Egged on by the guys at church talking of their snow camps, I was enthused to try a very different hiking experience. Growing up in the Northern Territory snow was something that you only saw on TV and even then it was rare. I had become more acquainted with the white powdery or white wet stuff depending on your experience living in Connecticut, USA, near the ski fields of Vermont. However I’d never pitched a tent in it.
With safety our first concern and given our familiarity with the area we chose the Baw Baw Plateau as our destination and began the wait for some snow to fall. The ski season officially starts in June but it’s never guaranteed, most years August / September turn out to be best.
The logistical nightmare was getting time off work, where there was good snow prior to the weekend with reasonable conditions after. Following three failures to launch the perfect weather pattern that had been eluding us for weeks presented itself.
The plan was set in motion, we would drive to Erica, hire snow shoes at Erica Ski Hire, make our way to the Mt St Gwinear car park (it’s free to park there), walk over Mt St Gwinear, joining the Australian Alps Walking Track and then look to pitch up somewhere near Mt St Phillack.
Snow had been falling two days prior, one of the biggest dumps on record. Claire and I were musing over how much snow there would be. Hopefully a forest of white and enough to pitch the tent on. Careful what you wish for! Barely onto the dirt road and the snow made an appearance. Shy at first, just a dusting here and there, but as we climb the curtains pull back to reveal a thick coating, tree ferns weighed down by the unfamiliar site. I never thought we would need chains but sure enough we did and it was about to get worse and glorious all at the same time.
There is nothing like seeing the pure driven snow attaching itself to every living and non living thing, especially when it’s contrasted against a brilliant clear blue sky. This was the vista unfurling before us. The old car was holding up well through the slush and bumps, the chains doing their job. We could have been a million miles from anywhere, not another person or vehicle in site.
All of a sudden we hit the crowds , there’s been so much snow, Parks Victoria have been out early, grading the road and we’ve caught up, thanks for keeping the roads open. A party ahead of us doesn’t see the need for chains or to have to wait for the grader and attempts to maneuver around it, instantly caught by the white wet stuff as it constricts its grip on this new prey. To make matters worse the occupants have no idea how to fit chains and no shovel to dig themselves out. Time for all of us to lend a hand and get traffic moving.
Finally at the car park and rugged up with boots on, our snow shoes were needed immediately. It was like walking through the cupboard of Narnia, virgin snow laid out before us and trees dripping with the white stuff, the white witch was all that was missing. The walk starts off gently and our mind is captured by the landscape before us. Some of the trees are so laden they look like snow cones. Every breath fills our lungs with near freezing air sending a frigid shot through the body that immediately wakes us up.
Snow shoeing is a lot slower than cross country skiing and we are soon overtaken, I’m alright with it, it’s certainly easier with a lot less risk of falling over. 3 kms of ascent and we’ve peeled off a few layers as our bodies warm with the steeper incline. There is just a slight breeze at the top of Mt St Gwinear and like other trips the vista stretches for miles, the only difference is that it is all white!
More people are starting to gather and it’s not long before the peak is becoming crowded with skiers, adults and kids alike. Other than the hardy ones, this is about the end of the line, with a steep back side to negotiate to push further into the plateau most people are satisfied to make the top.
Time for us to be moving and the steep back side even in snow shoes takes some negotiating. This area is very familiar to us, having walked here twice before (Hiking brothers, tennis or trails; Baw Baw, Too Cold for Comfort), the landmarks are familiar but it is a whole different experience in winter. The snow is deeper here and as we walk into an open valley making our way to the Junction with Australian Alps Walking Track, I have a momentary lapse of concentration and fall through the snow. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, it feels like I’m never going to hit the bottom, as the snowshoe desperately search for grip there is nothing but air. The snow deceivingly hides bushes on the side of path which have given way and I can feel the sharp scratching branches of alpine heath clawing at my legging viciously attacking my trousers, entrapping me.
My leg completely consumed and now leaning in a precarious position the rest of my body tries to find balance while Claire’s response is to laugh, seeing the sight as very funny. I wrestle with the gnarled branches to extract my leg but I only achieve losing my balance and with a heaving fall thud into the snow. Now splayed out on the ground like the outline of a textbook murder scene it’s a puzzle to get up and Claire is useless as fits of the giggles have taken over.
