I first saw Mount Pelion West in January 2019 whilst walking The Overland Track. Her sheer size and bulk commands, no demands your attention. She is a mountain that practically screams at you. She dares you to visit her, to try to reach her obelisk summit. Mount Pelion West is whispered about in bushwalking circles for the tasks she throws at those that dare climb onto her dolerite strewn back. The whispers of dauntingly deep crevasses and boulders the size of buses are all true. The often spoken words that she should be respected and not underestimated are also true. However, it is a line in Bill Wilkinson’s poem about her that rings truest – “Play. Embrace Me.” – for she is a mountain that wants you to enjoy the tests she gives you, to savour the moment. And savour the moment we did.
Date: 28th November 2020 Summit: 1560m
Distance: Approximately 8km return from the Overland Track.
Time taken: Approximately 6 hours return.
Difficulty: Difficult. This walk should only be undertaken in dry weather by experienced hikers confident in negotiating large boulders, varying degrees of exposure/heights and in good physical shape.
Type of track: Obvious pad and occasional tape markers, and then cairned across the boulder field.
Access from: The Overland Track.
Talks regarding a Mt. Pelion West trip had been progressing for sometime in our group of Abel-bagging friends. Every time previously we have planned a Mt Pelion West trip the weather has thwarted us. Advanced forecasts gave us mixed messages regarding rain for this trip. The number one golden rule we have always been given by others who have tackled this mountain is – ONLY do it in perfectly dry weather. Why? Well if one is going to scale bus size boulders with deep crevasses both grip and visibility are pretty important! Our back up plan if we woke to less than favourable conditions was to climb the near by and decidedly less intimidating Mt. Proteus. The rough trip schedule was to hike up the Arm River Track on Day 1 and make camp. Day 2, summit Mt Pelion West and walk out on Day 3.
Our friend Natty was joining us as far as New Pelion Hut on the Overland Track as she was off for a solo summit of Mt. Ossa. Lucas, another of our friends was climbing Mt. Pillinger and he would then join us at camp that night and our quest to Pelion West the next day, weather permitting. As Natty, Bender and I walked across Pelion Plains the sun was bright and we were sweating. A good omen for the next day. It was hard not to get a few nerves looking towards Mt Pelion Wests impressive form ahead in the distance. Would this be the trip we would finally at least be able to attempt to scale her? Or would the weather gods show us we were insignificant again and rain on our parade before it even began?
Arriving at New Pelion Hut around lunch time we bid farewell to Natty and spent a few minutes chatting to some trail runners who had per chance just arrived back from a fast ascent of Mt Pelion West. Some friends of theirs were still tackling her as we spoke. We soaked up every morsel of advice they could give us and once again the defining piece of wisdom they shared was “don’t do it in the wet”. That, and the fact that the trail was obvious but closely bordered for the most part with varying densities of scrub. We passed their friends later that afternoon who gave us the single most useful piece of advice ever (we will impart that insight in due course). Thanking them we set off to make camp and wait for our friend Lucas to arrive.
The fireside discussions.
Ok, well there was no fireside chat – of course – because no fires are allowed in all Tasmanian World Heritage areas, but we did again discuss the merits of the following days trip as we sat around eating dinner. Safety came first was one thing we all agreed on – she would always be there next time. If there was heavy rain overnight we were out. Further, if the weather didn’t literally rain on our attempt we would set off very early to give ourselves the best chance possible of beating predicted afternoon showers. And finally, that we were all equal parts excited, nervous and eager.
Darkness, dreams & rain.
All three of us slept little that night. Perhaps it was the disappointment of hearing rain fall on our tents all night. Maybe it was nerves about attempting to climb her, or even nerves that we might not get the chance. I even dreamt of her! I have waited so many years to climb Mt Pelion West slowly building my skills to where I had the confidence to tackle her and yet again I felt the opportunity was going to be whipped out from under me.
