The Overland Track is free from the 1st of June to the 30th of September. So what’s Tasmania’s premier multi-day hut hike like in winter??
Planning For The Overland Track
Let’s wind it back a bit, it’s May and I’ve just finished my first half marathon. It’s a road running race and I’m keen to head back to my main squeeze, trail running, and maybe punch out a few trail races.
‘Oi come and run the Overland Track with me,’ says Dom, who’s just paced me for the entire race.
‘How far’s that?’
‘65km, we’ll do it in a day!’ replies Dom with glee.
Either it was post-race elation, or maybe I’d huffed too many energy gels, but I accepted. We started to put together a plan to run a track normally hiked over six days.
Running The Overland Track
There’s some precedent for this. The Cradle Mountain Run in February sees times under 8 hours along with an 80km course, but a fully self-supported effort, running in the winter months to cut down on costs and admin? I couldn’t find proof that it had been done before.
Luckily it didn’t matter. As the chosen weekend loomed closer, we began to realise that our July 13th start date wasn’t going to avoid the snow.
The trip began to morph and change. We planned to run in microspikes with snow-shoes would be strapped to our backs with basket-equipped hiking poles akimbo. After more deliberation, the goal was to get to Lake St Clair in two days.
7 Days Out
The forecat didn’t look good. 80km/h winds and over a metre of snow had me simultaneously terrified of our trip and spewing that I wouldn’t be riding powder at Perisher. I called a very hungover Dom to do a final gear check.
‘Don’t bring your trail runners mate. This is going to be a sufferfest.’
Admitting defeat, I ditched the runners and grabbed a sturdy pair of hiking boots.
A Dodgy Drive to Cradle Mountain
Turbulence and delayed flights were our first warning of weather to come. By 10.00 pm on Friday evening, we were shooting north towards Cradle Mountain. With no accommodation options and the power of Red Bull (pls sponsor) we decided to push through to the trailhead and crash out. But as we wound out of Launceston, the snow began to fall.
Driving in the snow always feels like a champagne-popping moment. However, when you’re in a front-wheel-drive Commodore (I know, it felt unAustralian) you also start to question just how much worse it’s going to get.
After a few slippery corners we decided to tuck into a truck bay for the night and sleep in the car. Did I mention it was 3:00 am?
The Arrival of Mr. Plough
We woke up at 8.00 am as a snow plough started scraping its way past. Cheering! Our troubles are over dude! We crawled into Cradle Mountain Lodge carpark 90 minutes and 30km later.
Another hurdle. While the lodge had managed to get the road ploughed to its door, the road into the start of the Overland Track was closed. We were fighting heavy snowfall as we kitted up in the carpark, but we were excited.
Six k’s of snow-shoeing down the road passed pretty quickly, and before we knew it we were on the Overland track. It was about midday and we hoped to make it over to Scott Kilvert Hut near Cradle Mountain and maybe bag the summit.
Yeah, we’re planning to hike the first day of the hike in…a day. So much for the whole track in a day or two..
Slow Going in The Snow
The soft snow quickly began swallowing our snow-shoes to the knee as we struggled to stay above the firm platform of the boardwalks.
Soon we were climbing through dense forest, branches drooping, or dropping, from the weight of the snow. A waterfall crashed heavily next to the trail. The aggressive noise disturbed tranquil scene as we listened for more peaceful sounds of shuffling wombats and flittering songbirds.
Crater Lake and the Boat Shed gave us our first gusts of wind as it howled off the Cradle Plateau. By the time we made the ridgeline I was shouting at Dom to repeat everything he said. I needn’t have bothered as it was mostly shit banter, but it could’ve been important.
Looking for an easy intro to snowshoeing? First-Time Alpine Hiking On Mt Buffalo (VIC)
Things got particularly spicy climbing up to Marion’s Lookout. The steep staircase was iced out, turning the incline into a low-grade ice-climb. At least the grip and predictability of the ice were kind of refreshing after kilometres of weak-willed snowpack.
