Date: 9th August 2019 – Summit: 1416m
Deep, soft snow – the remnants of a major blizzard that had caught out many in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park resulting in multiple emergency service rescues – had thwarted our first effort to summit Rufus two weeks prior. The Bureau of Meteorology was making similar predictions for the weekend, but now armed with snow shoes, we gave it another try. This time we succeeded.
Distance: Approx. 17km out-and-back.
Time taken: About 5 hrs, including a couple of short stops.
Difficulty: Moderate, though climbing up the steep ridgeline slope in winter is quite challenging.
Type of track: Well established, fully marked/signposted with ski poles from the ridgeline up to the summit.
Access from: Lake St Clair National Park Visitor’s Centre, about 6km up the road from Derwent Bridge.
Not being daylight savings here in Tasmania (shorter days = less sunlight hours) it meant an early and very cold start to our adventures! Combine that with some very real concerns about the condition of the roads we would be travelling on and we were driving out the driveway of the shack at 6am sharp. We aimed to be on foot in Lake St Clair at no later than 8:30am. The few weeks prior at our failed attempt of this same peak we had set off on track after 10am and had fallen well short of time.
Adding to the day’s challenges before we even started on the mountain, were the facts that the temperature gauge was reading a chilly -7 degrees Celsius, the road had a thick layer of ice covering it, we had no snow chains and were concerned about the amount of wildlife out in the dark morning. We were travelling to Lake St Clair from Miena which meant driving on the Malborough Highway, a mostly gravel road notorious for being poorly maintained. Our estimated travel time to Lake St Clair was approx 1.5 hours.
After arriving safely at Lake St Clair Visitor’s Centre it was time to get our gear on. The temperature was sitting around -2 degrees Celsius and so we quickly donned multiple warm layers including our wet weather gear. Looking upwards though the sky was devoid of clouds and crystal clear – a good omen for the day.
Upon signing into the Visitor’s log book, a quick perusal of it showed no other hikers had attempted Mt. Rufus recently. In actual fact, the whole of the Lake St Clair Visitors Centre seemed like a bit of a ghost town. The breakfast restaurant and Parks & Wildlife Office were closed. We had made good time as it was only around 7:30am. Another tick for the day. It was eerie to wander through the grounds of such a large and usually very busy junction for world renowned hikes and be totally alone.
A short 500m stroll up an internal gravel road from the Visitors Centre brings you to the start of the track proper. Well signposted it is impossible to miss. Whilst it was certainly more than a little cool, the morning sun was beginning to appear and we remarked that it looked like the weather gods were shining on us!
For those not familiar to hiking in Tasmania, you never take the weather for granted as it can change in an instant, and in the remote and extensive wilderness of the Lake St Clair National Park things can get nasty very quickly. We had only been here a fortnight earlier and yet the track was changed. The ground was drier and less mud-soaked under foot. Another promising omen for what would hopefully be a successful summit!
Even though the track was drier underfoot there was evidence of the recent weather event that had called for more than a few hikers to be rescued off the Overland Track and surrounds. Broken trees littered the track; bent and broken not from wind, but heavy snowfall. Whilst the snow that littered these lower ranges was now long gone, the evidence of their impact was everywhere. A fortnight ago there was snow on ground less than 2.5km into the track. Now only debris remained.
What was hard hiking at this point a few weeks ago because of slushy snow cover was now just frozen, crunchy ice. Easy walking and fun to hear and feel the crunch under our boots! The glisten of the frozen ice on the path and surroundings added to the beauty of what we strongly feel is one of the prettiest and most under-rated Abels.
