Have you ever envisioned an awesome expedition and it’s all gone to hell? Saved your money, taken time off work, only to have it go wrong? It’s easy to get up caught up in everyone’s success stories on social media, but the reality is that sometimes life just doesn't go your way.
Hiking to Federation Peak was honestly the most heinous experience I’ve ever had in the outdoors.
This is the story of how myself and two mates, Hayden Griffith and Tim Clark, got beaten down in Tasmania. For all seven days it rained. We got lost. Hayden lost toenails. It was freezing. The “track” might have once been a wicked parkour circuit until it was dipped in mud, hosed down with slime and left to decompose for a few million years.
Federation Peak had been on my mind for a few years before doing the hike. Being a keen rock climber I was drawn to trying one of Australia’s longest climbing routes, Blade Ridge, a line that follows some 600m from valley floor to the airy peak. It wasn’t until June 2016 did Blade Ridge receive its first winter ascent after a group of ultra psyched locals spent weeks hiking in food and gear caches then waiting for a tiny weather window to make it possible.
We flew into Hobart just as cold and wet weather systems lined up to submerge Tasmania for the entire week. With the weather forecast in mind, and the history of epics on the peak, we weren’t really surprised that we had a legitimately messed up time. So, what went wrong? Was it a legitimately difficult undertaking? Were we just another bunch of soft millennials?
We were attempting what is considered to be one of Australia’s hardest hikes, during the wettest and coldest time of the year. Our excuse? We’re young, fit and obviously invincible. It’s just walking, right? 18km in, up the mountain, traverse to Hanging Lake, down the mountain, out 18km, take some photos along the way. Simple! We had a romantic vision of the Arthur Range inspired by grainy photos from the 80s of grassy meadows and a horizon of dramatic quartzite spires to the likes of which is unseen anywhere else in Australia. A quick Google search produced images of the peak caked in snow and this only helped fuel the desire to venture into something characteristically ‘un-Australian’. We’d successfully convinced ourselves it would be a great idea, laughing off the suggestion that we could actually get terrible weather and it would be a disaster. “She’ll be right mate” we said.
She was not all right.
In our defence, we started well. Pumping with youthful bravado we were stomping down the track by 4:00am with grand plans to make it by the end of the day to Cutting Camp, which sits at the base of the mountain. By midday we’d come over a seemingly never-ending rise, the sun flickered through wind whipped clouds as we took in the glory of our position. A vast valley lay below us, and on the horizon stood our destination in all its foreboding quartzite splendour. This was also the majestic venue at which our big mistake sank in. The terrible error. The grand blunder.
Day 1. The day we hiked up the wrong track.
We’d been misled by a totem pole of fluro tape markers wrapped around a tree, indicating a track to the left. Without a GPS and with any potential landmarks concealed from view by the thick vegetation we’d been suckered into blindly following the tape. That track had taken us well on our way to another peak, Mount Bobs. With a clear view of our goal on the horizon and the marshy plain we should have been racing across positioned far below us, we faced a difficult decision. Change our goal and go all the way to Bobs? Return to the car and choose a shorter hike? Hike back five hours to the junction, accepting that we’d lost an entire day and start again tomorrow?
Not wanting to tackle our dilemma, we agreed it was time for a consolation chai latte. Can’t beat a cuppa when things get a bit hard. That said, we were going to push the Jetboil hard this trip. After some extra lengthy thousand yard stares we eventually agreed on the final option. Tomorrow we’d try again.
Did I mention the track was tough? Let me paint a picture. The Federation Peak hike in a single step: Your rain pants pull tightly across your legs as you lift a mud filled boot over the giant log crossing the track in front of you. Too high to simply step over, you opt to straddle it. Abs crunching hard as you strain to keep your pack from pulling you backwards, you balance forward slowly and look for a suitable spot to drop down on the other side. Your options; a tangle of ankle- twisting, slime coated roots, or a pool of mud? Let's give the mud a go. You slide forward and lower your feet into the puddle. Expecting your boots to meet solid ground, instead you continue deeper. Ankle. Above the boot. Calf. Knee. At mid thigh your feet stop but now you're off balance and headed to mud town. By reflex you reach out into the vegetation beside you in an attempt to steady yourself and you’re rewarded with a handful of blade grass. Still falling, your miserable world turns green as you headbutt a button grass. Eventually it stops. You untangle yourself from the bush. Pull your lower half out of the mud and right yourself. One step done.
