With Days 1 and 2 of our journey full of wet, wild and just plain crazy weather thus far, it was beyond lovely to wake up on the morning of Day 3 and “feel” the weather improving. Gone were the dark storm clouds hovering low over Lake Cygnus. Instead, the sky was almost clear! Hip, hip hooray! The weather improvement was cause for celebration, as was the fact that we were to meet up with our friends from the Pandani Walking Club this morning. They had arrived late the day before and had camped at Lake Fortuna, so they could climb Capella Crags on the way to meet us.
I was equal parts nervous and excited to head towards Lake Oberon. Not only to see its legendary beauty, but because from there onwards the track is rumoured to start to eat its young. I wanted to know if the whispers of scary chasms and stomach churning drops were actually true.
20th January 2021
Lake Cygnus to Square Lake
Additional Climbs – Mt. Hayes and Procyon Peak
Distance: Approximately 6km, including side trips to Mt. Hayes and Procyon Peak.
Time taken: Approximately 6.5 hours. Although the distances covered are short, the rugged terrain and sharp climbs (up and down) make for very slow going.
Difficulty: Difficult. This walk should only be undertaken by experienced hikers confident in negotiating varying degrees of exposure/heights, rough terrain and are in good physical shape to cope with such ground carrying a heavy pack. While the pad in this area is mostly obvious, it is unmarked and thus strong navigational skills are also a must.
Type of track: From Lake Cygnus onwards the difficulty increases markedly. An obvious pad leads through a combination of extremely steep ascents and descents over loose rocky terrain and/or through vegetation. There are sections where exposure to sharp drops may make it more difficult/intimidating for some walkers. We did not need to pack haul on this section, however carrying 10-15m of rope or cord is always recommended on any Western Arthurs trip.
We weren’t due to meet our group until around 10am, but with the air finally still and clear – and after being caged in the tent the entire day before – we were raring to go! The crew were climbing the nearby Capella Crags before meeting us at the junction where the steep track out of Lake Cygnus rejoins the main Western Arthurs Traverse track. From the shores of Lake Cygnus, we could see an old route that wound upwards steeply from the eastern side of the lake. I wondered when it was rerouted and why.
Perhaps underestimating the good a day’s rest had on our legs, we reached the junction in minutes, and realised we had a good hour at least before the others would arrive. We spent some time admiring the huge slabs of rock the track sidles around. Heavy, imposing, rough-hewn and earthy. Some parts dry from catching the sun, some sheltered and home to furry green lichens. All of it beautiful.
The walking was easy as extensive stonework – designed to limit erosion on steep, exposed slopes – guided us along. Very small pinches in elevation led the track up to a point around the 950m contour that gave us a grand view of Lake Cygnus below, now looking much grander and inviting than it had 36 hours prior. We decided to push on so we could get a bird’s eye view of our crew arriving, and messaged them using our InReach to let them know we would wait a bit further along the track.
A mini plateau.
The rock path opened onto a mini saddle of alpine grasses and vegetation where we decided sit and wait for the others. High up we could see them below on the track. Like a tiny line of human ants in single file. Every now and then one would break off and leave the line for a photo. That’s the thing about the Western Arthurs – you can’t hurry them. Take the time to snap a few memories or to do as we did often – just sit and ponder. The “repetitive” features of mountains and glacial lakes are the same, but endlessly different too. It’s impossible not to be swept off your feet every single step of your journey. From here our next port of call would be Mt. Hayes – our first Abel for the trip.
Side trip Details: Under 20 minutes return from the main track. Extra 125m elevation gain. Pad and occasional cairn to the summit.
During our seven days on the track, we noticed that a great many of the people we saw were just doing the Western Arthur Traverse. Rushing through it to get to the other side, either because of time constraints, or because it was tougher than they had anticipated and they wanted the misery over. From the outset, our band of merry walkers had wanted to visit as many peaks along the way as we could. Not just in the name of “peak bagging” (but there was definitely a few peaks to be bagged!) but because we wanted to enjoy the Western Arthurs from every vantage point, and appreciate every unique view we had time to. We wanted to be greedy and feast our eyes on every bit of her. Our days would be long because of this, but our souls would be happy. Mt. Hayes was somewhere we all wanted to visit.
Mt. Hayes, where art thou?
Mt. Hayes doesn’t hide. Instead, it rises conspicuously above the track and is visible from as far away as Lake Cygnus. Each step that took us along the track would bring us closer and I was wondering how we would actually tackle it. From our current vantage point near Lake Cygnus, it looked like its summit had been split in two by a giant sized axe leaving two jagged peaks either side. There are a couple of main routes off the track; one is said to be easier than the other. By easier I mean less exposed. That was my pick!
What I hadn’t expected was such a noticeable pad and cairns to assist us with our venture. Leaving our heavy packs at the main track below the summit, we switched to day packs and began following the pad through low vegetation. I am smiling as I write this, as it was so much easier to climb Mt. Hayes than I expected it to be. I was awaiting ledges and cliffs and was quite happy to be disappointed. The increasingly rocky pad led without difficulty through thinning alpine herbs and grasses, up to the summit outcrop. Once on the outcrop, it was a minor scramble and the summit cairn – with its weathered timber stick – was within our grasp. Happy dance people, happy dance!
