Nevada Peak is a lesson in being careful for what one asks for – because you might just get it. I was sitting on 74 Abels and Ben (Y) had reminded me a week earlier that 75 Abels is a major milestone for women (who are quite under-presented in the Abelist community) and asked what I had planned for the big 75.
Originally planning an easy wander up Mt. Read on this particular weekend, I instead decided I needed an Abel worthy of the milestone. We hadn’t yet completed the Snowy Range trifecta, so Nevada Peak was calling. Chris, another Abel bagging friend had recently climbed it and spoke of it in the most unflattering terms. Well, we thought we will have our challenge… and add to it – let’s do it as a winter overnighter with full packs on! And boy did it turn out to be a ‘be-careful-what-you-wish-for’ kinda weekend!
Date: 11th-12th July 2020 – Summit: 1390m
Distance: Approximately 16km return.
Time taken: About 4.5 hours to Snowdrift Tarns (with overnight packs), 1.5 hours to the summit around the ridgeline, and less than 30 mins back down the eastern face (with small day packs). About 3.5 hours for the return journey from the Tarns back to the car. Note: we took the long route to the summit, shown on most modern maps. The our ascent could have been at least halved by using the alternate route straight up the eastern face.
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult. The route gains some 800m in elevation in a steady manner, but the rooted, rocky terrain and occasionally thick scrub makes the walking more challenging, especially with a heavier overnight pack. A moderately difficult day walk due to the distance and terrain covered. Take extra care in winter: as its name suggests, the Snowy Range is snow prone and above the 1200m contour the terrain is very exposed.
Type of track: Tracked and marked with ribbons, cairns and a small number of reflective poles to the Snowdrift Tarns plateau. From Snowdrift Tarns to the summit is untracked with no cairns or ribbons, but a route is shown on ListMap and various electronic maps. This route leads the long way around the ridgeline. See our blog report about a shorter, alternative route on the eastern face to save time and energy. Expect plenty of roots, rocks, mud and climbing under and over timber.
Access from: Russel Road Spur 3, via Russell Road and McDougalls Road, west of Judbury.
As we have for the last few Abels, we drove out of Launceston after work on the Friday night and headed south. It was going to be another late night of navigating dark forestry roads and sleeping in the Mazda. We had recently climbed Snowy South and the same access road – McDougalls Rd – would lead us further on towards the Nevada Peak trail head. The road past the Lake Skinner Track turn off was in appreciably rougher condition and a vehicle with extra ground clearance is definitely recommended.
Arriving at the end of the navigable road, we were very surprised to see another van parked in front of the Road Closed sign and caution tape. Given we were in the middle of nowhere, late at night, I freaked out and had visions of meeting an untimely death, Wolf Creek-style, at the hands of whichever stranger owned the van and just wanted to turn and drive the hell out of there! Ben calmed me down and we reversed up and made camp further back up the road. After not sleeping at all during the night, due to my over-active imagination replaying Wolf Creek in my head, I woke feeling rather under the weather, and totally unmotivated to set out on my 75th Abel.
Given my restless night, we were sluggish getting out of bed and our set-off time changed from around 7am to near 8:30am! A late start for us, especially given the shorter winter days. We weren’t too fussed, however, as we were planning on making camp overnight at Snowdrift Tarns. We could still summit the peak the next day if darkness stole our opportunity. Once again, pulling up the Mazda behind the van from last night, we met a lovely man called Mark who totally wasn’t a Wolf-Creek murderer after all! Damn – I could have slept better :’-).
The road access to the original start of the trail head is no longer accessible due to a bridge collapse. Ducking under the tape, we began walking towards the track. The gravel road climbed gradually for about 700m until we reached a small sign indicating it was time to leave the road behind. I was already feeling the effects of a near-20kg multiday pack on my back. I like a few too many luxuries at camp and am such an over packer. (Not anymore after this trip – I have learnt my lesson!) This was our first overnight/big-pack hit out since COVID-19 lockdown nearly 4 months ago and clearly we were no longer “pack-fit”.
