The Highline Traverse – Icy Mountaineering in the High Peaks

The Reserve” is the name fondly given by bushwalkers to the mountainous wilderness that contains some of Tasmania’s most striking landscape, including the iconic figure of Cradle Mountain. While summer attracts thousands of walkers who are eager to take in the views of this unique alpine area, most visitors depart before autumn brings with it a dramatic transformation.

The deciduous beech (Nothofagus gunnii) begins to turn around Anzac day, dropping its leaves in preparation for the oncoming winter. As the days get shorter, the temperature plummets and the promise of snow creates a brooding atmosphere that is hard to shake off. Eventually, when the first winter storms arrive, it’s almost a reprieve. When the snow falls and the wind howls, the glacial tarns freeze over and the animals seek whatever shelter they can find. The mountains don their winter cloak of white, transforming a wild landscape into something that’s even wilder and somehow, even more beautiful.

It was during this time, in mid-winter, that I chose to spend nearly a month climbing the less-visited peaks of Cradle Mt-Lake St Clair National Park, or ‘The Reserve’. I was self sufficient, carrying everything I needed in my backpack, including a very strong tent, a warm sleeping bag, clothes, cooker, fuel, food and all the other essentials required for wilderness travel. To reduce the weight I had to carry, my food was spread out between four provision points along the route of my walk, sealed in weather proof containers. This meant I only had to carry about one week’s worth of supplies at a time.

Despite my best attempts at cutting everything down to the bare essentials, my pack contained a few undeniable luxuries: no less than six pairs of socks, two books to read during the long nights, my camera and my journal to record a log of the trip, making for an initial load that surpassed half my body weight.

My aim for this ambitious winter trip was to climb all the snow covered peaks in ‘The Reserve’, in an attempt to build a stronger connection to this unique landscape and to develop the skills that are required to travel safely through untracked alpine terrain. My plan was to follow roughly the route of the Overland Track, from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair, but to allow ample time for numerous multi-day side trips that would take me far away from the safety of any huts and take me closer to the more remote mountains that few dare to visit, even in summer.

Accompanying me for the first leg of my trip was my friend and fellow aspiring mountaineer, Robert Vandali, whose ability to go ‘ultra light’ astonished me when he turned up to the start of our walk with a backpack that was half the size of mine. Although he wasn’t afraid to borrow some items from me that he chose to leave at home, his ability to deviously utilise every cubic inch of space in his backpack I found most impressive.

During the second week of our journey, we were joined by another friend, Jimmy Harris, for a challenging ‘off-track’ circuit in the central part of ‘The Reserve’, a route known amongst the locals as the ‘Pelion Circuit’.

Upon completion of this circuit, my friends would return to their lives and leave me to tackle the remaining two weeks of my journey alone. It was during this solo section that the crux of my trip was reached, when I experienced bitterly cold conditions during the Highline Traverse of the Du Cane Range.

The beginning of our trip coincided with a fierce, two day snow storm that obscured the summit of Cradle Mountain as we drove in to the Dove Lake car park. The air had a chill to it with the undeniable taste of winter. We began unloading, watching the shivering tourists who were quickly driven back to their own cars by the gale force wind and the swirling snow. We put our gloves on and continued packing. When we were satisfied that we’ve crammed all our gear into our packs, with the snowshoes and ice axe strapped to the outside, we struck out with a rolling gait, excited that our adventure has begun.

Our proposed destination for the night was the comfortable Scott-Kilvert Hut, tucked away behind the less visited easterly side of Cradle Mountain, on the shores of Lake Rodway. The hut was built in response to a tragedy in the 1960s where a teacher and a student lost their lives in a blizzard during a school trip. With the snow swirling around us, and the rocky track covered in ice on our climb up to Hanson’s Peak, it wasn’t hard to imagine how one might succumb to these fierce elements without adequate knowledge and the correct gear.

Scott-Kilvert Hut became our comfortable base camp for the next three nights, and it was complete with a coal fired heater that allowed us to dry our gear off at night time. It was also from this hut that I was able to launch my solo attempt at the frozen skyline traverse of Cradle Mountain.

