Federation Peak – Easter 2007

11 04 2007

Or: Feders to Farmhouse with 13 Tic-Tacs

The cut-scene of the bright blue ruck sack tumbling in slow motion down the ridge toward the edge of the cliff is seared into our minds. As the pack approached the edge of the cliff it began to slow. Someone yelled “STOP” in a vain attempt to command the pack.

Tink
Tink
Thump

Wait…

(Echoing from the depths…) Tink

The metal cup on the outside of the pack hit the cliff several times on the 400m decent to the lake below.

The party stood in shock for a few moments. Three of our group had been hiking together extensively before, but we’d not had to deal with a situation quite like this. Three days from the road, on a steep ridge in cloud on wet rock, and we’d just lost a quarter of our gear.

The three up front, initially thinking about negotiating one of the less treacherous parts of the southern traverse with our packs turned to look back at Graham, who was now standing in all he owned – and would own for the next few days. This was limited to normal walking apparel, a bum bag with some scroggin (the 13 tic tacs) and (thankfully) a Goretex raincoat. The vote to pack haul the current obstacle was as instant as it was unanimous. All of the party could very easily visualise the same situation in slightly different circumstances; had someone lost their footing in the same place, the chances are very high that they would have been dragged down the hill still attached to that pack. The outcome of that is painfully obvious.

The trip up until this point had been a reasonably standard traverse of the Eastern Aurthurs Range with a possible summit attempt of Federation Peak. Due to the normal work commitments (and a slightly unexpected, although welcome, pregnancy with Kevin’s wife), the first week of April was the only available time to complete the hike. A few weeks before the hike we heard about the huge bushfires in the South West national park. There were a few nervous weeks requesting updates from the park Rangers on the fire situation, and a backup plan created, but in the end the tracks and campsites were all reopened on the Tuesday before our departure. As it turned out, we were the first hiking group in the area following the fires, although there was evidence that the rangers had been there to begin the cleanup at some point after the fire had been through.

On arriving in Hobart Graham found his boots had been accidentally thrown away by a (well meaning) parent. Not the ideal start, but a trip to the camping store soon fixed that.

The first day of the trek involved picking up Kev and Stu from the airport (Steve had been sent ahead early to organise food and fuel, and Graham was staying with family in Tasmania prior to the hike). Pre-organising food and equipment was handy as it meant we could go straight from the airport to the start of the hike (useful for those with limited leave passes from work). Later the same day we hiked from slightly outside Tahune along the Huon Track. The same track we had walked a few years earlier at the end of a traverse of the Western Arthur Range. This is not the most popular approach the Eastern Arthurs Range; we had chosen this route to make a loop walk (in and out via Tahune) and to link it with the Western Arthurs walk we had completed several years before.

Following along the Huon track, from Tahune to Cracroft Crossing took the remainder of the first day, and the second day of the trek. The highlight of this section was on the morning of the second day, when Stuart came trudging back from getting water, dripping wet. He’d managed to fall into the Huon River when a rock he was pulling up on broke away. He did a good job of it too – boots, fleece jumper, everything he was wearing went in and was, of course, dripping wet. Somehow he even managed to cling on to the water bottle through it all. Luckily the weather was kind, and we managed to dry all of the clothes (except for the jumper) by the end of the day.

Along the Huon track we also came across the signs of bushfire. Although the fire had swept through the area some weeks before, there was still a heavy smell of ash and smoke along much of the second and third days walking (across The Razorback and the plains on the way to Luckmans Lead). The button grass plains had been blackened. The plants ability to recover from fire was already evident; the black charred background was already interspersed with green shoots from the button grass. The bracken also made an amazingly fast recovery, several shoots were over a foot high, with 3 or more fronds. The plant life was clearly damaged by the fire, but it appears the flora recovery is already well on the way.

The longer lasting problem may be the fires effect on the peat soil. More than once while walking the smell the smoke intensified. A short exploration off of the track and we found the peat actively smouldering in places. At times we could also see thin plumes of smoke in the distance from areas that were obviously still smouldering. Around the base of burnt trees the peat is just gone, as if a large animal has eaten the soil. In water courses the massive erosion is evident as the ash is washed away. Another effect of the fire was to destroy all of the duckboard across the plains (on our walk only the area around McKay’s Track has been effected, but the south west area would have lost much of its duckboard.) This means the track has been reduced to a double line of nails across the button grass plains in places – the nails being the only part of the duckboard not to burn.

Once we began climbing in to the Eastern Arthurs range the effects of the fire fell away, and we were back to climbing over tree roots on the steep ascent from Luckmans Lead to Stuarts Saddle. As we rose, we left behind the great weather we had been enjoying and ascended in to the clouds. The target for the day was Goon Moor; the platform campsite (with water tank) at Stuart Saddle and the brief but spectacular view of Federation Peak we were granted as the clouds cleared beguiled us and we decided to camp early on the Saddle. The climb from the plains is steep and hard work, but no harder than our memories of sections of the Western Arthurs, and the track is in good condition – we had little trouble following it.

Day four began and ended in the cloud. The weather maps we had seen on our departure resulted in several still days, which in the south west resulted in thick pea soup on the peaks and high cloud with reasonably still conditions over the plains (although we couldn’t see this, we assumed it must be the case). This weather turned the days walk from an enjoyable saunter in the mountains into a slog. The wind we did have was icy and blew from the west (seemingly via Antarctica). There were the occasional difficult sections on the route, but in general it was a pleasant track, unfortunately dominated by the weather (as is so often the case in the south west). By the time we realised we were at Thwaites Plateau, we had crossed it, and were faced with the prospect of backtracking to the campsite, or descending to Hanging Lake. Neither option was appealing, but the short decent to Hanging Lake was well worth it, as the (platform) campsite was sheltered and had abundant water. We were less than a kilometre from our target (Federation Peak summit) and in a position that no-doubt afforded stunning views, but the clouds prevented us from enjoying the situation.

