Bad Day at Bogong (a salutary tale)

At 1986m, Mt Bogong is the highest mountain in Victoria and the pinnacle of the Alpine National Park. Hence any effort to climb it is a worthy addition to these High Country pages. Thus, when an opportunity came up to do so and to explore its surrounds with fellow members of the Canberra Bushwalking Club between Christmas and New Year, I seized it.


Mountain Creek

Breakfast before setting off (photo: Quentin Moran)

After a 6-hour car trip down the Hume Highway and up the Kiewa Valley, we found ourselves at Mountain Creek, a beautiful spot set amongst tall mountain ash, peppermints and blue glums next to the icy, crystal clear waters of a stream.

After getting to know my fellow walkers (Lorraine, Lynette, Ann, Quentin, Steve and Mark) over dinner, I retired early - the night chill was seeping out of a cloudless sky and it was good to be in a warm sleeping bag, listening to the softly rushing water of the nearby creek, swollen from recent rainfalls. Tomorrow our walk would begin and the summit of Bogong, 1400m above us, was beckoning.

Mountain Creek to Cleve Cole Hut (13.5km - 1410m ascent - 220m descent)

The plan was to climb Bogong and, over the next four days, do a circuit of its surrounding ridges, spurs and valleys, to rejoin our outward path on the summit and return to Mountain Creek. It was a crisp morning as our group of seven set off on our "Tour de Bogong", following the firetrail out of the campsite beneath the canopy of the thick alpine forest. Crossing the fern-lined creek several times on wooden footbridges, we soon reached the point where a narrow foot-track headed off uphill into the forest. A kookaburra chuckled softly high in a nearby tree - clearly it could see the climb that awaited us.

Setting out in the early morning sun

Shady crossing of Mountain Creek

Path amongst the tree ferns

Climbing Staircase Spur

Staircase Spur is so-called because its profile resembles a staircase - the only problem is that the risers are very steep and long and the steps are short. In fact it was 140m higher up that we reached the first step - only 1100m to go! I adjusted my 22 kg pack and pushed on as the track wound narrowly up through the forest. The group soon spread out as people settled in to their own climbing rhythm. It was a hot climb in the stillness of the forest - the treading of your feet interrupted by an occasional twitter of a bird, buzz of a fly or patter of a bead of sweat falling from your brow.

My muscles were insisting on regular short breaks, but eventually we reached Bivouac Hut on its narrow ridge to regroup for a longer rest. At 1450m, we had entered the realm of the snow gum, with its lower and more open canopy. Sadly, many trunks had been killed by the horrific fires of 2003 and the track passed through dense shrubby regrowth. A short flattish section along the ridge provided some respite before the track took on one of the steeper climbs, aided by passages of rocky steps.

Admiring Bivouac Hut

The views were now starting to open up and the summit of Bogong appeared for the first time through the stark white trunks of burnt snow gums. These trunks became shorter and shorter until we reached the tree-line at 1800m, entering a landscape of broad alpine meadows, speckled with the flowers of the high country. The entire northern horizon opened up with grandiose views across silver-singed spurs to the fading blue profiles of mountains beyond.

View to the east from Staircase Spur - silver-lined ridges and fading blue mountains beyond

Heading towards the summit of Bogong

Panorama of the summit of Bogong westwards down Gap Gorge

Looking back down Staircase Spur

It was time for one last slog up to the small saddle below the flattened dome of Bogong, where we declared a well-earned lunch-break overlooking the southern horizon of flattened treeless high plains and deep valleys.

Lunch overlooking the High Plains

Memorial to 3 skiers who perished here
in a blizzard in 1943

Lunch over, we made the short detour to the summit, an unspectacular rise marked by a large stone cairn. However, the lack of spectacle of the mountain was more than made up for by the panoramic 360° views. The chillness of the wind sweeping across the top started to bite and it was time to put on another layer. We took in this vast high country landscape, while butterflies soared in courtship flights around the cairn - all God's creatures were glad to be on the top of Bogong at that moment.

Looking towards Feathertop from the summit

On top of Mt Bogong (1986m)

Views from Bogong to the west .....

.... and to the east

Crossing Rocking Stone Saddle

Descending from the summit, we followed the rocky track that led south-east across the flower-filled grasslands of Rocking Stone Saddle and Lendenfeld Point. It was great not to be climbing anymore!