There was a dark feeling feeling that with each step we took we’d be further and further away from salvation. With each step we’d only have to endure it once again on the return trip. Our trudging would often enter periods of silence, each of us battling internal wars until someone would slip, trip or lose a leg to the mud, and then silence would be broken by some quality cussing. Throughout the day this eventually degraded into Neanderthal-like grunting and howling as coherent profanities required too much energy. After a full day slog, and as golden hour faded to blue, we came to a clearing by a bubbling creek stained dark with tannin. Now the end of our second day we found ourselves at our original day one goal, Cutting Camp.
Feeling equal parts knackered and defeated from the past two days, we snoozed through our early morning alarms as heavy rain cut through the tree canopy and slapped down on the tent wall. I awoke later to Hayden calling Tim and I. Ever industrious he’d made us breakfast already. Bare foo, and trending the thermal tights and down jacket look, we dashed from our tent into his to slurp porridge and make battle plans. We entered to find that Hayden had endured his own battle during the night, his face crusted with blood. “Yeah I was staunched by leeches all night. I kept waking up to peel them off my face, I guess they smuggled themselves in with the backpacks”. Given that the vestibule in our tent had barely enough room for our boots, we’d used Hayden’s tent as the gear store. Sorry mate!
Periods of heavy rain kept us questioning our mission all morning. With many thousands of dollars worth of camera gear between us wrapped up in slowly moistening drybags, we were unsure if our gear would survive much longer. We eventually reasoned that we could wait out the rain in our tents today and then if it cleared up the next day we could make a dash up to Bechervaise Plateau (pronounced “bitch-to-get-to”). Bechervaise sits directly below Federation Peak and is the primary location that potential summiters will wait out for a weather window. With our decision made, we settled in for another night with the leeches.
On our fourth day we woke up to silence. No rain! We’re on fellas! Psyche was high as we raced to pack down tents and get a move along. Standing between us and Bechervaise is Moss Ridge. From our investigation into track notes and recounts of the hike we’d put Moss Ridge somewhere in the vicinity of misery and torture in hiking boots. The track notes said it took 4-6 hours to climb this last section so we made peace that we’d just have to wallow in the suffering for half a day and be done with it. Maybe this mindset came to our advantage, or perhaps we’d begun to acclimatise to life in the Arthur Range, because Moss Ridge was actually quite delightful. The track cuts its way up through a dark and wild primordial jungle. For long stretches we’d be suspended a metre or more above the ground, balancing on zig zagging tree branches that made the path. When we couldn’t go over them, we’d be elbow deep in puddles as we crawled under the branches. Despite the bootcamp vibes as we burpeed our way over and under countless trees, we managed a solid pace and for the first time in four days we felt like we were making ground.
The final few hundred metres is broken up by a series of sagging clay towers, tenuously held together by the spindly alpine bushes and grasses. Cutting steps into the earth with our boots and pulling on whatever we could use as handholds, we climbed up and down each tower along the ridgeline. Each time we reached a tower summit we’d be pushed around by freezing gusts of wind until we made it to the other side and climbed back down. After several towers we found ourselves faced with a long forgotten pleasure. The humble boardwalk. The boardwalks were installed by Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service to mitigate damage to the sensitive alpine ecosystem existing on the plateau. We weren’t thinking of the opportunity of stomping carefree over the moss though, we were thinking how muthaflippin’ fast you can move on a boardwalk. The feeling of walking at a regular pace along open ground compared to the inching slog of the past few days can only be likened to the accelerated gait of a Jamaican sprinter. Like two legged cheetahs we raced across the final few hundred metres in about 0.3 seconds, our land-speed breaking dash came to a halt at our new base camp: the Berchevaise Plateau. Looming out of the mist above us was a wall of dark stone, Federation Peak.
As if sensing our momentary enjoyment, the sky unleashed it’s frosty fury and rain poured down upon us. Within minutes we had a tent setup, saturated layers were stripped and one at a time we crawled inside and took inventory. It was day 4 of our planned 6 day trip and we’d only just made it to the spot we’d hoped to spend a few days so we could traverse to the other side and really soak up the place. Our planning was interrupted by a massive crack and rumbling. My gut reaction was that we’d just heard the onset of a storm. After a few minutes of silence we poked our heads out from the tent and saw across the valley the long white scar of a landslide. Had it been there the whole time and we hadn’t noticed, or did that just happen? The realisation that our bodies probably wouldn’t hold up against a few thousand tonnes of mud and rock was a tad unsettling. A quick look over the ground up above us and we were certain that our position wasn’t at any risk. Back to planning.
We’d packed an extra day’s food in case we were caught out, but considering we’d come all this way we reasoned that we could commit to an extra day and hope for a break in the weather to explore the high ground. As the rain continued to pour we spent the rest of the day clinging to the hope that we’d get amazing weather tomorrow, and all three of us bunkered down in the one tent for the night.