As we climbed higher snow still remained from the last decent snowfall. This wasn’t the deep, fresh, powdery snow that made it tough hiking a few weeks ago. Rather it was compacted, firm underfoot and easy to walk on. For the most part the climb to the summit is a fairly gentle but constant rise. Approx. 700m of elevation gain over roughly 7km. No trouble for the average hiker and made easier by such a well maintained track. There are a few sections guaranteed to raise the heart rate but these are easily managed by slowing one’s pace, with the added bonus that doing the same allows you to take in the spectacular views on offer. So pretty is the trail that it winds you in and out of covered gullies, semi-open plateaus and Pandani forests which we were lucky enough to be wandering in this time around while soft, flakey snow fell. Life doesn’t get much better than that.
After a bit more than 1.5 hours of hiking we reached the junction for the Shadow Lake Track. From here we followed the signposted route to Mt Rufus where later we would look upon a completely frozen Shadow Lake from the false summit plateau. By this stage our wet weather jackets and extra top layers had been removed as we were both sweating in the sun! Our wet weather trousers remained on though as the snow cover had deepened again. We were also about to leave the relative shelter of the bush canopy and hit the more exposed and open ridgeline where the wind would increase, so wet weathers protecting our snow buried lower legs would shield us from the worst of it.
Just in the distance rising behind the sign we could see the false summit plateau of Rufus calling to us. Bright blue skies and no clouds had us excited to press on. Many a hiker not privy to the knowledge that Rufus has a false summit would be forgiven for thinking they were looking at the prize of the summit from this vantage point. The true summit of Rufus, however, cannot be seen until the false summit plateau is climbed.
As the climb towards the false summit ridge commenced the beauty of mother nature and of this particular Abel really started to make us gasp. A stunning field of Pandanis frosted with snow resembling icing sugar was only outdone by seeing glimpses of the far off snow capped Abels – Olympus, Orthrys, Byron, to name but a few – of the Overland Track peering through the trees.
Climbing higher still we were in awe of the luck we were having with this wintery morning’s weather. Clear, blue skies allowed us visions of snow capped Abels for miles. Here Mt. Olympus peaks through the trees. Every few steps up we would again need to just halt and appreciate the beauty of what lay across to our north-east. Oh to have no reality of day jobs and adulting and just be able to hike our days away from one glorious mountain to the next!
After a small pinch in elevation we were about to start descending a gentle valley before the actual ridge climb to the false summit. No evidence of any hikers having visited since we last walked here a fortnight ago. Just some busy wallaby and wombat foot prints winding a trail through the new snow. Sticking to the footprints of the wildlife gave us a fairly good idea of where the snow was more compacted for easier walking. Here a fortnight ago we were struggling in mid-thigh deep snow with no snow shoes. Of course now we had snow shoes packed – so Murphy’s Law prevailed and we didn’t need them at this stage! Still, we knew we would definitely require them not much further along.
It was time to start the climb to the false summit. We knew from our recent experience that this would be the biggest test of our day so far. We paused here for a snack to restore our energy levels before the climb and to inhale the view of Lake St Clair below. What at first looked like a unique cloud formation was indeed a glassy looking Lake St Clair. What you can see from this vantage point is just a fraction of the lake itself and it reminds you of our own insignificance on the planet.
Now the first very real challenge arrived. In order to get to the false summit of Mt. Rufus and so proceed to the true summit, a steep ridge needs to be negotiated. An easy enough task on the well-marked path in summer; however in winter the combination of sporadic, hard-to-locate marking on trees, total snow cover making any track invisible and a steep incline ensures that this is a challenge given the level of respect it deserves.
Two weeks prior we had climbed this ridge literally crawling on all fours. We had gone from sinking in to our thighs at the base of the ridge, to instead using our hands and feet as picks and anchors as we scrambled towards the top of the ridge. A total white out meant that your eyes and brain saw only white and shades of hazy blue. A surreal and daunting experience. This time, however we came prepared with snow shoes – this time it would be easy. Famous last words!
We ceremoniously donned our snow shoes. Ben had borrowed some MSR snowshoes from a friend of ours, and I had hired some Yowies from a local hiking shop. About three seconds after putting my Yowie’s on we realised they were less than useless for the slope we were attempting to climb. With no foot pivot they failed to dig into what was hard, compacted snow and ice on a very steep slope. Essentially, they became a slip liability. After much perseverance I whipped them off, somewhat disappointed in them. Ben’s MSRs performed much better, with the pivoting footbed allowing him to dig into the steep ice securely.
