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Saturday, April 13, 2013

"You can’t do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its height, width and depth."

Evan Esar

     The Western Arthur's Range in Southwest Tasmania is one of the most dramatic mountain chains not only in the island state but in whole Australia. It offers an unforgettable climb over rugged skyline of exciting rocky quartzite crags and countless dark glacier lakes. It'll lead you through some of the most spectacular glaciated scenery you'll ever see. The whole range contains 22 major peaks and 30 lakes in almost continuous series of steep ascents and descents on sheer cliffs and in precipitous gullies.

     Completing the whole traverse requires not only wading through more than 30km of knee deep muddy plains or tackling 4000 metres of climbs and descents, but also a good amount of pack hauling and rock climbing skills, a decent level of frustration tolerance and masochistic tendencies to fully enjoy the constantly punishing terrain, and last but not least being lucky enough to get at the least a horrible weather forecast. Although having mastered all of the required skills, we weren't so lucky on the weather. After we left the Lake Cygnus on our third day, a huge storm has started to come in and the entire range got swallowed by a thick cloud with visibility down to zero accompanied by torrential rain which didn't stop until two days later. By loosing almost 2 days so early on the track and because of having other walks planned after Western Arthurs we decided to return from Lake Oberon back to Scott's Peak.

DAY 1: Scott's Peak Dam to Junction Creek (9.5km, 4 hours)

     After driving 4 hours from Hobart and stopping at Mount Field National Park on the way we finally reached the car park near Scott's Peak Dam at the southern end of Lake Pedder. Both our backpacks weighted no more than 18kg which was an amazing achievement for the 11 days trip, for which we could thank to our new food dehydrator: we were able to dehydrate our homemade meals and came up with fantastic new recipes. There's no better meal in the whole world than a bowl of hot lentil soup with carrots, quinoa, spinach and parmesan during heavy storm at our private Lake Oberon. But that was just about to be earned yet the hard way.

     We set off quite late at about 3:30, signed the registration book and headed to the trailhead which marked the beginning of the long walk over  too familiar buttongrass plains towards our first stop at Junction Creek campsite. The first section led us through some lovely forest which then opened up into a good dry track over vast Tasmanian plains. The first mile of the track was covered by a pleasant boardwalk, memory of which however was going to be suppressed very soon by another 8 miles of knee-deep mud of superior Southwest quality. The next 8km separating us from Junction Creek are fairly flat and straightforward, although very exposed to infamous Tasmanian mud and hot sun at the same time. This first section of the track is rarely mentioned in the track notes and unless you give up and take it right through countless muddy pools (instead of trying to get around), walking can be very slow and exhausting.

     At about 7pm we finally reached Junction Creek and easily waded through. The campsite lies at the junction of Port Davey and McKay tracks and was rather busy with about 4 parties already there. We arrived just in time to set our tent up and cook a dinner before the dark came.

DAY 2: Junction Creek to Lake Cygnus (8.4km, 6 hours)

     Next morning we left the campsite, passed the track junction and continued along the Port Davey track southwest via some more buttongrass plains towards the base of the Western Arthur’s range. The whole range was now visible with all glacial moraines sloping down to the plains. We reached the turn off from the Port Davey track (an unmarked junction near the base of Moraine A) at about 9.30 and started the steep and slow 800m ascent to the top of the ridge of Moraine A. 

     The dark clouds were approaching the range quickly and we were glad we didn’t have to manage this ascent in the punishing Tasmanian sun. The ascent was only moderately difficult (although there was some scrambling near the top) and amazing views of Lake Pedder and Mt Anne that slowly arose on the horizon were definitely worth any effort. By noon we were already standing on top of the range and started to follow the marked route south towards the summit of Mt Hesperus.

     From Mt Hesperus we descended  to a saddle above Lake Fortuna along the southern edge of the massive contorted quartzite outcrops into a vast open saddle. Lake Fortuna is one of the many beautiful glacial tarns on the range which now has no camping available. We continued along the main ridge on the track paved with large rocks in the best weather we could imagine which made our progress very easy.

     The clouds which had been gathering the whole morning were now gone and sky became absolutely clear offering stunning views in all directions: looking the north we could see Mt Eliza, Mt Anne, Mt Sarah Jane and Frenchman’s cap. On the South we could see Bathurst Harbour and all the way to Melaleuca strip deep in the heart of Tasmanian Southwest wilderness, and even Precipitous Bluff far to the Southeast.

     We continue walking on an open moor and climbed yet another slope to another saddle and then up again over the last ridge separating us from the Lake Cygnus. The views of the dark and still glacial lake surrounded dramatically by sharp needles of quartzite were simply stunning. The constructed stairs led us steeply down to the track junction and then further down to wonderful campsite at Lake Cygnus.

DAY 3-4: Lake Cygnus to Lake Oberon (5.9km, 5 hours)

     Next morning we climbed back up to the track junction and followed the ridge along stony track south-east to a minor peak. It started to drizzle and we could see a huge white cloud quickly approaching the range, but decided not to worry about it for the moment and enjoy tremendous views of the entire range which were opening in front of us. 

