Bluff - Howitt Area

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The Bluff - Howitt area

The ridge and valley country of the Bluff & Howitt area sits to the south and east of Mt Buller ski resort. The Bluff ridge stretches towards the Great Divide, where Mount Howitt provides incredible backcountry skiing. From here the impressive Crosscut Saw leads to Mount Speculation and Mt Cobbler. The area has a feeling of winter induced remoteness (no trail bikes or 4WDs in winter!), wonderful skiing and camping, and relatively easy access.

An average trip would involve a minimum of four days, as access is slow (from the Snowy Plains to the south, via the Howqua River on the Mansfield side or in through the Cobbler plateau to the north).



Back Country Awareness Please read the following articles before considering going back country and research widely. Do not use information provided here as textbook accuracy as anyone can edit it. Double check anything found here and consult with experts before heading beyond the resort boundaries. People die in the back country every year, don't add your name to the list.

Overview

Destination


Routes

The premier destination is Mount Howitt, it sits as a hub, shedding water westwards into the Howqua system, south into the Macalister, and eastwards into the Wonnangatta. I would generally allow two days to ski in to Howitt from any of the three key access points. Once there, you would be mad to spend less than a few days at Howitt. The hut at Macalister Springs (a wonderful A frame named in memory of Vallejo Gantner) provides sheltered camping and a chance to get out of the snow, and most of the ridges up around Howitt offer spectacular skiing, from gentle wanders on the summit plateau to ripper gullies on the north side of the main peak and east facing slopes off the Cross Cut Saw.

If you had two groups of people, a fantastic through trip can be done, which involves leaving one car at Lake Cobbler and one near the Bluff, then meeting in the middle of the trip (Mt Howitt), spending some time skiing that area, and continuing on to collect the other groups car. This involves a really nice 4 to 6 days skiing (plus whatever time you spend at Howitt itself). It is a really long round trip to do as a car shuffle (probably a minimum of 4 hours but probably more) so best to do it this way if possible. It is a very easy walk in in summer from Howitt Plains to Macalister Springs, so you can always leave a food drop in here if you're organised!

GPS References

Considerations

This is a remote area, meaning no tracks are groomed and access roads are not patrolled. If you have a chain saw or access to one, I would suggest bringing it, or at least a handsaw and axe so you can get out once you're back at the car. I have had large trees fall onto the roads while I have been skiing and had a few adventures getting out. The roads can be very muddy (especially the higher road from Eight Mile Gap to The Bluff trailhead, which faces south and often has deep snow on it). It would be very expensive to get hauled out, so I would tend to be on the cautious side and check any dodgey looking sections before driving. The long drive in from the Howqua River to Eight Mile Gap is generally straight forward although it certainly makes sense to carry chains. Most of this road is north facing and tends to lose snow fairly quickly after a big fall.

Note that Bluff and Lovicks huts was burnt in recent fires and there are few others on these higher ridges apart from the one at MacAlister Springs. This means you need to be self reliant with camping gear, etc. Bluff hut was rebuilt over the 2007/8 summer and should be available for use this winter, as far as I know LOvicks reconstruction has not yet been finished.

While phone coverage is fairly good, rescues may take some time to arrive, meaning make sure you have a good first aid kit and ideally a survival bag/ bivvy bag in case you have an injured person requiring protection from the elements.

It doesn't hurt to bring an extra ski tip, strong tape to fix broken ski poles, etc.

Mobile Phone Coverage

Is generally excellent, especially on the higher ridges, and where there is a direct line through to Mount Buller. It tends to drop out in the gullies and can be patchy in the southern (more remote part) of this area.

Maps

I love the S.R. Brookes maps published by BushMaps Victoria. The one covering the Buller - Howitt area is Watersheds of the King, Howqua and Jamieson Rivers. This will work for access from the Howqua or Lake Cobbler but if travelling in from the south you will also need Stuart's Snowy Plains – Mt Wellington map as well.

