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.
- Backcountry Run Rating - variable, depending on the weather and snow conditions
- RATING: Approach Steepness – often brutal!
Overview Cradle Mountain & surrounding peaks
Cradle Mountain offers some of the most accessible and impressive skiing in Tassie. The hike in from Dove Lake is only about 4 hours (best option is over the Marion plateau, which can have great snow cover in many years, past Kitchen hut and then on straight up the rocky face of the mountain). Marion plateau is wildly exposed, often the snow is piled up in heaps due to wind and this can make for choppy conditions. There is usually a nice descent down the top of the Horse Track back to the road (this is protected from the worst weather so good when conditions are intense and it tends to collect snow nicely). The more direct walking route straight up to Marions Lookout is a bit rockier and doesn't hold the snow so well. The extension of the Horse Track, out along Riggs Pass track, can also be worth a check. None of these areas are anywhere as exciting as Cradle itself.
When you are there its all fairly obvious – especially the many steep gullies and chutes on the northward facing side of Cradle Mountain - these are visible from the Lake Dove car park and offer some exciting skiing. Check the image of Cradle at: http://www.thesarvo.com/confluence/display/thesarvo/Backcountry+Skiing for a sense of whats on offer.
The south and eastern sides (which collect more snow) is steeper and a bit more serious again, although of less height as there is a big bench half way down. It’s really worth scoping these areas out before dropping off into some gullies as they can end in cliffs. There is a less intense bowl out towards Benson Peak that has some excellent runs. There are some lovely tarns down here (Lyndon and Flynns) with the impressive cliffs of Cradle as a backdrop.
For extended skiing trips, Waterfall Valley hut makes a great base, even though it is at least an hours walk back up to the mountain each day.
Another peak which requires a relatively short walk in is Mt Campbell, on the east side of Lake Dove. You access this via a steep climb up from the lake but once on top you get a lovely, rounded peak that offers some good runs, especially on the south. Unlike most other higher areas in the northern end of the park, this summit is not very rocky, making it better in marginal snow conditions.
If the conditions are good, a trip up Barn Bluff is highly recommended. It can be quite icy, so take care on ascent. The south facing slopes above Lake Wills have less cliffs but there is still a lot of rock so skiing on the upper parts of the mountain requires good control and lots of sharp turns. There are several gully systems that reach up into the cliffs so once on the summit area you can scout around for possible runs, especially off the summer walking routes, where the boulder fields breech the cliff line well up onto the highest parts of the mountain.
Once below the steep summit area, in excellent conditions you can head out along the lefthand (eastern) ridge that surrounds Lake Will and then cut out to the walking track that then rejoins the Overland rather than re-climbing the mountain or skirting the cliffline. Note that the gully systems around Barn Bluff are mostly boulderfields so you need really decent cover to even try them (apart from trashing your skis, there is a real danger of dropping into a slot/ gap between rocks and coming to grief).
To climb the mountain, follow the marked trail/ boardwalk to the base of the rocky section. Parts of this are usually exposed even in heavy snow conditions because of the wind. There are a number of cairned routes up through the gully systems above you to get to the summit. In winter the best bet may be to sidle out right as you hit the cliffs, then follow the next obvious weakness/ gully system above. There is a fantastic ledge half way up the rocky section where you can build a ledge for a camp: it looks straight across to both the northern ranges and the main face of Cradle, and is sheltered from prevailing weather, a true alpine experience.
For moderate skiers, another option is just to climb to the base of the cliffs and then skirt either to the left or the right until you see something you want to ski, it tends to hold the snow nicely on the far (or south western) side. There is the ridge mentioned above which drops down to the left of Lake Will, or a ridge that goes further to the right of the lake (on the west side) - note that you would need to climb back up onto the mountain if you go this way as the trail back from the far (southern) end of the lake is generally impassible in winter conditions as the stream is too high).
