Monday, 4 July 2016

Mt Stirling Early Summer Trip

I'd been wanting to get out for an overnighter, and mentioned this in a phone call to G. He thought that was a good idea and decided to come along.  That was fine except he had not bush camped for many years and had no gear except runners and thermals. After he failed to convince me denims were OK I offered to supply some more suitable clothing.  Inevitably failure to discover or respond to poor choices by less experienced participants results in some sort of a trip failure.

I had a half completed pack and checklist, intending to go 2 nights out, and now I needed to get another set of gear ready.  Using my checklist as a basis I scrounged through my gear boxes and came up with spare kit.

By this time I had decided on a destination and trip plan. Keep it simple. There was a fine, dry and warm 17C forecast.
Available water on trip. Maybe tanks or small runoffs.
Wide trails with signposts and maps on them.
A few huts with nearby campsites to choose from. 
First rate views for the payoff.
Bit of a climb as a challenge.
Conclusion: Mt Stirling. Part of the Alpine Resort and a rare survivor from a developer challenge.

I have skied and winter camped Stirling on many occasions over 25+ years but apart from an aborted recce halfway up Bluff Spur in the '80s I had actually never walked its trails.  I might find water sources, a possible new camp site to try on the south summit area and also a pattern of usage of 4WD, trail bike, mountain bike and horse riding users.

I woke about 5:45am. G arrived on time. I discarded most of his mountain of food and tried 2 packs on him, opting for the ancient but full size harness 3kg 1989 model Mountain Designs Baltoro III pack. The foam shoulder padding had transformed into blocks of wood over the years in storage.  Things were drying out on the mountain.  I insisted take 3L of water because a long climb in warm sun under a cloudless sky was expected and water sources were doubtful. With all his extra food, I managed to keep his pack weight down to about 14kg. I carried the super efficient Trangia 27 stove kit with gas burner.

Practice slope
An ancient Robin Trower Live  tape moved us down the highway in a blaze of 70s nostalgia. We arrived at 11:30am at Telephone Box Junction (TBJ) car park. About 8 other vehicles were there.

It's basically all uphill for several hours.  After I changed shoes we headed off up perhaps the easiest direct trail I could find to the summit - Upper Baldy trail via the machinery shed to Stirling trail.  (Fork Creek via No 3 Road to King Saddle may be easier when skiing with pack. ) This trail is pleasantly graded and like most trails lower down offers dappled shade.  A young athletic pair - he carrying a small daypack and a small water bottle between them - overtook us soon on the trail headed for the summit.

We plodded on in the warming conditions.  A few minutes later the athletic pair caught us up again.  They had taken the first turnoff which looped back to the top of the practice slope at the start of the trail.  A mistake I had fallen victim to in a ski trip the previous year.

About 40 minutes in there was water at a couple of places beside the Upper Baldy trail. (Where a stream crosses it on the trail map.) Also nearby were a couple of small camp sites among the mountain ash trees for snow trips not too far from TBJ, fairly easy to access and off the main routes.

32 From this point the views improve.
We blitzed past the machinery shed and took a detour along upper Fork Creek track around to Stirling Trail.  Some steep sections of track were taped off for regeneration, presumably to keep horses out.

No clouds shaded our progress for the day so it was unrelenting sunshine, high UV and higher-up, pestilent flies, as we ascended.

About an hour and a half in, there was a small clear stream flowing beside the track below Cricket Pitch on Stirling Trail above signpost/junction 27 / 32 of Stirling Trail and Fork Creek Trail.

Grass scarring caused from winter tents at Cricket pitch
With a few stops to adjust pack and take drinks we arrived at the so-called Cricket Pitch area which is just in the snow gum zone after 2 hours walk or ski. The tap handle on the tank at Cricket Pitch was missing from the spigot so don't count on getting water here. There are toilets there.

I have snow camped the Cricket Pitch years ago, before any infrastructure existed, in a 3 night basecamp, but now a private operator runs a few tents there. A cold spot in winter.

I urged G on to the pleasantly situated and fairly recent King Spur Hut not much further along the track. There is a fairly gentle climb between the Cricket Pitch and King Spur Hut. We took lunch inside away from the swarms of flies, then had a nap on the warm grass outside for an hour. There are 2 water tanks and a toilet.  There are views to the Crosscut Saw.

King Spur hut
Horse droppings were seen on the trail up to here. 

The tap on the north tank was dripping.  I decided it was best to continue using this tank so as to keep the water in the non-dripping tank.

It is about an hour's ski from here to the summit, or 35 minutes to GGS Hut depending on your load and how much ice is on the groomed trail.

View of summit from upper Stirling trail
Refreshed and enthused by the prospect of the imminent summit we continued on up hill. The trail gets steeper from here but it is a really nice section with great views.

South Summit ridge
We had a look in GGS Hut then moved around to the South Summit area to explore possible dry camp sites. GGS hut has a water tank, an annex (with resident hut rat) for gear storage and a wood shed at the back. There is a dual toilet as well.

The iconic South Summit snowgum. Ants are underfoot so no go for camping for anywhere near here.

Heavy erosion and significant 4WD damage affects the Howqua track near the summit.  Some sloping small dry camp sites at the Howqua track overlook the Crosscut Saw but are subject to nearby dusty convoys.  There is no shade for a pitched tent.

