Up the Bluff: High Country Bois
Words by Chris Sansom and photography by Tom Rooney
If the stakes were higher than normal that weekend, the scene in a regional hotel bedroom with six partly drunk men wasn’t any indication. Listen closely and you’d have heard the nervous excitement as we re-lived Jurassic Park for the millionth time. We’d committed via packed Instagram thread to another Winter Solstice ride, with the ante well and truly upped. Eight raised a digital hand, the number surprisingly only dwindling to six at shit-hitting-the-fan time in spite of snow forecast at 800m. Time to trawl the drawers for those special pieces of clothing designed to keep toes attached and fingers from emulating smashed frozen sausages.
The goal would be Bluff Hut – a rescue shack nestled high (1500m or thereabouts) in the Victorian Alps with, with what promised to be a beautiful gut-punch of a climb to reach it. Working on the basis that four-wheel drive access would be suspended for the winter, the only other potential shackmates would be hikers or cross-country skiers. The latter seemed most unlikely despite the promise of ‘snow.’ I say snow with intended sarcasm because I tend to view Australia’s version as underwhelming after years of French Alps snowboarding trips. In any case, both days would be just 45 kilometres, albeit with a fair bit of ascent. Piece of piss as we’d say in my home country. We’ll be kicking back at the shack by 3PM sipping cocktails and lounging in silken robes.
The original plan was to camp Friday night at Running Creek by the entrance to the single track we’d meander up through the valley, but mother nature planned a biblical downpour according to various satellite apps, and we weren’t here to doubt science. Instead, we stopped short at the Delatite Hotel in Mansfield, sinking frothies to the soothing tones of Richard Attenborough (God Rest His Soul), rain lashing sideways at the window and validating our decision not to sleep in tents.
“No wonder you’re extinct. I’m gonna run you over when I come back down.”
Traditional swine sandwiches for breakfast followed by knee-jerk purchases of chunky 80’s ski gloves for some, all while a mountain penguin had a go on Todd’s bike.
A short thirty minute drive through the morning fog before the turn off onto a windy pothole-strewn road we were glad not to be driving in the dark. No time was wasted readying the horses, with my beloved dried figs and backup noodles fell casualty to the briskness. Fear not, I thought, for I had remembered to bring my homemade energy balls – date, oat, dark chocolate, and peanut butter – thank you very much. I distributed one to each member of the group, mostly because I’m very generous, but partly to curry favour with them should I need dragging naked out of a snowdrift by the ankles. Even the slightest altitude sickness can send one insane.
We peeled out of the car park and straight up an off-camber scramble to the start of the onetrack, peeks of the raging Howqua river below to our left. Precisely 1.3km into the ride Todd monster trucked a fallen log, sending a limb flying to punch his derailleur inward and nearly snapping the thing clean off. Bush tugging soon got the thing bent back, and we were on our merry way to sample the delights of the trail’s other downed trees, vicious muddy pinches, and grin-inducing flow.
I crested a slick push-your-bike climb and was met with a pair of deer hunters, in mix of camouflage and hi-vis. Each brandished a large scoped rifle, walky-talkies and an air of dubious legality given that we were on a shared walking track.
“Where you boys off to?” one asked.
“Bluff Hut” I responded, immediately regretting my honesty.
“Who are you talking to?” Said one of our group, referring to the camouflaged men. I’m the one who does the jokes around here though, so they won’t be named.
“Aw ye, well there’s about six more fellas back there” he said as we pressed on.
Always good to ride your bike knowing that your eyeball might be ejected through the back of your cranium at any moment. I realised too late that riding in front drastically increased the chances of such a scenario, but toughed it out no biggywiggy. The gunmen emerged from the bush at random for several more kilometres as the trail dipped and wove through the valley, often overgrown and washed out. A final pair were walking up a fire track as we converged on it, one carrying a decapitated deer over his shoulder. A cheery wave and a hello was all we fancied to offer, and we resumed pedalling to escape any potential head explosions. We’re in the country now boys!