Stepping off the gravel road onto the old snig track, we began heading in a nor-west direction. The old and blackened timber logs beneath our feet that the track was comprised of were wet and slippery underfoot. After 400m or so we reached the left hand junction, leading into the cutting grass. The entry into the cutting grass was not obvious, but a small cairn marks its junction and off to the west, a small track marker was hidden behind the tall cutting grass tussocks.
Pushing into the cutting grass, we were immediately met with bog. Squelchy, thick mud made worse by recent rains and snowfall no doubt. I suspect though, that even in summer this track still has sections that would simply never dry out. The weight of our packs had us sinking into the mud over our ankles. I was using my poles for a bit of balance, given that the cutting grass was often hidden under the mud and was an annoying trip hazard. The bog led us to the official South West National Parks sign, and marginally further along, the Walker Registration book. It was at this stage that Mark overtook us. I was so envious of his light, little day pack! I signed us in while Ben busied himself with photographing and videoing everything. It was interesting to note, from the scarcity of entries in the log book, that either very few people use this track, or none of them sign in. I suspect it’s the former.
The track was now marked with ruben tape of varying colour and age. Some tape appeared fresh – others old, weathered and barely visible. Whilst there was a goodly amount of tape leading from here up to plateau, it was a constant effort to seek out the next piece in places, or to make sure you didn’t step onto one of the many false leads. We were both carrying our Garmin InReachs which had a track all the way to the summit of Nevada Peak, and we also had Chris’ GPX file for reference.
After leaving the Walker Registration station behind, the track began to climb immediately. Not overtly steep, but steadily climbing with little respite. Whilst the incline was not difficult, the mess of exposed tree roots, rock, mud, fallen timber and cutting grass beneath our feet was hard work. Every bit of the beautiful forest had a slimy wet coating just waiting to topple us over with the weight of big packs on. Reaching a large log with timber cut outs ,we left the cutting grass behind and more open rainforest now surrounded us, and the track ever so slightly widened.
From here on until the track junction to Woolley’s Tarn, it was hard work. Constantly climbing up and over slippery logs with heavy packs was quite exhausting. When we weren’t climbing up and over timber logs, we would need to crawl under them. ‘Crawl’ is actually the wrong word; that indicates there was room to be on our knees under them. There wasn’t; it was more belly-sliding. Belly sliding in the mud – the joys! While there is evidence of past track work, it was clear that much time had passed since the last time someone had brought up a chainsaw to re-find the track under a mass of fallen timber. The path was also littered with tree roots and rock, meaning we couldn’t switch off and wander but instead had to concentrate on our balance, least we get toppled over. I was using a walking pole – something I rarely use at the start of a walk – to help hoist myself up each knee-high log, or to cushion the impact stepping off obstacles at height. I began to understand why Chris had cursed the mountain. At one stage, sick of trying to commando crawl under yet another log with a bulky pack, I decided to climb over it. I realised – half way over – that I had chosen poorly. Sometimes you just have to laugh, which Ben did at my expense, me flailing about like a fish out of water stuck on the log. (All lies folks… I chuckled briefly and helpfully enquired if she needed assistance – Ben).
I felt like our pace was painfully slow, which I knew was a combination of the steady climb, the terrain and heavy packs on our backs. I was struggling more than normal though, due to a head cold and the lack of sleep the night before. That said, looking back after the fact, our pace to Snowdrift Tarns wasn’t actually much slower than most people’s day-hike pace. At the time however it was feeling tough. The presence of horizontal scrub in places meant the forest was dark, almost claustrophobic. I was looking forward to getting some fresh air when we eventually popped out of the forest. I had a long time to wait for that!
(Note: The Parks and Wildlife Service’s own signage officially estimates a 6-hour return to Nevada Peak. Perhaps in summer, in fine conditions, one might reasonably do it within this time frame. Based on our own experiences, and those of a number of extremely fit and competent hiker friends who have struggled to complete it in 8 hours, we feel PWS’s estimate is overly ambitious for the average walker.)
