Date: 6-7th September 2019 – Summit: 1260m
Endless buttongrass fields ensure only those bagging Abels would ever bother with the torture that is Recondite Knob. If one can see past the misery that is the terrain then the sights of Cradle Mountain, Barn Bluff, Mt Beecroft and many of Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair’s other iconic mountains might offer some small measure of reward. It is often said that life is about the journey, not the destination. For Recondite Knob this is not the case. The journey is hard and the destination or summit cairn underwhelming. But, for those of us that have lived through this buttongrass nightmare the tick in the Abels book is sweet indeed!
Time taken: 7 hours total hiking time. We completed the journey as an overnight hike given we tackled this Abel in winter. We hiked for 2.5 hours the first day and then spent 30 minutes hunting for a camp site. The following day it was 4.5 hours to summit and return to our car back at Cradle Lodge.
Difficulty: Difficult due to exposure, lack of track markings and the terrain.
Type of track: Initially posted along the Penguin-Cradle Trail, but then completely unmarked. An old mining track can occasionally be located on the route but should not be relied upon. Strong navigation skills are needed!
Access from: The rear of Cradle Mountain Lodge.
As we had heard some pretty rotten tales from friends about Recondite Knob – all involving colourful language referencing button grass – we had started to research an alternate ascent. Both Ben and I like to investigate new routes to Abel summits, it presents more of a challenge than always following the accepted course. Extensive map scouring had shown a possible route in from Belvoir Road. A faint track indicated a road of some sorts that connected to the Penguin Cradle Trail (PCT) which would lead us very close to the northern side of Heap Of Rocks. If we could gain access to this road it would cut out considerable torture over button grass.
Our first step was to contact Parks to ask if the road still existed, and if so, could we have access to it. Confusingly, the road only showed on some maps and not others. Parks would neither confirm or deny if it was a public access road but they did say that it wasn’t in great condition. They also said that it was under the control of a private tourism company, they didn’t give any details out for the company. We won’t mention the name of the private company but we were easily able to figure out who they were! We contacted the private tourism company who in turn palmed us back off to Parks! It appears reading between the lines that it is indeed public access but is now chained off to protect the tourism business that lies within it. Needless to say we gave up on fighting red tape and planned to head in the long way! Note: On our return journey from this Abel we located the mystical road and fair to say if it could be used it would cut off a big chunk of misery!
Once again I would be running old fashioned map and compass and Ben would be running with the Garmin InReach for navigation. It would be irresponsible of us to not make very clear that Recondite Knob is extremely exposed and poorly marked. Continual and almost mirror image expanses of buttongrass could become a nightmare to find your way in and out of in inclement weather. There is almost no shelter offered from the land or the vegetation.
Only experienced hikers, properly equipped and comfortable in navigation should attempt a trip out to Recondite Knob – especially in winter.
We had planned our Recondite adventure in advance and of course at the last minute the weather gods decided to wreak havoc. The Weather Bureau had issued a storm warning for heavy rainfall, snow down to 1200m and strong winds. Not to be deterred our plan was altered and we decided an overnight trip was in order. We would start on track around 3pm (we would have liked to start earlier but we had work commitments) and make camp hopefully around Back Peak, then summit the next day. We added enough extra gear and food to our packs to sustain us for a few nights in case we got stuck. There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation and clothing!
As we were driving to Cradle Mountain National Park the rain was pouring down and the temperature measured a balmy 4 degrees. Bliss! We sent a quick proof-of-life selfie off to our friends, reconfirmed our intended route with our safety contact Haydyn (a friend, fellow hiker and responsible adult!) and set off in the heavy rain.
The first 500m or so of the trail heads through sheltered alpine forest which gave us 10 minutes reprieve from the rain. It is well marked and a combination of rooted forest floor and board walk. It appears that this section is popular with the general tourism public and so money is spent on its maintenance. You can see where the money stops as do most tourists!
From the sign indicating the route to Reynolds Falls and the Speeler Track the investment in the trail ends abruptly. It screams from the bottom of its non-maintained heart – don’t take me! This is the end of the road for those wanting a little stroll around the pretty brochure side of Cradle Mountain and it marks the entry to the real world of the environment and her unforgiving nature.
From this point forward it was hard work. The next 24 hours was physically demanding, mentally draining and at times very unpleasant. However, there were enough beautiful moments interspersed amongst it all to remind us of why we do what we do. Why we hike and climb in winter as well as summer. If we always waited for good weather then we would never get out. Plus Ben and I both firmly believe being (safely) out of your comfort zone builds resilience and learning.
There was one point within the first two kilometers where we had crossed a flooded creek (and my map had been ripped off my neck and disappeared downstream) and were on exposed plains, knee deep in mud whilst being pummelled with sleet and bent over in wind that Ben looked at me and questioned whether we should abort? Umm – never!
