Summer in the Snowies. Fire risk, hot wind, horse flies the size of your fist. Perfect for a four day hike, right? Maybe not, but if you stay indoors with the aircon you also miss the alpine meadows, cool, fresh streams, snow gums and mountain huts. And above all, you’d miss the wonderful views from mighty Mount Jagungal, crows soaring in the updrafts, a glorious place on a deep blue sky day.
Mt Jagungal lies at the northern end of the Main Range in Australia’s “Snowy Mountains”, more formally known as the Great Dividing Range. it runs much of the length of Eastern Australia, but the Main Range, the only real alpine area, is in the south east, roughly between the Australian Capital Territory’s southern border and the NSW-Victorian border. It stands 2,061 meters above sea level and is pronounced Ja-GUNG-gal by most people, or, supposedly, JAR-g’nel or even “Big Bogong” by crusty old timers who used to graze cattle in the high country before it was banned in the 1940s. There can’t be many of these grizzled veterans left, so I stick to the common usage. I first tried to reach Mt Jagungal in 1995, with some friends from uni. We managed to get ourselves lost near Valentine Falls, and had to turn around before Grey Mare Plain when one in the party suffered terrible blisters. I made it a few years later using the short route from Round Mountain. But I had always wanted to do it properly – a traverse from Round Mountain to the summit, then south via Grey Mares and Valentines through to Schlink Pass and over the Rolling Grounds to Guthega. These names will mean nothing to you unless you’ve been to these places, but perhaps these photos will inspire you to find out for yourself where they are and why they are worth visiting.
Day One: We caught a ride courtesy of my parents, who (like me) rarely say no to a drive through Cooma up to the Snowy Mountains, especially if it involves breakfast and coffee at the Lott and second breakfast at Adaminaby, the last real town before the carpark at Round Mountain. A little further down that road is the starting point for a short but interesting walk to the wreckage of the Southern Cloud, an airliner that crashed with the loss of all on board way back in 1931 and wasn’t discovered until 1958. From that car park you can reach the base of Mt Jagungal in an afternoon’s walk, following the fire trail over a rolling alpine landscape. Navigation is easy – follow the trail. We camped beneath some snow gums at the headwaters of the Geehi River, exactly where I had camped the first night on the second trip some 15 years before.
Day Two: Up early to summit before the sun gets up a head of steam. There is an easy to find and easy to follow path diverging from the fire trail. It takes you uphill to the ridge – take note of where you crest it – and then you turn left and make your way along the flat area behind that ridge and climb towards the summit. In clear weather it is very straightforward, but in the Snowies’ notoriously fickle weather it would be very easy to get lost. Take a map and compass and know how to use them.
The last pitch up to the summit involves just a little scramble at the end, and then you can soak up the sweeping 360 degree views, including south towards the highest peaks of the Main Range – Mts Kosciuszko, Townsend, Carruthers and Twynam. From there, it’s back down the same way to the camp; a late breakfast and then back onto the fire trail towards Grey Mare Plain. Grey Mare is a really interesting place – once upon a time someone tried to make a go of gold mining here. All through the northern parts of the Main Range and the surrounding foothills there were small scale gold mines during the gold rush of the 1860s. Australia’s first ski club was set up at Kiandra, a bustling town in those days but nothing more than a building and some remnant diggings today. You pass it on your way to the starting point of this hike. Grey Mare Hut sits on a hillside above the river valley below. It is used by hikers and ski tourers in the winter. Behind it, you can still see the remains of the little gold mine, including rusty old machinery. It was worked from 1895-1902, and then, amazingly, again from 1934-1952. The present hut dates from that later period. We camped further along the valley from there, on a wide open plain that had been torn up by wild pigs.
Day Three: After the generally open valleys of the first two days, day three takes you into some thicker forests. You cross the Geehi river and before long you reach Valentine Hut, another place used by hikers and ski tourers (and, like all the huts around here, lucky to have survived the devastation of the terrible bushfires of summer 2002-03. Many others were destroyed). Nearby is Valentine Falls, from where I managed to get lost in 1995. This time around we found the proper path (on the other side of the river, duh) and from the overlook above the fall I could actually pick out the route we’d taken that time nearly twenty years before. From Valentine we continued generally south, stopping in a little patch of forest where Yon picked some wild dandelion leaves that went into our dinner that night. Continuing, we linked up to the main fire trail for the walk into Schlink Pass, with its large hut known as the Schlink Hilton. These huts are sometimes – how shall we say it – a bit ratty, and so I always prefer to pitch my tent rather than share with hungry four-legged friends. We camped on the lawn outside, as did another party or two nearby.
Day Four: Another early start is important on this final day, especially if you plan to tackle the Rolling Grounds. This area is tricky to navigate even in good conditions because, as the name suggests, everything kind of looks the same and if a fog rolls in it becomes extremely difficult to work out where you are. There is a fire trail from Schlink Pass all the way down to Guthega Power Station for those not confident with cross country navigation. At the pass, we set a compass bearing (I wanted to do this old school, without resorting to GPS) and headed uphill through some wet and scrubby stands of trees. The hardest part is knowing how far you’ve walked, so you know where to turn. I tried taking bearings off nearby hills to triangulate my position, but I wasn’t very accurate. Still, I worked out the turn point nearly enough and we headed on a long, uphill climb through some really pretty grassy areas nearby a stream. At the top, there was a field covered in beautiful alpine flowers. It was getting very windy, but we still had blue sky and good visibility. Navigation got a bit harder then, because you are looking for a very indistinct path on a grassy slope where all the granite outcrops look the same. Veer left too early and you end up in a world of steep wooded hillsides above the upper valley of the Snowy River. Hang on to the right too long and you have to either struggle along a smaller river leading into Guthega reservoir, or beat a diagonal path up over the ridge above Guthega trig. That’s what we ended up doing – fighting our way up a grassy, fairly steep slope into the teeth of a suddenly very powerful wind. Eventually we intersected the very minimal footpad trail, and followed it down through some lovely open eucalypt forest towards the tiny ski village of Guthega. My parents were waiting there, having come up for the weekend, and when I picked up cell service I gave them a call. Dad watched us descend through binoculars and before long we crossed Guthega dam and did the final ascent up to the ski lodges.
Success at last – a walk I had wanted to do for at least twenty years. And we finished up with a delicious roast at the Cooma home of my good friend S – a fine way to end an excellent four day summer outing in the Snowies.