Laying in our tent the next morning at 5am when the alarm went off Bender and I accepted it would be the lesser prized mountain of Mt. Proteus that got our company for the day. But… as I stepped out of the tent I noticed it was actually dry. Lucas reported his tent was dry also. Could this mean that Mt Pelion West’s rock would also be dry? From our tents we could spy some cloud over her but the air felt crisp and already the day was warm. New plan. We begin her climb and if after a few hours the weather isn’t looking promising we accept defeat and turn around and head to Mt. Proteus. Fortune favours the brave – lets go.
Mt Pelion West, we are coming for you my pretty…
Lucas had sighted the discreet log indicators on his walk in the previous day and so we wasted no time relocating the junction and were stepping off the Overland Track (OLT) and onto the Pelion West track around 6:30am. The track is marked on most maps but begins just south of the bridge over Pelion Creek. We had seen it years earlier whilst walking along the OLT but it was much less overgrown than we remembered. It is still only marked by a fallen log. Stepping into the scrub we began climbing almost immediately. Nothing too taxing but we were definitely heading uphill.
This initial part of the Mt Pelion West track was well trodden and obvious enough to be followed with relative ease. We were all surprised to see red tape markers along the route as its not something any of us expected to see. Winding ever up through eucalypt and tea tree forest our combined excitement was almost palpable. Small patches of the scrub were denser than other areas but on the whole here the vegetation was certainly not challenging to those with long sleeves and trousers – I could see why the trail runners of the previous day had been scratched up somewhat though.
As we climbed upwards the plants around us changed and more alpine type vegetation began to make an appearance. Here it encroached fully over the (still obvious) pad and some small amounts of gusto was needed to push through. It would be at this stage that the scrub would thieve Ben’s pocket knife, walkie talkie and Insta 360 camera cover. All of which Lucas found on the return journey! This scrubbier section was short lived though and we stepped out onto the small cushion plant plain that lies to her north east with clear skies above us.
Rising ahead, rising high.
The now uninterrupted views of Mt Pelion West reminded us all of the challenge that lay ahead but at least the weather was looking very promising. Mt Pelion West towered over us and the ridgeline we would follow to her craggy top looked impossibly steep although for now we were enjoying the relative ease of both the gradient and the vegetation. The pad was narrow but very distinct and at times appeared more water course than pad.
The three of us we a little shocked to see that someone (Parks?) has in recent years put water bars in along the track to reduce erosion. Could this track get more use than is advertised? Turns out that is the case – speaking to the ranger on duty the next day she told us that the Mt Pelion West track is the most popular “off track” walk along the OLT. That is not to say all walkers are capable of continuing to the summit but rather that punters do go at least this far up to sneak a closer look.
With only low alpine vegetation to push through, an obvious track and sunny skies we allowed ourselves time to enjoy the views behind us of Barn Bluff peeking through the clouds. We were making good progress even with all our stops to take photos and film but we also knew that we would pay for tardiness later and so were ever mindful of ticking over the distance between us and her summit. I was waiting for the dense scrub the trail runners had mentioned and thought perhaps it was ahead on the now steeply rising ridgeline. It was certainly dense enough that from our current vantage point we couldn’t see the track leading up to the boulders.
The entirety of our hike thus far had been uphill. Some spots steeper than others but as we closed in on the rocky part of the day the climb upwards increased aplenty! The track was still obvious under the scrub and any track junctions we came to were easily sorted by either branches marking off the incorrect route or simply by using basic deductions. Our decision to set off very early was paying off as we were walking in the coolness of the morning.
Steeply climbing upwards we were pushing through semi-dense leg or chest high patches of vegetation including scoparia. I was glad to have long sleeves on and scrub gloves protecting my hands as in some areas the slope was now steep enough to require some assistance from our arms to pull ourselves up. The pad under out feet changed to slippery shale type rock with patches of larger imbedded boulders.
Pineapple grass was the last vegetation change we would notice as we neared the top of the chute we had been climbing up. It was time for the butterflies to kick in, to have a snack, to get our brains on task and to begin the days challenge. Everything to this point had been relatively easy. Easy navigation. Steep but easy climb. Easy scrub. It was time to see if the whispers of her gaping chasms were true. The easy part was over, now she would test us.
