Friday, 21 September 2012

Spring Snowplay on Mount Bogong

With its summit at an elevation of 1986m Mount Bogong is Victoria's highest mountain. It stands separate from the rest of the Bogong High Plains and towers above the town of Mount Beauty on the Kiewa River below. Unlike many of Victoria's mountains it can only be accessed by people on foot and has escaped the ravages of the bulldozer and development. Human-related infrastructure is limited to a couple of walking tracks, some snowpoles and three huts.

Whilst Bogong makes a pleasant walking destination for the majority of the year, it is in winter that the mountain comes into its own. Simply put, the skiing is sensational. Imagine the most developed ski resort in Victoria, Mount Buller. Now double the size and you'll have some appreciation for the amount of terrain that is available. Gullies, chutes, wide open faces, tree runs - Bogong has it all.

Recently I ran a trip for our local bushwalking club to the mountain to introduce others to the delights offered by its snow covered slopes. The takers were Kerry, Chris, Mum, Dad and myself. Natahl and her parents, Jolie and James, were heading up earlier in the day and would greet us on the mountain. Our trip coincided with the start of spring and the advent of the full moon.

As one's pack is heavier and aims are different when heading to the snow, we shunned the usual bushwalker's route up the Staircase and opted for the Eskdale Spur. This enabled us to drive in to Camp Creek Gap, taking out some 600 vertical meters of climbing. Due to the full moon I decided that we would walk up from Camp Creek Gap to Michell Hut in the evening, enabling us to spend much more time on snow-related pursuits at the summit.

Whilst we were driving up the Kiewa valley late on Friday night we were surprised at the amount of snow cover on the peak. It seemed that a recent cold front had delivered the goods. After driving past the usual campsite at Mountain Creek we headed up the road, then turned right to head in to Camp Creek Gap. I was pleasantly surprised with the state of the road, which had been substantially realigned from the old 4WD track that used to head right along the crest of the ridge. Instead of the glorified goat-track we were treated to a properly constructed, gently graded road. At one point along the road we had a great view across to the mountain, glistening in the moonlight. Further along we found that the cold front had indeed delivered, covering the road with snow.

Fortunately others had been through since the snowfall and provided us with wheeltracks in which to drive. After the odd slip and slide we arrived at the gap itself, where snow lay on the ground. We got organised, saddled up then set off up the spur at 11:45pm.

As we climbed our party spread out along the walking track. Kerry and Mum were up in front, followed by Dad, with Chris and myself bringing up the rear. Chris set a slow and steady pace, which I was grateful for, as my pack was weighed down by a few luxuries. Despite the low snowline we didn't bother putting skis or snowshoes on, instead opting to follow the boot tracks made by others on their journey up the hill.

It's always enjoyable walking in the company of others, and Chris and I had some interesting conversation and observations enroute. On a couple of occasions she stopped to listen to the slow tinkling of ice falling off the trees. The evening was still, not overly cold, and the clear sky allowed the moonlight to stream in. We didn't need our headtorches for most of the time. If only my camera could have captured the beautiful sights we saw as we made our way slowly up the mountain.

We regrouped with the others twice on the way up, once at a hairpin bend, and again at the creek. From here we spread out again, making our way slowly up the hill. At one point the track disappeared beneath a tree that had fallen across the track. Others had headed off in all sorts of directions, but Dad managed to pick up the original track again and after negotiating a few obstacles Chris and I were soon back on it again. Further up we reached what seemed like the top of the steep climb, then headed along and down a hill before commencing the climb once again. I had no recollection of this section from my previous trips, so the whole time I was thinking that we were only a mere couple of paces from the hut! Our pace had slowed by this point and I was starting to think that I'd need to put another layer on my legs, as shorts were starting to feel like inadequate protection against the plummeting temperature.

Eventually, just after 3am, Chris and I arrived at the hut. It was surreal. I spotted James and Jolie's tent set up near the door, and then looked up and saw somebody coming towards me from between the trees. It was Natahl.  I was extremely relieved to see her, though also somewhat confused, as I had assumed she would have been in bed for hours. The story came out that they hadn't left Camp Creek Gap until later than expected, and the walk up had turned into an epic - despite a much earlier start ,they'd only arrived about half an hour before us! Natahl had pitched her tent but not yet made it into bed, so we quickly threw down some closed cell foam, I inflated my thermarest and then we both turned in, leaving the others in my party to continue creating tent platforms and pitching their shelters.

The next morning we awoke to a beautiful blue sky day. The sun was bright, snow was plentiful and everyone was in fine spirits.

