This winter has been like no other with snow levels one for the record books. We’ve been pining for another snow camp since Baw Baw and attempted last year at Bogong but was too late in the season.
We didn’t think this year would come off with much of our snow season spent traveling in Europe. But with an unexpected reuniting with friends and a season extending into early October we found a date that worked and prayed the weather would be good and the snow would still be about. Something we didn’t need to worry about.
Usually it’s just Claire and I on these trips, it can be tricky to find hiking buddies that compliment your pace, ideals and hiking values. In catching up with an old friend we found that and for this trip Sharon joined us. Having lived in some cold parts of Canada, which bit’s aren’t, we were thankful to have her knowledge and experience of mountain hiking in snow conditions.
Leaving Melbourne the din of traffic fading, the Hume opened ahead of us the main arterial between Melbourne and Sydney and undoutedly one of the worlds most boring roads. Thankful to be nearing the turnoff that signals the high country we gave the Alpine road a miss this time, instead opting for the snow road, a local route that cuts about 20 minutes off the trip to Mt Beauty and the motion sickness inducing Tawonga Gap.
Mt Bogong doesn’t look like much, the exposed Western Peak devoid of snow, but the snowshoe rental people assure us the summit will have plenty, despite our view.
Our route is a familiar one, starting at the camp ground walking Mountain Creek Road (more of a track with creek crossings and closed to vehicles in winter) to Camp Creek Gap, up the Eskdale Spur across the summit and down The Staircase.
The first leg is a gruelling 7 km with a slight incline and no rewarding views of the mountain. My heavy pack, compliments of snow shoes and cold weather gear bites into my side and with every step I feel it, a constant reminder I have not worn it for a while.
Relaxing into the gait my attention turns to God. I always feel closest to Him when I am in his spectacular creation. I relish the time to talk and listen, as I narrated in a recent outdoors clip, the mountains really are a detox for the heart.
I asked God to reveal something new to me which became a living revelation later in the trip.
After a few shoes off creek crossings and a bit more uphill we arrive at the start of the Eskdale Spur. Hearts sink as no snow is evident anywhere. We try and remain positive that maybe we’ll encounter some at the head waters of Mountain creek. With none there it’s hard to escape the thought we should have been here last weekend. A few more turns through dense scrub, slapping our faces and making our cheeks sting is a little mound of dirty stick riddled snow.
Soon the isolated lumps transition to a bank and before long becomes a constant on the trail, completely obscuring the track. With snow everywhere the track all of a sudden feels as wide as the mountain and the once mind numbing job of following the little cleared dirt line on the ground, becomes a forensic investigation to find other peoples foot prints or ski’s to keep us on piste.
Every turn looks the same and around every one is the expectation of Michell Hut. Sinking up to our knees in places, I choose to don the snow shoes. Quickly attempting a steep little slope the snowshoes lose their grip, arms reach out and my fingers like pitch forks make contact with the snow bank, the consistency of sandpaper.
My arms wretch down the bank, grazing with each contact of the icicles, adding to my already scratched and tree whipped body.
Mound after mound now reflects the impending setting sun and the temptation to stop and take photos is offset with the need to make camp. The dream of camping on the summit has long past and with aching legs, sore muscles and a growing headache, the hut now seems like a great achievement.
Glittering in the sunlight is the aluminium siding of Michell Hut and with that a great sigh of relief. Surveying the area we find a relatively flat snow bank nearby which will be home for the night. The race is on to stamp down the area, level it best we can and get the tent up before the cold night air starts its march down the mountain toward us.
Our friend Sharon is in her element having worked in the snow covered mountains of British Columbia before setting her sights on Australia. Tonight we are set to witness some Canadian know how in the form of a snow cave.
Painstakingly the shallow snow (by Canadian standards) is dug into a heap, creating enough to tunnel into. A quick check of the wind direction and the digging begins and with the small shovel goes for some time. Finally the snow mound takes shape and a burrow emerges that tightly fits a ground cover and sleeping bag, job done.
The sunset makes for a beautiful vista, it’s red and orange hues only broken by the snow gums as it’s casts long shadows of their scraggly branches.
With darkness comes the cold as winds whip up out of the east. We’re not prone to eating in huts but we make an exception and enjoy the fireplace of skiers who have kindly set up before us. Dinner is a great social event and a great way to get to know others on the mountain, their stories, passions and a bit of local knowledge never goes astray. Like don’t start too early in the morning as the steep slope to the summit yet to come will be icy!
Tucked in our sleeping bags, a full moon simulating having left a torch on, the wind howls around us, gusts buffet the tent and move the trees in ways that sound like creatures attacking our supplies.
Unable to block all this out I resort to ear plugs and drift off, at least I’m warm. Like I tend to do, I wake around 3am and take a walk. It’s a rare moment, the moon low in the sky allowing the stars to take centre stage. Just enough light for the clear snow covered summit of Mt Bogong to stand out in the inky blackness and silence.
Watches mean nothing in this place, in fact I forgot to bring mine and it is surprising how quickly you adapt to going to bed when it gets dark and waking up when it gets light.
A gentle breeze greets us in the morning, the sun poking over the far mountains, blinding us to the fact we’re looking toward Kosciuszko. The mountain ranges so defined run to the horizon, seven, eight, nine of them. I’ve never seen so many as what this cool clear mountain air provides.
Excitement builds mixed with some in trepidation of climbing the snow face of Eskdale Point, especially after reading the sobering rescue brief on avalanches. It noted that prime time for these events are after new snow falls or in periods of melt. We are here at melt time.