The pineapple grass gave way to the beginning of the boulder field that would take us all the way to the summit. Cairns were frequent at this stage, easy to follow and the majority of the rocks a manageable size. It was from here on in that we would follow the advice we were given by the hikers that climbed her the day before. We had asked them if there were cairns and if there were “false cairns/routes”.
Their advice was thus – “there are cairns all the way to the summit. If you ever cannot see the next cairn you are in the wrong spot and have gone off track. There are no false cairns but rather close by alternate routes for some sections” Could it really be that simple? Well friends, we can now answer from first hand experience – yes it can be. Like joining the dots on a dot to dot we followed the cairns steadily upwards.
Now I let me make one thing pretty clear – I am a total scared-ee-cat when it comes to exposure. Ben and Lucas have no such qualms. For this reason we decided that Lucas would lead across the boulder field. That way if he came upon one of the fabled crevasses he could give me fair warning. I would second scout the cairns to make sure we always had the next cairn in sight and Ben would bring up the tail.
Our small rocks very quickly turned into giant sized rocks. I was waiting for the fear to set in but it didn’t come. Don’t get me wrong I was in a heightened state of concentration from this point forward but the combination of dry rock, hours and hours of time up our sleeves and a recent wet traverse of Mt. Thetis had all combined to take the “freak” out of Mt Pelion West. Building my skills and experience of the prior three years most definitely helped. Mt Pelion West is not a beginners mountain.
There is no denying most of the boulders on Mt Pelion West are huge. Her giant rocky spine is what makes her a challenge. But with equal parts awe and concentration we slowly continued upwards. Always looking for the next cairn. In a few locations the cairns appeared at first to split into two different directions but always they re met at a central cairn. Lucas and Ben would take the route that involved jumping over gaps and crevasses, I would take the “low down Lucy” route ie. the alternate cairns that allowed for scaredy cats like me to stick lower to the rocks and avoid the gaps.
Whilst the cairns were our guide it was our intuition in searching for near by alternate rocks that made the traverse much more comfortable than any of us thought it would have been. Even the giant rocks we had encountered thus far were on a lovely sloping gradient and with lots of grip we were able to just pull ourselves up and over them.
Concentrating on locating cairns and picking our way over her rumble, tumble rocky mess was almost enjoyable. I hate to admit that as I had built her up to be a monster and here she was leading us to her summit, encouraging us to “play” with her. There is no avoiding her large crevasses but it takes just moments to find alternate cross points just up or down from each leading cairn and it is time well spent. It was obvious that the return journey would be a little more difficult as it is harder to climb down large boulders with gaps at the base than it is to climb up them.
The cave, minus the cave spiders.
Entering a large cave about half way across the traverse Lucas headed off to our east to the next cairn above the cave and promptly sounded the warning bells that the cairned route was doable but a bit “sketchy” due to some pretty major exposure. Nup. Nada. No thanks. Now normally I steer clear of caves due to the infamous and orange sized Tasmanian Cave Spider but I figured right now it was the lesser of two evils. As I entered the cave I noticed there was an obvious area at the back of the cave that I could climb up and therefore avoid all exposure. Ben followed me up and we were soon standing next to Lucas once more.
None of us wanted to say it out loud incase we jinxed things but the weather was holding and we were actually enjoying ourselves. Perhaps the torture on Mt Thetis had been worth it just to enjoy Mt Pelion West?! We kept waiting for the horror climb to start. To reach a section that was impassable and would send us scurrying backwards trying to re-route but it never came. Instead the opposite happened. The rocks increased in size but the passage through, around or over them was somehow becoming easier? Perhaps we were just getting accustomed to them.
It was a pleasing surprise to reach a small area of sprinkled vegetation as the steepness levelled out and we went from climbing, jumping and crawling over rocks to just hopping between small patches of alpine vegetation. It may have been short lived but it was a pleasure nevertheless.
