Mt Beauty as the name describes is a picturesque little town nestled on the edge of the Alpine National Park, Gateway to Falls Creek, one of Victoria premiere ski resorts and Victoria’s tallest mountain peak, Mt Bogong.
Six months early fishing for trout on the pond on a cool crisp morning, daylight struck over the mountain revealing it snowy crown and the majesty of its peaks. I knew at that time I had to climb it. Clear of the city and now on the Hume, what had previously been just the imaginings of a hiker looking for the next adventure was about to become a reality.
Mt Bogong, at 1922m is Victoria’s highest peak, just pipping Mt Feathertop for the honour Day 3 – Mt Feathertop, it’s all just a dream. An indigenous word meaning “Big Fella” it is all that and more. While not as high as the peaks of North America or Europe, its a mountain that has taken it’s fair share of lives and like any peak in the Alpine Region is prone to rapid and at times severe weather changes as we were to discover firsthand.
Mt Bogong lies just out of township of Mt Beauty and in summer can be approached through Bairnsdale in Gippsland via the Falls Creek resort. A scenic but lengthy route even if you live in the south east of Melbourne. Or more directly up the Hume Highway and through Bright, a town famous for it spectacular autumn colour. Choosing the latter is about a 4 hour drive, not considering peak hour traffic.
It’s Anzac Day and our fist glimpse of Bogong since our Holiday arrives as we crest the pass of the range that separates Bright and Mt Beauty. It looms large on the horizon, the skies are blue and there is no cloud in sight, conditions couldn’t be better. Our route will take us up Staircase Spur past Bivouac Hut to the top of the plateau taking a short detour to the summit before making our way to Cleve Cole Hut for the night and returning to the carpark via the Eskdale Spur the following day.
The start of the steps is less than kilometer from the car park and the mountain begins to throw itself at you before you’ve even had time to warm up. It’s one giant step master as we commit to 1500m elevation over 6km of trail.
The stairs are heavy on your legs particularly with fully loaded packs. Runners pass us like we are standing still as do day trippers. Bivouac Hut will be our lunch stop and it feels like forever to get there as the staircase climbs switching back and forwards. Differing widths and heights of steps make it difficult to find our stride.
Bivouac Hut roughly marks the half way point and is located on a flattened area of the Staircase Spur, providing some respite among the tress. Like all Huts in the Alpine area they are for emergencies only. There is tank water on tap and a few clear areas to pitch tents as well as an informal communal fireplace.
It’s hard to get lost here, the track is well marked and being on the spur you’re either going up, down or off the sides! Beyond the hut is less stairs and more trail walking and it’s surprising how much longer you’re in the trees. Equally surprising is how quickly you are out of them. The ecocline, the line at which the vegetation changes is quite distinct and on Mt Bogong you move from Peppermint Gums to Snow Gums to Alpine heath in very short transitions.
Clearing the trees the whole landscape changes, the exposed extremities of the spur show their wear. The vistas stretch out for miles to the north uninterrupted and the ridge line above that leads to the summit, cuts the horizon like a knife. It’s rugged, steep and windy but it’s power to impress or destroy is intoxicating. It’s like inhabiting a forbidden place and every foot steps only brings more of a rush.
Setting foot in alpine environments, especially outside a ski resort is alien and it’s this lack of familiarity that draws the curiosity. From the cool crisp wind biting at your jacket to the lunar landscape dotted only with low heath to the cavernous gullies and rapidly changing weather, all your senses are heightened anticipating what the mountain will throw at you next.
At 2,200m Mt Sinai is just a few hundred metres taller than our destination and I imagine how it must have been for Moses to meet with God in a place where you don’t control the outcome. How heightened he must have been and quite possibly apprehensive, even fearing an encounter with the almighty. The God of the Old Testament could be frightening at times, as Solomon said the Fear of God is the beginning of all Wisdom. I love that we have live in a time of Grace brought about through the sinless sacrifice of Jesus. But I do wonder whether that extension of grace to us has also meant that we have chosen to package God into what is a comfortable and controllable box. A very different experience to this mountain.
As a sobering reminder that the mountain takes lives if you don’t respect it or get it wrong, is a memorial to three people who died in a blizzard in 1943. More recently there was further tragic loss of life when two young men were taken in an avalanche.
Stepping onto the slippery, shaly granite, tantalising close to the top of the ridge line, each foot step is made carefully. There’s not much to stop you rolling down the side if you get it wrong here. Hearing the granite cracking and grind under my boot I’m glad to be done with that bit and now on the ridge proper, a few hundred more meters and we’ll be at the summit. The metal poles make a weird and eerie humming noise, whose source is not immediately obvious and a little off putting to begin with. No the mountain is not possessed!
Mt Bogong like Mt Kosciuszko is a rolling dome summit and once you overcome the ridge climb it opens into much flatter country. The last few hundred metres is a doddle and nice respite from the stairs and climbing.
The wind is up and even on a clear April day bites at any exposed skin. The summit is marked by the largest Cairn of any peak I’ve been on and is a marvel of engineering and determination to find the rocks that constitute it.
The view as expected on top of Victoria’s highest peak are limitless and you need to take a moment or more to settle yourself be present, acknowledge where you are and breathe it in. We’ve been advised you can see Mt Kosciusko from here and while we can see that far we can’t make it out with any certainty.