The overland track - northern end
On rare occasions you can ski almost all the way through the park except for south of Ducane Gap, although snow starts to melt on the lower areas straight after a big dump. If you’re lucky enough to have a spare week when its been dumping, then go for it. Highlights include the journey over the Marion plateau, Mount Ossa’s gullies, the passes – especially Pelion Gap, and the moors between Lake Windemere and Barn Bluff.
Pelion West is a big bulky mountain that obviously has some good lines on it when its in good nick, but honestly, the whole place is incredible at all times and when there’s lots of snow, you’re just in heaven: you really can’t go wrong. Pelion West would be an obvious side trip for people in need of some deeper snow while on the track. If you have come this far lugging all your gear, then the mountains further out behind Pelion West would be worth a visit (see also Mt Thetis, below). Mt Achilles and Perrins Bluff are elements of some higher ridges that will hold snow after it burns off on the plains below where the Overland Track is. Perrins has some nice lines off its summit onto the access ridge from Achilles.
Many people tend to take snow shoes rather than skis as they are easier to carry on the hard slog walking sections you are more likely to have in a 'normal' winter.
If you find that the trip starts as a ski but turns into a walk (it can burn off very quickly after a good snowfall, especially in the long haul from Windemere to the gap near Mount Ossa) it may be worth making a trip up onto Mount Oakleigh (perhaps spending 2 nights at Pelion hut). Oakleigh has a nice high summit plateau above 1200 metres which stretches across to Tarn of Islands. Access is via a well marked but very steep climb through a south facing gully system, take care, it can be very icy. Another fantastic side trip is to check out Mt Thetis. Best way is to try it in good conditions and ski around the north side of Pelion West, then climbing onto the ridge behind it, then down to Leonards Tarn and up to Thetis. The summit itself is a narrow and long ridge, with cliffs on both sides, you just need to follow one of the gullies up through the cliffs to gain the plateau. My memory of this is that you would have to be a good skier to get off the plateau - with steep and narrow drops through the cliff line. If you plan to continue on to Mt Ossa, there is a steep descent through rocky country towards Paddy Nut (possibly requiring a down climb rather than ski because of the rocky country), then sidle up the western flanks Ossa to its summit plateau (this whole side is one enormous boulder field so would be really hard and potentially dangerous work in semi covered conditions where you can't really see whats going on with the rocks below, and particularly with a heavy pack).
The Ossa plateau usually holds snow well. Surrounding ridges are very rocky even where they aren't too steep so make sure theres enough cover over those boulders before taking off. The steep access gully from Pelion Gap is an obvious high point. There is a great descent off Ossa if you travel to the southern end of the summit plateau (towards Mt Massif). At the end of the obvious cliffs on your left you simply drop down into a nice basin-type slope towards Kia Ora hut.
One benefit of winter walking/ skiing/ snow shoeing is that there are a lot fewer people on the track, you can do the overland from either direction (in summer you must do it north to south) and you don't need to book. However, all the standard considerations apply – camp on platforms or in the huts wherever possible and use the toilets where you can. This area gets a vast amount of traffic and the Parks Service have done a great job of channelling this impact into particular areas.
Overland track - southern end
This tends to be more forested so even in those times where skiable conditions exist, it offers less back country options (although beech forest in snow is completely magical, and where the valley narrows down under Castle Crag and Cathedral Mountain it is just stunning - not unlike sections of NZ South Island).
For a bit of high elevation fun, best bet is probably the Traveller Range - a reasonably tough climb of maybe an hour from Ducane Gap on the Overland (through one rocky cliff section - be careful) takes you to lovely open plains that stretch off into an amazing tangle of lakes, with scattered open forest of pencil pine and deciduous beech. If you are after touring rather than lots of steep runs, this is a great option, Ducane Gap is only a 4 hour walk from Narcissus hut (accessible by the ferry service) and it has substantial areas that hold snow cover well – generally the northern end of the range is above 1,100 metres. Plus the views to the Central Plateau and mountain country to the north and west are superb.