We woke up to rain again the next day. We had cabin (tent?) fever hard and it was crushing to get terrible weather again. Mostly we’d nap, make tea and repeat. I’d do my best to escape through some stellar fantasy by Brandon Sanderson (side note: would wholeheartedly recommend a Kindle for the travelling bookworm). Hayden had found his old iPod loaded up with tunes from his teenage years just prior to the trip, so he’d doze off into nostalgic bliss. Tim would describe how the weather was going to line up; first with a pressure inversion to fill the valley with silky fog and then perfect light would shine on through and it was going to be the most beautiful landscape in the universe.
Our dreams did come true mid-afternoon when we realised that the walls of the tent were a lot brighter than usual. Sunshine! Within minutes our dampening gear was pulled out in the open air and we revelled in our momentary domestic heaven. Barely 30 minutes later the clouds came over again. However, with our gear somewhat dried off and a refounded vigour we grabbed cameras, and headtorches and took to the hills.
We wound up the narrow track, adding our footprints to the muddy steps cut into the hill from the hikers long before us. Now out of the protection of the vegetation below us we started to cop the full force of the torrent of fog that was channelled up the face of the mountain. Eventually we found ourselves at the foot of Federation proper. Still dark and imposing, now up close we saw that veins of pure white quartz ran through the jagged surface. Between us and the summit was 100m of grade 5 climbing. It climbing terms, grade 5 is like a difficult ladder and would normally be well within our limits. However, given the steady stream of water that ran over the rock and without clear knowledge of what the climb would entail it was decided that it would be too dangerous to attempt to summit. With our decision made, we committed to enjoying our position and exploring what we could.
Eventually the sky began to darken and we began to think about descending. It was at this moment the clouds cleared, light broke through and for the first time we saw the Arthur Range in all its glory. It is truly the most amazing mountain landscape I have ever seen in Australia. For this moment alone it had been worth the suffering. With now seemingly limitless energy we ran around the plateau trying to view the magic from every angle. It wasn’t until the sun had long fallen below the horizon did we start to move back down by the light of our head torches.
The next day we woke up to a deep red sunrise, enjoyed a slow breakfast and began packing down the gear. With fine weather and the hills looking lovely I felt a little cheated to have to leave. It didn’t last long though. By the time we started to cruise over the boardwalk the rain began to fall once again and we hurried to make our way down the ridge. Perhaps we’d been hardened by the previous days, or it was the sweet smell of salvation around the corner but the hike towards home felt glorious. We stomped through the mud, bounded between button grass, hurdled slimey logs and by nightfall we’d almost made it all the way back. We set up camp for the last time, cooked up our emergency dinner and settled in.
Our final day didn’t go as pleasantly.
Freezing wind and rain exaggerated the joys of pulling on wet boots, pants and jackets. Our remaining hours were spent balancing fatigue and the cold that would set in quickly if we tried to stop to rest. With heads down we marched to the brink and eventually found ourselves looking at our grimy reflections in the windows of the rental car. We’d made it.
We drove straight to the closest burger joint, making it minutes before they shut shop, and indulged in the almost spiritual post-hike binge of as much junk food we could mash into our faces. Burgers in hand we sank into the beat up couches on the verandah and watched as the rain washed over cow dotted fields. It seemed surreal to have the simple luxury of a dry place to sit. We all pledged that we’d never forget the atrocities we’d experienced, reflecting on the horrors as if we’d just returned from a tour on the frontline. To be fair, Hayden did get something close to trenchfoot and a week after finishing the hike I received a video of him wiggling some toenails off.
Now months later I look over the photos and I’m drawn to the beauty of the place and have nothing but memories that make me smile. I remember the surreal tangle of the ancient alpine jungle illuminated by a faerie twilight. The intense feeling of looking out over pure untamed wilderness. A brief stretch of boardwalk highway. The comfort of a hot drink. The dark quartzite towers begging to be climbed. I will return there someday.
In an age where success in the eye of the public is to conquer, it’s easy to conclude that the trip was a waste. Although we failed to summit Federation or traverse around to Hanging Lake I don’t look down on our efforts. It quickly became apparent to us that our very existence out there was an accomplishment. We learnt many hard lessons on managing the heinous conditions and the importance of meticulous preparation that will only serve to better the next masochistic adventure. For us bullheaded youths these lessons could only be taught by Mother Nature with a deeply humbling spanking in the great outdoors.
Photos and words by Mitchell Scanlan-Bloor