After having breakfast we set off for the summit. Kerry and I set off on skis, whilst Chris, Tahl, Mum & Dad came behind on snowshoes. James and Jolie had a more leisurely start before coming up from the hut on skis, too. Kerry was using pattern based touring skis and needed to herringbone in places, whilst I had telemark skis and skins which allowed me to climb up anything. When combined with the snowshoes there were some interesting tracks being laid side-by-side in the pristine snow.

As we climbed higher we emerged from the treeline and began the ascent up the last section of Eskdale Spur to the summit ridge itself. We had great views across to the as yet untracked steep slopes on the eastern side of the Staircase. The north side of the mountain was absolutely loaded with snow.

Upon reaching the crest of the ridge we scooted across to the summit cairn. Its stature was shorter than usual, and I made the most of the snow conditions by completing the ascent with my skis.

Following a brief snack Kerry & I decided to do a quick run into Cairn Gully whilst we waited for the snowshoers to arrive. The snow along the crest of the mountain wasn't too flash, but once we dropped in to the gully itself it was magnificent. Neither Kerry or myself had spent time in a resort this season, so our turns were far from perfect, but we had fun anyway.

The snow cover was extensive at the bottom of the gully. Some others had been skiing the chutes and had left a skin track up the mountain for us to ascend.

In the meantime, the four snowshoers were braving their way up the steep section at the top of the Eskdale Spur. Those whose snowshoes were equipped with climbing bars were enjoying the ascent more than the others.

We rendezvoused near the Staircase Spur track turnoff and continued on to the summit together.

Natahl and Chris had never been to the summit before, so they both paid homage to the mountain briefly.

After the usual round of photos the group of us settled down for lunch. Mum snapped a rare photo of Tahl and I together, as I made a fashion statement with my zipoff pants.

Following our leisurely lunch we decided there wasn't enough time to head over to the West Peak, and so we set off back to Michell Hut. Just as we were heading off the summit Tahl spotted James down below. We wandered over to have a chat with him, and he managed to convince me it was worth doing a run down the north side of Bogong into the gully between the Staircase and Eskdale Spur. Alas, my skiing was not up to the task, and after multiple falls and some very sketchy turns I called it a day. We both traversed back across to the Eskdale Spur to join the others as they made their way down.

That evening we ate dinner in the hut, and Natahl and I cooked up a special dessert for everyone; caramelised pineapple with ice cream. Delicious, if a little weighty.

After a rather cold night in the tents we awoke to another blue sky day. As it was Fathers Day I had planned Dads favourite breakfast for him; bacon and eggs on toast. Mum and Dad seemed to enjoy it.

It was a very laid back morning. Kerry had set off at 8am to head out to the West Peak, and the rest of us took our time soaking up the scenery. We watched skiers descending the runs off the Staircase, and at one point a hanglider went overhead.

Tahl's parents were mindful of the time it had taken them to ascend the spur and decided to head off before the rest of us. We bid them adieu, knowing we would see them again either on the way down or at Camp Creek Gap.

James wanted to ski the spur down as far as possible, but didn't want to use skins to slow him down. He lasted about 20m before opting out! In the meantime we continued packing up, eventually departing about half an hour after the others.

I put full-length skins on my skis to slow my descent and plunged down the spur, stopping where rocks started showing through the track just over the end of the knoll. The others snowshoed to this point, whilst Kerry booted it. From here I moved ahead of the party to catch up with Natahl and her parents. I came across the three of them just upstream from the creek. Earlier that day I'd joked to Jolie about taking her pack down for her, and to my surprise she told me I was welcome to come back and get it off her. With the blessings of her parents, Tahl and I shot off ahead, intending to get to Camp Creek Gap and offload our gear before returning to help the others.

After crossing the creek and walking along the track as it contours around the hill we heard a bit of a commotion up the hill. We assumed it was the rest of my party catching up with Tahl's parents, as Chris in particular is a bit of a giggler! We walked on for another minute or so, and as we were heading through a fallen tree I heard what could have been the tail end of a whistle blast. We listened out for a minute afterwards in case we could hear anything else, but no further noises were forthcoming and so I put it down to a bird call, and we continued down the mountain.

Upon reaching Camp Creek Gap we ditched our packs and headed back up the hill to meet the others. On our way up we encountered Kerry, who told us that Jolie had fallen and possibly broken her ankle. This wasn't the sort of news that anyone wants to hear, so we headed straight back up the track as fast as our somewhat tired legs could carry us. As we walked my mind was constantly thinking about to handle the situation, as I was the leader of the party. Natahl seemed strangely calm, which she later told me was due to her inner nurse.

As we rounded the corner down to the creek we looked up the hill on the other side and saw Jolie and the others. The fall had happened around 3pm, just a few minutes after Tahl and I had left them, which explains the commotion and subsequent whistle blast. The remainder of my party had come straight down onto the scene. James used to ski patrol, and seemingly his training sent him into automatic ski patroller mode, quickly getting Jolie's suspect ankle into a splint.