The climb continued. Always up, with very few flat spots for relief. Balancing on the slippery roots was sapping my energy, but the forest was trying to please us by putting on a show of its best pandani, sassafras, celery top pine and myrtle trees. We could hear the creek nearby that the track roughly follows, so we would not need to worry about water. The pandani were huge- tall and majestic.
That same creek we could hear would become our track for a short, very wet section and it was nice to be off the rooted terrain – if only briefly. All too soon though, we were back in the rainforest. A small, pinchy climb bought us to around the 820m contour and the small sign that marks the track junction to Wooley’s Tarn. The forest floor was littered with dead pandani leaves and I joked with Ben that I had had enough for the day, and could we pitch the tent here instead? I was only half-joking though, as I could see that once again the track would start to climb sharply.
It was nearing the top of this steep pinch that I met my match. A large log blocked the path, and in order to proceed I would need to climb up and over it. From Ben’s vantage point some distance below, it didn’t seem impassable. He yelled out, helpfully, “put your back into it”. When he came up level he chuckled guiltily – “OK, yeah we might both struggle with that.” The step cut into it was almost up to my chest. With a lighter pack I would have made easier work of it, even with my short stature, but not with a large pack on. A leg up from Ben, a whole lot of grunting and I was over it. Even with his longer legs and boyish exuberance, it required a heavy effort on his behalf to get up and over it.
I was quietly cursing my life choices at this stage and questioning why would anyone in their right mind want to drag big, heavy packs up to Snowdrift Tarns to camp. Then the thick rainforest opened a little to reveal a small clearing of low alpine heath and I felt like I could finally breathe in big, beautiful lungfuls of cold, crisp air. We dropped our packs and enjoyed a brief rest, snack and the very first glimpses of Nevada Peak, dusted with snow. We had been hiking for a solid two and a half hours and we still had a long way to go. I wasn’t relishing putting my pack back on! Mist was weighing heavily over Nevada Peak and we were resigned to the fact would be summiting without views, at least not today.
Leaving the open expanse behind us, we entered alpine forest. The scrub now completely encroached onto the track. Although still marked with ribbon, there were numerous sections where the scrub was doing its utmost to hide the pink telltales and so Ben was second scouting while I led. Mountain pepper, tea tree and prickly heath now tried to thwart our efforts of squeezing big packs along the tightly hemmed-in track. Occasionally large eucalyptus would make an appearance, their bulk creating space around them before we would then disappear back into the scrub. I wasn’t quietly cursing now; I was openly considering dropping my big pack, grabbing out the day pack and just finishing the climb as a day walk, but we had come this far. Here we also saw the first glimpses of snow on the ground. Snow this low meant we were in for a cold treat at the top, surely.
One final scrub bash through a particularly thick section of scrub and we found ourselves eyeballing a small cairn, a bright orange reflective marker and -frustratingly – another big hill! We could see a large cairn at the top in the distance. On the bright side, the scrub had given way to pineapple grass, muddy single trail and the most delightful lea of stunted pandani, which littered the hill as far as our eyes could see. As visually appealing as the scene was before me, I was running very low on energy and the small hill looked like a Goliath of a mountain. Nothing for it but to take one step at a time and get my butt up there.
At this stage, Ben decided to push ahead to the top and have a look at what surprises lay ahead for us (I actually wanted to get photos – Ben) while I was slowly winding my way up. Ben is such an amazing human that he actually dropped his pack at the top, returned back to me and carried my pack for the last third of the hill to give me and my aching back a small rest. Knight in Shining Armour, right there 😉
Cresting the pineapple grass ridge, we finally got to enjoy a short section of easier walking over barren alpine heath and rock. Just the refresher I needed, so I wandered on ahead while Ben layered up for the chillier conditions. Honeybird Basin dropped sharply to our south and we could see Snowy South with its eucalypt skeletons leading up its eastern flank. The occasional cairn and one lone stick led across this otherwise padless rocky expanse. We had one more short climb along the eastern edge of the plateau before Snowdrift Tarns finally came into view.
