Mt Feathertop (1,922 meters) is the second highest mountain in south eastern Australia (Victoria), and according to many commentators, the most picturesque and memorable. While Mt Bogong, the highest at 1,986 meters is a mammoth of bulk and stature, a bullock of a mountain with an ungainly rounded peak, Feathertop stands like a crafted blade fashioned out of a gigantic rocky plate tipped on its side aeons ago by the unfathomable forces that shaped our planet. So to stand on the top you must climb the supremely steep side from the valley below, or walk along its exposed knife-edge for 10 kilometers.
A few miles before the Mt Hotham alpine village on the Alpine Highway Diamantina Hut stands to shelter weary or worse, lost adventurers. ‘Lost’ seems improbable on the warm summers day that we visit, but an early Spring or late autumn change — or far worse, a winter blizzard — can turn getting to a shelter into a matter of life or death. It is here that we leave the car by the side of the Alpine Highway, in a line with more than two dozen others, a mix of day and overnight walkers. The departure means a final check, there’ll be no going back for something left behind now.
From Diamantina Hut the Razorback Trail heads north at an altitude of around 1800 metres along an improbable ridge, the drop so steep on either side you wonder how the forces of geology brought it about. It is like the realisation of a child’s drawing of a mountain ridge, impossibly pointy. Why the angled narrow crest doesn’t crumble is a mystery to a geologically challenged individual like me. Beyond that curiosity, it is the views down the sides into the valleys below, and out at eye level to successive waves of majestic mountain ranges that make this track unforgettable.
The outward walk goes for about 10 kilometers, or seven miles, and takes us first around and over a series of unwooded alpine meadows, well above the snow-line, where the summer heat reflects off the shale beneath our feet. After a couple of hourse we transition to the second part which involves up and down sections, and moving between the more sheltered east side and the exposed west side of the Razorback.
At a few resting points we enjoy shade from Eucalyptus Paucifolia (Australian snow gum), a small and compact eucalypt that typically splist into three to five trunks at its base. This Australian native possesses the temerity to survive and thrive in the heat of a antipodeian summer at 1900 meters, as well as the ice and snow of winter for the other half of the year.
In the second half of the in-bound walk, the largest snow gum specimens are not more than four or five meters high, but their sparse foliage is enough to house a managerie of insects, beetles, ants, all manner of bugs, some familiar, some strange and weird-looking. March flies are a constant companion, creatures that look like a house-fly on steroids that sting if left to rest on unprotected skin. Altitude does not discourage bush flies and we automatically respond to each approach with the ‘great Australian salute’.
Birds flit through this unlikely Alpine wood, too fast to capture with my smartphone camera and limited technique. All around the track, native bushes flower profusely. Paper daisies, native violets, boronia, and many I recognize but fail to name. At one rest stop, native bees swarm over a flowering bush that looks like some kind of boronia, adding noisily to the summer sound scape.
After more than four hours the clearing of Federation Hut first appears ahead on a shoulder to the west of the summit. The alternative route to Feathertop, a thigh-burning climb up from Harrietville in the valley below on the Bungalow Spur (named after a long gone hut) runs out here. Federation Hut and the clearing will be our camp tonight.
To get to camp, we come first to a junction marked by possibly the most magnificent specimen of a snow gum I’ve ever seen. Standing on the edge of the saddle to the west of the summit, and at the junction with the short track over to Federation Hut, it is a recognized landmark and much used resting place for walkers of all ages and intents. From here, you choose to go right, a further 1.5km up the steep track to the summit, ot go left to the camp.
This particular specimen stands out from its much younger cousins. I have no idea how long these trees live, most are killed by bushfires which sweep through once, twice or more a century. (A renowned specimen, the King Billy Tree near Mansfield, is thought to be 200 years old). The Feathertop junction tree could easily be a century old. Perhaps proximity to the barren summit has served to protect it from fire.
The walk in under the burning summer sun has been hotter than I had expected or wished for. I find my feet stumbling occasionally in places I would have glided over earlier. We are both tired, our overnight packs weighing heavily on us. The hut beckons with the promise of getting these loads off our backs, shedding the boots, some freeze-dried dinner, and rest.
Next morning after a sleep that was fir me fitful and massively restorative at the same time, we climb to the summit, arriving around 0930. The summit is a true pinnacle. Momentous alpine mountains, ranges and dramatic drop-offs to valleys far below surround us. The views are overwhelming. Every other peak and feature seems downhill, even if by a little. The up-side of the hot summer’s day we endured yesterday is clear air and uninterrupted views for a hundred miles. (A fellow walker tells us it was 37 degrees C in the valley yesterday, and it will be hotter down there today). There is no wind, not a breath, and the insects continue to taunt us, even at this highest point. Butterflies are plentiful and easy to follow as they tumble around and below us.
I had planned to do a SOTA activation. But with unexpectedly hot weather both days, the walking had been tiring, and with the sun beating down on us on the bare summit I decided it was best to keep moving. Dallying further would have taken time, making us later to start our return plod, and risking the good will of my fellow walker, whom I’d dragged out on this trip despite perhaps a hint of understandable trepidation on his part. So after the obligatory smartphone photography and modest congratulations, it was time to descend, and in a few steps, we were no longer pushing toward our singular goal — we were returning.
A small but permanent fresh water spring runs out the north side of the mountain, about ten minutes’ walk down the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club Hut track, which departs from the bottom of the summit track. The spring water is crystal clear and ice cold. The detour adds more than half an hour to our departure but it is worth it. After drinking all that our bellies can hold, we drink a little more, fill our water bottles and then, fix our minds on the half day walk back along the Razorback to the road, the car, and civilisation. At Federation Hut, we don our heavy packs and walk out, 4.5 hours, again a hot slog. Tougher and longer than I remember. My memory is like that. I remember the elation and forget the pain.
There are lots of photos of Mt Feathertop in all its seasons and grandeur, taken by all manner of walkers and visitors. This mountain amply rewards the planning, weather watching and personal physical effort required to stand on its highest point. It is a fitting antidote to a winter of lockdowns and social isolation. I for one hope to do it all again in the summer of ’22, and the summer after that.
At the car, we are sweaty, exhausted, feet throbbing. But these feelings pass quickly as we drive down the mountain in air-conditioned comfort to the pretty township of Mount Beauty. A couple of large cold soft drinks from the town’s supermarket fridge ease our transition back into the mainstream, washing away the taste of icy spring water at 1900 meters. Everything went close to plan. Fine weather (no rain), no injuries, no snake bite, no sunburn, summit conquered, selfies taken, sufficient food consumed, memories minted.
Before we know it, we are home.