Day 5 broke as cloudy as the preceding day. To maximise our chances of reaching the summit, we delayed out departure in the feeble hope that a few hours of sunlight might allow the clouds to burn off. We began the Southern Traverse soon after rejoining the main track. Like most groups (it appears) we followed the odd false trail as we picked our way carefully around the trail. The first major challenge on the track was where Graham chose to carelessly roll his pack into the void. This affected the group in more ways than the obvious loss of equipment. Two of the group are confident rock climbers, a third has some technical ability but is not confident unroped at heights and the fourth has had very limited rock exposure, but is confident on his feet at heights. Initially the pack incident caused all to become very hesitant on the rock, although three of the group recovered within an hour or so (two mainly due to their high experience on rock, and one because climbing without a pack at the speed of those that have a pack is relatively easy). The incident really effected Steve, who was overly cautious for most of the day (until well down Moss Ridge), which significantly slowed down the group. The worst part of the traverse was the climb only a few hundred meters before the final decent to Bechervaise Plateau. A very steep climb up a gully with great exposure and great difficulty pack hauling (it was easier to do the climb with the pack on than try to pack haul). After the events of the day, and the state of the groups (well, Steve’s) confidence this obstacle was very slowly negotiated. The gully was almost completed when a 20cm wide chunk of shale was dislodged hitting Stu as he was climbing the short vertical end of the gully. Luckily no major damage was caused (although again, there was potential for serious drama).

Upon reaching the Bechervaise Plateau, a quick, late, lunch was taken, and we decided (quickly) that camping a night in the mountains without a sleeping bag each would be unwise and we decided to get as far down the mountain as possible. As it turns out, Moss Ridge is a significant obstacle going down as well as up, and this took the best part of four hours to complete. Some of the climbing involves literally trusting your full weight (body plus pack) onto thin (1 inch diameter) tree stems, and several occasions of using very scant hand holds (for example, roots of around 1cm in diameter, or handfuls of mud). The sections that were not vertical involved climbing over, under, around and along tree roots and tree trunks in very dense forest. Although the pace is unbelievably slow, it is not reasonable to go much faster than about one kilometre per hour. The track really is that difficult to follow (although not overly dangerous). The bulk of the party arrived at the first crossing of Cracroft River, and the first possible tent site, right on dark (Graham had gone ahead early as he had no torch, and walking long this track in the dark without a torch would have been especially difficult).

Since we had decided to cut the hike short (and minimise the discomfort by leaving the area as quickly as possible), the remaining supplies were more that enough to be shared amongst four. Luckily, we still had enough equipment to make a relatively normal camp – the pack that was lost contained all the equipment for one person, with no shared gear. This means we only had to make up one sleeping bag (by combining all of the raincoats and thermals available). We were extremely fortunate with this – any other pack and we could have lost a tent (or parts of), the bulk of the food or the cooking equipment. An event like this really demonstrates the fragility of our experiences in the wilderness. A tent and sleeping bag gone will suddenly turn a week hike from a pleasant way to get away from work (and our normal lives) into a survival situation.

Day 6 started after a night of occasionally heavy rain. We were again fortunate that the weather cleared for us to strike camp (in record time since we had Graham who had zero gear of his own to pack away). Today we realised we had a long day ahead of us, to get out of the SW NP. Our
original plans had been laid aside, opting for a rapid retreat. The day was a long slog through countless bogs over button grass plains and through sections of forest, although none as dense as the trip down Moss Ridge. Apart from the normal struggle of walking with saturated feet (new boots and gaiters can only keep you dry through so many hip deep descents into the mud) the walk was mostly uneventful. At the trail head, we decided to eat a quick meal and continue on for a few hours in the dark on the road to Tahune. A call on the satellite phone to arrange an early pickup tomorrow, and we were off again. Two of the group are rogainers and adventure racers, so walking at night should have been no problem, but with wet, sore feet the first shower of rain scared us off the road into the tent (after only an hour or so of walking in the dark). A short while after making camp a single car drove past. Since it was Thursday night before the Easter weekend, we were expecting at least one group to arrive at the Farmhouse Creek parking area. It was a few days later that we heard of a fellow hiker who had fallen and perished on the same slopes we had recently traversed. Given the ease that our pack toppled off of the mountain, it is easy to see how a person could go the same way, and our route didn’t include a trip to the summit of Federation Peak (reportedly the far hardest part of the trip). Despite this, all who enter the area know (or should know) the dangers and must accept these dangers. In the present climate of litigation and liability, I really hope public access to this area is maintained always, so people can make their own choices about their skills and the suitability of a trek in the region.

The final day walking out of the forestry areas (before the pre arranged midday rendezvous at Tahune) was a little dull. Walking on forestry tracks will always be dull after walking in the mountains. Also, given the graphic destruction wreaked on the forest in this area by the foresters is pleasing to know that vast areas of the South West has World Heritage status and will never be logged. On arriving in Tahune I reflected on an article1 I had read just prior to leaving Hobart, where a runner described his 22 hour journey to the summit and return. Our group had spent that much time travelling one way (not including stops)!

An eventful little trip. One that I doubt any of us will repeat lightly. If I ever make an attempt on the summit, it will be roped. After our experiences, and the extremely unfortunate fatality so closely following our trip, I don’t mind admitting to being fairly nervous about the mountains now (directly after the trip). But that wont be able to keep any of us away from the mountains for long.

1. Warwick Daniels “Federation Peak in a day”, The Tasmanian Tramp No21 – January 1974. Journal of the Hobart Walking Club.


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