Although undertaken regularly by experienced climbers, traversing the entire length of Cradle Mountain’s ridgeline is as serious undertaking. This ‘off-track’ route requires tackling not only sheer cliffs, but also sections of great exposure, where the rocky slopes drop off on both sides of the ridge very steeply for hundreds of metres. Although I held no illusions about the likelihood of completing the full traverse equipped only with micro spikes and an ice axe, the allure of the mountain was too great for me to resist.

As I struck out on that beautiful morning, towards the summit of Cradle Mt, approaching from the relatively easy, southerly side, I was amazed at the transformation that had taken place over the previous two days.

The blizzard left a stark, frozen landscape. It was a clear morning, crisp as a glass of chilled ale and the sun was doing its best to labour up the sky, along its short, mid-winter arch. Where the morning rays hit the side of Cradle Mountain, there was an orange glow reflected back from the frozen boulders in front of me.

The snow conditions were favourable, so I decided to commence the traverse. Deep, dry and powdery snow covered every inch of the mountain, sometimes in drifts that were over a metre deep. The soft snow meant for slow but relatively safe travel, as it made for non-slippery footholds across the uneven terrain.

After passing the summit of Cradle Mountain in high spirits and with plenty of energy left, I continued the traverse, pressing on towards Little Horn. It was after the notable high point of Smithies Peak that I ran into some difficulties, about four hours after commencing from Scott Kilvert Hut.

I t was the most exposed ridgeline I have ever been on. Ahead of me, only one step away, the ridge narrowed to a single boulder, with steep cliffs on both sides, dropping away hundreds of metres below. I tested the boulder by pushing it with my ice axe. It was stable, so I stepped on it, the metal teeth of the microspikes below my boots digging into the snow, making for solid traction. I didn’t look down as I quickly found my next step, and kept moving on the exposed ridge.

The vista around me was unbelievable. In the distant south, the peaks of The Reserve lay spread out, inviting. Every time I saw the white-capped mountains of the Pelion region in the distance, I felt my skin shiver with goosebumps. The anticipation of the next four weeks of mountaineering was almost unbearable. I wanted to be on the summit of all those peaks at the same time.

Eventually, I reached a dead-end wall. The only way ahead was by vertically climbing about 5 metres up, right above a 50 m drop, with more cliffs below. So I took the only safe way available, and turned around. I followed my footsteps on the treacherous terrain, back to a saddle from where I could follow a steep gully down the mountain, to a land of safety.

I was still pumping with adrenaline when I got back to Scott-Kilvert Hut that night. When I started raving to Rob about my mountain experience, he said I was nuts and shook his head. Secretly, I’m sure he was cursing his knee injury that prevented him from tagging along for the adventure that day.

A quick side note here to those readers who may be inspired to try this traverse in winter under heavy snow and ice; may I say, with the benefit of hindsight that I would only recommend it to a minimum party size of two or more climbers, who are familiar with rope climbing techniques and who possess all the relevant safety gear, including but not limited to: mountaineering crampons, ice axes, ropes, harnesses and helmets. Even then, it will be a difficult undertaking that should only be undertaken with adequate alpine experience.

The next week of our trip we met the most dreaded enemy of hikers: steady, soaking rain. We tackled this new challenge by seeking shelter in the rather comfortable public huts along the Overland Track. Since there is no road access to any of these, the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Services provision the gas and coal for the heaters via helicopters, for which we were very glad during the cold evenings.

These huts proved to be safe havens for us, allowing us to dry off our gear and also to share some stories with some fellow travellers. I have always found it fascinating how much people open up to relative strangers in the public walker’s huts. I’d like to think that being out there in the wilderness brings with it a sense of camaraderie, an undeniable human connection that is quite rare to find with strangers on a busy city street.

During a week of sleeping in the public huts, we made friends with people from all walks of life; doctors, students, backpackers, architects, a professional poet and even some intrepid school groups! Uniting us was the experience of wilderness, not only for its beauty, but also for its bite. As we ate, drank and talked, we were glad to be seated next to the heaters while the rain poured and the wind howled outside.

However, the day after our friend Jimmy finally met us at New Pelion Hut, we couldn’t delay the inevitable any longer. It was time for us to gear up and head out into the cold once more.

We struck out with an ambitious plan for the five day off-track Pelion Circuit to traverse the dominant ridgeline from Mt Ossa all the way over to Mt Pelion West in the north, going over the summits of Mt Thetis and Mt Achilles. Our first day of the circuit however, was the most eventful.