Note that it could easily get gnarly up on the Traveller range when you want to leave as you need to descend into the weather to get out (ie, if there is a storm coming through) and if you aren't following your ski trail from the way up the tendency is to veer left as you drop into the big broad valley/ plain below the Gatepost and heading to Ducane Gap. Once the open plain ends you get into nasty scrub - not recommended at all. Instead, remember to stay hard right when you are heading into the valley: you need to cross the prominent ridge in front and slightly on your right to pick up the cairned trail down to Ducane Gap. Make sure you mark the top of the trail (either visually or on a GPS) as you come up in case visability is minimal on your way out. Note that the other main access route to the range (along Stoney creek) would be horrible if you were carrying skis and gear - its steep in the top sections and scrubby, especially up high and before you drop into the rainforest.
The one bit of the southern end of the Overland thats especially fun in winter is through Ducane Gap - with waist or chest deep snow not uncommon and astounding views (weather permitting) of Geryon in winter garb.
Ducane Range/ Mount Gould region
This range of wonderfully glaciated country is generally reached from the south during winter. You can either walk in from the road at Lake St Clair/ Leeawuleena (allow at least half a day), or catch a ferry in to Narcissus hut and walk from there (NB: minimum rates will apply to actually book the boat as opposed to the regular summer schedule where you pay by the person). As of winter 2008, there is generally a daily service at 2pm if there is sufficient people wanting the service. The minimum fee you pay if there are more than 4 people is $25 per person each way. For details, contact the company that runs the boat - phone (03) 6289 1137 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for extra details of cost and running times.
From Narcissus River, where the ferry will drop you at the northern end of the lake, it is a cruisey 3 hour walk in to Pine Valley hut, and from there about 1.5 hours up onto the plateau above via the Parthenon track.
From the saddle where you finally hit the ridgeline there are two main options, both take you into great skiing terrain when the snow is right:
- Either follow the rock cairns right, under the Parthenon to the wonderful tangle of lakes that make up the Labyrinth. This is ringed by rocky hills. Work your way around Lake Elysia (you may be able to follow the cairns), then descend to Pool of Memories – for this section it is best to find the track as the scrub is quite thick, it is a steepish descent and it can be very wet underfoot at the Pool itself. From here, head more or less straight ahead/ slightly to the left and northwards (the right hand 'trail' that may be obvious just after you cross between the Pools and before you re-enter the forest, marked by orange tags, leads to the campsite and descent track to Geryon climbers camp) and you climb a narrow ridge directly north of Pool of Memories and through a short gully system onto the Ducane Range, and eventually the peaks of Geryon and Hyperion.
The Ducane range contains some of the higher continuous country in this part of the state and is just stunning in winter. It is, of course, very exposed and you have to retreat into the weather to get off the range, so factor this in in terms of selecting a site.
In really bad weather, once you get off the Ducane range and back to Pool of Memories, you can avoid the relatively exposed Labyrinth by instead turning hard left at the Pool and skirting around the edge of the lake to a small narrow but open glade (this is the trail mentioned above). There is a low rocky bluff above you on your right as you enter the glade: head up here (there should be cairns visible). In about 150 metres you come out onto an open rocky area with incredible views up to Mt Geryon. A trail starts here and descends very steeply straight into the valley below (sections of this would be a pain with skis as the forest is quite dense and at least one section requires a downclimb over a short rockface). At the bottom of the valley you exit via an obvious boulder field, to a not-very-obvious semi clearing (the 'Geryon climbers camp'), then follow occasional yellow markers downriver for another 1 1/2 hours until you reach the trail to the Acropolis, just on Cephissis creek. Its a short walk from here to Pine Valley hut. Note that there can sometimes be snow in the valley and you do need at least reasonable navigation skills, and that the bottom of the valley can be very wet underfoot (make sure you have a headlamp just in case!).
