Mt Bogong (1986m ASL) is Victoria’s highest mountain. All the tracks to the summit involve a steep climb, none more so than the Staircase Trail, a 1200m ascent over just 6.5km linear distance. Although I’d just completed a 2 day walk in to Mt Feathertop (Victoria’s second highest peak) the previous two days, various factors combined to nudge me to arrive at the Staircase Trail around 0830 on Monday 21 Jan 2019, a little bit apprehensive about the energy level that would be required to get to the top that day, and the temperature I’d be walking in — hot. The previous days had been high 30s (Celsius), and the hot summer week would peak at 42C in the valley the day after.
Mt Bogong has been activated 13 times before, and is visited by SOTA people two or three times each year. There are a few ways to the summit, but the shortest, most direct way is via the Staircase Trail, which starts about 2.5km in from Mountain Creek campsite, a 10 minute drive east from Tawonga, along an attractive 4 wheel drive road that makes multiple crossings of a shallow mountain stream. At each crossing there is a convenient footbridge so no feet need to get wet. The last crossing is odd to say the least. The road crosses the creek, then does a U-turn and crosses it back again about 100m upstream. Follow the well-worn track on the south bank of the creek and no crossings are required. The hint is that there is no pedestrian bridge at this point.
At the Staircase Trail head, a large, informative and recently installed sign spells out everything you need to know, and punches warnings at the reader repeatedly. “If you have any doubt, do not proceed”. It’s a warning more motivated by the potential for weather changes above the snow line than overly ambitious and dubiously fit middle-aged SOTA activators like me. The danger is that you get most of the way up, are out on the final 1.5km ascent to the summit (which is wide open and highly exposed), and the weather changes.
We humans have a highly developed sense of ‘sunk cost’ — when we’ve expended a lot of effort to get within the sight of our goal, we are prone to push on against our better judgment. This mountain’s geography sets you up for this kind of folly, as, after 4 or more hours of up-hill slog, you can see the bare summit. It must take a supremely rational mind and good judgment to turn back at this point if conditions change on you.
Which they do most times in the year in these Alpine parts. When climbers push on to the summit, chancing the weather, things can go wrong. A stone memorial to three climbers who lost their lives in a blizzard in 1943, just a few hundred meters down from the summit, stands as a potent reminder.
Fortunately, not much chance of a blizzard on this summer’s day. Dehydration is a much greater consideration. I’m carrying 3 liters of water. It will be enough, but I’ll drink the last warm drop before I return to the cooling waters of the creek at the end of the day.
The Staircase is steep, steep, STEEP! And it just keeps going, up, up, up, a short reprieve on a flatter section, then up again. It’s an exercise in thigh-burning, energy sapping up-hill pushing for most of the 6.5km, on a well maintained but rocky trail with highly variable footings.
Walking poles are invaluable, I use them to keep balance on the uneven ground and to reduce the shock of transferring my combined weight from one foot to the other.
At Bivouac Hut, about half way up, I meet a young German couple on their Aussie adventure. They’ve seen more of my country than I have. They are intent on climbing the highest mountains in every State and Territory. (Achieving this in South Australia and Northern Territory proved difficult and they had to abandon the idea). I told them Kosciusko would be a walk in the park compared to this (it’s a chairlift from Thredbo, a cappuccino at Eagle’s Nest cafe, and a 6km stroll on a mostly level boardwalk). I passed two other walkers, both carrying just the bare essentials and moving quickly.
Two thirds of the ascent is under forest canopy. I use an altimeter app and SOTAFinder to monitor progress. 1500m, 1600, 1700, the altitude gains significantly each time I look, which gives me encouragement. The distances to the summit are relatively small, a few kilometers, but I feel every step.
I try to find a rhythm but the up-hill work rate is high and it’s best to try to maintain consistent heart and breathing rates. At about 1700m I am finally clear of the snow gums and into the open, on a rugged, dramatic shoulder in the blazing summer sun, looking up at a vast, bare summit, rather like two massive cathedral domes joined by a long, substantial saddle. It’s not a pretty knife-edge summit like Feathertop, more the styling of a bus than an Italian supercar.
I finally get to the top at 13:30, after 5 elapsed hours and over 4 hours of climbing, easily the toughest 6.5km I’ve ever attempted. It feels so high and isolated you can sense the curvature of the planet. Clusters of cumulus clouds look tiny all around the 360 degree horizon.
After a long chat to the Germans, who eventually depart towards Spur Track (for something different), I set up the SOTA station on a very convenient timber post, about 30 meters from the summit cairn. The activation, on 40 and 20m CW and SSB, goes reasonably well, considering it is early afternoon in a high summer at the bottom of the sunspot cycle. VKs 2IO, 3BYD, 4TJ, 7CW and ZL1BYZ. I am eternally grateful to these regular chasers who have facilitated many of my recent activations.
After more than an hour on the summit, the long climb back down has to be faced. It uses a different set of muscles. The heart rate is nowhere near as high, as I am dropping and controlling the weight with each step, but each step requires balance and foot placement and a flash of concentration, and it is no picnic. Now at the hottest part of the day, I cannot wait to get under the tree canopy so that I can take off my hat, which is slow-cooking my brain. I take it off at the first sight of trees, and as a consequence, get a little bit too much sun there.
The rest of the descent is uneventful, other than disturbing a black snake and later, a blue-tongue lizard. Upon arriving back at the Staircase trail head, the German’s fried-out Combi had gone, they are off to their next adventure.
At first contact with the creek I pull off the boots and stand in the icy water, allowing my feet to return to human scale, while pouring creek water over my face and back. This day was an experience. Day-climbs like this make you appreciate the simple things of life — a shower and clean clothes back at the camp, dinner and a drink in Mt Beauty, a night’s sleep.
When I do it again I should try to do it in fine, stable weather, outside of summer, late March or early April might be ideal. I will try to get up the Staircase as far and as early as possible, making the most of the cool morning mountain air. Another option is to drive in and walk up to Bivouac Hut for an overnight camp, splitting the big climb over two days. However it’s done, it’s a good feeling to hear that fourth chaser call on the summit of Victoria’s Mt Bogong.
PostscriptAfter four days of summit-bagging around Hotham and Falls Creek, followed by the VK3 SOTA Mt Hotham weekend a fortnight later, I’d hit 4 of the 5 highest summits in the VK3/VE region. I snapped the VE region page on Sotawatch, thinking this might never happen again!
Further claim: I activated Mt Hotham the day before VK2HRX, along with 15 or so other activators participating in the SOTA Weekend, so with slightly different movements, I would have been ‘last activator’ for VE-006 as well, at least for a short period, between log entries.
Disclaimer: Rick VK3EQ activated VE-005 with me, so log entry order favoured me for that one.