The new day dawns brightly. Conditions are perfect for further exploration of the mountain but we have a schedule to keep if we are to make it back to Mt Hotham with enough time to climb Mt Feathertop. We are aiming to make it back to Edmondson Hut by the evening, a distance that took us two days to cover. To do so we are out the door by 7.30am and pleased to be free of the clammy hut and back in the fresh air. A final photo reveals there to be seven sets of skis outside the hut, revealing just how popular this location is.
There’s nothing like the hard slog of a steep climb to start the day. Muscles are rested and ready to be tested and anticipation is high about the heights to be tried. We launch ourselves on the T Spur ridge which climbs 650 metres in less than two kilometres. For the start of the walk we are in our boots but when we hit icy slopes there’s great comfort in strapping on the sure grip of our snow shoes. Skis wouldn’t have cut it in this terrain.
Once we reach the T Spur Knob we roll along easy terrain and where the forest opens up we can see the long sweep of the literally named Long Spur as it tracks to Mt Wills. We pass through pockets where bands of trees have died off, though it’s hard to tell if the cause has been draught, fire or something else. Thankfully, the forest is healthier when we reach the turn off to Cleve Cole Hut. There are supposed to be remnants of Maddisons Hut in this area but these are probably under snow.
This will be our major diversion away from the AAWT. We follow an open valley for 600 metres before encountering Camp Creek which we’re able to cross with the help of snow bridges. The final haul to Cleve Cole Hut is hard work after the effort required on the T Spur Ridge and it’s a relief to reach the distinctive hut. Where previous huts on this site have been built out of straw and sticks, Cleve Cole now stands as a hut built of stone and it’s hard to imagine a sturdier looking property. There are three solar panels attached to the front of the building and numerous sets of skis leaning on the wall.
We go inside to meet the residents, a group of gnarly dudes from the Wangaratta Ski Club who appear to have a touch of cabin fever after so long spent in the hut. Though it’s the middle of the day there seems to be little inclination by the group to be outdoors. We make our introductions and select spots on the communal bunks. We take a quick lunch, keen to get out of the clammy atmosphere. Weather conditions are good and we need to take advantage of this if we’re to reach the top of Mt Bogong.
Thanks to the likes of Cleve Cole there is a long line of poles to follow from the hut all the way to the summit of Mt Bogong. Without these we’d quickly become lost. The ridge is extremely broad and contains a number of leading spurs so that it would be easy to disappear off a side track. By the time we reach the Lendenfield Point a thick fog settles on the tops and shows no sign of abating. The poles are set out at about 50 metre intervals and as they are covered in thick layers of rime ice they are rendered close to invisible in the fog. We are following a route that leads directly north but which then follows a wide arc requiring a hard tack to the west.
The direction of the route alters slightly between poles meaning that to walk in a straight line would result in wandering off course. The closer we get to the summit the more difficult it is to see the next pole and we have to scan and sweep to guarantee our safety. For the last two days we’ve been looking at the imposing face of the massif as it drops away into Cairn Creek and there’s no way we want to go anywhere near the lip of the ridge. As we near the top visibility drops to no more than twenty metres. There’s a strong case for turning back, particularly as there are no views to be seen in any case. But just at this point there’s a break in the clouds and the penultimate pole reveals itself, as does the hulking cairn that has been constructed at the top of the rounded dome.
As we approach the cairn there appears to be the figure sitting down in front of it. For a moment I wonder if this is an expired visitor but the figure stands up and begins to move around as we approach. It seems he is waiting for the views to clear. The solo traveller has his pack with him but he is cagey about where he will be staying. Once he clears off we don’t see him again and we assume that he has retreated down the Eskdale Spur to the nearby hut. In the meantime we proceed to search for the bags of nuts that are wedged into the summit cairn to be extracted as a reward by all who climb the peak. Bill is sceptical that such rewards exist but it is not too long before he extracts a Mt Bogong nut pack. It’s the small rewards that can make these sorts of trips worthwhile.
It takes about two hours to walk from the hut to the top and as the weather continues to clear there’s no need to rush back to our crowded accommodation. We’ve walked for four days to reach this point so we may as well enjoy it.
Dark clouds have settled on the horizon which proved a stark contrast to the creamy shades of the tops. One of my favourite views is of the layered mountain rangers running in parallel with Mt Bogong.
The other feature that is extraordinary is how much ice accumulates on the poles, seemingly increasing their girth fourfold. Although we are well rugged up we need to keep an eye on the ominous looking skies. Getting caught in a storm on these tops would be a scarifying experience as there are few options for seeking shelter.