- The other option from the saddle is to turn left and navigate under the right hand (western) slopes of the Minotaur towards Mt Gould (or then climbing right onto the Guardians plateau, an incredible high plateau overlooking Lake Marion). In good snow cover this is a great trip, it can be scubby in other conditions. An alternative access into this area is via the Gould plateau, then up towards Mount Gould, thence to The Guardians, which are definitely a very special spot for skiing because of the altitude and atmospheric views. The Guardians are a nice high (read very exposed) ridge that offers fine skiing in normal as opposed to excellent conditions. This track can be found near Narcissus hut – it comes off the track to Cynthia Bay and the Cuvier Valley and although it is sign posted at significant points – where it cuts off the main track and at Nicholls Junction where it splits from the Lake Marion track, it is a little faint in places and often very muddy in winter conditions. It is around 2.5 hours walk to the edge of the plateau with heavy packs. From here you should be able to ski along the highish and flat plateau towards Mount Gould, veer rightwards to the skyline of the ridge and then down onto the other – western – side of the Minotaur. There are some awesome slopes on the eastern and south eastern sides of Gould – I have not checked out the western side in winter conditions but the other slopes are certainly worth the trip in. In addition, much of the trail on the approach passes through reasonably open rainforest and carrying skis on a pack would not be too exhausting. If you visit this area a bit and need a break from Mount Rufus, this makes another relatively easy mountain with good snow holding ability.
Ducane to Geryon. There is also some great skiing on the Ducane Range and surrounding area, including lots of gullies: check out the massive gully system on the main face of Walled Mountain, in deep snow it would be amazing (not checked it out in winter - its an impressive place in summer). You can get out of the weather a bit and camp near Lake Helios (great views towards Mt Ossa) and walk/ scramble up Mt Geryon. Ducane is one of the most extensive high areas in this part of the state - with consistent patches of exposed country up to 1,500 metres, and it holds snow well. There is a lot of rock the minute you get off the top of the range (which is very plateau like) and some big and nasty cliffs below some obvious gullies and chutes, especially into the top of Pine valley - which faces south. Note that the normal walk/ scramble route up Geryon (from the north) can be quite dangerous in winter as it is often very icy. As you approach the peak from the Ducane Range, you head around right (over the head of Pine Valley) and then eventually up onto the summit ridge of Ducane range and through a small but impressive saddle before heading out – following cairns – across the western face of the mountain itself and then up an obvious gully system to the summit ridge - a slip in this system would not be fun, with big air at the end of it. I have also heard that there can be a small cornice on the east side of the summit ridge (a kind of extensive ice rime rather than true snow cornice). Key thing to remember is that there is a 400 metre-ish drop on that side. While the trail is very obvious in summer and marked by cairns, these tend to disappear in winter so take things slowly if you don't know the mountain, especially on the climb onto Geryon itself. If you haven't climbed the mountain before in good conditions, I would strongly suggest avoiding it in poor visability.