The VicMap 1:50,000 Howitt-Selwyn map covering this area is a bit out of date and thus inaccurate. However it does have the best contour information.

Rooftop Maps are probably more thoroughly field checked than maps produced by any other publisher. Unfortunately the only map they publish of this area is at 100,000. It's useful for planning, but lacks the fine detail and contours that feature on this publishers 1:50,000 scale maps.

Destination2

Access and Trips

The three main ways in to Howitt:

1/ via The Bluff 2/ via Lake Cobbler 3/ from the south

See below for further details. These three generally allow you to ski in, as you start relatively high. The exception can be the Bluff trail if you start near Refrigerator Gap, which is often a walk and then scramble rather than a ski to get to the summit.

4/ for the really hard core here are some other ideas:

- as part of a through walk/ ski on the Alpine Walking Track;

- from Mt Stirling via Craigs Hut (recently rebuilt after the fires), Stanleys Name Spur, Mt Thorn, and up onto the Crosscut Saw. This tends to be a bit scrubby below the treeline and very slow going, but with a fantastic final climb up onto the Crosscut;

- out or in via the Howqua river feeder track (from Eight Mile Flat) to Bindaree and up Howitt Spur. This can be a great escape route from Howitt when the weather is going to be bad for several days, however, be aware that you need to be picked up at Eight Mile Flat, otherwise its a huge walk up Rocky Ridge to retrieve your car if its up on the Bluff road.

For us mortal folk, these are the easiest and most direct approaches:

1/ via The Bluff

Access via Mansfield, then to Merrijig on the road to Mt Buller. A few kms out of Merrijig, turn right on the well signposted Howqua track to Sheepyard Flat. Allow up to 2 hours to the start of the ski from here. Go through Sheepyard Flat and upriver to Eight Mile Flat, then the road starts to climb out of the valley, eventually to Eight Mile Gap. Turn left here and follow the road to an obvious gap (called refrigerator Gap on some maps). (If you keep going straight ahead at Eight Mile Gap, you end up in the Upper Jamieson, with a hard climb up onto Mt McDonald, a great destination in good conditions).

This section from Eight Mile Gap is south facing and usually snow covered and can be slippery so take your time. After Refigerator Gap, stay on the road, climbing gradually till you see an area to pull off and park, with a sign point to The Bluff. This is where I normally put in, but if you want to avoid the joy and pain of climbing the Bluff, stay on this road for a few more kilometres, travelling under the impressive cliffs of Eadley Stoney, before taking a right turn up to Bluff Hut (burnt in recent fires). It is usually locked here, leaving a gentle walk of only a few km to get to the hut site. You are now at the western end of the high ridge that runs back to Howitt, about a days ski from that mountain.

2/ via Lake Cobbler

Travel in either through Mansfield and Tolmie to Whitfield or the 'Snow Road' between Wangaratta and Gapstead/ Myrtleford (turning south towards Whitfield just to the west of Oxley). From the nice little township of Whitfield, continue south through Cheshunt and take the road to Mt Cobbler. The roads here are north facing for the most part and lower then the road from Eight Mile Gap so may be a safer bet in a heavy winter. The road is closed just before Lake Cobbler. Best bet is to head up roughly straight east of the lake to the edge of the plateau (some great runs come off the escarpment) then detour to the summit of Mt Cobbler (a great side trip). From here its a nice two day ski southwards to get to Howitt.

3/ from the south

Please see the section Snowy Plains for access details.

Routes

Skiing areas

The whole area offers classic backcountry Nordic touring terrain and some fantastic steep runs for the serious telemarker, highlights being:

from the north:

This is the winding ridge country from Mt Cobbler southwards over Koonica to Mt Speculation. This is mostly open snowgum woodland, with the constant presence of the lights of big city Mt Buller on the west, and some nice steep runs off the main north/south escarpment, all the way along from Cobbler itself towards Mt Koonika. In condition, there is fantastic skiing (and occasional climbing) on the southern slopes below Mt Cobbler itself, which is separated from the Cobbler plateau by a narrow ridge. Speculation offers a wonderful, if exposed camp before exploring the most dramatic section of this country, The Crosscut. The southern slopes of Speculation can be great, there are a few short rocky bluffs, so watch what you're doing.

