This walk, or elements of it, had been on the ‘to do’ list for a while. I was keen to do a trip involving climbs of Mt Cuvier, Mt Manfred and Mt Byron – I had spent many overland track trips ending with the ferry ride across Lake St Clair gazing up at these peaks. Four of us would be on this mission and we had read some accounts of trips commencing from Narcissus and heading into the Cuvier shelf where a camp could be setup up from which the peaks could be climbed. This was the initial plan however a couple of months out, route planner extraordinnaire, Crawf, had come up with an interesting alternative option with the following email;
Our Planned trip roughly (4 Abels – est 40km).
Day 1 – to cuvier shelf via Mt Byron (A 9am ferry trip and then 9km+ walk)
Day 2 – to Goulds Sugar Loaf (12km+ return trip)
Day 3 – Cuvier / Manfred (8km+ return trip)
Day 4 – out (9km+ ferry trip)
Another option could be (6 Abels – although slightly more walking – est 46km):
Day 1 – early start from highway up Pigeon House Hill track to Rocky Hill and then continue a few km’s past there to camp, maybe on Mediation Hill? 14km
Day 2 – to Pyramid Mnt /GSL and on to cuvier shelf(15km)
Day 3 – Cuvier / Manfred (8km+ return trip)
Day 4 – out via Mt Byron (9km+ ferry trip)
After reading the email I was instantly sold! What a great idea and surely not toooo ambitious. I love walks that start and finish in different spots. And I love off track walking. Boom! Everyone else was enthused also so we locked it in and got to planning the new route. This alternative trip was going to be a big one. We only had three nights (Woolza had two and would walk out solo) so we started getting organised.
Before we knew it we were getting ready to head off. We ended up booking bunks in the backpackers at Lake St Clair and headed down after work on Wednesday 24th October 2018. Initially we had planned to take two cars and leave one at the Pigeon House Hill Trail head and the other at Lake St Clair. This would mean an hour or two of car shuffling at the end of the walk. We ended up deciding this would be undesirable so Crawf arranged Dennis (the taxi driver from Queenstown) to come out to St Clair and pick us up at 6am the morning of the walk. This meant we could head down in one car. We arrived at Lake St Clair at 10pm and quickly got off to bed for an early start.
Day 1 – Lyell Highway to near Pyramid Mountain
We awoke at 5am and I surprised the boys with some ham, egg and cheese muffins i had made at home the day before. These were a delight. At 6am, sure enough, Dennis arrived and we were on our way West along the Lyell highway. After about 45minutes and 15km past the Frenchman’s Cap carpark, we pulled in to an indistinct alcove off the road and waved goodbye to Dennis. As he departed it dawned on me. Where were my gaiters???? I hadn’t put them in Dennis’ car. They must be back at Lake St Clair in my car! Shit. This was the one trip where Gaiters would be pretty much essential. Beaui asked ‘what are you going to do Mowser?’ to which I responded; ‘well I guess i’m going to not wear gaiters’. Bugger. It was on with the overpants/scrub pants
for the entirety of the trip. I wasn’t liking this but hey, what could I do? Luckily I had only just recently purchased some Mont Austral Overpants which were tough as nails.
It was really foggy and quite cool so we didn’t hang around long. We crossed the road, and then headed across some buttongrass towards the Collingwood River. There was a very faint pad to the river and it led to a crossing where a rope was suspended across a shallower part. It was off with boots, then into the very cold water to quickly cross. It was only about ankle to calf deep the whole way across but boy was it cold. We put our boots back on and started the steep ascent up the hill.
The climbing was fairly steep to begin with and we quickly rose out of the foggy valley for our first views towards Frenchmans and the Prince of Wales Range to the South and our destination, Pyramid Mountain to the North. For the first few hours we just plodded along. Pads came and went. We followed the ridge top as we moved up. There was only one real scrubby section but it was pretty thick. After 4.5 hours of walking we were pretty hungry so decided to stop for an early lunch on an open button grass plateau beside a small tarn. This was really the first water we had seen all day – I had started with 1 Litre which ran out about 20 minutes before lunch. The chicken salad turkish pitas went down a treat and after about 20 minutes we were refuelled and back on route.
We continued along the spine of the Pigeon House Hill and about 45 minutes after lunch we reached the top of an open flat hill where we were presented with our first full view of Rocky hill. The views all around were fantastic, with the Eldons visible, the peaks around the Labyrinth, the Tyndalls and all the ranges to the south. Fantastic! We were now super keen to get to Rocky Hill’s summit as quickly as possible. After about another 45minutes and a fairly nice climb along the only decent pad of the day, we were there (about 6 hours after departing the highway). The summit was sparse and we spent some time taking photos and admiring the views. The breeze was a little chilly so we didn’t hang about too long and made our way towards our next landmark – Mediation (Junction) Hill.
