The Hannels Spur track offers the greatest elevation gain of any hike in Australia. Beginning deep in the Geehi Valley, the historic leg burner summits Australia’s highest mountain.
It’s no coincidence that the NSW ski resorts of Thredbo and Perisher are located on the eastern side of the main range in Kosciuszko National Park. On this side of the mountain there’s more protection from the harsh westerly winds, the snow is shielded from the warmer afternoon sun, and importantly, the access from the valley to the top of the mountains is slightly easier.
So, what’s this mean for the western side of Australia’s highest mountain? What’s over there?
When Polish explorer Sir Pawel Edmund Strzelecki was searching Australia’s Snowy Mountains for the highest peak, his Indigenous guides Charlie Tarra and Jackey Tarra led him up a path the Ngarigo people had been treading for thousands of years, up the western side of the mountain on Hannels Spur.
Beginning in the beautiful Geehi Valley, Hannels Spur is a beast of a climb, winding up and up to the very top of what Strzelecki eventually proclaimed Mt Kosciuszko. It’s such a climb, at just over 1,800 metres from bottom to top, that it can claim the biggest possible ascent in Australia.
After discovering this I was compelled to take on the challenge. I rallied a few keen hiking mates and we made plans to do the trek. But instead of waiting for the snow to melt, we strapped some snowshoes on our packs in preparation for a snowy summit.
Pre-Hike Admin for a Monster Climb
Hannels Spur can be a logistical effort and, unless you’re ok with backtracking, it’s going to require a car shuttle or maybe hitching a ride. After stocking up in Jindabyne on dehydrated pasta and chocolate bars we dropped a car in the overnight car park at Thredbo and continued around the mountain to the Geehi campsite.
Standing in the valley at Geehi you get one of the best views of the Aussie mountains that you’ll see from anywhere, with the imposing western fall standing tall above you – daring you to climb it.
From this angle, the Great Dividing Range certainly lives up to its name!
After a quick breakfast we slung our packs and a strong sense of adventure hit us. The kind that only comes when your bag hits your back at the start of a big overnight hike.
Shortly after setting off we faced our first hurdle; a barefoot crossing of the fast-flowing and icy Geehi River. A river crossing to begin the hike is unavoidable, but you have two to choose from and the Geehi River crossing is a bit more manageable than the faster and deeper Swampy Plains.
After negotiating the river without incident and stopping a quick look at Doctor Forbes Hut we reached the official track head. A humble sign told us Mt Kosciuszko was 15.5km away with a vertical ascent of 1,800 metres – let’s get stuck in!
Hannels Spur Begins
The track leads into the wilderness and immediately heads upwards, and it is relentless! The bush is thick and in some sections the trail is only faintly visible under the leaf litter, fallen branches, and new tree shoots.
The Hannels Spur was almost lost entirely after regrowth from the 2003 bushfires began to cover the footpad, but thankfully some groups of volunteers have done a great job of clearing it from top to bottom.
Despite this, some track finding is still required so only confident hikers with some navigation skills and safety equipment should attempt this walk.
Moiras Flat to Byatts Camp and Up, Always Up!
Aiming for our first milestone at Moiras Flat, we powered up the hill for what seemed like much longer than the signposted 6.5km.
Eventually the track flattens a little and the foilage starts to change before opening into a great little bush campsite with a small running creek nearby. Moiras Flat would make a perfect overnighter if you’d rather break up the hike, but we wanted to get a bit higher for our campsite. After a quick lunch we kept heading up.
The bush continued to change with every step and the trees began to thin out before we emerged from the tree line at Byatts Camp and got a chance to take in the view. There’s a strong sense of satisfaction as you trace the spur all the way back down to the starting point at Geehi Flats.
With the light beginning to fade and the snow becoming thicker underfoot we strapped on our snowshoes and skirted around Abbotts Peak and down into the valley, looking for a campsite alongside Wilkinsons Creek.
Snow Camping at Wilkinsons Creek
Camping in the snow isn’t for everyone but it always makes for a memorable night. After picking a spot with some protection from the wind we dug a platform for the tent and layered up before the temperature dropped.
Rain was forecast for Sunday and sure enough, instead of the amazing sunrise I’d envisaged out of the door of my tent I woke to thick fog and sleeting rain. After trying to wait out the rain for an hour we bit the bullet, packed up our soggy tents and carefully took a bearing on the compass.
The visibility was down to about ten metres so navigating by compass was our best option (aside from using GPS) and a very important skill to have in conditions like this.
To The Summit
The quickest and most direct route to the summit was up the steep western face. While ‘Kozi’ is often described as a fairly gentle and easily accessible mountain, your perspective quickly changes when you’re climbing it in snowshoes during a blizzard!
Eventually the terrain flattened and the rock stack that marks the summit of Mt Kosciuszko came into view. My spirits lifted and for a moment I forgot that I was soaked through, freezing cold, and the possibility of a helicopter rescue no longer interrupted my thoughts.
I’ve never been mountaineering or climbed a summit worth boasting about, but right at this moment, I could relate to the stories I’d heard when people reach the top of Everest and get a quick photo before immediately turning around to head back down.
We touched the trig to mark the summit, looked at each other and almost simultaneously said, ‘let’s get the hell out of here!’
Rawson Pass, Thredbo, and the Eagle’s Nest Café
Resetting the compass bearing, we made our way down to Rawson Pass and eventually onto the well-trodden path that would lead us down towards Thredbo. By this stage I had pools of icy water forming in my boots and my gloves were soaking wet, so we wasted no time and power walked the last few kilometres to Australia’s highest restaurant, the Eagle’s Nest Café.
Hot chocolates and scones were in order before we stepped back into the blizzard for the chairlift down to Thredbo village where the car was waiting.
These days most people summit Kosciuszko by walking up the iron highway, a man-made footpath on the eastern side of the mountain. But if you’re looking for a challenge then follow in the footsteps of Strzelecki and his Indigenous guides up the western side of the mountain on Hannel’s Spur. It’s a tough but very rewarding walk at any time of year.
Join the 1,800 club on Australia’s biggest vertical ascent!
Distance / Elevation / Time Taken
15.5km from Geehi Flats to the top of Mt Kosciuszko, and a further 6.4km to the Eagle’s Nest Café chairlift at Thredbo.
Elevation gain +1,800m
Recommended over two days, but possible in one day.
How To Get There
Start at Geehi Campground and head to Doctor Forbes Hut near to the trackhead. Hannels Spur to Mt Kosciuszko summit, then down to the Thredbo Village via the chairlift or the Merritts Nature Track. A car shuttle is required for this route.
Hannels Spur is steep and requires a good level of fitness. The track can be unclear at times, so navigational skills are required. Weather in the Australian Alps can be unpredictable, particularly if climbing in winter. Hikers tackling this route should ensure they have appropriate equipment for all types of weather.