Into the Wild: Midwinter Madness on the Overland Track

Matt Owen is inspired by a tale of life and death in the wilderness to tackle one of Australia’s most formidable hiking trails

“Damn, I need an adventure!”

It started with a book called Into the Wild, an amazing book — a story about everything that is still right with the world. A boy, happily living his dream in an old bus deep in an Alaskan forest. Sadly, he ended up dying there, but it’s a touching story.

Some friends and I once tried to hike his wilderness home but we were beaten by two sexy mountain bikers, a man from Tennessee carrying a raft and a swollen river… but that’s another story.

Ten years on, a movie was made of the book. After watching it, I turned to my housemates and said: “Damn, I need an adventure!” And so, I hatched a plan to hike for eight days across the most rugged stretch of mountains in Australia, in winter, all by myself.

“I got lost a hundred times, backtracked in circles and dug myself out of 2,000 pits of snow. It was pure madness, but I kept going”

The most mountainous island on earth

Cradle Mountain National Park is in Tasmania, which is one of the most beautiful yet seldom visited states in Australia. It’s actually the most mountainous island on Earth and being smack bang in the middle of the Southern Ocean, it’s whipped by Antarctic squalls all winter.

Within the national park is arguably Australia’s most famous hiking trail, the Overland Track, 82km of mountains, ridges, tarns, forests, lakes and mud. Even in summer it requires one to be totally self sufficient, winter makes it that a life or death necessity.

I have always loved snow and ice, perpetually complaining I was born in the wrong country. I planned it well, wrote out daily food lists, got new gear and even went to the point of cutting my toothbrush in half to shave weight. This was a point of amusement for my friends but I was completely serious. My backpack was at 24kg already.

As the day approached I started paying serious attention to the weather. Like any holiday, you apply for work leave and book it. What the weather will do that week is anyone’s guess. But I wanted snow. I wanted the coldest shit I could handle, I wanted to struggle and I wanted to be free.

As fate would be, a mean storm front was approaching, and two days out it started to snow. Heavily.

I rang up a park ranger: “You want to do what?” he bellowed.

“I am coming in two days to hike the Overland, how much snow is there?”

“Well let me put it this way, there are reports of two metres of drift up on the plateau and we can’t even drive our trucks down to the lake, no one will make it up there.”

“But I’ve paid for my flights!” I countered.

“Then you’ll need some snowshoes.”

“No one’s going out there today”

I couldn’t decide if I was happy or scared about that conversation so I went shopping. Four-hundred dollars later my steadily increasing fear turned to excitement! It was snowing!

My gear now weighed 28kg so I shouldered it, and it was time to go.

I hired myself an ERIBP (a GPS emergency beacon) and got on the bus to the park, which almost didn’t make it given the amount of snow. I walked into the Rangers office and said: “Hi, I’m here to hike the Overland, where do I register?”

“No one’s going out there today.” She spat.

“Why not?”

“Have you not looked outside!? We can’t even get buses down to the trailhead, no one’s allowed in today, it’s too dangerous. I suggest you go book yourself a room at the hotel next door and wait for better weather.”

“But I have food, I have experience, snowshoes and an ERBIP and know what I’m doing.” (half true)

“Legally I can’t stop you, but you won’t make it out if you try.”

“Legally you can’t stop me? Right, where do I sign?”

And with that, I was in.

I realized I was potentially in over my head

Getting to the trailhead was my next big challenge. I managed to hitch a ride with some rangers who had snow chains. It goes without saying that they thought I was insane and I did my best to sound like a professional mountaineer.

When I stepped outside, I realized I was potentially in over my head. It was pure blizzard conditions — and I didn’t even know Australia could have blizzards. The ranger told me it was -5C.

A tourist asked where I was going. I said up there, over that and beyond for the next week. He was gobsmacked. With that I set off up what I thought would be the quickest yet steepest route. From Dove Lake, one has two options to get up on the plateau — both are long and steep climbs over impossibly shear cliffs.

I made my first mistake by thinking my awesome pants would be enough to withstand the snow but they were not. I was soon wet as I hiked straight up Hanson’s peak.

Snow was up to my knees, then my waist, then my chest. Somewhere along the way I had stopped to actually put on those snowshoes but that only hampered my efforts as with every step, the snow would fall back down into the hollow I just made. This buried the snowshoe, meaning every single step; I had to dig it out. I tried without the snowshoes, but then I sunk like a rock, meaning I had to ‘climb’ out of every step I took. Either option was folly at this point, so I battled on.

After far too much time I reached the ridge, wet with sweat and snow and stood there on the edge of a 1000ft cliff while the wind tried to tear me off. It was a beautiful view in between clouds whipping past, but it was death to linger here. I was cold, and alone.

I got lost a hundred times

I checked my map took a bearing but the trail followed the ridgeline that was knife-edge and icy. I decided that was just stupid.

To be safe, I took the long way around, but this trail immediately disappeared and I was back in waist-deep snow, trying to find any visual clue as to where I was going.

The trail was supposed to be lined with poles and you just follow them, but they were buried. Adrenalin was just flowing unabated as I spent the next three hours trying to walk 1km to the emergency shelter.

I got lost a hundred times, backtracked in circles and dug myself out of 2,000 pits of snow. It was pure madness, but I kept going. I was kind of having the time of my life.

At some point on the verge of losing my mind, I managed to clear the last hill and saw the trail come back around on itself and in front of me was the hut.

It was dark now and I sighed with relief. I was scared and wet. I was shivering and had no way out now, this was the bear pit and I was in it whether I liked it or not.

I cleared the door and swung it open. It was sparse and wooden, with icicles hanging from the ceiling. I quickly changed clothes and cooked some hot food. I saw a rat, or two. I found a space between cobwebs and got in my sleeping bag. All the spiders came out and crawled nearby for warmth so I literally just willed myself to sleep. This was day one, and I’d only managed 3kms.

To be continued…

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