After heading north all morning we now took a turn east and headed off down another ridge line with the backdrop of the Eldons to our north. It took us about another hour and a half to reach Mediation hill where we continued along, now south, on the ridges that lead to Pyramid Mountain. We passed a few of Ewart’s track markers and by 5pm were seemingly a stonesthrow from Pyramid Mountain on a scrubby Plateau about 900m from the saddle before the peak. It looked like it may rain at any moment and we were pretty spent so we thought it a good time to call it a day. The problem was yet again water. We had not seen any form of water source since lunch. After a bit of scouting around on this scrubby area we found a small tarn which would suffice. We then setup camp, had a very substantial dinner (a Campers Pantry meal
– delicious!) and were in bed by 8pm. Overall a great days walking!
Day 2 – Near Pyramid Mountain to Cuvier Shelf
We woke up reasonably early as we knew we were in for a big day. The weather was pretty misty and drizzly to begin with but it had a sense it was trying to clear. After some delicious oats with dehydrated fruit, we were packed up and away by 7.45am. The first part of the day involved sidling a forested hill (about 200m from camp) into the saddle before Pyramid Mountain. After sidling through the forest we were in the saddle after about 30 minutes. It was pretty scrubby but not too bad at this stage. From here we then picked a line up the peak (we could now see the summit) and headed into the next band of scrub with full gusto. It was again pretty scrubby but not too bad and we gained height quickly and after another 30-40minutes we were clear of the scrub and then climbed the gravelly terraces to the summit of our second Abel of the trip. It was 90 minutes since leaving camp. This was a nice summit. The peak itself not that spectacular but it gave some great views to the ground we had covered and more importantly what was to come. The next section between here and Gould’s Sugarloaf (GSL) was our most anticipated of the trip. We had spent ages pouring over satellite images and the like (there’s not many trip reports out there) trying to pick the best route. We still hadn’t decided which line we would take up to Little Sugarloaf but were now thinking we’d descend off Pyramid then cross the valley below and look for a good line straight up to the clear ridge that leads up to Little Sugarloaf. We were keen to get going so headed off down into the unknown for what we were expecting to be an epic scrub battle.
To begin with it was fairly clear but before long we were in thicker scrub before arriving in some nice forest. We walked through this for a while before arriving in a button grass clearing. From here we looked at the forested small hill ahead and headed for it. We launched in and started heading back up and into some of the thickest scrub I can recall. It was tough and slow going. After what seemed like an eternity we arrived at the top of this small hill then headed South/South West hoping to hit a larger button grass clearing we had seen from the summit. Never thought I’d be wishing for button grass! After a scrubby but brief descent we finally reached it and started across this plain. It was now beginning to heat up so the layers came off. 3 hours after leaving the summit of Pyramid Mountain we again opted for an early lunch at a small clearing in the middle of the button grass plain. It was just what we needed. We also discussed our next move. We decided from here we would head due east and head straight up through the forested hill to the top of the ridge we could see to the north of Little Sugarloaf. We were sick of the scrub today and wanted to get up there to the nice clear stuff!
So after lunch, we headed straight across the button grass and into the forest. After hitting the trees, we instantly started to rise and the going was nice. With minimal scrub we ascended to the ridge, arriving at a spot to drop our packs about 1hr45mins after lunch. The clear ridgelines around the Sugar Loafs were awesome! There were views in every direction and the weather was magnificent. We dumped our stuff and made a quick 5 minute ascent of Little Sugarloaf before continuing on towards Gould’s Sugarloaf, a further 40 minutes on from here. It would honestly be one of the nicest summits I’ve sat on. We spent a bit of time on top looking at the rest of our journey – it was still a long way to Cuvier Shelf. After a quick phone call to wife and kids we were off again and back at the packs 25 minutes after leaving the summit. From there it was on with packs and heading towards Coal Hill across a nice open ridge. By now we had been going nearly 9 hours and were starting to feel it. We would be happy if we could get on the other side of Coal Hill tonight.
We continued towards the hill and climbed up on to it arriving on top of the low scoparia topped hill a bit after 5pm. We could now see the Cuvier shelf tantalisingly close and could see a pretty good lead towards it so, despite some protests, we decided to make a dash for the shelf. After a bit of a scrubby descent of Coal Hill into the valley before Cuvier, we made quick time through this section before a final push up on to the shelf. We headed up towards a large gum tree and after arriving on the shelf we pushed through our last 100meters of scrub for the day before arriving at a magnificent campsite. We had made it! What a day! Making it to Cuvier changed everyone’s outcomes for the trip. Woolza, would have an easier walk out the next day and we could have a sleep in! Sweet.