When Tahl and I arrived Jolie was absolutely cocooned in down garments and in good spirits. Chris had called 000 and a helicopter was on its way, as well as a ground crew from Mount Beauty. The only thing that could have been handy were some GPS coordinates to aid the helicopter; as Murphy's law would have it, both Tahl and I had our GPSs, yet we'd left both of them in our packs down at the cars!

The decision was made to split the party, with Tahl, James and myself heading back down the mountain. Tahl would stay with the cars until the ground crew arrived, whilst James and I would come back up the hill unburdened for what we felt would be the inevitable long stretcher haul out. I stuck to my word and grabbed Jolie's pack, which in itself wasn't so heavy - her downhill ski boots however were another story altogether! Tahl and I set off, with James following a few minutes after.

As we got closer to Camp Creek Gap I could hear a reverse beeper, which was a very positive sign. We arrived to find a troop carrier ambulance waiting with a police 4WD. The paramedic took control, and instructed us to dump all unnecessary gear and head back up the hill with the bare essentials - just enough to spend the night if necessary. As we began slimming our packs down we heard the sound of a very large helicopter coming up the Mountain Creek valley. Its paintwork showed that it was an ambulance helicopter, and as it passed over us I saw what I'd been hoping for - a winch arm sticking out the side.

Once the pack slimming was complete, the paramedic, police officer, a CFA volunteer, Kerry, James, Tahl and myself set off up the hill. There was one other ambulance officer left at the carpark. In addition to our packs we carried a breakdown aluminium stretcher.

By this stage Tahl and I were well acquainted with the 2km walk up to the creek, and I was using the walk to throw sticks out of the way to make future stretcher passage, and also keeping an eye open for possible winching areas. It wasn't looking good. Above us, the helicopter was making some interesting noises and movements. As it turned out Chris had directed the helicopter in to their location using the mobile phone.

After a bit of hovering around they decided to winch down a paramedic, dropping him into the creek area where the tree cover was thinnest. The paramedic wallowed up through the snow to Jolie, gave her the once over, then started planning the evacuation. After some discussions with the crew in the helicopter he decreed that Jolie would have to move approximately 20m down the hill, so with her arms draped over my Dad and the paramedic Jolie hopped down the slippery, treacherous track to the preferred location. It must have been hellishly painful for her.

Upon arrival at the preferred location, the winch operator dropped down a sling to the paramedic, who then draped it around Jolie in preparation for evacuation.

He then directed everyone to stand well clear, as the downdraft from the rotors was enough to bring down trees. The winch operator kept a very keen eye on proceedings.

It was at this point that the seven of us making up the ground crew had arrived near the creek, just in time to see Jolie get whisked up on the cable. The time was 5pm - just two hours since the fall.

Fortunately Tahl had her iPhone handy and shot a video of the operation. It has to be seen to be believed.

As you can see, the area that they winched Jolie from was far from ideal. There were dead trees everywhere with minimum clearance, and the tall timber meant the helicopter couldn't get that close to the ground. It was an extremely dangerous operation and it was an exceptional effort by the helicopter crew to get her out of there. A brilliant effort by all involved.

With Jolie now on her way to hospital we headed down the track to Camp Creek Gap for the last time. James and Natahl wanted to know where Jolie was being taken, and the first information we had was that it was to Traralgon - not far away for a helicopter, but an epic drive. James and I were discussing possible routes to get to the hospital - either over to the Omeo Highway, or back around via Mount Hotham. Neither was too appealing. Then the news came through - Jolie had been taken to Albury/Wodonga. There was much rejoicing!

My party of five headed off, leaving James and Natahl to make their way to the hospital. They x-rayed Jolie and found she had a spiral fracture to her distal fibula, an undisplaced break to her tibia and pulled her talus bone out of alignment. They put her in a plaster cast and discharged her. The three of them finally arrived back home in Melbourne at 3am - an epic end to an adventurous weekend.

As a post-script, Jolie had an operation on the Wednesday and was reinforced with an impressive array of titanium hardware. She was discharged on the Friday and is now well on her way to recovery. Hopefully the rehabilitation works well, as her and James are going skiing in Japan in January!


  1. Wow! So sorry to hear of Jolie's injury. I have to say that if I ever run into trouble in the mountains, I'd hope to have you guys around.

    Experience and calm decision making contributed to a reasonably happy ending by the looks of it. Great photos too and I hope the recovery is swift.

  2. Thanks Darren. Jolie is making good progress and with a bit of physio she's hoping she will be able to going skiing in Japan early next year :)