The walk has taken longer than expected, we’re the last ones up. All the day trippers have abandoned the mountain and this time of year is devoid of the benefit of daylight saving and long twilights. We’re still at least 2 hours away from our final destination and comfortable we can make it, with the headlamps, GPS and maps on board.
Breathing in one final appreciation of the vista we notice some cloud forming on the horizon and rapidly wisping over the summit. Within ten minutes the wisps have turned to a thick moist fog, driving visibility from infinity to about 50m. All of sudden it’s starting to feel like an episode of “I shouldn’t be alive”.
The wind has picked up its fury and it’s like the mountain is angry we are here. The sun blotted out and our visibility reducing by the minute, its time for some critical decision making.
Sidebar: we make lots of decisions in life most of them unconscious or with very little consideration. For the most part they’re innocuous. But then there are critical decisions, ones that change our destiny, good or bad. As a casual observer of people who find themselves in life and death situations in the outdoors. I’m often surprised by the simple and silly decisions that lead to disaster. It’s made me more aware of when a decision is a critical decision and to respect it as such.
The pull to continue to our final destination is strong, I’ve not failed to reached a hiking destination and I don’t want to start now. Claire and I both know that while this mountain might be no Mont Blanc or Kilimanjaro, it still has the power to take your life if you don’t respect it.
We weigh up the options; turn back and descend in the dark, push forward in unknown territory and limited visibility or hunker down on the lee side of the summit and wait for morning. We choose the latter, refocusing our goal on surviving the trip unscathed rather than reaching our final destination.
The sun sinks quickly below the horizon and we work fast to establish camp in a little depression on the lee side. The wind is battering us and even though it is April the temperature is dropping.
Preparing and eating dinner is a battle against the buffeting gale and cold that has now wet everything with infinite little droplets that find their way into every nook and cranny. We turn in for the night listening to the wind outside scream like a banshee, the mountain is really, really mad with us now…
It’s nearing midnight and my body is in a state of alert, partly in protecting Claire and partly battling the fear of being blown off the mountain (an unlikely possibility). Our Exped Mira II is doing a great job of protecting us from the elements . But the gusts are so strong the lightweight alloy poles flex hitting me in the head. The tent shakes as if in the hand of a giant trying to get coins from a piggy bank.
I’m acutely aware we are short on guy lines and associated stakes, a lazy oversight of not checking the gear before departure. I know I’d feel safer if I could get more lines to the ground. Necessity being the mother of all invention I widely start stripping mine and Claire’s boots of their laces and with some sizable rocks near our site, jimmy up some guy lines.
The tent holds a little better, I put my ear plugs in and decide there is nothing more I can do to increase our safety other than pray. I pray that God keeps us safe and place our safety in his hands. I’m reminded of what a pastor once said. If you have a word from God concerning your destiny and it has not been fulfilled then your time to join him in eternity has not yet come. Lying in the tent being shaken like some carnival ride knowing there are still many more hours of this, I’m not sure I agreed with his words. They are comforting though and I decide I just need to hand my present situation and concern to him and trust in his plan for me.
With that I roll over fall asleep and stirring later am greeted by the faintest hints of light, it’s morning. We pack without delay and make our way off the summit. The conditions are no better, but we have light and can make out the marker poles of the plateau to the descending trail.
The wind continues to buffet us, trying to blow us off course like an old TV episode of Gladiator. Where two competitors would stand on a wooden plank with large poles and strike the other to knock them off. The granite slabs are wet and slippery and we’re relieved to be past them but disappointed to be leaving this majestic and enthralling landscape. Back below the tree line, there is respite from the wind and we scuttle down to Bivouac Hut.
We must have looked like ghosts or some other Halloween figures startling the campers whose tents dotted the bare earth. Their puzzled looks betrayed their thinking. Did these guys really camp up their last night? Casting that from their minds they asked if we had done an early up and down. Alas we confirmed their hidden curiosity that we’d stayed overnight, greeted, with yeah hardcore and woe, you guys are crazy.
We shared morning tea and stories together, then like ships crossing in the night, they headed for the angry summit crowned in cloud and we headed for the tranquil peace of Mountain Creek that girds the foot of Bogong.
By the time we reached the car park, the mountains demeanour had changed, the cloud lifting, the sun shining and the mountain welcoming it’s next unsuspecting visitor who might dare to be caught on its slopes after dark.
We’re not finished with this one yet and we make a pledge to return and achieve our final goal, Cleve Cole Hut and wow, how good would it be to do this in late Winter early Spring.
Distance from Melbourne – 380km or 5 hrs, closest town is Mt Beauty.
Park Type – National Park, fireplaces, pets and firearms are prohibited.
Camping – There is camping around Bivouac Hut, and dispersed camping across the plain, although this is discouraged given the impact of the fragile flora of the alpine slopes. The park is a fuel stove only area; therefore no solid fuel fires are permitted.
Water source – There is tank water at Bivouac Hut, no other waters sources were identified
Attractions – Alpine views, exposed mountains , exploring, birds, peace and quiet
Reference – Parks Victoria – Mt Bogong