We set up camp on Mt Doris early that day; compacting about a foot of fresh snow to allow us to pitch our tents. Rob and I were sharing a strong mountaineering tent while Jimmy had set up his bivvy bag underneath his tarp. When I asked him why he didn’t bring his tent, which I assumed to be the obvious choice for a winter trip to the Tasmanian Highlands, he replied that his tarp is actually stronger in the wind. This statement would come back to haunt him later that night.

As we left our campsite and climbed towards the summit of Mt Pelion East, the wind gusts were strong enough to knock us down to the ground, and the frozen snowflakes were being whipped into our faces like little stinging bullets. We were covered from head to toe in technical clothing, complete with balaclavas and sunglasses. Despite having all the right gear, we felt the bite of the wind, as it reached us with its icy fingers, through our jackets, chilling us down to the bone. When we finally reached the summit, we didn’t loiter, although Jimmy made a quick phone call to let his wife know that everything was going to plan.

“High honey, we are in a snowstorm, on a mountaintop, but everything is absolutely fine!” As he spoke, I noticed that his eyebrows were covered with half an inch of ice.

Later that night, Rob and I were sound asleep in our comfortable tent when we were woken by Jimmy’s frantic call at 10:45pm.

“Guys, I think I’ve lost my tarp!”

In my half awoken state, I thought he was having us on. As Rob and I lay there in our sleeping bags, contemplating a response, we felt our tent shake as another 100+ kmph gust hit our campsite. That’s when we decided to get rugged up and head outside to see what the ruckus was about.

Jimmy’s tarp was flapping in the wind, the pegs that held it down having been ripped out. Cunningly, the wind had swung around from a northerly to a southerly halfway through the night and caught the tarp by entering through the tunnel entrance.

“I think I’ve lost my down jacket!” Jimmy realised soon afterwards.

“Don’t worry, we’ll find it!” I replied, hoping I sounded calm.

At the time, I remember thinking, ‘We are in the middle of a blizzard, it’s about minus twenty wind chill up here, it’s pitch black and Jimmy’s just lost his shelter and his warm layer. I wonder what’s going to happen next!?’

To my mental rhetoric, the wind responded with another icy blast.

We eventually succeeded in securing the tarp by pegging it down with our two ice axes, replacing the tent pegs that were ripped out. Jimmy even found his down jacket, which was within his reach all along.

It seemed that tragedy has been averted for the time, so we went back to bed and slept more or less soundly in the relative comfort of our tent until 5 am, when our wake-up alarm went off. Jimmy spent the night warm and dry in his bivvy bag while the wind continued to carry the drift into his tarp through the tunnel entrance, covering all his gear with about a foot of fresh powder by the morning. Packing up in the morning was memorable, although rather unpleasant.

We continued along our off-track circuit, fighting the elements and sometimes, each others’ mood swings, but we were always united in our mission to climb some wild mountains. We laughed at nearly tumble-down cliffs, ate extraordinary amounts of food and made countless boy jokes involving bodily functions. We shared stories of the past and created a new set of stories for the future.

Eventually, the time with my friends came to an end as we completed the Pelion Circuit and arrived back to New Pelion Hut. We agreed to undertake another adventure soon, and said our farewells. When their departing footsteps stopped echoing in the hut, I knew the final and most challenging section of my journey was upon me, the daunting Du Cane Traverse.

Carved out by glaciers during the last ice age, the dramatic dolerite cliffs of the Du Cane Range stand like ancient guardians over the densely vegetated Narcissus Valley. The igneous dolerite rock that makes up the peaks here has a fluted structure, a result of the magma’s underground cooling process approximately 185 million years ago. Interwoven with countless cracks between the naturally formed columns, these dolerite cliffs are prone to break down into various sized boulders, leaving a chaotic jumble along the ridgelines to negotiate for the hiker.

The easiest approach to the Du Cane Range is via the Labyrinth; an elevated plateau that’s dotted with picturesque lakes, pockets of native pencil pines and countless dolerite boulders which were deposited by glaciers during the last ice age. It is an idyllic place that’s a destination in its own right, especially popular with photographers in autumn, when the deciduous beech puts on a magnificent display as its leaves turn a myriad different colours. With the backdrop of the Acropolis and Mt Geryon, the Labyrinth is truly one of the most spectacular places in Tasmania.