Back up and standing but any remnant of dignity lost (thankfully no one else was around) we continue on. The snow pattern has changed and stopping to take in this beautiful but fragile spectacle notice that the tiny flakes have been driven by strong winds, whipped into the air landing wisply one on top of the other, feathering them.
Talk about driven snow, it’s so white any sense of impurity is gone. It’s a parallel of God talking to Isaiah, He says lets settle the matter, stating that though their sin (the Israelite people) be like scarlet they will be white as snow (God’s promise of redemption). White is a colour associated with holiness and cleansing and the pure driven snow sure is white! I love how the scriptures use analogies that relate into the physical world.
We make the junction with the Australian Alps Walking Track and head for Mt St Phillack, careful not to walk off the track again. The little creek is covered in places by a thin sheet of ice that belies the freezing water below. Walking towards the highest peak on the plateau the snow gains in depth and it’s hard work, each foot requiring full leg lifts. The trail narrows on the approach to the peak. It’s clearly evident where the cross country skiers have come through, but their tracks are far too narrow for our snow shoes. Mt St Phillack is a major disappointment if you haven’t done your homework. The peak is domed granite entombed on all sides by the snow gums and there is no view to speak of.
This is to be our camp for the night, but on inspection it’s not really what we were after, so continue on for a look at the saddle. The walk is easy down the other side and we pass a nice open space that looks like the place. The saddle, although it has views to Mt Baw Baw and Mt Buller in the opposite direction is exposed and with the biting wind and weather closing in, it’s less appealing than the more protected site we just passed.
The blue skies of morning have all but been vanquished by an afternoon squall, that turns the sky a dark grey before beginning to lightly snow. It’s pretty but in the back of mind I’m wondering whether it is going to get worse, should we stay or just call this one a day trip?
The snow is deep, easily half a meter or more and fluffy. We’ve never camped in the snow before so this is all new learning. One thing we do know is that we need a solid base on which to pitch the tent and decide to stamp out a foundation while we watch the weather before making an overnight commitment.
The stamping easily takes 45 minutes, our boots and bodies are the only heavily article we have to press down the snow. My jacket is feeling damp and thankfully the flurries have stopped. We decide to stick with the plan and stay overnight, rationalising that if it gets worse, it’s a simple walk out.
With the tent up and pegs miraculously holding in the packed snow, its time for an early dinner before the sun recedes below the horizon and we are thrown into Winter’s inky blackness. A hearty meal warms us and we decide to take a little night walk along the track. We’ve seen signs of Wombats, and on other trips seen them in snow, but nothing of interest this time.
We’re feeling really tired more so than usual and it’s not just a result of trudging through the snow, it’s because there is nowhere to sit. The snow storms of the past few days have been so comprehensive they’ve completely covered everything, tree branches and rocks included. It’s either stand outside or lie in the tent.
The snow flurries of the afternoon are long gone and the cloud has departed opening the night sky to a light show of the heavens. I’m captivated and decide to stay up, standing with my neck craned to the skies.
The temperature has plummeted, the cold washes over me in waves and any remnant of the evenings hot Milo has since passed. With every layer of clothing on I can feel the biting air in shivering waves, time for bed.
Our Exped Mira II is a great light weight tent, but it really isn’t meant for Winter, it’s mesh top doing nothing to stop the sinking cold air. Wrapped in my down sleeping bag, with self inflating mattress and foam under that, the shivering starts to become uncontrollable and I’m seriously worried in my ability to get through the night.
I scavenge for any remaining clothing, socks, gloves and make sure my winter jacket shell is over my feet. Claire’s sleeping bag is rated -9C and she seems to have gone off just fine. I continue to restlessly fall in and out of sleep. Waking to the recollection I have a survival foil in my bag, I forage around in the dim torchlight, wrapping myself in it and finally get some shut eye.
With a few more breaks in my sleep it is morning and the first rays of light hit the tent. I check the temp gauge and it’s sunk to -5C, that’s in the tent, no wonder I was cold. With no screaming hurry to get up, we both lie in bed and let the sun thaw us out.