From the point, the track dropped back into the snowgum forest, vast areas of which had been burnt by the fires of 2003 - strange how there was still beauty in the ghostly dead trunks and silvered landscape of distant ridges. Strange too, how some trees and patches avoided the destruction.

The stark beauty of destruction

Looking over the fire-bleached snow gum forests above Cleve Cole

A magnificent survivor of the fires

Cleve Cole Hut

Fortunately, Cleve Cole Hut (our destination for the night) was situated in such a patch and we could admire the gnarled form and colour of living trees. We set up our tents on a grassy flat near the hut, joining other groups of walkers whose tents were scattered across the clearing.

I felt tired from the hard climb, but content to have finally made it to the top of Bogong. Sipping a coffee as the evening shadows crept across the landscape, I looked forward to the rest of the walk. However, the best laid plans of mice, men and Lorraine, our leader, can quickly change - as we were soon to find out.

Tents in the clearing at Cleve Cole

Cleve Cole Hut to Big River (well almost) (6.5km - 130m ascent - 810m descent)

Early morning wake up call

The wind that came up just before sunset flapped the tents all night long, but by morning it had settled down into a brisk cool north-easterly breeze. Our ridge lay in sunshine, while to the east thick bands of cloud clung to the ridge-tops as they drifted by - pleasant walking conditions lay ahead. We had breakfast, broke camp and headed off, leaving Cleve Cole Hut to wander gently down through Camp Valley, a shallow and winding depression in the high country.

Reaching the creek crossing, we saw what we were after - a sign post pointing to Howman Falls. We dropped our packs and made the 500m side-trip down an ever-steepening valley to reach them. Actually, these are a set of falls, first a series of beautiful cascades over rocky ribs and then a small shute and single drop about a hundred metres further on.

Wandering down Camp Valley

The upper cascades of Howman Falls

Shute and plunge pool

The lower drop of Howman Falls

In the dead forest

Having admired the falls, we retraced our steps and heaved our laden backpacks back on before jumping the stream and heading on. The track wound gently up the next valley to meet up with the Australian Alpine Walking Track.

We turned south on this track and followed it as it climbed gradually up to the the top of the T Spur, to find ourselves walking along a long flattish ridge beneath the burnt snow gums - slowly collapsing and bleached white. Stopping to listen, you could hear the soft squeaks and groans of the dead trunks rubbing against each other in the wind - the haunting conversation of forest ghosts.

Tortoise beetle munching snowgum leaves

Still, new life abounded closer to the forest floor. Dense lignotuber regrowth sprouted from the bases of the dead trunks, chewed on and providing life for a myriad of leaf-feeding insects, the pea- and mintbushes were flush with flowers, lilies and daisies bloomed in clusters and even the occasional orchid sprouted from the grassy floor.

View eastwards from the T Spur

Back amongst the big trees

We regrouped at T Spur Knob to begin the steep descent to Big River. The spur became narrower and soon we were out of the burnt snow gums and back in amongst the taller ash and peppermints. It was pleasant descending through this open shady canopy, but fires are capricious beasts and once again we found ourselves wandering beneath dead mountain ash trunks on a path overarched and overgrown in places by dense 3-4m saplings. On reaching a set of steep zig-zags, I could hear the water flowing down Big River less than five minutes away.

Walking through the dense regrowth

Then my world went pear-shaped .... the toe of my boot dragged the ground, my leg rolled forward on the steep path and my weight came down before I could transfer it to my other foot. I heard a horrible crunchy cracking sound and collapsed on the path. "F---, I've broken my ankle" I heard someone say - it was me and, since I don't swear very often I knew it was serious. The sharp pain was quickly replaced by a dull tight band as adrenalin washed through my body, bringing with it a wave of nausea and faintness. I had to lie down to stop passing out and it was in this undignified position that Steve and Quentin, who heard me call out, found me. Moving my ankle was impossible - it just flopped and sent a wave of pain through it. Steve stayed with me while Quentin got the rest of the party, who had already reached Big River Campsite. My face had gone a whiter shade of pale and the world became brighter and red-tinged - perhaps a curious effect of shock. So there I lay in the dust of the track, self-recriminating my stupidity in falling over near the bottom of this deep ravine, as I realised that there was no way I was walking out of here.