     We passed Mt Hayes and then descended a very steep and slippery rocky gully to a vast open saddle. We climbed another slope and descended to Square lake, another magnificent glacier lake surrounded by sheer walls of quartzite cliffs. There is a reliable creek to replenish your water bottles, but very poor tent sites hidden in scrub along the lake. 

     Within next 10 minutes the weather changed completely. It hasn't rained yet, but the whole range disappeared suddenly by hazy rainclouds with visibility down to less than 2 metres. We decided to continue even though we knew that the next section separating us from Lake Oberon which was supposed to be the toughest so far, can potentially be hazardous under such conditions. We climbed steeply south-east up the slope to the top of the ridge. In a complete mist now with very persistent drizzle and ever-present cloud cover we followed the ridge towards the Mt Orion which we knew marks the beginning of a very steep and long descent to Lake Oberon. Not being able to see anything, not even the lake itself resting deep in the saddle right in front of us, we were faced with a difficult decision.

     Descending such a steep ridge, where you need to plan all your moves well in advance, in such a poor visibility isn't something that would be recommended in any of the survival books. However being fully aware now of the approaching storm and a large cold front creeping across the whole Southwest, the chances that waiting high on the ridge would somehow be less dangerous were very slim. With no views whatsoever and visibility down to almost zero we started our descent slowly down the gully under the huge cliffs. The route was very rugged and narrow all the way down, however the fact that we couldn't see anything somehow helped us get down much quicker and with less hesitation that would normally be healthy. We managed to negotiate a few very steep sections where lowering the packs with a rope could have made our lives easier, but we decided to get down as quickly as possible.

     During our whole descent we couldn't see the valley nor the lake. We didn't know how far down we were until we could hear the surface of the lake battling the wind and rain and banks of the Lake Oberon suddenly stepped from the mist right in front of us. It was pouring now and we realized we just climbed down to the very center of the cloud sitting happily in the saddle high on the range and not going anywhere for the next day or so. We didn't know yet however that the real struggle will be finding the tent sites in a valley completely soaked as it was gathering countless streams pouring down the sheer cliffs. It took us about 1/2 hour to locate the timber platforms hidden in the scrub. We performed what was probably our quickest tent set-ups so far and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon in warmth of our sleeping bags.

     It was Christmas Eve and even though the rain was not going to stop for the next 24 hours (and because of the mist we still hadn't seen the Lake Oberon neither any of the cliffs surrounding us), it was still one of the best Christmas days so far.

     Next morning the cloud cover didn't leave the lake until about noon, but the views that slowly opened up around us were absolutely breathtaking. It was like opening a Christmas gift after a very long night knowing it's there and feeling it's gonna be spectacular, but there's nothing that can prepare you for what's really coming.

     We had made our decision. Because we only had 6 days for the whole traverse and because it felt like a crime to come all the way to Tasmania from the other side of the world and not to enjoy at least one day of fine weather at Lake Oberon, we decided to spend here one extra day and return to Scott's Peak via Moraine A. The scenery around Lake Oberon was just too pristine and we had it completely for ourselves (luckily, there are obviously not many people in Tasmania who would be willing to spend their Christmas on top of Western Arthurs).

DAY 5: Lake Oberon to Scott's Peak Dam (23.8km, 13hours, total ascents and descents 2760m)

     Next day, on our 5th day on the range, we decided to test our limits and return along the range and via Moraine A all the way back to Scott's Peak. It was freezing, the temperature at 6am reached 0 degrees, but the sky was absolutely clear and it felt like there's gonna be very little wind on the ridge. The perfect day for a tough 24km and almost 3000m ascents and descents. If we were gonna make it the hard way, at least we wanted to make it properly.

     The way up was no less remarkable than the way down. We managed without a rope again and with the added bonus of incredible views we maximally enjoyed this 1 hour climb re-living with every step the treacherous descent from 2 days ago:

Route to Lake Oberon on the way down                             The same route 2 days later on the way up

The views from the top of the ridge of the Lake Oberon on the left (above) and the Square Lake to the right (below):

On the way back from Lake Square to Lake Cygnus:

Lake Ceres on the way to Lake Cygnus:

The walkway towards quartzite needles on Western Arthurs comes in two qualities: mud-paved and stone-paved. You don't get to choose, they both come with the package.

Looking back from where we came:

     We reached the junction down to Lake Cygnus at about 11am and still were very optimistic about our progress. From the ridge we could glimpse the first sight of Lake Pedder in the distance with Huon campsite nearby which we decided to reach that night. No matter what.

Southwest Tasmania in all its glory (and in a weather we should consider ourselves lucky for the rest of our lives):

     We descended Moraine A at about 2pm (reaching 3000 metres of total climbs and descents) and started the long walk across very hot, leechy and muddy buttongrass plains (an all-inclusive package that can't be guaranteed by many tracks in the world).

Counting every step into muddy pool we finally reached Scott's Peak Dam car park at 8pm being on the track for more than 13 hours. It'd been exciting, it'd been remote, it'd been dangerous. Everything we ever wanted. Western Arthurs, we'll be back!


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