Winter wanderland

A winter hike along the Overland Track lends a fresh perspective to the world heritage-listed Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair region.

Katie Tunks lies prone on her back, giggling like a besotted teenager. Her heavy backpack pins her to the ground like an upturned turtle, yet she’s chuckling uncontrollably. Her mirth perhaps stems from the hopelessness of her situation. Or maybe it’s just because her fall was fortuitously cushioned by snow. 

Fast-forward an hour and I’m certain the snow was the reason for her exuberance. A smile has never left her face, despite repeated tumbles during stints where she volunteers to break through thigh-deep snow on our laborious climb to Pelion Gap, the 1250m-high pass connecting mounts Ossa and Pelion East. In fact, it’s like there’s nothing else she’d rather be doing. 

Hikers look towards Mt Pelion West, Mark Daffey.

Three days earlier, all eight guests on the mid-July Cradle Mountain Huts hike along the Overland Track had each confessed to Nick, Kim and Will, our three guides, that we’d timed our booking hoping that snow might fall during our hike. Snowfalls can occur any time of year here, but the odds escalate during winter, and we’d been blessed with a bounteous windfall overnight.

To place it in perspective, our first three days of hiking had been plagued by bone-soaking drizzle and swirling mists that had veiled the summits of every peak we’d passed. We’d hiked through forest glades, across buttongrass moorlands and past alpine tarns, then snacked beside tumbling waterfalls and gushing creeks. It was all very pretty, of course, but there was no sign of snow.

Then came the cold snap. At around dusk the night before, just as the guides were busy preparing the sort of meal you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to be served up on a rudimentary hiking expedition, the first snowflakes began to fall. When we threw the curtains open the following morning, the scene outside was a veritable winter wonderland of soft, powdery snow that skiers would kill for. Cue unbridled squeals of delight.

The merriment continues for the remainder of the day, even though the hiking is slow going. Despite minimal breaks, the leg from Pelion Hut to Kia Ora Hut – a distance of just 7km – takes us seven hours to complete. Even so, one member in our group still declares it the highlight of his bushwalking life.

Hikers crossing a footbridge over the Narcissus River before it flows in Lake St Clair, Mark Daffey.

Like Katie, requesting a hand up from my companions is a task I quickly grow used to. Every one of us stumbles and falls as we catch an edge on a duckboard or tree root hidden beneath the snow. Yet through it all, our spirits remain high, perhaps buoyed by the knowledge that our guides are all veterans of more than 50 track crossings who know this terrain like the backs of their hands.

They’ve also hiked through similar conditions, so they are well-versed on whether to trudge onwards or turn back to safety. Luckily, the latter never happens. 

Hikers at Pelion Gap, beneath Mt Doris, Mark Daffey.

The snow continues to fall throughout the day. Biting winds make the march over Pelion Gap uncomfortable, and spindrifts of snow in Pinestone Valley rush towards us like swirling tornadoes. It’s here where the snow is deepest. Without the covering protection of the forest canopy, it’s also where we feel most vulnerable; we’re completely exposed to the elements.

By the day’s end, the cold snap will have taken its toll. Tasmania will have received its biggest snow dump in a decade, with power outages recorded in Hobart and road closures causing havoc across the state. We’re in the thick of it here. Like Katie though, there’s nowhere else we’d rather be.

- Mark Daffey