The short, sharp pinch that was difficult but climb-able a few weeks ago due to soft snow was now hard, compacted ice that was shiny and melting in the day’s sunlight, creating a very slippery plane. In a crawling position on the steep ridge (walking was impossible without snow shoes and almost impossible with them!) and with no grip I was trying in vain to dig my gloved hands and fingertips in just enough to hold my weight, whilst at the same time trying to hit the ice with the front of my boot to create a slim toe hold. All of this whilst the steepness of the ridge and slippery ice was working against me to send me shooting back to the bottom if I lost my tenuous grip. Ben stood behind me in his snow shoes so at least if I slipped he might break my fall. It took every ounce of shoulder strength I had to climb the ridge, grunting and swearing to the top! Arriving at the false summit plateau somewhat battered and bruised but excited that the day was fine enough that we could at least make more progress that a fortnight ago. We also decided that crampons and an ice pick or two would have been the only real safe way to negotiate that section today, but of course we had neither in our packs.
Hoo Rah! The false summit plateau and the same point we had reached a few week’s past. The weather gods were still shining on us with blue skies, but as is common with exposed plateaus the icy winds had kicked back up. It was time to pop all our warm weathers on and dig out our hiking poles. The evening before this hike, Ben had fashioned some snow baskets for our poles from plastic and wire as nowhere local sold snow baskets for our Black Diamond Poles. They were working a treat and allowed us to use our poles to assist in the snow hiking and for balance where it was slippery.
From here we could see straight up the false summit ridge line. The track was fully covered but marked with ski poles so easy to follow. I stuck to the track and rocks while Ben used his snow shoes to full advantage, hiking on the right hand side of the track in the clear soft snow.
Looking to the south-west from the false summit plateau we could just glimpse Frenchman’s Cap shrouded in what looked like less than ideal conditions.
A beautiful view of Mt. Hugel to the north of the false summit. We had over the last few days had some discussions about summiting Mt. Rufus and then continuing on to summit Mt. Hugel, another Abel, and completing the loop back to the Visitors Centre by passing Little Hugel. By this stage however we knew this wasn’t a possibility as the sun was out but the wind was up, and a gentle mist was starting to roll in. This mist would later turn to fresh snowfall, proving we had made a wise decision.
With a direct walk up the false summit plateau the track then leads you off to the south-west towards the true summit. The giant summit cairn is well visible from the false plateau and it is a steady but not terribly taxing climb to reach it. Today made slower and harder by fresh snow cover and falling snow.
At this stage there was less than 500m to go to reach the summit, but as often happens in Tasmania the weather shifted quickly. A thick mist descended upon us, the wind increased, swirling white mist around us and snow began to fall quite heavily. It was nature reminding us that she was in charge; that you are here at the pleasure of the mountain and the elements. We made haste to the summit, sped up now not only because of the changing weather but because the falling snow and mist was now blocking our surrounding views. No standing in awe overlooking distant mountains now.
After a little over three hours from the Lake St Clair Visitors Centre we arrived at the summit of Mt. Rufus. An impressive cairn that also offered us some limited but nonetheless welcome shelter in the closing weather. It was time for a well-earned feed of salami rolls and coffee, a Snickers treat and a few bragging “we did Rufus in the Winter” photos!
With the mist not lifting and snow still falling we soon began the return trip. The return trip involved retracing our footsteps back to the false summit and down the icy ridge, this time making short progress of the icy slopes sliding down on our backsides! A hot shower at the Lake St Clair Visitors Centre – yes they actually have free 5 minute hot showers for hikers allowed us to shake the chill from our bones. Post shower it was time for a fresh coffee and some hot chips – the perfect way to end this spectacular winters day.