Sharon’s snow cave amazingly holds up for the night and beyond that kept her warm. She recounted one concerning period when it seemed that a deer might step right through the roof, we’d seen them earlier and many footprints in the area. It turned it was around the same time I had got up to go for a wander, LOL!
With the trail still in the shadows, the snow crust remained frozen and we made great time climbing the remainder of the way up the spur to the junction with Granite Flat. The area produces a beautiful little plateau just above the tree line with uninterrupted views to the north and east, a great place for panoramas. It’s also the staging area for the climb up to Eskdale Point and search and rescue. Sadly Bogong produces far many more recoveries than rescues, courtesy of it’s bitter weather and steep slopes.
Driven snow piled high has created an impressive cornice and what was once rocky outcrops negotiated on relatively flat tracks has now become short steep snow slopes reminiscent of something more at home in the French Alps than here in Australia.
The drop is wall like steep and deep and it’s with great concentration we navigate this area. Choosing not to equip ourselves with snow shoes at this point is a mistake as I make an attempt to cross a snow face and start to slide. Poles dug in I hold my ground, surveying the situation for an exit route to a rocky outcrop nearby. Carefully making a slow and controlled slide I meet solid ground and make it to the last outcropping rock before Hell Gap.
On our attempt last year we had to abort crossing Hell Gap because of the snow and again we abort this crossing due to the risk of avalanche, instead weaving our way up the pole line.
Pole after pole we pass, snow crunching as the snowshoes impact the softening crust, driving down the full force of our body and pack weight. Our hearts beat unrelenting in our ears as breath after breath is taken to the fuel the engines unquenchable desire for energy.
The sun beating down only serves to warm us, beads of sweat saturate my face; willing themselves to escape, but the cool wind abandons us on the slope. Every few poles is another stop on shaky legs, a futile effort to capture ones breath and steele for another attempt at the top. The poles get fewer but the point teases us, its slope becoming ever more gentle without revealing itself.
The views are breathtaking from up here, the summit cairn in site we celebrate the hardest part of the walk being over or so we thought.
The snow is deep maybe 2 to 2.5m and signs that would normally stand above our head are at our waist. The summit cairn an impressive man-made rock formation, which usually stands above head height today only has a few layers visible and it’s more like a small staircase to the top, how apt.
We’re blessed with the weather cloudless and clear. Every ski resort gives away it’s position betrayed by it snow peaks in an otherwise sea of green. Mt Kosciuszko and the main range sits proudly in the east and to the west and south, Mt Buller, Mt Stirling, Mt Buffalo, Mt Feathertop and the resorts of Hotham and Falls Creek.
With no one else here we have the whole mountain to ourselves or at least the summit. The rolling hill like dome covered in snow, we take a moment to have a break and breathe in the peace.
The staircase is a brutal walk and the exposed top is steep and windy, but with all this snow cover the track is lost and the snow has made an already steep descent steeper. Coupled with the beating rays of the sun, the mountain side is turning to slush, with any well worn path long gone.
With snowshoes making a slipping crunching sound, every step is slow and intentional and soon we get used to the lower leg slide till the shoe digs in. It’s a stretching action that quickly has legs and ankles feeling the pain of this unfamiliar and awkward dance.
There is little room to slalom walk and with the traverse complete it is pretty much straight down the slope, at times the snowshoes behaving more like ski’s. Part way down Claire slips and avoids going over the edge but makes up some ground. This seems like a much easier way to descend and so ungracefully I sit in the snow and start sliding.
Fingers out like rakes behind me, my hands quickly numbed by the snow, the tiny icicles abraise them. There is no stopping now, with gravity giving a helping hand I am on my way, occasionally elbowing the ground the spin my body away from the edge.
I’m not sure it was any less effort I did get there quicker than the others, but paid the price in how ridiculous I looked in an out of control bum slide down the mountain. All a bit of fun if you don’t get hurt.
Resting for a moment sitting in the snow, being present and letting myself feel the experience. I’m alerted to the fact I don’t feel my pack pinching anymore, I’ve got use to it, my body has adapted.
Sin and hurt can be like this, very evident in the beginning but then we resign ourselves to “this is the way we are or this is our lot in life”. We carry these things like a burden we deserve or cannot get rid of. Shame was a frequent companion in my life, amongst others rooted in bullying and a sense of worthless and uselessness. Jesus gave his life so that we don’t have to carry these burdens. Receiving Jesus forgiveness and forgiving others has the power to set us free. I thank God I don’t live with these beliefs anymore.
Safely down on the saddle between Castor and Pollux, surely the walk would get easier from here, but it wasn’t to be. Crusted snow in retreat, fighting the ever rising heat of the day, its soft underbelly deep and even with snow shoes, the ground gives way.
Claire decides making her own track would be better, but with one step the crust breaks and swallows her leg to the waist. Struggling against its grip she pulls with all her might, her leg exploding from its cell. Staying on the track becomes the wiser part of valour.
Sharon negotiates the mountain side with aplomb and without snow shoes, I guess this really is just a walk in the park compared to the environments of British Columbia.
The snow follows us well done the path in an ever receding and weakening bank, as its kryptonite the lowland heat overcomes it just before Bivouac Hut.
The remainder of the walk morphs into an obstacle course of downed tress, leaves and branches as we witness the violence of winter storms and experience their path of destruction.
Safely at Mountain Creek there is no time to reminisce as we attempt to make our hostels meal window before relaxing with a day of skiing, enjoying the last of the season at Falls Creek.
Falls is every bit as impressive and exciting as we hoped it would be, with so few people we had one of the runs and chair lift operators to ourselves. On our last run we thank them for their service and let them know they can go home now.