After 11km’s we popped out at a fire road better identified as a climbing wall, the route mercifully pointing downhill. At the lowest point a giant puddle taunted, and not all of us were prepared to let the watery reflective bastard get away with it. That tough guy feeling didn’t last long as we rounded the next corner to it’s pissed off mate, a rowdy river sans bridge. As five stood and speculated, born hero Big Al Cowan wound up the legs and catapulted into the torrent. 75% completion or thereabouts, and a leg down on the rocky riverbed got him across. The rest of us had hoped to keep feeling in our feet for just a little while longer though, and de-socked to throw shoes over troubled water.
Tom first reached the far bank with aplomb, but a monumental brain fart saw his second launch straight up into the air and plop into the drink with no-plomb. He stood motionless as everyone howled “FUUUCK, GEDDIT!”. Keen for another splash, Al came to the rescue, tracking the wayward shoe down as it made a bid for the main Howqua River and holding it aloft like a sweaty trophy. The rest of the crossing happened without fanfare or excitement, and we re-socked for the next assault. Next up, a short climb up what I assume was the recent course for the 2018 Tanks Skidding Down A Steep Hill Championships. A ramping, water bar savage with dead trees strewn across chunky peanut butter.
The pistons had finally warmed up as we caught stinging breaths at the top, only to be quickly re-chilled on the following shonk downhill to Sheepyard Flat. An early warning that the day’s riding wouldn’t be all up. Two of our number bravely detoured to scope a potential backup sleepover spot as the rest stood snacking at an intersection. They returned with few good words to say about Fry’s Hut. Boarded over fireplace, a bit damp, all that rubbish stuff. Fry sure sounded like a dick. We trundled on for Sheepyard flat, the first of the large riverside campgrounds littering the valley before the converging mountains put an end to all that flat ground crap. A quick stop for some lunch reminded me that I hadn’t actually brought lunch. After all, we’d be at the hut by 3PM roasting chestnuts and writing poems.
Nary a minute after resuming the lashing rain began, and it didn’t let up till it had completely changed its composition to something even more sinister. We slid into raincoats and tracked the wide, slick road as it chicaned up the mountainside, and split to find our individual paces for a while – each wetter than an otter’s pocket. The climb proper began around six kilometres along, where the road stopped all the fannying around in favour of unrelenting switchbacks up through native fern strewn gullies for ten or so clicks. My legs warmed to the effort as we made our way up, but a quick stop to photograph some spicy light peeking through storm clouds was a reminder of just how damn chilly it was getting.
Regrouping at the top, the intrepid forerunners had spied the first piece of snow. A sad, TV dinner for one, pile of slush, which was exciting nonetheless. Concerningly it’d be another descent to follow, meaning only more climbing from there on. Happily, we’d all remembered to wear our big boy britches, and we wailed down Bluff Link Track to stunning views of Big Mr Bluff off to our right. Albeit high in the clouds, which were now clearly dumping snow bombs everywhere. This side of the mountain was far colder, and only a few minutes into the renewed effort the white stuff began to gather in a sinister manner.
We squealed and honked like morons, happy that it wouldn’t have the same grim dampening effect as the day’s rain. The giddiness lasted a few more hundred meters, petering out completely when the 10cm of snow had eliminated all traction. We disengaged cycling legs and attached the hik’ist ones as the light began to noticeably dim. The aptly named Refrigerator Gap met us atop the push, with a blustery clearing unfettered by trees now pretty deep with the cold white stuff. This, if any, would have been the point of no return. On checking the map we pegged Bluff Hut about 8kms away. Far closer than that idiot Fry’s Hut, but along a road steeped in mystery, and likely knee deep in the fluff. Truth be told I don’t think a single one of us would have put our faith in Fry, the hut equivalent of a drunk uncle. We drew on into the fast darkening tree line to prove it.
Happily, the road pitched down shortly after and we swung a leg over to surf down with almost no control of our bikes, taking it in turns to completely lose the front wheel and go flying into the ditches and streams which lined the sides. The group split again as the beauty of a road undulated, pushing out and drawing you back into its beautiful frozen gullies. This is Mike’s happy face. Visibility had well and truly evaporated by this point, and the crawling pace meant a mere intermittent blink from my Supernova to illuminate the quickly deepening snow. The temperature had taken a swan dive, but the effort maintained plenty of body heat. That and the plastic bags between our double-layer socks.
