In 2005 Andrew and Mark Oates attempted a winter traverse of the Australian Alps Walking Track from Canberra to Walhalla - a distance of some 680km. This home mini documentary was produced in the following months after the trip but has previously only been shown to family, friends and students. The movie has been split into two parts: Part 1 - Tharwa, near Canberra, to Thredbo and Part 2 - Thredbo to Wallhalla. Below is an article that appeared in the Walhalla Times shortly after their successful traverse.
My twin brother Andrew and I have wanted to attempt a traverse of the Australian Alps Walking Track in winter ever since we first walked it in summer when we were 18. That was a week after we finished our Year 12 VCE exams and now 15 years ago. We had been inspired to do the trip through reading a guidebook written by John Siseman as well as from reading of others experiences of the ‘Alpine Track’ in the few highcountry huts that we had had a chance to visit during our teenage years.
I can remember thinking right from my earliest trips into the mountains how amazing it would be to see Australia’s alpine landscapes covered in snow through doing a complete winter traverse of this long distance walking track. Back then though, in 1990 with our limited snow experience, this was just a dream so instead we settled for walking it in summer. On that trip we took just over eight weeks to walk from Walhalla to Canberra which enabled us to move at a reasonably leisurely pace and to really soak up the atmosphere and experiences of the highcountry. Ever since then we have had a real love for the mountains and have spent a huge amount of time exploring them, particularly in winter through many snowcamping and backcountry ski trips and through taking jobs that involved working in the snow.
Finally this winter, in 2005, we had the opportunity of a lifetime – both us were able to afford to take time off work to attempt our dream trip in winter. We spent 18 months making final preparations and psyching ourselves up for an epic. Really though we had been preparing for this particular trip in the back of our minds for the past 15 years as every time we snowcamped in blizzards or battled 100+km/h winds we would ask each other "Can we do it?" We thought we were capable of it we just didn't quite know if we were actually tough enough to commit to it or if fate would actually allow us to complete it.
For our winter trip we started in Canberra and headed south rather than north as we did during our summer walk. Our time because of work commitments was limited so we had to move much more quickly than our first trip, a difficult task given that in winter the Australian Alps Walking Track is a very different experience to that of summer. Although snowfalls and blizzards are not uncommon in summer it’s the weather in the winter that really dictates how fast and how well you can travel. We were lucky this year with one particularly large dump of snow just prior to our departure which was in the last week of June. This was fantastic from our perspective as it enabled us to ski a greater proportion of the track than we had hoped.
Our first seven days involved walking and carrying our skis, with pack weights around 35 kg. We first put on our skis just after Kiandra and apart from one or two days of pure walking we were able to ski most of the way from there to Hotham. A 60 cm dump of light dry snow near Thredbo helped keep us on our skis but it also made the first few days afterwards extremely challenging. Even with the fattest touring skis available we were still sinking at times thigh deep in snow with our skis on. After crossing the three highest peaks in the ACT, NSW and Victoria we reached Hotham after four weeks. Unfortunately though the snow did not last - our fifth week out, from Hotham to Howitt saw us experiencing a week of solid rain and strong winds. This resulted in much of the existing snow along the remainder of our route melting away before our eyes.
At this stage of the trip we literally had to wring out our wet thermals in the morning before putting them back on. This would have been just okay if not for the fact that due to pushing through the thick scrub in many of the southern parts of the AAWT you are constantly getting re-soaked with water - it is impossible to stay dry even with the latest and greatest gear out there. Combine this with strong winds, walking through soft snow, climbing steep hills, scrambling on rocks, crossing swollen rivers and carrying skis - it does not always make for a pleasant experience. Fortunately though we were able to dry out at the fantastic Vallejo Gantner Hut near Mt Howitt before experiencing the next burst of wet weather a couple of days later.
In winter another challenge apart from the days being obviously much colder and wetter is that the days are also much shorter and navigation is much more difficult. A normal day for us began at 5 am and involved us setting off by sunrise. With our tight schedule we could afford very few stops during the day and we would generally travel in the dark for about an hour each evening whilst some days it was much longer. Travelling in the dark didn't bother us too much but it was certainly much slower and meant a higher risk of potential injury. It was injuring ourselves that scared us the most as any significant injury would mean the end of the trip and the end of our dream.
One particularly memorable day was crossing a section of the Main Range between Mt Tate and Mt Caruthers. With wind gusts of over 80 km, visibility down to between 20 and 50 metres, plus the constant blasting of sleet this was one of our harder navigational days. Finding a route around the many cornices, cliffs, rocks and icy patches was an extremely difficult job. Swollen and flooded rivers were also a huge problem particularly in the northern sections of Kosciusko National Park.
The challenges did not let up as we neared our end goal, Walhalla. Trying to cross the swollen and very fast flowing Thomson River proved tricky whilst walking across the Baw Baw Plateau with 25 cm of fresh snow on the ground proved very difficult and tiring. This was particularly so as I sprained my ankle quite badly after plunging through soft snow requiring Andrew to take on much of my pack weight for the last couple of days.
We were excited, and I suppose in some ways relieved, to finally reach our end goal of Walhalla in early August. It was an extraordinary coincidence to meet John Siseman as we walked along the tramway into Walhalla. He just happened to be in the area doing research for one of his new guidebooks.
The 680 km trip, of which we had been able to ski about 50% of the time, ended up taking us 43 days including five much needed rest days. We go away with a huge amount of amazing memories from this trip but as always look forward to returning to the mountains again in winter.
Although it sounds epic it actually wasn't so in a bad way at all and we will definitely be back to do it all again. We even believe that we will see many more full winter traverses by others in the years ahead and would encourage anyone crazy enough to believe in it to give it a go. It was one of the most enjoyable and most amazing experiences we have had and we were just so lucky to have had the opportunity to attempt it.
A huge thanks to our wives and families but particularly to Jen who regularly drove over a 1000km on weekends, at times by herself, to meet us and re-supply us with much needed dry clothes, food and gear. She would then return to Melbourne to work full-time all week and wash and dry out our clothes and wet gear before coming out again the next weekend to meet us. This was a huge ask but an amazing help to us and a debt that we can never really repay. Thankyou!
Unfortunately all the footage was filmed pre-HD and pre-GoPro but we hope that you still enjoy it.
Various artists and songs included with no intention to infringe copyright. Artists listed in credits
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