Crosscut Saw:

An iconic ridgeline, often nastily icy, with bluffy cliffs along much of the west side and deep, deep gullies and slopes dropping into the Terrible Hollow and upper Wonnangatta on the east side. Some of the best big drops can be found on this side (leeward to the wind, often holding snow way down into the gullies after big dumps). It is definitely worth checking out the top of Stanley Name Spur to see what condition it is in.

In addition the ridge from Macalister Springs out towards the Terrible Hollow can be great in decent conditions (and is a quick haul from camp at Mac Springs rather than the 30 minute slog up to Howitt itself). From Mac Springs hut just head into the small clearing below the hut (on the way towards Mt Howitt) and instead of siddling out left to pick up the connector ridge to Howitt, head straight ahead and up the short hill. At the ridgeline turn right and follow the top of the escarpment along.

Howitt summit:

There are lots of options here. Hang out with the ravens on the west ridge, or tour easy country on the big flat summit plateau. For the serious skiers, there are deep chutes and gullies on the north side of the summit plateau as it stretches out towards West Peak (when in condition). This country is superb, the ridges tend to be a bit rocky and make for great walks/ climbs out, and often the runs keep going well after you're down in the trees. There are good sheltered runs from the summit plateau back down into the headwaters of the Macalister valley when its too windy up on top (just drop down rightwards into the valley as you approach the connector ridge to Crosscut saw rather than veering left to follow the snowpoles to Mac Springs - its pretty obvious). This is the leeward side of the mountain and can collect an impressive amount of snow (this is often the last spot on the mountain you can ski in spring after the Howitt Plains road has been opened - its about a 7km walk in from the top end of Howitt Plains).

If you follow the ridgeline out below West Peak heading into the Howqua there are some great camping spots as you get into the trees.

There are also nice runs down towards the Big Hill saddle.

Big Hill – Mount Magdala:

Famous from one of those films about horses and guys in Akubras, this is a great section of ridgeline, the way out if heading towards the Bluff. After a cruisey sidle around Big Hill you get into the nice exposed country around Magdala, with big slopes and Hells Window, before climbing back into trees for that long ski back towards Bluff hut saddle.

The ski from near Mount Lovick to Bluff hut saddle is mostly through snow gum, there is a 4WD track that is normally pretty obvious. If you have the time there are some good runs to check out - eg southern slopes of the big obvious slope below Lovick, where you get great views of Mt McDonald. Square Head Ginny has a great remote feeling. Rumour has it the north facing gullies at the end of the plateau are great when in condition (they burn off very quickly).

The Bluff:

Cut on the north by cliffs, and sloping off gently to southern vallies, this is a charismatic mountain. If you haven't been into the Howitt region before, make sure you climb the Bluff rather than taking the easier option of cutting up to Bluff hut saddle when coming in from Eight Mile Gap. There is good camping amongst a little clump of snowgum near the summit, on the exposed summit area, or out on the far western ridge, where the storms rip in after making a big rise from the surrounding valley. It can be icy and very windy up on the summit. When it gets a bit nasty, go with the wind and drop down into the trees around the Blowhole for sheltered camping. There is also good sheltered camping in the little valley directly south of the summit (you need to go south from the summit to actually see it). There is a low ridge that protects the basin from the worst weather.

There are nice easy runs on the southside of the summit ridge. There are some good drops through the Blowhole, but mostly cliffs block you off from the summit onto the various tangles of slope on the north side.

GPS References

I don't subscribe to the GPS religion so I wouldn't know.

Considerations

As above

Mobile Phone Coverage

As above

Maps