Monday, 2 October 2017

A Taste of the Stirling Ridge Walk - Bluff Knoll to Moongoongoonderup Hill

The first day of a planned three day hike of the Stirling Ridge Walk, this walk starts at the Bluff Knoll car park and leads to the Moongoongoonderup Hill campsite. Taking the tourist walk up Bluff Knoll, the Stirling Ridge Walk then follows a wilder unmarked trail over East Bluff and East Peak before descending to a series of low hills. Thwarted by the range's unpredictable weather, this is an account of an incomplete ridge walk

Distance: 12 km (return over two days)
Gradient: Very up and down, with some very steep sections 
Quality of Path: Clear and well formed to Bluff Knoll, vague but largely distinct from there onwards. Some sections feature multiple false trails
Quality of Signage: No signage from Bluff Knoll onwards. This is an unmarked trail through wilderness. 
Experience Required: Previous Bushwalking Experience Required. This is a very hard walk in steep and potentially dangerous terrain known for its unpredictable weather.. Highly unsuitable for beginners or those with known knee problems 
Time: 8 Hours to Moongoongoonderup Hill, including snack breaks and an hour of getting lost time. 6.5 hours from Moongoongoonderup Hill to the Bluff Knoll car park. 
Steps: A continual series of steps up Bluff Knoll, with many informal steps after that.
Best Time to Visit: There is no good season to visit, just good windows of weather.
Entry Fee: Yes. National Park Fees Apply.
Getting There: Access to Bluff Knoll via Bluff Knoll Rd, which turns off east from Chester Pass Rd. Bluff Knoll's carpark is at the end of the road. No access to Moongoongoonderup Hill

Considering it's penchant for unpredictable weather, I have to admit that I've been very lucky when it comes to the Stirling Range. In all our visits climbing Bluff Knoll, Toolbrunup, Talyuberlup, Mt Hassell and Mt Trio, we've been gifted with favourable conditions on all but one occasion, and even then the walk was still achievable. Given this run of good luck, it was only a matter of time before I'd encounter some bad weather in the Stirlings, and unfortunately for myself and two friends it was during the Stirling Ridge Walk.

Of the three well known multi-day walks in the South West (the other two being the Bibbulmun and Cape to Cape Tracks), the Stirling Ridge Walk is the shortest (2-3 days) but is undoubtedly the most difficult. The playing field is well and truly skewed against the walkers favour; the weather is unpredictable, the trail is rough and unmarked, the terrain is steep and unrelentingly challenging, campsites are little more than tent clearings and water is so unreliable hikers have to bring enough for three days. Given all of this, it should be no surprise that the failure rate is pretty high - and that's even with the best laid plans.

Planning for a traverse of the Stirling Ridge Walk began in early 2017, with Mark Pybus (of Life of Py fame) and our friend Louise being my walking partners on this occasion (Alissa gave me an ultimatum - she would either do the Cape to Cape Track or the Stirling Ridge Walk with me, and chose the Cape to Cape since I knew she'd enjoy it more). We did everything we could to be prepared for the walk - I purchased a large topographical map of the Stirling Range as well as John Chapman's Bushwalking in Australia for his track notes, Louise sourced a copy of AT Morphet's indispensable guide Mountain Walks in the Stirling Range Part 2: The Peaks to the East of Chester Pass and we all read as many blogs and articles on the range as possible. Our plan was a three day traverse as per John Chapman's itinerary, starting at Bluff Knoll and finishing at the eastern park boundary beyond Ellen Peak. Most importantly, we decided to give ourselves the best chance of success by blocking of the entire first week of October so we could pick the best three day window in which to do the walk.

Finishing the Cape to Cape Track on the Friday and driving down to Denmark on the Sunday, the weather forecast wasn't 100% perfect for any three day stretch. 1-2 mm of rain on Tuesday. Cloudy Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Monday on the other hand was perfectly clear and sunny, and with 1-2 mm seeming pretty mild, we decided to shoot for a Monday start.