It was pitch black when Todd, Al and myself arrived at the turnoff for the hut, and after a frenzied check of the route to be doubly sure, we set about the final (literal) push up to get the fire going. It’s not often you find yourself in such a scene, and safe to say that adrenaline was holding back some full-blown underwear accidents. Al charged off as we continued the slow push through the trees, up and over rolling water bars now obscured under a foot of powder. Cheery thoughts about dying on the mountain crossed the mind. Fatigue had set in, and skipping lunch started to feel more like a death sentence than some mere oversight. I shoveled a handful of peanuts through chapped lips like a budget Robert F Scott.
A kilometre or so on the road revealed it’s junk-punching intentions with a twisted switchback. It’d started to feel like there was no gate stopping four wheelers punching up to the hut, but seeing the stout metal shadow across the road a little way up reinstated faith. The Wolverine’s wheels were now completely clogged where the little clearance I’d started with had formed an avalanche. Both were complete, spokeless discs of snow that forced periodical stops to remove whatever jammed the rear. The hell are we doing here?
By now the only light visible was the beacon of Al’s head torch far up the mountainside. Some real Lord of the Rings vibes getting around. The trail was a horrifically steep and narrow double track, with just the outline of a very big drop off to the right to remind you not to go anywhere near it. Ghostly snow gums bore down, and stinging legs marched on. A switchback to repeat what felt like the mirror image of what we’d just done, followed by another glimpse of the faraway light to remind me that we still had plenty of hiking left in this freezing Orwellian nightmare.
It felt like we pushed up that mountain for a million terrible years, edging closer to oblivion and not closer to a pot of spicy soup noodles. Strange reprieve came with the small stretches of stream that ran to the side of the trail, into which we’d grunt the bikes for some reduced-friction motion that were all too brief. Where the hell is this hut?
Panic was finding its way through more often, mostly because I knew how ridiculous I’d look if I was found dead in a blizzard wearing cycling clothes. More grunting, pushing, falling. Mike caught us with the news that the others were a ways back, and the three of us ploughed on.
Then, before we could ask any more questions about our life choices, the track levelled, and a clearing appeared. ‘X%#FF #$T CAMPG#$@’, read a largely white snow covered sign. FUCK YES!
We lined the bikes up under the hut’s spacious overhang and set about porting food and supplies in. Our trailblazer already had the beginnings of an inferno in the gargantuan fireplace and had news of a veritable motherload of prime wood stocked outside. The hut sported a huge Viking long table in the middle surrounded by bunk seats doubling as bed space and even had a kitchen area by the fire. Soon all six were jostling for position by it, modern dancehall blaring from a speaker Al had thought to drag along.
Our respective poisons of whisky, wine, beer, tequila(!!), and some mixtures of all four were brought out in celebration. Ironically despite a day of pissing pouring rain and snow, the group had exactly bugger all drinkable water left, and the rainwater tank outside the hut had frozen solid. By the grace of the Adventure Gods I’d toted a whole cacciatore sausage and a wheel of Camembert to tide me over while pots of snow melted for Laksa noodles. You’re never too far away from civilisation to maintain your gout.
The night was spent in a boozy endorphin haze, raging as hard as the eyebrow singeing fire when taking into consideration the day’s exhaustion. The hike-a-ride shook out at 50km and several thousand meters of climbing, but the numbers didn’t really begin to tell the story. At least 8km was on foot, and if this blizzard bullshit kept up there would be plenty more of that to come. Wet socks positioned at what may or may not have been a safe distance from the inferno, we took to bed. Not one person mentioned the fact we’d be leaving the way we came after a night of heavy forecast snow.
I rustled awake like a vibrator in a packet of crisps at 4AM to the soothing sound of everyone else shivering in chorus. Mike was up in the dark stumbling for the fireplace, rolling on another log in a herculean effort of sleepiness. Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear technical hooded down jackets.
The warm glow lasted a few more hours before the cold wood of the bench began to leach through my stupid exoskeleton sleeping mat and through to my arse cheeks. The wood smoke became too much for my puny asthmatic lungs and I thought it best to get a head start on packing, accounting for my world renowned faff time. I was greeted by a cold blast of air and accompanying snowflakes on opening the lower section of the saloon door, with all signs pointing to it having shat down snow throughout the night.
Nervous energy and the fact we were in a cold shed with no proper insulation meant shivering through the breakfast motions, conversation flirting briefly with the subject of a potential 12km hike through snow with twice that in dead weight over our shoulders. These mountain boys no longer feared distance pedalled, but frosty trudging is an altogether different beast.
