Howitt & The High Country, Alpine National Park - May 2017

Looking across Big Hill towards Mount Howitt from Mount Magdala.
I've had my eyes on this walk for awhile but events have always conspired to keep me off it, with the high county tracks due to be closed off in a month this year was looking like it was going to be another year of procrastinating. Keeping an eye on the weather all week I could see a small window of good weather opening up for Saturday morning, so after a last minute check on Friday I set the alarm for 4am Saturday and committed. The main reason that I'd wanted to do this walk was that I'd never climbed Helicopter Spur before, stories of navigational hardship lower down and committed scrambling up the top had piqued my interest. So today's plan was to climb from the Upper Howqua Camping Area up Helicopter Spur, then along the high ridges over to Mount Howitt before dropping down Howitt Spur, sounds easy enough....
Look for this pad heading into the scrub behind the camp.
You have to be a little crazy waking before 4am on your day off and I did indeed contemplate my mental health as I sipped my coffee and watched the country side unfold through the windscreen. The good news was when the sun finally came up the day looked half reasonable, Mt Buller was clear of cloud although Mt Howitt was still covered but I was hoping it would burn off later in the morning. Pulling up at the Upper Howqua Camping Area I pulled on the boots and gaiters, grabbed the pack and was off just after 8am. The first objective on my stroll was to locate the pad that would lead me up Helicopter Spur, thankfully I noticed my route heading up the hill behind the long drop and was on my way. My route initially followed old fire tracks as it made it's way up, lower down the track was fairly clear but after climbing for awhile it developed into more of a bushwalking pad as encroaching scrub crowded the track.
After climbing Helicopter Spur for awhile the old fire track got a little overgrown.
At about the same time as the old fire track became more or less indistinguishable from the surrounding bush I found myself on the crest at the bottom of Helicopter Spur. From here on up, while the pad faded in and out in the forest litter on the ground, it was just a matter of staying on the higher ground and climbing. The good news was that the scrub is very light generally, so it was pretty easy making my way up. The thing that makes Helicopter Spur different from some of the other steep spurs is three rock bands that need to be climbed and sure enough the first big bluff soon started looming up through the trees. The first bluff turned out to be a reasonably straightforward grunt, I just climbed to the cliffs, sidled left picking up a steep gully which is easily followed to the top..... well when I say easy I mean that it didn't really require any scrambling, but it was steep and loose and I was happy to utilise the trees and rock to help me haul my bulk upwards.
Once on the crest of Helicopter Spur the pad fades in and out a bit but the way forward is always pretty straight forward.
Approaching the first rock bluff, the tops were still cloaked in cloud.
Square Head Jinny

With the first rock band climbed I soon arrived at the second big bluff, the second bluff was probably the crux of the climbing in hindsight. Once again I tracked left at the cliffs and picked up a gully, unlike the first rock band this gully required some fairly easy scrambling as it made it's way around a chockstone in the chute. Still with reasonable hand holds and a conveniently placed snowgum I was soon up the hairiest section and after a bit more steep and loose climbing I was on top of the second bluff, all was good in the Feral world as I stopped for a bit of a break taking in the ever unfolding view around me. Not only was I feeling pretty content having climbed the two biggest rock bands but I was also feeling pretty happy with life due to the cloud having burnt off the surrounding mountains, the view across to the towering cliffs of Square Head Jinny particularly impressive in the morning light.
The second rock band is probably the trickiest.
Track left a little along the base of the cliffs.....
.....and climb this very steep gully.


After climbing though the smaller third rocky buff up a gully to the right Helicopter Spur eased off a fair bit and I found myself walking the last few hundred metres through open snow gum forest. Once on top of the spur I picked up an old fire track alignment that before long developed into a set of wheel tracks which then soon arrived Bluff Track. I've driven Bluff Track before but I'd never walked it so it was a reasonably pleasant surprise today to find that the 4wd track made for reasonably pleasant walking, the wide open track a great contrast to Helicopter Spur. Arriving at Picture Point I climbed up onto the crest of the ridge and, while the views in almost every direction were stunning, what was really drawing my eye was the view east and my ongoing route, bugger me Mt Howitt was still along way away along the roller coaster like ridges. While there was no real danger that I wouldn't finish the walk today I was hoping to be off the tops by the time the forecast mid afternoon rain rolled in, hmm I'd have to keep shuffling. 
The tops of the various rock bands provide for good grand stand views.
As I reached the top of Helicopter Spur the gradient eased and the walking was superb.
Heading towards Bluff Track along an old closed fire track.
From Picture Point Mount Howitt still looks a long way away, Mount Magdala is in the middle distance.
Bluff Track made for easy walking.