Now we were onto the ridge proper. The wind was hitting us side on, corrupting our balance and forcing its way onto our cheeks and into our pitzips.
Visibility worsened as we hit a small saddle with steep drops to either side. It was at this point, with the sleet slappin’ under our eyes, that Dom began to regret his decision to only bring sunnies. I took the lead, moving pole to pole because that’s all we could see. Some of the markers were only sticking a handspan out of the snow. Cool cool cool cool cool.
Time’s a strange concept in a whiteout. You’re floating, untethered to any visuals, you’re cold, too cold to check your watch, you’re gritting your teeth, hoping that with your next step salvation will fade into view.
Home Sleet Home
Eventually, it did, the roof of the historic Kitchen Hut Emergency Shelter took shape from the wasteland. I only truly believed it was real with the door handle in my gloves.
I pulled on the door, it didn’t budge. Preparing to grab the handle and give it a fierce yank, I reached out… and it slid open before my eyes. I was confronted by two beaming, bedraggled faces.
Pat and Hamish were two blokes from the Central Highlands of NSW and they were fanging for a real challenge. They had large packs, supplies, and experience of the region in winter. But they had spent the night and an entire day holed up in Kitchen Hut, unable to even see Cradle Mountain.
We swapped tales of our journey snow far (‘It’s snowing a lot!’) before hopping into our sleeping bags. It was only 5.00pm, but the poorly insulated hut was freezing and drafty.
Pat and Hamish were sorted out with a lofted sleeping spot, which meant that Dom and I would be sleeping on benches surrounded by the snow-encrusted rocks that make up the foundation of the shelter.
We smashed cheese, biscuits, nuts and chocolate and at around 6.00pm Dom and I prepared to trade war stories late into the night.
He was fast asleep.
Well Rested And Ready to Bounce
We groggily woke from 13 hours of slumber and quickly reached a consensus to bail. Hamish had intel from one bar of reception that another cold front was on the way, even worse than the current one that was buffeting the shelter.
With the wind howling a gale we loaded up on Nutella and almond wraps, lined our pockets with muesli bars like commandos, and cracked open the door…
The Exit Strategy
Challenge number 467: Leaving the hut. The snow was banked up chest-high in the doorway. This was going to require a penguin slide. No footage exists of my penguin slide ‘n’ dive, but I can confirm that it was a truly graceful act.
Hunched in the biting wind we strapped on our snowshoes and prepared to break trail for our heavily laden friends – but it was quick going. The wind at our backs pushed us along, the snow had firmed up overnight, even the visibility was passable.
I was able to see further with my goggles off my face, but wild-man Patrick went a step further and exposed his entire head to the freezing wind. No gracias amigo.
Oh did I mention that Hamish was carrying a snowboard? He was (somewhat ambitiously – a park ranger later told me) planning to snowboard down 1,617m Mt Ossa, Tassie’s highest mountain.
Instead he was carrying a large sail that sought to drag him from the path, snag every tree and generally attempt to screw him over. But he was a big lad and we soldiered on, back across the plateau, across the saddle, which now featured a large and unstable cornice, and down the much easier correct track adjacent to ‘Timba’s chute’.
Descending was elating. With every downhill step we found warmer weather, less wind, and more visibility. By the time we hit the boatshed Dom was attempting to video call his girlfriend, snowball fights were breaking out, and the brekkie Red Bull we forgot to drink was being cracked. What a difference a few hundred metres can make.
Nothing Went to Plan
The phrase ‘nothing went to plan’ only really applies when you have a plan, so in some respects, this trip was a complete success. Our only goal was to flog ourselves without spending much money, and Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair offers boundless opportunities for such shenanigans.
Whether it’s through distance, elevation, fuckin’ tough weather or days away from creature comforts, the Overland Track can push you as far as you need.
Oh and it also has some incredibly stunning scenery… allegedly. Looked pretty white to me!
This same weekend saw evacuations of school groups and multiple searches for lost hikers. Luckily, everyone was found safe, but it’s a strong reminder to know your limits in harsh terrain and turn back early (as we did) before you’re out of your depth.