On the subject of dead weights; the bikes were still coated in their magical layer of frozen snow, lining the overhang of the hut like long-forgotten torture instruments. We took pictures and (I) frolicked through the knee-deep snow to use the facilities. Happily the dunny door was frozen open rather than closed, all but eliminating the common drop toilet stank of a million four wheel driver’s mid-strength beer movements. The scene made for some breathtaking Clif bar exorcisms.
Faffing concluded and all too aware of the constant snowfall we tidied our rickety lodgings, took a murky group shot and pushed out into the snowdrift. The apparition of a trail tumbled downward and disappeared into the white haze, swallowing whoever was unlucky enough to be breaking first tracks. From the outset, it was clear that riding wouldn’t be an option as snow amalgamated on all parts of our useless vehicles including those intended to rotate. At that moment I’d have surely parted with a testicle to swap the Wolverine for a snowboard. Or a dustbin lid, or anything that was particularly smooth or that wasn’t a heavy bike coated in snow and ice.
I’d anticipated overheating quickly, but it only took a couple hundred meters for my body to feel like the interior of an Uncle Ben’s Rice Medley pouch on 900w. The snow depth ranged from around 40-60cm as we descended ponderously, aided only by the steepness. We trod cautiously, keeping an eye out for any Mr. Tumnus’ or other hoofed beasts that may have been laying in wait. I pondered what sort of vehicle mountain rescue would use to get up there.
Back at the cruel switchback from our pitch black push the road levelled to provide our first taste of the hardship to come. With no gravity to assist every movement was a grind as we slotted into an already trodden line, or out front ploughing and panting through the winter chunderland. It’s not often you get to be in a place of such intense majesty without the energy to properly enjoy it.
The stretch from the hut turn off showed glimpses of slightly less than knee deep powder and though knackered we tried our hands at veering downhill, legs outstretched and perineum poised for annihilation above respective top tubes. When the effort of picking oneself up off the ground with a mangled bike became too much hassle we continued to push.
I popped a final frozen energy ball into my mouth with a fist-of-snow chaser. The whole not having any way to hydrate had become a bit sinister thanks to the sweaty exertion and the small streams by the wayside were obscured by snow and ice. Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.
A few upward pitches were all we needed to know that the push back up to Refrigerator Gap would require some heavy work. Until then it was mostly up and down, in keeping with our emotions. By the time we reached our nemesis, we’d become a well oiled pushing peloton, taking turns to bury ourselves out front in the tidal waves of snowy bullshit while barely progressing.
On that note, I’d invite you to join in an immersive reading experience. All you need is:
1. A treadmill with the option of a 30% incline
2. All of the clothes you own including that shit scarf that dwells deep under your jackets
3. A freezer into which your head will fit when using the above treadmill
4. An unquenchable thirst
5. A hessian sack full of scaffolding poles with a flimsy drawstring opening
To play simply put on all of those clothes with the scarf wrapped around your head, position the treadmill in front of the freezer and set it to motorbike jump mode while opening the freezer compartment and cramming your bonce in between that Findus lasagne and the open bag of 3-year-old hash browns. Finally, hoist that sack o’ scaffolds up onto your shoulder and pop the treadmill onto medium difficulty. This is weekend living…
It seemed like hours of upward grind, periodically switching to the other side of the bike when all the muscles had finally seized down the sides of our bodies. I was all but certain of arriving home to my girlfriend with a body like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Why would anyone bother with this bullshit otherwise? More like Pitt of despair. Amirite?
FridgeGap (energy saving brevity) appeared through the falling snow, looking nothing at all like it had before. We’d been through some shit since our last visit and haunted faces told the story. I’ll also continue to tell the story by telling you that we drank nips of Luke’s whisky, exchanged weary banter and quietly hoped we might be able to ride our fucking bikes for a bit.
This proved true in part as we engaged in more out of control downhill weaving, gooches hovering in anticipation. The streams were reappearing now so we’d slip into their foot wide gaps to roll somewhat unfettered for a few meters here and there. Snow gathered at the Wolverine’s bottom bracket in an icy amalgam, but at last we were moving forward with surprisingly warm appendages.
A stop to gaze from whence we came and reflect on how fucking high Big Mr. Bluff was.