As we crested the small ridge just past the junction of the Pencil Pine Track we entered the first of many very exposed buttongrass plains. Endless amounts of boggy, wet, deep, slippery buttongrass. For the next 20 or so hours this would become our home. The physical test of such dense, thick buttongrass was made all the harder by carrying the weight of full packs. The hail and sleet was doing its best to add to the misery but on we forged. We didn’t have the luxury of time for many photos as we had to locate a campsite before the weather worsened or darkness closed in. Mind you every photo we took looked the same. Buttongrass and wet, sleety snow!
Our first increase in elevation saw a light snow dusting the buttongrass fields. Not enough to fill the troughs surrounding the buttongrass but rather just enough to increase the slip factor. What snow had melted added to the quagmire of mud at the base of each buttongrass mound. You would step up onto a tussock of buttongrass only to have it give way causing a jarring of your legs every step.
The added weight of our packs meant stepping up onto the tussocks was hard work. Amazingly, our boots were still warm and dry at this stage. Lowa and Aspire Launceston, we love you! We had what seemed like endless kilometers of this left ahead before we could make camp. We were grateful for the pole markers along the PCT as we didn’t have to expend extra energy navigating at this stage.
The PCT continued on and descended down another small valley to Pencil Pine Creek. The creek was flooded with a beautiful sprinkling of snow that looked like icing sugar. We spent a few moments finding the best place to cross the fast flowing creek and to appreciate the beauty that is winter hiking. It was now softly snowing which was much more preferable to the earlier rain and sleet. The Bureau of Meteorology had predicted snow to 1200m but were were only at approximately 850m.
After crossing the Pencil Pine Creek we knew we had roughly 350m left on the PCT before we needed to look for the old mining track which crosses it, and we would change from a westerly heading to a southern bearing. Many had told us the old mining track is as clear as mud so we were not expecting to find it easily! Winter actually gave us a helping hand as when covered in just the right amount of snow the trail leading south appears obvious. Whilst the snow highlighted the route, the rain and melted snow meant we had to concentrate on our footing. At one stage I stepped on the trail only to sink thigh high in muddy bog much to Bens amusement!
It was now close to 4:30pm and we had about 30-45 minutes left before we had to make camp. We were not as far in as we had hopped, but as can be necessary on an adventure, plans need revising. We decided to push on until 5pm and then spend time locating a campsite as endless buttongrass fields are impossible to pitch a tent on!
The old mining track was eventually swallowed again by the evil that is buttongrass. We could glimpse Mt Beecroft off to the north which we had climbed with our friends Haydyn and Natty a week earlier. It was awe inspiring to see it from our current position. From this perspective we could truly appreciate the beauty of its moraine ridge and the sheer drops from its south-east flank. Darkness was creeping in at a rapid rate and with snow cover thickening on the ground we were eager to get the tent up and into shelter.
Suitable camp sites were very few and far between. Buttongrass is impossible to camp on and with the terrain almost entirely buttongrass we found a small patch of low lying scrub surrounding the ONLY tree for miles! It was midway down a gully offering us some inbuilt wind protection. We would have liked to camp at the base of the gully to give us better protection but it was not an option.
We made short work of pitching the tent and nibbled on some cheese and crackers whilst cooking dinner. If it wasn’t for the freezing temperatures and persistent rain it would have been quite civilised! Beggars can’t be choosers and that definitely applied to our limited campsite choices, and we had a reasonably unpleasant night’s rest due in part to the fact that our campsite was on a slope, as well as due to the cold. We were grateful to have packed hand warmers which we used to warm up our sleeping bags!
It is amazing what a difference eight hours can make! We had called it a night on a snow-covered buttongrass field and listened to snow falling whilst we ate our dinner. The snow turned to heavy rain during the night and we awoke to no remnants of snow, the sun pushing through the clouds and a glorious spring day! Yay!
The one and only tree for miles had sheltered us from the winds beautifully overnight. We had requested an up to date weather forecast through the InReach before pitching the tent and knew the wind would be coming from the southwest, hence choosing the northeast side to pitch the tent.
We decided to leave the tent pitched while we were away, in case the weather turned and we needed emergency shelter quickly. We would also exchange our full packs for our small trail running vests for our summit attempt. Our trail running vests still allow us to carry clothing, food, wet weathers and first aids kits but are lighter and allow us to move faster. We would summit and then return to pack up camp and hike out, weather and time permitting.
