compromise I agree to walk to the top of Mt Nelse which is only a short distance away. It provides some of the most spectacular views of the trip, looking over the vast plains back to Hollands knob.
Despite being able to see the Mt Bogong ridge to the north we begin the long descent to the east in the direction of Hollands Creek. Eventually we pick up a haphazard trail that descends sharply towards the valley forests. Although the route is poled these aren’t numbered and nothing about this route feels like the AAWT. We are very fortunate that after a relatively short distance the trail leads to Johnston Hut. We meet a group of campers lingering around a smouldering fire who are very surprised to discover that we believe we are on the AAWT. “Sydney Fools” would perhaps be their description when describing the strange encounter later on.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the wherewithal to photograph Johnston Hut, perhaps I didn’t want there to be any evidence of our ineptitude but it was as attractive wood cabin, sturdier and better placed than any other hut we’d encountered on the track. Of course, it was closed to the public. Having satisfactorily warmed up we began the tedious process of slowly gaining the height that we’d just given away. It takes an hour and a half to reach the spot that we’d been standing on earlier in the morning. It’s the expenditure of energy that’s just as damaging as the loss of time.
The next stretch of the AAWT makes it all worthwhile, high plains walking, pristine crystalline slopes gleaming bright under a beaming sun. In Edmondson Hut, I’d had the luck to read an article by an Indigenous Historian who recounted how these plains were much valued by the original peoples of this area, being a source of plentiful summer food, tribal interaction and cultural affirmation. The local tribes would come from all directions to collect, cook and store the nutritious Bogong moths.
Of course we were here in exactly the wrong season to replicate the experience but the visual payoff was immense. There appeared to be numerous tramping options leading along spurs and dropping into valleys. When we skirted the slopes of Mt Nelse North we encountered the signpost demarcating the turnoff to Spion Kopje. Shortly after another route led to the Round Plain while another kilometre brought the route traversing the Timms Spur. If the Timms Spur is mesmerising it is just the precursor to the overwhelming presence of the Mt Bogong massif, a huge range of plateaus, saddles, ridges, peaks and valleys. We know that we have to drop 800 metres into Big River before then having to gain 1,000 metres to reach the top of the mountain. It’s a arduous physical challenge that is going to test our limits.
Though our progress is steady it’s impossible to get beyond plodding speed when wearing snowshoes. This is protecting our knees but its shearing distances off what we’re able to achieve each day. And although the looming visage of Mt Bogong gives us the illusion that we are in touching distance of our target the reality is that we have many miles to go. After the turn off to Timms Spur we finally begin to lose height rather sharply as we drop towards the location of the recently built Ropers Hut.
Although this is a new hut it makes no concessions about what might be sensible design features in such terrain. Its walls are made of corrugated iron as is the roof. Inside there are no bunks, just thin perimeter seating that would barely fit a sleeping bag. The joints are not perfectly matched which means that there’s a porous quality to the interior and a chill wind whips through the cracks. Though visually attractive I’m glad that we won’t be spending the night. Getting away from Ropers Hut proves a little challenging as the AAWT does not leave directly from the hut but must be picked up 100 metres to the south. I try to lead us down valley to the north but thankfully Bill stops me before I do too much damage.
After Roper Hut the track enters the forest and begins a long descent along the Duane Spur. The route manages to be both long and steep, mainly because there is considerable tree fall on the track that requires careful scrambling to get around, under or over. I’m in considerable pain due to the Aarn pack and travelling slowly. Bill waits for me on the track and suggests that at our current speed there is no way we are going to make it to Cleve Cole Hut and that we should consider turning back and staying at Ropers Hut. The last hour has been a real battle and the thought of having to turn around and retrace our steps and then repeat the experience the following morning is inconceivable. Although I’ve left my tent pegs at Edmonson Hut I’ve brought along my tent so I suggest to Bill that we camp at the Big River campsite. That way we aren’t giving up any ground and we have an achievable end point to the day. Things start looking a little rosier.
Shortly after this discussion we meet up with a large tramping party coming the other way. As it happens they are making their way to Roper’s Hut, having spent the night at Cleve Cole Hut. They warn us that there is a large group of snow boarders who have been staying at the hut for a week and that they will be there for two more nights. This reinforces that we have no need to rush. After five minutes of chat the two groups pull away from each other and more towards their respective destinations.
Ours is the easier task, rolling downhill until we make the decision to lose our snow shoes and experience the novel feeling of having our boots touch the earth. Eventually we run out of slope and arrive at Big River. We follow the track one hundred metres south to the designated river crossing. Though there hasn’t been any rain snow run off means that the river’s flow is significant and not to be trifled with. The crossing involves picking a route through greasy boulders and thigh deep water. It’s a bracing experience and there’s a fair bit of relief to reach the other side.
The campsite is about one hundred metres away in an attractive clearing in the forest. A large tree trunk provides an excellent boundary for several of the tent sites as well as offering comfortable seating. While Bill gets to work on erecting his tent I discover that I can barely bend such is the extent that my shoulders, neck and back have stiffened under the yoke of the loathsome Aarn Pack. Any kind of bending motion is excruciating and for half an hour I’m unable to even contemplate the dextrous moves that will be required to put up a tent without pegs. It’s as low as I’ve felt on a tramping trip and as I’ve discovered over the years this is an activity that provides many diverse and unexpected low points.
Once more Bill comes to the rescue with the Deep Heat and this at least gets some feeling back into my muscles, even if it’s a burning sensation first and a relaxant second. Finally I’m able to consider the task as hand and begin collect sturdy twigs that could act as tent pegs. My nylon rope acts as guy rope at the front of the tent and I wrap it around my walking poles to provide a tepee. Bill provides a few spare pegs and with the surrounding bush offering up tie up points I soon have something that resembles a functioning tent. I wouldn’t necessarily want to test the sagging edifice in a thunderstorm but the benign skies suggest that I won’t need to.
The Big River campsite is one of the highlights of the trip, offering as it does counterpoint to all the other overnight stays by being below the snow line and protected from the freezing conditions. We won’t have to worry about boots freezing overnight or the machinations of hungry rodents. There are stars overhead and river sounds burbling nearby. Though I’m still stiff and sore, the dining experience in this forest idyll is to be savoured. Tomorrow we will have a solid climb to Cleve Cole Hut and then we can turn our attention to reaching Mt Bogong.