Slowly we retreat from the cloudy tops and make our way down past Eskidale Point, Audax Point and Tadgell Point to the secluded setting of Cleve Cole Hut. On our way off the ridge we pass another solitary cross country skier who is walking steadfastly up the hill. It seems he’s probably taken one look at the full hut and decided to press on for the hut off the Eskidale Spur.
When we’d left the boys they’d set up a small ramp on which to practice their jumping skills but by the time we arrive back they are tucked up inside, preparing the evening meal. Over the next hour we are introduced to the many mod cons of Cleve Cole Hut, including hot water from the tap, a functional stove and solar lights. Convivial conversation and games of chess pass the time.
The out and back trip is underrated, the assumption being that the views are as familiar as the terrain. What happens is you often get to see more as much less of your attention is devoted to route finding. And as you are travelling in the opposite direction you are looking at what was at your back the first time. This is no more evident than when descending a route that had required an arduous climb. To be able to look across to the Duane Spur is to be able to appreciate just how much of this area features vast bands of dead trees through which new growth pushes through.
It takes us three hours to reach Big River which isn’t quick travel, but gives an indication of the respect we’re giving the steep and icy slopes of the T Spur. Again, snowshoes ensure safe footing and are an essential part of reaching Mt Bogong. Once we are half way down the T Spur we need to take our shoes off and resort to standard hiking through the final steep section. This is the only part of the trip where I encounter problems with my knee caps slipping, a painful and debilitating condition caused by a lack of muscle tone.
The crossing of Big River, or more accurately, big stream is moderately tricky. I elect to sidle with the flow which takes me past the exit point but avoids the deepest and most slippery part of the crossing. Bill ploughs through sans pants.
There’s nothing for it other than to grind out the next section and it climbs steadily out of the valley and connects with the high plains. Between Big River and Ropers Hut is 740 metres of ascent and several exhausting clambers through treefall.
When we reach the regular snow slopes the footing is firm and I aim to reach Ropers Hut before stopping to put on snowshoes. It’s a decision that’s not universally popular with our tramping group. Ropers is a chilly setting for lunch and I’m glad that circumstances have meant that we’ve avoided staying here.
We have trouble locating the route after Ropers as some kind of motorised vehicle has obliterated any footsteps that we might have liked to follow. I grizzle that the tracks are those of day trippers from the Falls Creek ski resort but it’s more likely that the vehicle was used by a Park Ranger who was doing maintenance on the huts.
Once we reach the turn off to Timms Spur we’re back over 1,800 metres and have completed most of climbing for the day. Ahead of us is a seemingly unending line of poles that stretches towards the horizon. The surface is so hard that the grooves of the snow shoes scrape at the tops and barely makes an imprint. It’s a tiring walk but rather hypnotic. The hills and valleys are hard to differentiate and at one point I start to descend, thinking that we’ve reached the valley which holds Edmondson Hut. Bill has to dissuade me of this illusion and point out that we’ll need to climb back to the track and continue to follow the slopes at the 1,800 metre line.
Finally, with the late afternoon sun giving way to shadowed valleys, we can leave the AAWT and travel across country to the band of eucalyptus that shelters Edmondson Hut. As my knee caps are starting to slip I must descend using a circuitous zig zag route while Bill makes a determined bee-line to our destination.
The cross country skier has cleared out which is wise as there has been talk of a front coming through which is expected to bring snow and blizzard like conditions. So there’s that to look forward to. Edmondson Hut remains obscured in walls of hard packed ice which make it slightly foreboding to enter. The gear that I’ve left remains intact and I reacquaint myself with my excess kilos. It’s been a long, draining day and we’re pleased to be able to rest, recuperate and plan. If a wild storm breaks out we do have the option of staying put for the day, though this would mean that we’d have two longer tramps to reach Mt Hotham by Friday afternoon.
The day breaks as ominously as has been forecast. The eucalyptus rustle under strong winds and grey skies provide limited visibility. When we return to the AAWT we are on an open plain that is blizzard blasted by cross winds. Of course we are the only party out in this weather, the ski resorts would be having an indoors day, that is for sure.