This last rocky pinch was littered generously with snow and ice. We stuck to the southern edge which allowed us to walk through vegetation rather than slippery rock to reach the top. Once standing on the top of this last rise, we could now see the open, bowl-like ridge of Nevada Peak and Snowdrift Tarns nestled within. Edged on its southwest by a rocky ridge, Nevada Peak rises gradually from the bowl’s western end. Thick ice and snow covered the ground as we cautiously picked our way through the pineapple grass and low vegetation, carefully avoiding the extensive areas of cushion plant that are prolific in this area.
Now above 1250m it was predictably chilly and the mist seemed set in for the afternoon. It had taken us close to 4 hours to reach the Tarns. We were genuinely tired from lugging heavy packs up. Whilst Ben sorted out the tent, I prepared a hot drink and food to warm us up before we would attempt the summit. We had set off an hour and a half late this morning – and were now ill-pleased with our tardy start – and had taken almost an hour longer than anticipated to reach our camp spot. Even moving quickly with light packs from here on, we knew that our summit push would most likely end in dusk, if not darkness.
Thus far we had been on the track marked on Garmin InReach, which Chris’ GPX route followed accurately. The ‘official’ route skirts just south of Snowdrift Tarns, and lead up a moderately sloping climb west before turning north west along the rocky ridge towards the summit. We could see the summit outcrop from the tarn, covered in mist. The route made sense in terms of avoiding a steep climb, but seemed like the long way round to the summit. Both Ben and I were (quietly, unbeknownst to each other) looking at the eastern face directly north of the largest tarn, considering a straight up “short and nasty” ascent using the snow-covered pineapple grass slope as mentioned in The Abels Vol 2. However, we decided if the “official track” goes that way and Chris took that way and he had visibility, perhaps we should err on the side of caution and head that way too.
As it turned out, we should have trusted our gut and we should have gone straight up the eastern face. No matter – you win some, you lose some!
Leaving the tent and frozen tarns behind us, we began climbing up the slope on the south-western side of the tarn to meet up with the route. The scrub was a mix of pineapple grass and scoparia, with the latter dominating. Now heavier with snow, it was step-sink-repeat. We were initially glad to reach the rocky ridge. Garmin had us on track but Chris’s GPX was off further to the west, so it was just a matter of picking the best path with each step.
Our going was slower than we would have liked, as deep snow hid large crevasses in between the equally large boulders. It was tedious work double-stepping each foot to see if the ground was stable. The boulders were obscured in ice and so grip underfoot was also an issue. As we reached small pockets of vegetation interspersed with the rock, we would use them to safely cross areas where the rocks were simply too large to safely clamber over. I mentioned to Ben that I was going to drop down a few contours on the eastern side and use the vegetation rather than the rocks. I left him rock hopping (which he loves) and I happily gave up some elevation for safer walking.
When I was just below the summit outcrop, we used a conveniently located section of deep snow and vegetation to access to the final short-lived rock scramble to the summit. It had take us over around 1.5 hours from the Tarns to the summit. I was wet, cold and exhausted and then… the sun came out and the mist lifted! Talk about the weather gods smiling on us. Wow! The views were impressive. Looking across to the sun bouncing off Snowy South and behind us the snow highlighting Mt. Anne. We could even see the curved, pronounced summit of Mt. Wedge. The vista continued with Snowy North putting on a show and below to the jewel-like tarns glistening white. Abel #75 was in the bag and it had been properly earned!
After a snack and shooting off some messages to friends, we received a gentle reminder from our safety contact Haydyn that sunset was early and we should get a wriggle on as it was around 3:30pm. We consider ourselves very lucky to have a friend like Haydyn that looks out for us from afar. If we returned via the route we had taken to the summit, it would take us around 1-1.5 hours again to get back to the tarn. Instead, I wanted to drop straight off the eastern face over the snow covered vegetation and make a short, direct descent back to our tent which we could clearly see a mere half-kilometre away. The main issue with my idea was that the snow pretty much covered everything, so visually we could not 100% assess what we might be travelling across and we could get half way down and reach an impasse. Still, it seemed far better than returning across the icy rocks on the ridge.