The weather on the day was nothing short of perfect, being mildly warm but with a cool breeze to temper the heat. With water being very limited in the Stirling Range, Mark, Lou and I had packed 8 litres of water each, and Mark and I had camelled up by drinking 600 mls of water before leaving the car park. Seeing that the waterfall on the way up Bluff Knoll was flowing strongly, we decided to have a bit more to drink and refill our bottles given that this is the only reliable source of water along the walk. 

All three of us had climbed Bluff Knoll before, but this time was different given that we were doing it with full packs. Even with a somewhat conservative 8 litres of water for three days, our packs were definitely on the heavy side. This made walking up the never ending steps of Bluff Knoll even more challenging than it usually is, and we stopped for breaks at regular intervals. I felt grateful for having just come off the Cape to Cape Track as I felt pretty track fit - I can imagine the climb being even tougher without adequate training or preparation.

I've covered Bluff Knoll as a day hike previously so I won't go into too much detail about the steep but uncomplicated ascent, however I will say that the clear skies on this particular day made for some spectacular walking, with many of the eastern peaks clearly visible in the cloudless sky.

Rounding the corner the ascent's steepness eases off, and we were able to enjoy clear views across the saddle between Bluff Knoll and the neighbouring Coyanarup Peak. Beyond the farmland, we could just make out the south coast and Southern Ocean.

Even with the incline easing off, we didn't want to overheat given the warm weather and continued to take regular breaks along the way - especially since we were going slower than the regular walkers unencumbered by a massive pack.

We reached the summit of Bluff Knoll in time for lunch, however all three of us weren't feeling very hungry. From the summit we could see our mission for the next two days in front of us - the lower peak leading to Moongoongoonderup Hill, the ascent to Isongerup Peak and the Arrows, with Ellen Peak towering in the distance as the final push of the Stirling Ridge Walk. With a large crowd gathered at the summit and with our goals clear in sight, we continued onwards.

Beyond the Bluff Knoll summit, the manicured tourist trail is left behind and the trail becomes rough and unmarked. This is done to maintain a wilderness feel. This sounds good in theory, but in practice it has resulted in a lot of goat trails going in all kind of directions that is probably worse for the environment than if it were a marked given the potential for hikers to inadvertently spread Dieback throughout the range. It should also be noted that while the trail does occasionally become hard to follow, it is nevertheless an actual distinct trail than can be seen in the landscape rather than a true off track walk. 

The initial section from the summit is pretty bad, with hikers having made many crisscrossing paths as they follow the cliff line to the Chasm. Having seen the Chasm in photos online, I had assumed it was a descent through a bit of a slot, but in actual fact the view pictured above is the view to the left of the trail. At this point, walkers pass a sign indicating that they are about to enter a declared wilderness and that they must follow Leave No Trace principles.

After crossing the Chasm, the mountain naming gets a bit confusing, which would lead to some navigational issues once we needed to descend to the lower hills. Immediately after the Chasm, the track rises up slightly to reach East Bluff. From East Bluff, the trail then descends into a saddle before rising up to the summit of East Peak. Using both John Chapman's notes and AT Morphet's pictorial sketches of the route, this became a point of confusion as Chapman never mentions East Bluff in his notes and Morphet refers to East Peak as "Mt James' east peak". Pictured above is Mark descending the saddle between East Bluff and Mt James/East Peak.

The ascent of East Peak is fairly straightforward, with the trail being easy to follow up and over the summit. At this point, we ran into a father and son who had started at the other end and had just completed the slog up East Peak from the low hills below. Later, we would note that had we met them a little further along our way, it would have saved us half an hour of wasted time trying to find the right route down.