Ahead of us lies our opportunity for redemption as we retake the navigational exam between the Marum Point Track and the Langford East Aqueduct. It shouldn’t be too hard should it? After all it is simply a matter of following the marked poles. Given that we’ve managed to get lost twice it’s almost a matter of pride to successfully follow this section. But it’s not easy. The route meanders through scrappy open forest and there are natural channels leading away from the less obvious poled route. On occasions we have to scout ahead in multiple directions in order to locate the next pole. Perhaps it would be easy in summer when there is a well worn track but we’re walking on undulating snow. The markings of skis merely confuse the issue as these are almost certainly not going where we’re going.
Eventually the inevitable happens and we’re unable to find the next pole. We have two options, walk directly downhill and pick up our bearings once we arrive at the swampy flats or select a direction and doggedly stick to it. In the end we settle on a compromise, picking the best route through the forest, skirt gullies and treefall as we go. We emerge at the East Langford Aqueduct trail and follow this west for about 50 metres before arriving at the footbridge.
Little are we to know that this wander through the forest will be the only pleasant part of the walk, protected as we are from the prevailing gale force winds that are sweeping through. The walk to Langford Gap is headlong into a stinging wind. Underfoot the snow has turned to mush, making our snow shoes somewhat redundant. To get a break from the winds we duck into the shelter near the Gap for a much welcomed morning tea. And then we step back outside into the most wintry conditions we’ve encountered so far.
There has been a fair bit of melt since we’ve walked through this area. It’s amazing what a difference a few days can make. It makes it hard to know whether it’s more efficient to walk with snowshoes on or snowshoes off. We alternate depending on conditions but it means engaging in the slow process of taking packs off and fiddling with straps with chilly hands.
As we’re going no further than Cope Hut we have plenty of time to visit Wallace Hut, a ramshackle construction that was built in 1889. It’s the oldest hut in the hills but extremely run down. I arrive to find Bill in the woodshed and together we open up the main door to the dark and rather dreary main room. It's not a pleasant place to have lunch but it at least provides some respite from the elements.
We arrive at Cope Hut in the early afternoon, seeing no-one at the Rover Chalet. We discover inhabitants who are stoking a healthy fire. Richard and Leslie Ann are from a small town just south of Melbourne and have come to ski tour. Michael is also from Melbourne and has been travelling on snow shoes, having walked in from Falls Creek. To avoid cabin fever Leslie Ann straps on her skis and glides over to the Chalet where she is given the tour of the boiler room and invited to stay for afternoon tea. The residents are happy to have her as it has been an indoors day for all concerned and she’s a welcome distraction. I think we must have been the only party to have done any significant travel this day.
When she returns Bill and Leslie Ann commence a major gathering of firewood which is broken down and put into the woodshed. Although we maintain a good fire the hut is so porous that it cannot retain its heat for long. During the night there are heavy snow drifts and there is a considerable sprinkling of snow on the boards and bunks at the southern end of the hut. The toilet block is even worse affected with a drift occupying much of the cubicle.
Fortunately the storm has paspasses, leaving fresh powder and blue skies. We are set to have a great day and so it turns out. The new snow does present its own risks as it bridges over the streams and small gullies that make up the terrain. I discover how easy it is to be swallowed up when I break the surface of a covered hole and plunge in waist deep. Bill is on hand, not to pull me out, but to take photographs as I demonstrate the Bear Grylls approved method for escaping from quicksand and other natural hazards.
We arrive at Cope Saddle by mid morning and discover that the hut has been used since we’ve last been here by a party that has burnt much of the available wood and left the door ajar so that a snow drift has spread across the floor. We spend ten minutes sweeping out the snow before it turns to water and leave a note in the hut book.
Looking back at the small hut on the hill is to see one of the more forlorn looking buildings one could hope to see. It had certainly been an appreciated shelter for us on our first night out.
The next section is very much our Scott of the Antarctic experience as we trudge along the poled line through a formless landscape. Light mist enhances the sensation of being adrift in a sea of white. We pause at the only track marker on the plain to take stock and to set our course to the south west. Next time we pass through this way we will explore some of the other routes from this track junction.
By this stage in the day the Aarn Pack has worked its magic and left my back and neck numb. After stretching out on one of the poles I carry the pack on my front before settling on using my poles as levers to ease the weight away from my back.
The other strategy is to walk as quickly as possible in order to limit the amount of time I have the pack on my back. But the Bogong High Plains are long and take a long time to walk across. The numbers on the poles help as we’re now on the countdown towards zero.
We reach the edge of the plain but there’s no lifting of the fog even as we begin our descent to the valley. This is perhaps our favourite part of the entire walk. The snow drifts of the last couple of days mean that we must thread our way through high banks and take care to avoid concealed gullies. The poles tend to blend into the dimly lit forest like ghostly apparitions meaning that we must often pause and scan the terrain. The dusted woods have a stately grandeur that makes us feel like its creatures. The atmosphere is still and deep.