According to our GPS devices the summit was now tantalisingly close and we had made really good time even with constant stops to film, take photos or just to marvel at the fact we were standing on this majestic mountain. After the short scrub patch the boulders increased in size again – they were huge – but we didn’t care for we knew we would make her peak. Our pace increased. Up, over, around, down (but never look down), under. Any which way we could we continued upwards. Almost racing now. The excitement building in all of us as the huge summit stone came into sight.
In just shy of three hours after stepping off the OLT we had attained her summit. She had allowed us to play and what’s more enjoy the experience. The weather gods had also allowed our passage thus far. It was time to eat cake and celebrate. For the boys that meant scaling to the very tip of the huge finger of rock that reaches to the sky and marks a triumphant finish to her ascent. For me that meant hugging it and then retreating to enjoy the moment. To thank her for letting us clamber all over her and to enjoy the feeling of reaching a goal I have held for many years.
Through the cloud some of the mountains that had led us to her could be seen including Mt Thetis, Mt Achillies, Perrins Bluff, Cradle Mountain, Mt Oakleigh, Barn Bluff, Mt Pillinger. This list was endless. She was a sort of outwards facing looking glass but somehow she is also the mountain that all the others look to – such a diva!
Sometimes the most blissful of moments on a mountain can turn quickly into reminders that we should not take things for granted. We had not been long at her summit when the cloud began to shift around us and the air began to cool and then a few drops of moisture hit my face – no way. It was barely past 9:30am and the sprinkle of rain forecast for this area was not due to hit till after 11am. Maybe it was Mt Pelion West. Perhaps she had had enough of us frolicking on her and this was her warning. I didn’t need a second one. Putting on my best mum voice I told the boys it was time to skedaddle! We still had to descend the rock.
The descent was in all likelihood going to take just as long as the ascent. It is easy to scramble up large rock fall but can be testing to jump down off large boulders or in my case bum slide down! Whilst the boys just leaped across the large boulders with crevasses separating them from each other I could not bring myself to do it. I had mental images of me ending up like the Road Runner and jumping vertically in the air only to disappear down the crevasse. Beep. Beep.
The gentle spots of rain we had felt had somehow managed to wet the black algae on the rock and so we had to be mindful of slipping.
For the most part the descent went well. Even the few seconds of hail pelting us could not dampen our spirits. Following our cairns back we realised that we were right in our earlier assumptions that some areas are harder on the return than the upwards journey. Nothing that could not be surmounted by handing our packs to each other whilst we climbed down sections of large rock.
The climb down seemed to take more concentration than the climb up and that may be because when climbing down you are looking directly into some deep crevasses that would less than fun to fall into. It was nice when the sun returned warming our backs and drying the rock. So pleasant in fact that we stopped again to admire the views to our south.
Our cave was fast approaching and Lucas decided to join us going down and through the cave instead of the exposed route he had used on the way up. Taking it in turns we slipped our day packs off and dropped into the cave below. Leaving the cave we continued descending to the pineapple grass chute all the while taking genuine pleasure in the fact that we had just summited Mt Pelion West. Here we would break for an early lunch and purvey the views below. Bender and Lucas were taking it all in their stride where as I was fist pumping with happiness!
The hike back to the OLT was an entertaining stroll as Bender was singing into my walkie talkie behind us so that Lucas and I might hear where his fell to the bush. Lucas scored the trifecta finding all three of Benders missing items on the trail back and won himself the prize of a strawberry milkshake back at camp! With a Mt Pelion West type glow still hanging over us it was time to pack up camp and walk out to New Pelion Hut for the night.
Looking back at Mt Pelion West the next morning on our way out the Arm River track was a little surreal. Each time we have passed her I have spoken out loud to her and told her “I am coming for you my pretty”. Now will say “Thank you and I will come for you again my pretty” for although she is a challenging lady she is well worth the effort. (Bit like you darling 😉 – Bender)