The eastern end of East Peak is a mess of goat trails running everywhere, and it led us to some confusion. The notes mention following some cairns and then passing a small rocky outcrop, and we thought we had found it when we descended down a narrow gully. As we continued down, we realised that the slippery slope led to a seriously scary drop and we would have to climb back up. This was one of those times when we really could have been in trouble; if one of us fell and knocked the person in front over, there would have been nothing to stop the fall over the edge - especially with out very heavy packs. Continuing along the cliff edge, we eventually saw another series of cairns that pointed us in the right direction to the real gully descent. We had wasted half an hour consulting the maps, notes and taking the wrong path, so it was quite a relief to be back on track again!

The trail basically follows a gully down East Peak, and then is supposed to veer to the right along a less obvious walk trail. With the guidebooks kept away and the trail seemingly clear (there was even some flagging tape that appeared to point the way down), we missed the turn off to the right and ended up continuing down a very steep and slippery scree slope. Little did we know that the flagging tape merely marked that this was where the trail verges right and that it didn't mean 'continue downwards'. The descent was so slippery, Lou fell over and bent one of her trekking poles, and I had a lot of close calls myself. One good thing was that I discovered some flowing water along the descent which allowed me to refill my water bottle.

Not long after refilling the water bottle, the trail-like appearance of the scree took on a rough riverbed appearance, and we could tell that it was going to keep going all the way down into the lowlands. Mark identified what looked like a rough track through the bushes heading right and we decided to try our luck trying to get back onto the proper track. With the Stirling Ridge Walk quite visible on Google Maps, I suggested Mark have a look on his phone and we were able to ascertain that if we continued onwards we could rejoin the track without having to double back up the horribly steep scree slope.

We were relieved once we reached a trail junction, with our faint goat trail rejoining the proper Stirling Ridge Walk trail. The scree slope meant we probably wasted another half hour following the incorrect route, but at least we knew the rest of the day's walk to Moongoongoonderup Hill's saddle campsite was going to be a fairly uncomplicated walk up and over a series of low hills.

Or so we thought. Though very easy from a navigational point of view given the distinct trail, it also passes through a lot of closed in mallee. While I love my Aarn pack as the front pockets are very convenient while also creating a more even balance of load, it also meant I kept getting caught trying to push through the mallee, with the pockets occasionally slipping out of the top loop that holds them in place. This was a bit frustrating, but Lou was able to help disentangle the pack whenever I got stuck

Looking back at where we'd come from, we could see an almost perfect representation of one of AT Morphet's drawings. The peak to the right of the photo is Bluff Knoll, with the two smaller buts jutting out to its left being East Bluff. The more gradual peak in the foreground is East Peak/Mt James and you can see the gully that we accidentally descended. It all looks so obvious from this point of view, and I remember thinking it would be considerably easierdoing this part of the walk in the other direction from a navigational standpoint - even if the ascent would have been more punishing. 

As we were continuing over the low hills, we were delighted by a sighting of an eagle soaring overhead. 

It is quite amazing how quickly the conditions can change. Before descending the gully, Isongerup Peak had been clearly visible, however by the time we made it over the first of the low hills and were heading towards the second, clouds were beginning to obscure the peak from view. 

Along the hills, we ran into a solo hiker who got a bit of a fright as she came around a corner. Based on the time she was there, it would be dark before she made it down Bluff Knoll, and we wondered if she would be camping somewhere on East Peak, East Bluff or Bluff Knoll itself.  The good news for us was that she had passed the Moongoongoonderup campsite just 20-30 minutes earlier, so the end of day one was just around the corner. 

With the clouds having rolled on, we could see the walk from Moongoongoonerup Hill to Isongerup would be a relatively easy going amble along a narrow ridge, which would make for a less steep start to our next day. 

Just before Moongoongoonderup's peak is it's campsite - a nice, slightly cleared area beneath some small trees. This is a great place to set up camp, and is considered one of the best campsites along the ridge that is not a cave. Just after setting up our tents it started to drizzle, and it became a sustained bout of rain that lasted all through the night. 