I had – until this moment – thought I was enjoying the views. I was completely wrong. What lay before and below us was Western Arthurs utopia. I can’t seem to find the words to describe what we saw – there are not enough superlatives. Grand? Majestic? Wonderous? The sun on our backs and the world at our feet – does it get any better? I think not. Something else also hit me as I sat up there though – that something was a big fat dose of reality.
The reality of the challenge.
For as far as my eyes could see, there was craggy mountain after craggy mountain and then some. A gorgeous, rugged and seemingly endless spine of broken rock. Beautiful yes – but also daunting. How was it possible to get to the other end? The enormity of the challenge ahead was all of a sudden patently obvious. At that moment, I truly felt the power of the Western Arthurs. I allowed myself just a few seconds of self-doubt, before reminding myself that it was just toes over toes. I could do it, and what’s more, I would relish in the challenge. Turning back, I started following the others down off Mt. Hayes and back towards the main track.
Our first real Western Arthurs decent!
The thing that smacks you in the face about the Western Arthurs is not the steep and difficult climbs that you need to overcome, multiple times everyday. What smacks you are the descents. The track would seemingly just drop away from under our feet without warning! Our first taste of this was after our side trip to Mt. Hayes. I had donned my large pack, and still high from my first summit of the trip, was sauntering along the path when… hang on a sec… where did it go? Like a moment in a Mr. Bean skit, I was looking around for what should have been there!
Just under 3km from Lake Cygnus, the track dropped down abruptly. Like swoosh vertically down! We would drop from 980m to 830m elevation over less than 300m. If you don’t want to do the math – that’s a steep drop! In places the track became slippery due to rocky shale, so care had to be taken not to accidentally shunt loose rocks onto our fellow walkers below. In other sections, large rock drops meant backwards climbing down with careful foot and hand placement, or forwards bum-shuffling! Our big packs adding awkward top-heavy weight to our knees as we jolted down at times using poles to cushion our joints.
And so the theme for our adventure began. Steep up, steeper down, steeper up, steeper again down, just like a roller coaster. We were mice in a spinning wheel but the wheel was spinning up and down instead. We would regroup at the bottom of that, our first Western Arthurs descent, and say in disbelief to each other “did we really come down that?” whilst shaking our heads incredulously at the practically-vertical wall of rock and scrub behind us. How naïve we were, because that first descent was nothing compared to what we would overcome the following days. Looking back, the track was enveloped by thick scrub and it seemed impossible that humans could climb down what we had just climbed down. I was almost relived to reach the saddle and start climbing upwards again.
Food, glorious food.
Distance in the Western Arthurs isn’t like other hikes. What seems like a relatively short distance – 4km, 5km, 6km – is not. The terrain is difficult to cover and time consuming. Not just because of the constant big climbs and descents, but because the ground under your feet varies continually. Rocks one minute, tree roots the next. Open path then closed-in scrub. Walkable then… kinda not! It had taken the group 4 hours to cover a mere 4km, so it was time to break for lunch. A lesser rocky outcrop gave us a little relief from the sun, as we refuelled our bodies. Thus far, water rations had not been an issue as the day wasn’t particularly warm and we had carried a bit extra, just in case.
Plans after lunch were to climb Procyon Peak, then descend to Square Lake to camp for the evening. Most travellers would normally camp at Lake Oberon, a much preferred option usually, but we knew with so many other walkers registered in the log book that Lake Oberon would likely be at capacity.
Lunch over and big packs back on once more, we continued the traverse across the range towards Square Lake. Procyon Peak, which looks directly down onto the Lake’s north-western shore, would only be a minor detour. A cairn and well-defined pad left the saddle north of Lake Ceres and was our cue to start heading towards the Peak. It was so close to the main track we could actually see the summit outcrop ahead. And what a bulbous lump of rock it was! For the second time today I was pleasantly surprised that climbing these nearby peaks wasn’t such an arduous affair. It wasn’t until I was standing on Procyon Peak that it hit me it wasn’t an Abel! More than a few giggles were had at my expense, as I was trying not to climb “mere” peaks. That said; I am mightily glad I did, because the views were splendid indeed!
Square Lake – home sweet home.
With our final climb of the day behind us, it was time to move downwards to Square Lake. The informal camping here is not as good as other lakes along the track, but we made do. We had access to crystal cool water to drink, were sheltered from the weather if it turned and the ground was soft. The only negative being that it is very wet and boggy ground. Chris and Ben decided on a late afternoon climb of Mt. Sirius, whilst the rest of us rested. I enjoyed the opportunity to wash out some clothes and dry them on the rocks in the warm evening sun. Clean clothes for the next day is such a prize!
Tents up, it was time to enjoy the views rising above us. The evening sun turned the rock to burnt orange as it set, creating a bedside lamp like no other. The next day would be the toughest on track for me for the whole trip. But for now this was bliss.