Day 3 – Woolza departs, the boys battle on – Mt Manfred and Mt Cuvier
The previous day had taken it out of us. We slept well during the night but heard the sound of rain throughout. We awoke early as Woolza had to head out via Mt Byron today. From the comfort of our warm sleeping bags, we waved him goodbye through the mist as he headed off towards the ferry. It was still early so Beaui, Crawf and myself had a bit more of a snooze. At about 9am we decided, despite the constant rain, that we would head off towards Mt Manfred and see what we could achieve.
We had been in radio contact with Woolza and by the time we rounded the side of Mt Cuvier on the way to the Manfred saddle, he was on the summit of Byron and making good time. We probably would have been better off heading from camp and over the Cuvier summit ridge rather than around it as we found the scrub pretty slow going as we headed into the forest before the Mt Manfred saddle. But we were making pretty good time and 1hr 15mins into the walk we were in the fairly open saddle between the two peaks. Woolza radioed in and he was now at the ferry on his way out. This would be the last we would hear from him for the walk.
Meanwhile back on Manfred the weather had deteriorated further. We were in the saddle and couldn’t see anything of Mt Manfred whatsoever – whiteout conditions. We now had to rely on maps and instinct and followed the saddle through into the cliffs below Manfred. This was now nice walking. We sidled the cliffs which had waterfalls coming off them but to me something wasn’t right. These didn’t look like the sheer cliffs of Mt Manfred but more like the shelf that lay beneath the main mountain. Within another half hour or so I was proven right when the mist cleared for a short while and we could see our position. We had sidled too early and were waaayy down below the main peak below the shelf of rock surrounding it! Yucky. We decided to continue sidling until we could find a way up. Eventually it came and we clambered up onto the shelf of grass on the Eastern side of the mountain before finding a pad that led towards the final summit climb.
We now quickly made ground as the mist rolled in again. After a steep ascent in thick mist, we found ourselves on the summit in wind and whiteout 3.5hrs after departing camp. What a slog! We didn’t hang around long. The summit felt precarious in the mist and the rain was belting down. Retreat! The return journey proved much quicker as we picked a better route. Once back down towards the saddle the mist cleared and the blue skies returned. Joy. We battled some very thick scrub back into the saddle before a quick lunch break in a small clearing. We chilled off quick as, despite blue skies, the wind had an extreme chill. After lunch, we moved on and decided to make a bee line straight to a high point on the Cuvier summit ridge. We made really good time and in blue skies but super cold wind chill we were on the summit 1.5hrs after lunch (7hrs after departure). We enjoyed the views before a quick 20 minute descent back to camp where we cooked some dinner. While cooking I hung my gloves out to dry – in all of 20 minutes, they froze solid due to the wind! It was going to be a cold night.
Day 4 – Out to Narcissus via Mt Byron
We awoke today to freezing cold conditions. We wanted to make Narcissus by 1pm but current conditions were not conducive to quick getaways. I woke to find my socks hanging in the tent frozen solid like cardboard. Hmm. My boots were no better and i had to pour hot water on them and in them to soften them up. double hmmmm. We managed to pack and head off by 7.30am.
As we descended off the Cuvier shelf into the saddle before Mt Byron the snow started. It just kept getting colder. But it didn’t deter us – we plugged on and made our way through the saddle before a scrub free but steep climb through forest to near the summit of Mt Byron. We dumped our packs on the scree and shot up to the summit for our 6th Abel of the trip (and my 50th overall). Awesome! We had some clear views by now and the sun was shining. After some quick photos, we left the summit and headed back to the packs before descending to Byron gap and then, back on walking tracks, we followed the old Cuvier valley/Byron Gap track back to Narcissus. It was a good feeling arriving at the ferry and I couldn’t really believe what we had just achieved in three and a half days. What an amazing trip! I reflected on this on the all too familiar ferry ride across the lake to Cynthia Bay where we had a well deserved beer before driving north to Launceston. Put this one down in the books as one of the best!
STATS (using a Suunto Spartan Ultra)
Day 1 – 18.93km walking, 1413m ascent, 10hrs 35mins
Day 2 – 17.89km walking, 1066m ascent, 11hrs 11 mins
Day 3 – 8.25km walking, 768m ascent, 7hrs 18mins
Day 4 – 9.85km walking, 463m ascent, 5hrs 34mins
See the gallery below…
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