However, I only saw snippets of this unique landscape, because a thick, heavy fog had set in when I arrived, obscuring the views and dampening all my clothes as well as my mood. Instead of being able to push on with the traverse as I had hoped, I was confined to my tent while I waited for the clouds to lift and for the visibility to improve.

After two restless nights spent in the Labyrinth waiting for the weather to clear, the wind eventually picked up, blowing the clouds away and bringing with it a bitter cold that turned the moisture in the air to dry snowflakes that fell silently overnight, blanketing everything in white.

That morning, when I flicked on my headlight, a sparkly glow greeted me; miniature ice crystals had formed on the inner fabric of my tent, indicating that the ‘inside’ temperature was below freezing point. Even my leather boots, which I brought into my tent as a precautionary measure, were frozen. Packing my tent up that morning in the finger numbing cold was nearly enough to make me abandon my plans. In my moments of doubt however, all I had to do was look around me and the stark beauty of the frozen landscape would instantly change my mind.

Following my departure from the Labyrinth, I would spend three days high up on the range, traversing the rugged ridgeline from Mt Geryon to Mt Massif, then to Castle Crag, in the coldest conditions I have ever experienced. The smaller tarns were all frozen over, requiring me to use my ice axe to break through their surface in order to collect water. The tough alpine vegetation, including the cushion plants and the scoparia bushes were all covered in hardened ice and snow, making their survival in these conditions nothing short of marvel.

It was during my final day on the range that my endurance and skill were tested to their limits, as I made my way from Mt Massif to Castle Crag across the most notorious section of the traverse.

I struck out that morning at first light, knowing that a long, hard day lay ahead of me. Although a clear day has been forecast, a fine mist loitered around the summit of Mt Massif, making it difficult for me to find the correct route through the chaotic jumble of boulders that were scattered throughout the ridgeline I was meant to follow. The bus sized boulders often contained bus sized crevasses between them, making the going slow and treacherous. To add to my worries, the rocks I was treading on were covered in snow and ice, making each step an uncertainty. Utilising my hands for extra support, the going was slow and arduous, but through strategic foot placements and the utmost concentration, I was able to make my way through this challenging terrain without any falls or mishaps.

After six hours of this painfully slow and exhausting travel, I had covered less than three kilometres, but was getting close to reaching the summit of Castle Crag, which would mark the end of the technically difficult section of the traverse. It was here, merely 30 metres away from relative safety of the Castle Crag’s summit plateau that I encountered my most serious obstacle of my entire trip.

The cairned route I was following through the giant boulders brought me to a dead end: a vertical climb over some iced over boulders that I was not able to surmount safely. Dropping my hefty pack, I scouted for an alternate route up through the boulders for over an hour. Every way seemed to end in sheer walls which I had no hope of surmounting with my oversized pack. With the sun dropping lower in the sky, the threat of spending a night on the exposed boulderfield became real. I knew the only way ahead was to find a way up.

In the end, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Without my pack, I was able to crawl through a crevasse underneath a car sized boulder, and then climb up a short chimney, bringing me onto a ledge. From here, I could haul my pack up using some paracord that I always carry with me on my expeditions. As I was completing this exercise, I got the distinct feeling that I may have been the first person to follow this particular way through the boulder field. Although it took me nearly two hours to cover about five metres of distance, I couldn’t have been happier. Having overcome the last real obstacle, I floated to the summit.

From the top of Castle Crag, I could really take in the spectacular view that presented itself to me. As far as I could see, the lands surrounding were pristine wilderness. The swirling mist crowned nearly all the wild peaks in ‘The Reserve’, creating a brooding atmosphere that was only broken by the distant sound of the cascading creeks in the valley far below. With the winter sun hanging low in the sky, the mountains cast long shadows into the valleys to create a sense of mystery and possibility.

As I cruised down the hill, back towards the promise of civilisation, I felt a sense of privilege to have been able to spend so much time in the precious wilderness of The Reserve. Let us hope that this magnificent place continues to stand protected, to create the opportunity for future generations to experience the meaning of true wilderness.