Back to Tasmania
Mt Ossa - Tasmania's Highest Peak
by David MacFarlane
I have been bushwalking since I was 14, and that wasn't last week. I have been sailing since I was 23 and neither was that. In 1995 I was finally asked to do the Australian Three Peaks Race, something I’d yearned since its beginning in 1988. This involves sailing some 500 nautical miles around the north and east coast of Tasmania with stops to drop off runners who run 3 marathons in 4 days, namely 65kms, 37kms and 35kms. I could be part of the team but I had to run up Mt Wellington they said. Well I did it with next to no training and rather enjoyed the experience. Since then I have competed in 10 Three Peaks and run in 7 of them, culminating in running all three mountains in 2003. The training for this converted my favourite bush walks into bush runs, and here is one of them-
Mt Ossa is Tasmania's highest peak at 1617m and lies almost dead centre of the Cradle Mt-Lake St Claire Overland Track. It is not widely known to non-Tasmanian adventurers that there is an access point adjacent to the centre of the track from Lake Rowallan known as the Arm River track. This is about 2 hours drive from our homes in Launceston.
In late 2004 two of my running friends and I decided to put this on the been-there-done-that list so on December 27 we ran in appalling weather to Pelion Gap but were stopped by a ferocious blizzard and about a metre of snow. We passed some British hikers who remarked that this was the last thing they expected to see in Australia in December.
Just recently we had another shot at it, and in much better weather. At the Arm River car park the gps shows an elevation of some 720 metres and exactly 10.0 km to Pelion Hut, our first waypoint. The run began as a gentle downhill for about a k (more of that later) then there is a very steep pinch of around 200 metres climb to the plateau. Why they didn’t put the car park there I’ll never know. Passing through alpine rainforest and open plains we get a glimpse of Pelion East, Mt Ossa’s partner, and later sweeping views of the Ducane valley. The track is in very good condition and the running easy and enjoyable. Although we’ve had a dry spell the creeks are full and clean, so no problem with water refills. After about 2 hours we reach Pelion Hut on the Overland Track. The gps breadcrumb showed 11.3 ks.
The "hut" bears no resemblance to the lean to I stayed in in the 70s. It is an imposing country club style building with accommodation for I believe 70 or so walkers. The view from the north facing verandah takes in Cradle Mt, Barn Bluff and Pelion West. Pelion Hut is the end of the second or third day of the Overland, depending on your pace and side trips. The new breed of international hiker who stays here is nothing more than a city type on holidays, they only say gday when you press the point. Park Rangers now talk about duty of care- what happened to roughing it and taking what’s dished out? A far cry from the olden times when you’d hail a party coming the other way, share a billy of tea and compare bog holes and leech bites.
After a snack and a water refill we were on our way, 5 ks to Pelion Gap with a 350 metre climb. It’s probably the longest 5k anyone will run, starting in a gentle up then grading to quads-screaming killer near the end. The ‘staircase’ here is designed for those with 3 metre strides and every running step seemed to be out of kilter with the stairs. No matter, we're all Cradle Mountain ultra runners, nothing unknown here.
We eventually break out of the sheltered rainforest and on to Pelion Gap. At 1200 metres it’s almost as high as Mt Wellington and we’ve a lot of height to get yet. Today is very pleasant and next to no wind. Not too warm either so all in all a perfect running day. We leave the Overland Track and start our attack on the summit. This will be my 7th visit to the top, but new territory for my companions. The gps says 2kms in a straight line to the summit, the fix taken from an earlier climb so it’s accurate. 2ks! With oxygen depletion, fatigue after 3 hours running and the terrain it’s more like 22ks.
Almost immediately we gain height and the views are of course outstanding. We are working for every step, I think we’re not going much faster than a bushwalker now. The gps starts reeling off the elevation like $$$ at a petrol pump now. We skirt the southern face of the mountain and even in mid summer I’ve seen deep snow here. The sun shines for only a few hours each day in a couple of months a year here. A walking friend and I have a dream to camp at the summit in mid winter but I can imagine the whole vista before me frozen solid so that may not happen. After scaling a 10 metre chimney (are we runners or climbers here??) we finally make the penultimate ridge and gain expansive views to the north. The track becomes a track again and we jog along the north ridge then a 200 metre sharp up and the top is now in sight. An area about the size of a football field (that’s AFL not the pretend football fields) is quite flat and a pile of large rocks to our right is our objective. We take some photos, have some lunch and the boys are ecstatic. The gps breadcrumb shows a measly 18.5 kms but 4 hours uphill and the legs tell a different story.
On a clear day you can see Tasmania’s north coast and west coast, and, as a fellow walker said to me once ‘a dumping ground for spare mountains’. Today it is clear around apart from an ominous front to the west. Although there is very little wind the front approaches quickly and, typically Tasmanian, we have some light rain and snow flurries. We decide this is as good a time as any to hit the track and we’re off.
The time back to Pelion hut is about the same as the time out, obviously we’re past our best. The sky is overcast and quite cool so once again we’ve threaded the needle and as we sailors say Huey has smiled on us.
We find the going back to the plateau pretty tough, I think the excitement of our achievement carried us up there. Lots of walking now! Shades of the Cradle run where the deceleration is quite marked in the afternoon. The steep pinch down at the end is quite painful, every time I walk or run here I think did we really come up this way?
Now, back to that gentle downhill I mentioned earlier - it’s now a steep up and we walk most of it back to the car. Exactly 4 hours to the summit, 30 minutes rubbernecking and exactly 4 hours back. We down a couple of Cokes and rinse the mud off in the freeeezing creek. Was it a good running time for that distance? Who cares- we had a good running time.