The next day, we woke up to terrible weather. The rained hadn't ceased overnight, and the winds had picked up considerably - we would later learn that they experienced over 40 km/h winds down at the Mt Trio campgrounds, so it would have been far worse on the mountain. We were in a serious white out, and the glimpses we did get of the neighbouring peaks did not offer much consolation either. In the distance we could see waterfalls flowing off Isongerup Peak, and with technical walking and scrambling required around the Arrows towards the cave at Third Arrow we were worried about how we were going to fare.

Although we had originally planned to leave just after sunrise, the weather forced us to wait it out in the hopes it would get better. Thankfully Mark had brought a small set of speakers and a Bill Simmons podcast where he interviews Jake Gyllenhaal, which proved to be an interesting listen. Not long after we finished the podcast, two guys came down from the other side of Moongoongoonderup Hill, having camped at First Arrow the previous day and now coming down the mountain. They said that they had tried waiting out the weather but decided they had to get going if they were to finish the walk today. After they passed through the campsite the weather began to clear up slightly, allowing us time to pack up our tents and gear and get going. 

The plan was the try and push on to First Arrow and assess the situation from there. My reasoning for this was that the walking to First Arrow would continue to be non-technical, and there is another campsite near First Arrow should we be unable to continue to Third Arrow as originally planned. Furthermore, it would place us near the North Mirlpunda Track which we could use as an escape route should the Arrows prove to be too dangerous. 

Although the wind and rain had died down as we packed up our gear, it had returned by the time we actually started walking and was incredibly strong once we cleared the trees of the campsite and were on Moongoongoonderup itself. At one point we followed a track near a cliff and the winds were blowing us closer to the edge. Mark turned around and looked at me, and the fearful look was a perfect reflection of how I was feeling as well. Now, it must be said that Mark is one of the most sure-footed people I know, so if he was worried I took that as a very bad sign. 

We continued on for a short while before coming across a small cave that offered us some respite from the rain and wind gusts. As we sat dejectedly in the cave and with little sign that things were going to improve, we had a discussion about what to do. If we pressed on, we were likely to be buffeted by even worse winds once we reached Isongerup Peak, and we wouldn't even have the visibility to enjoy the mountain views. It was looking highly unlikely that we would be able to clear First Arrow in these conditions. Crucially, I was also struggling to get a phone signal; while I was also carrying a PLB, this made us quite nervous. Everything stacked up against continuing on, and we all agreed that it wasn't worth it given that we wouldn't be seeing anything anyway that would give us enough reward for the risks involved. Being cold, wet and miserable, a warm bed sounded much more inviting than another night in a wet tent on the off chance the weather got better and we would actually be able to finish the walk. 

Walking back to Bluff Knoll was relatively easy from a navigational standpoint, both because we'd already walked the trail to get there and because it was fairly easy to follow. Although the rain died down as we made our way over the low hills, the winds never ceased. I had read about people struggling to type into their phones on the Stirling Range because of how cold the weather can be, and I can believe it after this experience. When I finally got signal to write to Alissa to let her know we were coming back, I found that the saddle joints of my thumbs were very stiff and that typing the message was slow and difficult. This was one of the few times I left a vest and raincoat on all day as the wind chill was even worse than what Alissa and I experienced on our first day on the Overland Track!

Making it to the top of the last of the hills before the steep push up East Peak, we decided to have a quick break and to discard some excess water now that we wouldn't be needing it for three days. Mark took the opportunity to lie down behind a cairn wall to try and get a break from the never ending winds, and it reminded me of our hopeful plans to take a series of photos along the Stirling Ridge making fun of people who post Instagram photos of them having camped in improbably dangerous locations (#youdidntsleepthere). Considering we never made it to First and Third Arrow or the summit of Ellen Peak, this is as close as we got. 

From there it was a steep and strenuous climb up East Peak. Although it seemed never ending, it wasn't as hard as I expected it to be as I probably had the steep scree descent from the previous day in my mind. By comparison the Ridge Walk's trail was genteel and civilised, and it offered us plenty of spots to catch our breaths after the more strenuous sections. 