There were a few good spots near the South Summit area on snow grass but at each one we found that ants swarmed in soon after we sat down.  I hadn't reckoned on how extensive the ants were at South Summit.  I also had this problem on a high site near Mt Townsend, the common features being altitude, winter snow cover, prominence, location has full sun and a thick grassy surface seemingly ideal for camping.  So be warned. Maybe too high for echidnas there. Abandoning this area we summited briefly then moved down to Bluff Spur Hut which was a scene of a group of shrieking adolescent girls. Now finding all our proposed campsites unsuitable for a quiet evening conducive of meditation and rest we moved on quickly.

The summit prize

View from West Summit trail towards the East.
Moving quickly around the undulating West Summit Trail, which is more sheltered than the summit track and was built to provide access between the GGS and Bluff Spur Hut, we revisited GGS and explored the nearby camp area just to the east.

Near the sunken 4WD track. Not as flat as it looks here.
Another small stream was seen beside the track on West Summit Trail above signpost/junction 37 of Stirling Trail with GGS side track.

I took a much needed rest stop to gather thoughts, but was disturbed by 2 dusty 4WD convoys moving along the deeply rutted Howqua Track just adjacent to this spot. The road is sunken 2 or 3 feet here, and even deeper higher up.  Not appealing to consider midnight visitors "dropping in", so we decided to move on.

The upshot was pretty much 2 failed prospective camp sites and an unexpected third site not reaching desired standards.
View of Cross-cut Saw in twilight

Feeling pretty whacked and thwarted we stumbled back down hill to a vacant King Spur Hut and pitched tents without ceremony. It had been a hot day with not much breeze. It didn't help realising we could have left our packs at the hut to circumnavigate the summit and return.  Anyway water was boiled in the gas Trangia and a brew made. The Trangia 27 with gas burner proved super-efficient again and very little gas fuel was used for the meal. This is one awesome stove and cook set up that seems to be much under-rated by bushwalkers. The gas burner may no longer be available here.
Preparing dinner on the awesome gas Trangia 27

 The sun was setting by the time we had eaten and cleaned up.  We'd used up all our chitchat so given our early start we had an early night and slept well. I woke up with the sunrise about 6am.

Evening light
I went for a site with a view, shorter grass and morning light.  The One Planet Goondie 1 15D fly was dry inside.  The fly sits higher off ground.   It also has a top vent over the vestibule.  Might have been a better site than the Moondance or just better venting design.

Don't pitch on long grass to minimise condensation.
The Mont Moondance is a well made 3 seasons tent.  I seam sealed it even though the seams are taped.  G decided to camp in shade on long damp grass resulting in condensation. The latest version of the Moondance has a much needed roof vent.

This was a great site with a nice view of the Crosscut.

Filtering out macro particulates

After a couple of nasty bush-related gastro-intestinal episodes, I am particular about water hygiene and cleaning hands in the bush. Nobody I know bothers to filter water. It doesn't take much extra effort with a bit of practice and the cut down 1.25l PET bottle is a good size for the UV pen to use.  After a pre-filter I then either boil or UV the water. I now have a Sawyer mini filter for those times when the water is muddy or cloudy. No batteries are required but it needs frequent reverse flushing. I work in Danger Red mode when it comes to water security. Maintain consistent washing of hands and the use of hand wash.  Make sure your bush toilets are properly buried with a rock topping.

Morning sun

Note: Always take a tent on your overnight trips and do not "occupy" huts. Do not rely on huts being available as free accommodation.  Huts are communal areas, used for cooking away from freezing conditions or insects or for sorting out gear or sick party members, treating injuries or drying off to avoid hypothermia.  They are not private mountain retreats, even if you can only afford bailing twine as your belt.

Ready to go early for cool walking without annoying insects.

The WBA is a trim pack

Down Stirling trail

As we moved down the trail to King Saddle Shelter we heard numerous gun shots getting fired in pairs.  Parked at the bottom were 3 4WDs, a brindle pit-bull dog who gave me the hairy eyeball and a few camper persons, two walking back from a short track with a rifle. Note: Dogs and guns are specifically not allowed in the resort.  Plenty of signs indicate this. There is no excuse. Authorities are aware of the problem.

We walked on to Razorback Hut where a trail riding group was set to depart for No. 3 road.  We took the undulating Hut Trail back to TBJ.

Baldy Creek

Telephone Box Junction December 2013

The completed walk and camp took just under 24 hours.  A few days after our visit the area was subjected to heavy snowfalls and a few inches of rain.


In the short period of time we were there we had close first hand experience of 4WD convoys, shooters with dogs who shouldn't be there, horse riding groups and large noisy school age groups. This is a busy mountain and seems a lot less like wilderness than when I was visiting in winter in the early nineties when trails were ungroomed and the snow was fluffy and dry.  A busy user profile.  

A much nicer experience skiing and camping in the short winter season, although the winter car parking fees Friday and Saturday nights are high. Go off-peak for your longer camps. For your money you do get quite a few winter services though: at TBJ there is a ski patrol room where you can get maps, friendly advice and Trip Intentions Forms can be lodged. Change rooms and toilets are around the back of TBJ. Inside there is warm shelter, comprehensive gear hire and a cafe. I don't much like the new enclosed warming area. There is some free group transport from TBJ to higher places when the snowline is higher on the mountain.  On the mountain there are a couple of open roofed day shelters with toilets, (King Saddle has  a fireplace, machinery shed). Trails are groomed, and cleared of fallen timber and there are 4 or 5 huts with stoves, cut firewood, water tanks and nearby toilets. Note that tents are required. The dirt entry road is cleared of snow, with wheel chain advisory signs and stopping places provided, fallen trees are cleared and there is a ski patrol with contactable phone number.

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