A nice spot to wait for help
(photo: Lorraine Tomlins)

Meanwhile, the others had climbed back up and set about making me as comfortable as possible - a rolled up sleeping mat for my head, a large branch to prop under my backside and keep me from slipping further down the track with any movement and a tent fly tied to saplings and walking poles to shelter me from the sun.

There was no mobile phone reception, so the decision was made by Lorraine to activate her PLB (personal locator beacon), which started its reassuring regular beep. During the next two hours, the group did a fantastic job in looking after me, some codeine for pain relief, making sure that I kept hydrated and had some food and keeping my spirits up with conversation and humour.

Not the best spot to break your ankle

Then that instantly recognisable sound of a helicopter drifted in from the ridgeline above. Soon it appeared high overhead, passing by to return much lower as it homed in on the beeping PLB, to circle us as we waved yellow plastic bags and flashed cameras to attract their attention - we had been spotted.

Paramedic being winched down
(photo: Quentin Moran)

The drama, however, was far from over, as there was nowhere to land, so a paramedic was winched down, disappearing into the dense 3-4m scrub some 30m away. Some of my companions helped guide him out and soon he was at my side. With efficiency and good humour, Nick the paramedic had cut off my boot, checked out my ankle, put me on a saline drip, given me shots of morphine and maxalon and splinted my leg. It was time to go!

A visitor who came
to cheer me up

Saline drip plus a bit of morphine
(photo: Lorraine Tomlins)

Helped by Steve and Mark, I managed to hop some metres further down the track to the clearest point. The worry was that the down-draft of the helicopter would blow off dead tree branches, so it was going to be a long winch - 60m. Before I had time to worry I was harnessed in, attached to the winchline with Nick and the medical bag and rising up through the forest. What a fascinating perspective of the bush it was on the way up - no time at all to be worried. The only real concern was that there was no room to take my pack as well, so all I had were the valuables that I could stuff into my pockets. No sooner had I shuffled myself back into the helicopter than we were off, climbing up to pass a few metres over the ridgeline and then heading northwards to Albury and its hospital.

Strange way to finish a walk
(photo: Anne Gibbs-Jordan)

To cut a long story short, X-rays revealed a double fracture of the ankle and by next morning, I was in plaster with a pin in the base of my tibia and a plate screwed into my fibula. Half an hour after surgery, I saw the smiling face of the fair Nello walk into my hospital ward - it was a sight for sore ankles! The club bush telegraph had worked well and she had driven down to take me back to Canberra the next day - though not quite in the way I had anticipated ending the walk.

Up, up and away
(photo: Quentin Moran)

The end result

Footnote: Twelve weeks have now passed since I broke my ankle, and I have had the OK from the fracture clinic and physiotherapy staff at the hospital. I am walking normally again and slowly building up fitness in my ankle and in foot and leg muscles weakened from being immobilised in plaster. It is time to plan for future walks again and the first part of that plan is to purchase a PLB.

The model that I have chosen is a GME Accusat MT410G, which was in fact the model used for my rescue. A compact 250gm, it has the accuracy of GPS positioning, a 7 year battery life and flashing LED light. I paid $429 on the internet for it, which also makes it cheaper than equivalent brands. This sounds expensive, but it is a small price for the peace of mind that it brings when walking in remote country. A PLB really is an essential part of the serious bushwalker's equipment.

So, it had been a bad day at Bogong, but perhaps there is a salutary lesson to all of this - namely that you should never go bushwalking in remote country without a PLB. The fair Nello and I have done walks like this - just the two of us - and if this had happened on such a trip, we would have really been up the proverbial creek. Even when walking in a group, it would have been a very long time of extra pain and suffering to get me out without Lorraine's PLB. Several of us in the group certainly plan to get one now!

Finally, I want to thank my walking companions, Lorraine, Lynette, Ann, Quentin, Steve and Mark for their support while I was injured and for going the extra mile (or several as it turned out) in reorganising the trip so that they could carry out my pack and contents (at least you got to eat the chocolate). Such is the camaraderie of a bushwalking club! I also want to thank Nick, Matt and Chris, the crew of the Helimed 1 helicopter for their professionalism and good humour in extricating me from this remote ravine, the ambos who took me from airport to hospital, the surgical staff of Albury Hospital for putting my ankle back together again and the nurses for making my stay there more comfortable. Oh well .... at least I got to the summit of Bogong.