In excellent conditions, the most incredible traverse would be from the Ducane Range, over Mt Massif to Castle Crag and Ducane Gap. Relatively sheltered camping is available in the big basin on the summit of Massif. However, the rest of the trip is completely exposed, this is very rocky country, pretty much boulder fields the whole way and there are some gnarly sections. The key difficult spots include:
- the descent to Big Gun Pass, especially at the top where you drop into a narrowish gully, the lower ridge is far easier,
- climbing the Massif ridge from Big Gun Pass (in winter it seems to work best to veer left from the pass rather than following the summer route straight up the ridge – this misses the scarey step above the narrow plateau two thirds of the way up the ridge). Work your way around the prominent ridgeline above you as you leave the pass, then when you are around the back of the false summit cut up right wards where you will soon find yourself in the obvious shallow basin where people generally camp,
- descending off Massif towards Castle Crag (take the gully system on the left - that is north side - rather than staying on the ridgeline that extends towards Castle Crag, which would be very dangerous in icy conditions),
- once you have descended Massif and climbed out past the cliffline after the gully you come to a broad saddle. As you climb the next hill along the ridge heading towards Castle Crag there are big slots amongst the boulders as you climb towards the top, this is not much fun with heavy pack and skis. It is worth scouting this area without packs to make sure you don't drop into a hidden slot covered with snow,
- You would also need to think through the descent into Ducane Gap. Some people sidle down to the right rather than climbing the actual peak (dropping below the obvious scar where the cliff has collapsed, called Falling Mountain on the maps, and thence to Ducane gap). There are some large boulderfields here that are really slow going – allow 3 to 4 hours to get from the ridge to Ducane Gap, and the forest can be really thick once you pass the boulder fields. The top of this route is easy to find: continue along the ridge from Mt Massif until Castle Crag is immediately above you. On your right is a shallow basin that you cross and this leads you to a broad gully that goes below the cliffs. Once you get to the first stands of deciduous beech, it seems that the easiest route is to stay high, that is close to the base of the cliffs, as you then pass above the hardest bit of the boulderfields. However, if you follow this high line, the forest at the other end does seem to be worse than if you enter the forest at the base of the boulderfield. Another way is to climb Castle Crag, then turn right along the summit ridge until it gets really steep, and then descend leftwards into the deep and open gully that presents itself as you hit the top of the main cliffs. You can also access this gully from near the summit, where there is an obvious gap. This is a great camping spot in summer and is the obvious open and long basin on the summit. Continue through the gap rather than following the summit ridge towards the right and drop onto the ridge below the gap, then cut into the gully system below, then straight down through the forest to Ducane Gap). The last section, from the base of the mountain through moderate to horrible scrub to Ducane Gap is not much fun in mediocre snow conditions.
It is a remarkably 'alpine' trip, providing impressive terrain and some difficult country in winter conditions. Given its difficulty, I would suggest doing the traverse in summer conditions before venturing out in winter. There is no way off the ridge between Ducane Range and Ducane Gap so make sure you either have a good weather forecast or lots of food. It is all above treeline from when you leave the Pool of Memories until you drop into Ducane Gap. You can let the weather decide which way you do the traverse: if you have a high pressure system coming in as you do the approach, consider starting the traverse at Ducane Gap. If you have poor weather, with the possibility of good to follow, then go via the Labyrinth. In anything other than excellent conditions, this is probably a better option to do with snowshoes and think of bringing the shortest possible skis in order to minimise tree branches as you carry the skis in. You may want to think about including an ice axe and crampons for some of the steeper sections.
Needless to say, this is remote country and subject to intense weather, especially mid winter. Zero visability and wild winds can make movement impossible. You can get dumps of snow of up to a metre, making retreat almost impossible in some circumstances. Much of the region is rocky, with big cliffs, and in marginal snow conditions the rocks can be a real hazard in terms of skis breaking through and catching. Slides/ small avalanches are possible in some gullies, especially after heavy falls and there is occasional loose rock in some gully systems. To make matters harder, Tasmanian weather can easily swing from snow to rain, making camping sometimes a miserable experience: in this sense synthetic sleeping gear and fleece are better options than down. So, the short version of what you need to bear in mind is that you should not consider skiing in the region unless you are suitably experienced and have all the appropriate gear. It is best to do a summer trip first to get used to the conditions, especially if venturing into remote areas like th Traveller Range, Ducane Range or Ducane traverse.
This whole area and the Labyrinth, in particular, is very heavily visited in summer and under considerable pressure, so please bear this in mind. In particular be careful about waste. When needing a toilet break it is imperative that you do so outside the catchments of the enclosed lakes on the Labyrinth (Ophion, Elysia, etc)– walk or ski out to the edge of the plateau, or consider taking 'poo tubes' with you. Some interesting research into the impacts of human waste on the Tasmanian high country can be found [here http://www.geog.utas.edu.au/faecalmatters/].
Mobile Phone Coverage
Is often quite good on the higher peaks as there is a relay station on the West Coast Range. It drops out in pretty much all valley areas.