Once Bender was finished photographing the summit from every angle possible, we began our descent. I chose the “Xing” method of getting off snowy mountains; that is to sit myself down, push off and slide! I have previously used this method to get down Mt. Rufus to great effect! (It worked very well getting myself out of trouble off Cradle Mountain in heavy snow too – Ben) The steep, eastern slope of Nevada Peak made sliding down easy. I was having loads of fun and it was certainly easier than deep steps down through the snow and scrub. Plus, it had the added advantage that if I was to fall, I wouldn’t fall far as I was already on my bottom! Occasionally I would have to restart my slide if a shrub or rock blocked me, but in under 20 minutes we were off the mountain and back at camp. If our pack-weary legs were not so tired, we would have been kicking ourselves for not summit-ing that way!
Tired and cold, but summit happy, we reached the tent and prepared dinner. The weather was due to cut up rougher the next morning, but with the summit now bagged we could enjoy a sleep-in before the hike home.
Snowdrift Tarns in winter is quite honestly one of the most striking spots we have ever camped – and we have camped in a lot of lovely places! With the scattered tarns under two inches of ice, mist surrounding the amphitheatre-like area and the abundance of delicate cushion plant, it had an eerie stillness and quiet about it. Overnight, such was the tranquillity that I heard a chunk of ice split off and fall into the tarn next to us. To those who visit this place, we would mention it is unique, delicate and unlike so many other places, unspoiled by human contact. Please set up tents only over appropriate heath and take out ALL that you take in aka. Leave No Trace – that includes your own bodily waste. It’s hard to broach this subject without feeling a little indiscreet, but the delicate vegetation and the clean mountain water tarns with their underground networks would soon be ruined by human litter and waste.
Instead of waking to the forecast rain the next day, we awoke to sunlight. Yipee! The sunlight and some fresh snow meant we could spend a little time testing out our new snow shoes. After a leisurely sleep in and some breakfast, we strapped on our MSRs and started wandering back towards Nevada Peak. We wanted to test our theory if going up the eastern face was as easy as coming down had been the afternoon before.
Almost half way up to the summit in 15 minutes had us doubly-cursing ourselves that we had taken the long route the day before. We were more than a little tempted to summit again, but the sun had started to disappear and thick mist was rolling in – fast. Heading straight back to camp we made haste packing up the tent as clearly our weather window was over. The mountain and the weather decided to remind us how fickle they can be.
Within 30 minutes we were in a near white out. Extremely limited visibility had us navigating almost solely via GPS north-east back towards the end of the tarn plateau, where we would turn southerly to drop back down to the 1250m contour line, before heading nor-easterly for the remaining journey home. Such was the mist that I completely lost my bearings momentarily, and had to use my Garmin. I’m normally able to navigate home based on land marks. The temperature had dropped dramatically and we were both actually looking forward to reaching the scrub we had been cursing the previous day for the shelter from the elements it would offer us.
It would be a long, 3.5-hour hike from the Tarns back to the Mazda and it was very nearly as hard going down the spur as it had been climbing up it. Landing heavily over each obstacle with a full pack was jarring, and the tree roots and timber become more slippery when negotiating them on a downwards slope.
Finally reaching the gravel road was a relief. We couldn’t wait to get some clean, dry clothes on and head to the Ranelagh General Store for some of their famous Chilli Cinnamon chips. Abel #75 was in the bag for both of us, and the Snowy Range trifecta ticked off. Climbing all three Abels in the Range during winter had added an extra degree of difficultly that you may not get in summer. But the extra challenges in the cold weather, snow and shorter daylight hours were more than made up for it in dramatic winter scenery. I feel blessed to have spent a night camping at almost 1300m above sea level surrounded by icy tarns, precious cushion plant and Nevada Peak watching over us.