The rest of the walk back to Bluff Knoll's summit was uneventful; basically a mirror image of the previous day's walking with a lot more wind! The clouds had completely blown over by the time we reached Bluff Knoll's summit, however many of the other eastern peaks along the ridge were still at least partially shrouded. The wind on top of Bluff Knoll was unreal however, and although the clear skies did make me think we could have continued, the winds definitely backed up our decision. We found a nice sheltered spot on the summit for a quick break and then began the long walk down the mountain. 

Unsurprisingly, we did not encounter a single person as we made our way down the mountain. What was surprising however was seeing what looked like the Bluff Knoll waterfall earlier than expected. As we approached the falls, we realised that this was not the normal waterfall but another ephemeral stream that does not normally flow. The amount of water gushing down the mountain was more than I've sometimes seen at the normal waterfall and we agreed that we must have had a lot more than the 1-2 mm of rain that had been forecast!

Given that ephemeral falls were flowing, the Bluff Knoll waterfall were flowing better than I'd ever seen them before. The stream that flows down the mountain after the falls was positively gushing, and for a moment we couldn't work out which way to go as water was flowing right through the middle of the track! Find the trail again, it was a relatively easy walk from there on back to the empty car park. 

I've had a lot of good fortune when it comes to mountains, and other than having to give up just metres from the summit of Cradle Mountain, I've basically always been able to complete every mountain walk I've set out to do - even a very technical off track walk like Stapylton Amphitheatre in the Grampians. As such, not being able to complete the Stirling Ridge Walk was definitely a humbling learning experience, and it made me even more appreciative of how fickle the weather in the Stirling Range can be. Because of the lack of water and the heat of Summer, the Stirling Range cannot be done comfortably at the most settled time of the year, meaning it is really a case of finding a good window of weather in any season and crossing your fingers in the hope that the forecast doesn't change.

Although ours was one of the many Stirling Ridge Walk expeditions that didn't result in a complete journey, there were enough excellent points along the way that I'd definitely want to attempt this again. When the time comes, I would do the following things differently:

  • I would not pick to walk on a day with any rain forecast, and not be distracted by a day of perfect weather - clearly the weather up in the mountains is far worse than the 1-2 mm forecast for the national park in general. Had we not been distracted by the perfectly sunny Monday, we would probably have started on the Wednesday instead. Having monitored the radar and judging by the weather we experienced in Denmark, I think we would have finished the walk over those three days. 
  • I would start at the Ellen Peak end - Starting at Bluff Knoll is considered the easier way to start the walk as it is an easier walk up Bluff Knoll than Ellen Peak. In theory this makes a lot of sense, however it means that if the weather changes you're less likely to complete the walk as it become more technically difficult towards the Ellen Peak end rather than Bluff Knoll. Had we started at Ellen Peak and made it to First Arrow in the perfect weather, we probably would have been able to either press on through the non-technical walking to Bluff Knoll or escape via the North Mirlpunda Track to at least complete the Half Ridge Walk. This leads me to my final point:
  • I would do it in two days - From the Ellen Peak end, I would look to start the walk at sunrise on a good clear day and try to make it all the way to First Arrow in a single push. This would be a long and tough day, but it would mean getting all the technical walking done in clear weather just in case it turned overnight. It also means having to carry a day's less water, which should ultimately provide some pay off for the long kilometres. 

To be continued...


  1. Awesome post, we have a small group (3 or 4) looking to do the ridge walk. Would love if you could share any digitised maps etc

  2. Hi Donovan. Just pulled into Thredbo on my AAWT adventure and noticed this post. Bought a smile to my face! You definitely made the right call heading back, there is an art to knowing when enough is enough. The pad over the tops is pretty good until around the side of Pyungoorup Peak (I think - it's been awhile:), it gets a little indistinct there for half a kilometre or so - you just have to keep as high as possible. Two days is the go I think. Cheers Kevin.

    1. Thanks Kevin, I've been wondering how your AAWT adventure has been going - I look forward to reading about it.

      Glad that you agree we made the right call. We will definitely shoot for two days next time and do technical stuff first.