In almost all places we have stayed over night, I’ve found a creek, river or waterhole to jump into the morning after. Nothing like that here but there is piles of snow and I’ve never dived into that on a hike.
I know how cold this will be, a dare at a friends place saw me jumping out of a hot tub straight into the snow in the dead of winter. Thing there was I could get straight back in the warm water, no such luxury here.
Wrestling in my mind between the adrenaline rush and the bitter cold and possible hypothermic conditions I might struggle to recover from, the rush won out. Preparing my clothes, extra socks and Claire’s hand warmers, I launch out of the tent.
The cold air hit’s every inch of my exposed skin like a wolf pack waiting for it prey to leave a safe refuge and all heat evaporates from my body. I cannot feel my feet, which are instantly numb the moment I touch the snow. Finding a suitable dive location, I take a big breath like a base jumper getting in the moment to experience free fall. Every hair on my body hopelessly stands to attention to trap a hint of heat, but is only stung by the cold.
With my knees crouched I lift off leaving the ground, my feet explode out of the snow, sending the white fluffy stuff spilling into the air, caught in suspended animation in the grip of the suns ray. Fully airborne I spectacularly and ungracefully pile into the snow headfirst, my body following, crashing down like dominoes, cocooned in ice.
A million tiny needles pierce my skin sending my nervous system into overload and my brain into shock, a great and final rush of heat pulses through my body and then numbness. Laying in the snow my body has gone red, there is no pain and looking at the blue sky and snow gums it’s like being in the hot tub, enjoying the sounds and sight of the wilderness in your backyard. It feels like the moment last a lifetime but within seconds my body start aching, every inch of me shivering, fruitlessly trying to generate heat.
I struggle to stand up, my feet have lost all feeling, the tent is only a few metres away but it might as well be the other side of the mountain. Finally composed I stand to my feet and make a run for the tent and a chamois to dry off. Feeling every biting inch of cold I take a run along the track the part bathed in the sun. The limited heat is heavenly and getting warm in its rays is like a battle of good and evil. Every wave of heat, followed by a rush of biting cold.
Eventually I retreat to my sleeping bag, fully recovering an hour later.
With my temp gauge proudly hanging in a tree, it does little to comfort us that the day is indeed warming, stubbornly staying below the 5C mark.
Pack up is awkward and drying the gear is almost impossible, but we get there in the end. The day has turned out spectacularly and before our return, decide to check the views once more from the Phillack Saddle. On arrival playing in the snow is more fun than the view and before we know it falling waist deep in the snow gives way to lunch and the slow journey back.
Many more people are on the mountain today and as we near the summit of St Gwinear the trail is pretty mashed up the pristine snow a distant memory, still it’s great to see so many families and children out enjoying the white wonder that will be all but gone within a few days.
The car park is packed, the toboggan runs cluttered with brightly coloured plastic and clothing blurring together as parents and children alike shriek and shrill, hopelessly attempting to avoid one another on the slope.
It’s the end of our journey and feels good to get in the car and turn the heater on, after we defrost the windscreen and get the wipers moving again.
Distance from Melbourne – ~120 km or 2 hrs, closet town is Noojee.
Park Type – National Park, fireplaces, pets and firearms are prohibited.
Camping – Dispersed bush camping is permitted on the Baw Baw Plateau. The Plateau is a fuel stove only area; therefore no solid fuel fires are permitted. The area falls within domestic water supply catchments, so care must be taken with the disposal of human waste. Try and camp in already made sites to protect the fragile alpine environment from further damage. There are no facilities other than at the St Gwinear carpark and the Baw Baw resort.
Water source – There is no potable water however water can be found in Tanjil Bren between the resort perimeter and the Junction with the Australian Alps Walking Track. Further water sources are between the Junction of the Australian Alps walking track and the trail to the summit of St Gwinear and on Mustering Flat itself. Additional water maybe sourced close to the St Gwinear car park. No water source is guaranteed year round. It is recommended you bring enough water for your stay and if you do need to drink the river water or snow, boil it or in some other way treat it first.
Attractions – Landscape views, summits, exploring, peace and quiet, snow play at times during winter
Reference – Parks Victoria – Baw Baw National Park