Climbing Victoria’s highest mountain on a whim after months in lockdown might seem a little ambitious, if not completely bonkers. However, as Kale learnt, sometimes the most memorable experiences in the outdoors are the ones undertaken at the drop of a hat.
The snow forecast had been bleak for months and the ski forums were filled with naysayers heralding the end of the Victorian season for 2020. The awful snow conditions in Victoria seemed to mirror the general atmosphere across the state.
My aspirations to spend the winter touring through the backcountry had all but vanished when Parks Victoria quietly announced that the Alpine National Park, home to most of the state’s skiable mountains, would be reopening.
It felt bittersweet; I was finally allowed to get up into the mountains just as the final patches of snow melted away, joining mountain streams and beginning their long journey meandering across the country feeding Australia’s largest river.
The following day whilst browsing ski forums, an activity that had become a regular pastime in lieu of actual snowsports, an image surfaced from one of the southern gullies of Mt Bogong.
Despite the obvious lack of coverage, the snow-hungry optimist in me saw past the protruding rocks and alpine shrubs and honed in on a rideable line. A fire was lit. I began racing around my house, dusting off my splitboard and touring gear that had been resigned to the shed until 2021.
When a Fire Starts to Burn
Arriving at the trailhead not long after sunrise I was greeted by the sound of lyrebirds, a good omen I told myself, as I strapped my splitboard to my hefty daypack. A small sign at the trailhead warned of the obvious dangers and a quick glance through the trip intention logbook, placed by Parks, showed one previous ascent in the six months prior. I glanced back at my car before scampering up the trail at an ambitious (and short-lived) pace.
I was around an hour into the steep hike up Eskdale Spur when I started to question my grandiose Bogong aspirations. My face was millimetres from a muddy trail as I inched myself under the third or fourth colossal Mountain Ash that had fallen onto the trail.
My decision to leave my heavy pack on while attempting this maneuver meant my splitboard caught in some foliage. Water, leaves and startled insects rained down on me as I commando crawled my way to safety.
My spirits, however, could not be deterred. I was one of the lucky Victorians allowed to venture more than 5km from my house, I thought as I got to my feet, and I was going snowboarding! I launched myself up the trail with renewed vigour as the skies opened up and began to pelt me with small hailstones.
Still Feeling Lucky?
The hail cleared after a few minutes, followed by a chorus of kookaburras seemingly laughing at the lone explorer in the bright orange jumper and pink knee brace. I laughed back at them, determined to show them that I wasn’t going to be stopped that easily. Besides, snow and hail aren’t that dissimilar? Maybe it was snowing at the summit…
A short while later a friendly voice from behind startled me. Another person with a pack half the size of mine, making much better time on the ascent, emerged from around yet another fallen eucalypt. He was surely within earshot of my manic kookaburra conversation just minutes earlier.
‘How about that hail back there?” he commented.
There’s something about running into strangers when out in the backcountry; an instant kinship. I think it probably has a lot to do with an underlying level of respect for someone as dedicated (read: crazy) as yourself. Someone who also sees a four-hour slog up and down a steep and slippery mountain, in the hopes of spending a few short minutes skiing, as a feasible, even enjoyable, way to spend the day.
We chatted for a minute before heading up the trail together, he too had seen the photo I was chasing. His first and last ski of the season.
Looking Bare on the Summit
Shortly after, we passed Michell Hut; a simple corrugated shelter for emergency refuge. Although technically the halfway point, the hut signalled that the hardest part of the journey was over. The steep trail mellowed out and began to open up, framing incredible views through the snow gums across the Great Dividing Range.
By the time the summit was in view, I was still unsure whether there was any rideable snow remaining. The trail up Eskdale Spur approaches from the north which, aside from a few sparse pockets of snow, was looking pretty bare.
By the time the large rock cairn that signposts the summit was in view, I could see my new acquaintance a few hundred meters ahead of me putting on his ski boots and my heart started pumping. After two hours climbing up the gruelling trail in questionable weather, it finally looked like my spontaneous trip was about to pay off.
Mt Bogong is a very unassuming peak; at the summit it almost plateaus, easily fooling first-timers and hiding its true scale. I made my way down the gentle slope towards Cairn Gully to assess the stability of the snowpack.
Acutely aware of the dangers surrounding me, I examined numerous terrain traps; from exposed rock faces to avalanche debris caused by melting cornices.
I picked my line; the formidably titled Tombstone Gully. There was good coverage, aside from a few exposed rocks, and a stable snowpack, so I made my way towards the summit to strap into my splitboard.
That One Line
As I began to ride down the gentle face at the summit of Bogong I experienced the same feeling one gets at the top of a rollercoaster; slowly and comfortably gaining momentum, but aware of what’s ahead as the tracks disappear out of view.
The gully abruptly opened up and I was at the top of a steep descent. I dropped in. I rode the Tombstone with my heart in my mouth, but in complete control in the soft spring snow (spring corn or poor man’s pow as it’s affectionately known).
At the end of my line I sat in silence for around 15 minutes, just reflecting on the incredible experience. My entire trip was undertaken at the drop of a hat, inspired by a grainy photo, and had resulted in one of the best lines of my life.
The stoke was well and truly alive on Bogong that day. I was grinning from ear to ear as I climbed out via Cairn Gully and began the long, knee-busting descent to the car.
After many months of restrictions and uncertainty, my experience on top of Mt Bogong reinforced my belief in the importance of nature and adventure in daily life. Next time you daydream up a crazy idea for a spontaneous expedition I reckon you should go do it.
It might just be one of the best things you’ve ever done.