On a clear day we would be able to see Mt Feathertop but even though the slopes we walk on are bathed in sunshine the clouds ahead are grey and dark. At times the trees seem to lean in, creating a tunnel through which we must traipse.
One eucalyptus stands out, towering over the others and seemingly composed of multiple strands that twist around each other, straining to the sky.
Such is our enjoyment of the tops that we pause for a late lunch at a clearing, even though a concerted hour would see us arrive at the valley floor. From our vantage point we can make out both Swindlers Spur and Machinery Spur on the other side of the valley. Mt Feathertop remains obscured and it seems unlikely that we’ll be attempting a day walk in its direction tomorrow.
It doesn’t take long to cool down while sitting down for lunch in the snow and the break makes us keen to start the final part of the day’s walk. Sidling on gentle snow slopes is about as pleasant as it gets when wearing snow shoes. The shoes grip then slide forward so that barely any effort is needed to build up an easy momentum.
After forty minutes the slopes start to give way to steps and the snow cover is no longer continuous. We trudge along for a little while but eventually concede that it’s time to put the shoes away for another day. This occurs at Pole 203 and I mark the event with a photo.
The footbridge across the Cobrungra River retains its snow cover and ours are the first footsteps to be marked for the day. When Bill finally arrives at the bridge he is in his full winter outfit, replete with snow goggles and gloves. It isn’t quite that cold!
The valley floor leading to Dibbins Hut is dotted with grass tufts bobbing out of the snowing floor. I’d looked askance at Dibbins Hut when we’d first passed this way, quickly dismissing it as a place to stay. Circumstances dictate that it has considerably more appeal on our return. Our other option would have been to press on to the Derrick Hut site and attempt to find somewhere to camp, a difficult task with the fresh snow.
Dibbins Hut is definitely rustic but it is also large, roomy and dry. Although conditions above are somewhat bleak and chilly it’s easy to stay warm in the hut. As it is only mid afternoon I decide to clear the snow off the outdoor picnic table but it remains rather dank and slimy and it doesn’t lend itself as a place to either eat or hang out.
The snow comes up to the hut door and drifts start to fall towards evening. I have the good fortune to find a beanie in the hut after several days of going without. I’d left my trusty balaclava on the bus when we got off in the dark at Wangaratta and I’d lost the white replacement beanie somewhere on the walk on the second day when we left Cope Saddle. Belatedly finding this beanie makes having a cuppa in the doorway just that more enjoyable.
The beanie comes in particularly handy the following morning in conditions that are severely gloomy. The outdoor table has received another icy layer and squalls sweep across the valley.
We commence the walk along Swindlers Spur and it leads steeply through the bush before reaching slopes on which we can revert to snow shoes. Visibility is low and we lose connection with the poles on several occasions. By this stage we’ve masted the art of staging the recovery reconnaissance in order to pick up the poled line, so there’s no panic in these moments.
We pause briefly for a break in an exposed clearing and then make our way through the oncoming blizzard to the dubious comforts of Derrick Hut. As we arrive another party quickly absconds in the direction of Mt Hotham. The reluctance of travelling parties to stop and chat has been a curious feature of this trip.
We must steel ourselves for the final section of the day’s walk as we return to the domain of the ski resort. A cold bluster provides a stinging accompaniment once we emerge from the forest and find ourselves closer to the ridge. We give consideration to walking along one of the ski trails to where it comes out below the village but this walk is steep and unpleasant so we wisely abandon the attempt and return to Loch Spur.
Having spent the better part of a week encountering no one attempting the route we’ve chose we stumble across a group who are making their way to Cope Hut and beyond. They're talkative, willing to share the details of their planned adventure and to listen to our tales.
We arrive at the first pole of the trip and Bill attempts to mark the moment with a photo but the lens has condensation on it and gives the impression of a blizzard in full swing. A strong wind kills any desire to stay outdoors. We skirt the ski lift and the aqueduct and arrive at the road. From here a quick trudge sees us safely to the waiting room. We spend the afternoon composing postcards and counting down the hours until the bus arrives. As we leave conditions continue to deteriorate which provides a strong sense of relief that we’re leaving. The alpine high country has provided many memorable vistas and experiences but I’m reminded of the warnings of the local who’d spoken of the inhospitable nature of the backcountry. It is not a place to linger.