Several more clicks of mostly up followed before we reached 8 Mile Gap, this time with no shortage of snow. The gang regrouped, each rummaging in bags for the thermals needed to survive the next phase: Downhill Coldbois of Bluff Hut.
As we pushed off the snow thinned quickly thinned enough to gain speed, gamely collected like a Noughties schoolchild with Pokemon shinies. Bodies fully coated with freezing slush as the white transitioned to brown, shit got cold fast. What followed was one of the most miserable descents I’ve ever made on a bike. Yanking on the brake levers with frozen, unfeeling fingers as all heat was drawn to the front of my body and blasted off into the ether. Fuck this, take me back to the trudging through snow shite. ARGHHHH.
Corners came and went, brakes squealing to a semi-stop, the group mostly off in the distance reaping the rewards of flat-bar braking.
I became convinced my spine had frozen on reaching the bottom, blasting alone through the fern strewn gully with pelting rain, hoping it wouldn’t shatter when clattering over baby head rocks that crumbled from the mountainside.
Rain, heh. The chicaning mountain road offered more climbing than I remembered from the day prior. The feeling even returned to areas of the body I’d written off as frostbitten/gangrenous/both and I finally caught Todd to resume usual pace for the next eight or so kilometres over choppy, chocolate milk doused ground.
We huddled under an overhang on reaching Noonan’s Hut as the road began to level at the river. One of those moments on an adventure when you start to question your life choices. At least it wasn’t Fry’s hut.
Earlier talk of a lunch stop gladly evaporated and with the last of our group catching we set about getting that shit done. Up and out of the flats it was back to the grind, wringing our poor quads of any lactic acid that might still be lurking in there. Al went off like a demented grandma on a mobility scooter, characteristically upright with legs churning and a jangling Wald basket surely fished from an urban river. I followed in a bid to keep pace, watching helplessly as Goat(ee) Man rolled casually upward at an almost comically steep angle and off into the distance. Catching him at the top we returned to the site of the 2018 Tanks Skidding Down A Steep Fucking Hill Championships, for a terrifying descent with added dampness. Gingerly skidding and hopping across deep water runoff scars we tried to scrub speed, mostly met with the *SKRTTTT* of wheels finding no traction. It was 4PM and daydreaming of hot meals became increasingly commonplace.
We were spat out again at the swollen riverside – the one that tried to claim Tom’s shoe, but with another 40cm of raging rainwater to keep us on our frozen toes. No time to be wasted de-socking here as we plunged in on unsteady feet, bikes held aloft on weak arms.
Successfully through and utterly soaked the Adventure Gods delivered hardship afresh. A child’s balloon of a front tyre with no obvious clue as to the puncture culprit. Some furious pumping with the upper body baguettes and we made our run at the climbing wall of a fire road up to the singletrack. What felt like a lengthy stage yesterday seemed to sprawl on forever through the dull light of the misty valley. In pairs we navigated the steep descents that’d provided fast flow what felt like weeks ago.
Another stop to pump the blancmange tyre as the rain finally faltered. We must be close? A savage mudchute of a descent back down, legs scratched to pieces on fascist flora. A brief crash into a ditch after overcooking it on a water bar.
*baked quail and/or confit goose*
Onwards! No time for pictures. Close now! We passed that glorious view of the Howqua.
The trail pitched finally with a familiar off-camber, slick from hours of rain as we caught sight of our obedient cars. Phantom visions of food were held at bay with an emergency bag of chips in the Peugeot and all that remained was to peel off soaking, filth crusted clothes, formulate a smash n’ grab pizza operation in Mansfield and get the fuck out of dodge.
It was my third time eating those mediocre dough discs but the battle to claim them made it all the more delicious. I’m sad to say that I didn’t come home with the dream bod I was hoping for, but the company was great.
“Close your eyes and you’ll feel like you’re in Napoli boys,” said nobody at the table.
I’d rate the trip as Fairly Dangerous and Fucking Hard. I can honestly say that without such a great unit of all-out tough nuts it wouldn’t have been possible. Despite the crucial hardships not a single (audible) complaint was made and everyone just got shit done, which is what you need when the brown stuff’s is hitting the fan at so many angles you’re picking it out if your quiff. That’ll do for the high country stuff till the weather sorts its shit out.
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