The weather looked promising for a successful summit but we didn’t want to leave anything to chance. The later the day wore on the worse the weather forecast and we wanted to hike out back to the car. We were setting off from camp around 8am. A late start for us but we had only about 5-6km to the summit. We had made camp at the base of Heap of Rocks and so needed to contour around Back Peak and then drop into the saddle between that and Recondite Knob to summit. The memory of the torture that was three hours of buttongrass slog the day before came back at the first step back onto the monstrous stuff!
After two more buttongrass ridges were climbed and a few more minor flooded creeks crossed we had Heap of Rocks well behind us and were closing in on Back Peak. The track was barely visible for most of the journey out to Back Peak; if you did find it and step off it accidentally, it would be near impossible to find again standing just a few meters from it. It was almost completely hidden from sight by low lying alpine vegetation and buttongrass. It was a matter of staying on our south-westerly bearing and sticking close to Back Peak. We made sure to constantly check our map and course as it would be easy to become disorientated here.
After climbing the first knoll of Back Peak we started descending its saddle to the valley below. A tranquil little tarn could be glimpsed in the distance, marking the turning point to start heading back up the saddle towards today’s goal – Recondite Knob. The mining trail once again became more obvious for a short while and we could notice the temperature dropping. We were having some intermittent light snow again and we were mindful of making the summit quickly; plans on also summiting Back Peak and potentially Mt Remus were quickly discarded due to the weather.
Now the mining trail disappeared once more under a thick snow cover and dense alpine vegetation. We never thought we would be happy to see scorparia but we were! It was such a welcome change to push through dense bush and scorparia instead of stumble and climb over buttongrass. The trail was well overgrown and difficult to locate at times but finally we were feeling that familiar pinch of elevation gain. The air was becoming thinner and colder but our bodies were warming up from this steep section of trail.
Out of the dense scrub we kept climbing more gradually now until we reached the summit plateau. Here the snow cover was frosting everything and soft snow was now falling a little heavier. We had a measly 800m left to the summit but the wind had picked up and the mountain was making us earn it! Our cheeks were already flushed from exposure and windburn but it would all be worth it shortly.
And then we were there! We had arrived at the very underwhelming summit cairn, to equally underwhelming views, mostly lost in the low cloud and mist. A hard fought Abel earned, not given! There was just enough time to enjoy a salami roll and a coffee before having to make our way down the mountain. Snow was falling heavily and we didn’t relish another night in the exposure if we didn’t make it back in time to hike out.
We made short work of the return journey down Recondite Knob making a beeline for the break in the scrub where we would find the tarn and the track back to Back Peak. We both mentioned how much more visible evidence of the old mining trail are to see from a position of elevation. We committed its placement to memory so that we could better locate it when we were standing on it!
The homeward journey was faster than on the way to the summit; not only was gravity helping, but we could more easily locate the track and concentrated on forward-sighting it so as to not lose vision. The weather was holding and it was still snowing – not raining – which was a blessing. We made it back to the tent in a bit over an hour and made the decision to hike out. It was about 1pm, and allowing for pack up time we could be on foot again by 1:30pm. More than enough daylight hours to get out.
With our tent and gear stowed away and heavy packs weighing us down we began the journey home. We had also added extra layers of clothing as the weather was turning. Looking like sumo wrestlers – but warm and dry – we again set out on the endless misery that is buttongrass. More heavily relying on our poles now, as our legs were weary and now carrying more weight too. We had taken nearly three hours to hike in to this point the day before in snow and rain, but the return journey would take us less than half of that! Perhaps it was the slightly less challenging weather – or just the promise of hot food at the finish line!
Soon enough we were back at the track junction, about to step off the mining trail and back onto the PCT. Marking poles were a welcome sight as it meant we could just enjoy the final few kilometers without constantly looking for signs of track or self-navigating. A few more kilometres of buttongrass then a kilometre of well formed trail and the car would be within our sights.
The eerie silver foliage indicating the drop into the valley below was a most pleasing sight. In the hail and low visibility of the day before this natural gem had been hidden. Our photos do not do the colour or the beauty of it justice.
We covered the last few hundred meters quickly and were soon back in the sheltered canopy of forest and on formed trails, and then the lovely duckboard appeared again. We passed a young couple who we decided were maybe on their honeymoon, he had shorts on, she was wearing little white and sparkly clean sneakers. They looked at us like we had arrived from an alternate universe all muddy, wet and weather-beaten. We looked at their clean clothes and were envious – OK well maybe not of the pretty white sneakers that would not last five minutes on a real trail!
It was time for a quick change of clothes at the car and well earned meal at the lodge. Food tastes so much better when you have a mountain appetite! Finally the journey home began with the comfort of seat warmers in the Mazda and a few hours to recount the adventure we had had bagging Recondite Knob in winter. And, as it turns out is was also one year to the day that we completed our first ever overnight winters Abel together!