After walking Bluff Track for a little bit longer I picked up the Australian Alps Walking Track and headed off towards my next big objective, Mount Magdala. This section of the AAWT makes for  beautiful walking as firstly the track descends across snow plains before picking up a cliff line and more or less following it all the way to Mount Howitt. While the AAWT is great walking along here it's not level, the path climbs and descends across a series of high saddles as it makes its way east. Arriving at the junction of pads below Mount Magdala my notes suggested sidling around below the towering northern cliffs, with the weather holding though and having never climbed the mountain I decided to head up and over the top, I'll be up here again after winter walking the AAWT but you never know if you'll get the weather right on the day you pass through.
Not long after passing this petrified old snow gum I headed onto the AAWT.
The plastic bottle is a Timbertop College log book, you see them a lot up here.
The AAWT drops a bit before climbing Mount Magdala.
Well, when I said a bit in the last caption I actually meant a lot!
Climbing the last few metres up Mount Magdala.
Mount Magdala provided another stunning view point, thankfully now Mount Howitt being a lot closer in my field of vision, Big Hill looking like the main obstacle between me and the open grassy tops of Howitt. Dropping down the eastern grassy slopes of Mount Magdala the upper route passes by  Hells Window, the rocky buttress' framing my view down into the Howqua River Valley and across to Mount Buller. After crossing the beautiful saddle above Hellfire Creek, a spot that I noted for my AAWT walk I started the walk around Big Hill. I say around because, somewhat unusually for this section of the track the route actually sidles a little and doesn't climb over the very top of Big Hill. While in the saddle I got a call from Sam who was back in Melbourne having lunch with her friends, she told me that the rain had arrived in Melbourne about 30 minutes ago, hmm 200 kilometres minus thirty minutes means that I'd better keep moving I reckon!
The view east to Mount Howitt and West Peak from Mount Magdala.
The jagged ridge in the distance is the Cross Cut Saw.
The AAWT descending Mount Magdala.
Looking down into the Howqua River Valley from Hells Window, that's Mount Buller in the distance.
The AAWT meanders around the back of Big Hill but there is still a bit of up and down involved, nothing to strenuous but I was starting to get a little bit tired and it wasn't easy to crank up the pace too much (well I'm fat and old might be more of the reason;) On reaching the small gassy saddle immediately below the grassy slopes of the Mount Howitt Plateau I was now sure that I'd make it to the summit before the rain arrived, there were black clouds gathering in the south west but it wasn't going to hose down for a little while. While it wasn't going to rain it still wasn't a very nice place to be today up on Mount Howitt, the wind was howling across the open tops of the mountain, so much so that I was struggling to keep the camera still to take a couple of pictures. Now I probably could of got down behind one of the small rocks on the summit to get out of the wind a bit, but as I'd just had a bit of a break at the saddle before the final climb from Big Hill and I was pretty keen to start my descent down Howitt Spur while my luck held out with the weather I decided to head off pretty quickly.
The AAWT meanders around Big Hill.
The Cross Cut Saw from Mount Howitt, things were starting to get a bit gloomy by now.
The Razor and the Viking in the distance, Cross Cut Saw in the fore ground.
Like quite a few mountains in Australia the summit area of Mount Howitt is more of a plateau than a peak.
Heading over to West Peak and my descent route, I think the gathering clouds gave the scene a bit of an epic look.
Walking across the shallow saddle to West Peak the gathering black clouds to the west gave the scene a bit of a epic feel to it I thought, but there was no lingering now I was very keen to get down to the tree line and get out of the wind. The descent down Howitt Spur from West Peak is fairly steep and exposed at the best of times but today I was getting buffered around by the wind at the same time. Thankfully as I dropped lower the wind conditions improved and I was able to take in the view in comfort again, firstly the views across to the Cross Cut Saw and then a little later across to the cliffs of Mount Magdala, somewhat ironically now glowing in the late afternoon sun. By the time I'd meandered my way down Howitt Spur to the Howqua River the daylight was starting to fade a little, not that it mattered much as the last section of today's stroll had me following a long ago closed fire track back to the Upper Howqua Camp Area. Walking back down the river the rain that I'd been expecting for a few hours finally arrived, not that it worried me to much now. I finally arrived back at the ute just before 6pm after what had been a ten hour day, jumping into the ute I enjoyed a wet and wild drive back out past Mount Stirling arriving home just before 10pm with that relaxed euphoric feeling that you get after a good days walking.
West Peak
The track down Howitt Spur is steep up near the top but its pretty well defined and easy generally.
It's a long way down to the Howqua though.
That's Square Head Jinny in the distance....it looked a lot closer this morning.
Howitt Spur
The sun made it's swan song appearance as I descended Howitt Spur, just in time to light up the huge cliffs on the northern side of Mount Magdala.
The Dirt.
Firstly I'd have to say this was a hard day walk for me. I walked 23.9 kilometres and climbed 1738 metres according to my GPS. I used Glenn Tempest's notes out of his Daywalks Around Victoria book along with the old 1:50,000 Howitt - Selwyn Vicmap. As I've mentioned Helicopter Spur is steep and will require basic scrambling in one or two spots, the pad also fades in and out in a couple of spots but the navigation is generally pretty easy. Once off Helicopter Spur it's a straight forward, if not fairly hard walk. Once up on the ridges the snow gums provide a bit of protection from the elements but the open snow grass areas are exposed to whatever the weather has in store for you. Apparently there is water to be found at Hellfire Creek below the saddle between Big Hill and Mount Magdala but I didn't drop down today to try and find it, apart from that there is no water until you drop back down to the Howqua River, well unless you make the substantial detour over to Macalister Springs.
Relevant Posts.
Heading through the regrowth on the lower slopes of Howitt Spur.
Hey, hey, I've made it back down to the Howqua River, the photo doesn't really show it but it was starting to get fairly dark by now.
The section of the AAWT that I walked today was beautiful, I hope it's like this in October:)


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