My brother, a friend and I recently attempted to hike the length of the Stirling Ridge Walk in the Stirling Ridge National Park in southern Western Australia. We've all done a reasonable amount of bush walking and made some attempt to get fit so we figured we'd give it a go.
The day before the hard work began we drove south. On the way we stopped at Katanning's all ages park. Its a scaled up playground more suitable for adults than children although I remember spending many hours playing there as a child. I'm really not sure how I survived to be an adult sometimes.
After a few trips down the slides and a near injury we headed on our way. We made our way to the Stirling Ridge Retreat where we had a spot reserved for us to camp. All that was left for the day was a meal and to get to sleep ready for the big day that was to follow.
We were planning on hiking the length of the ridge over three days going east to west. This would see us first ascending Ellen's Peak before making our way along the ridge to Bluff Knoll. Bluff Knoll is a bit of a tourist draw with a road going much of the way to the summit. Easy access combined with fantastic views mean there's usually a fair number of people to be found on Bluff Knoll. The rest of the ridge however is entirely different matter with some people completing the length of the ridge without encountering anyone else. There is also no road access to any other point along the ridge.
Water is a major issue. There is no reliable source of water on the ridge. There is a water barrel in a cave that collects drips of water however its frequently empty or unavailable for reasons ranging from lack of rain to dead animals floating in it. That means you need to carry all of your water with you. You can expect to go through 3 to 6 liters of water a day (0.8 to 1.5 US gallons/day). If you're going to be up there for 3 days that means you need to carry an awful lot of water. Water easily contributed at least 50% of our total pack weight.
Dawn arrived and we quickly packed and were shuttled to as near as possible to the eastern edge of the ridge. From there it was just a matter of a 5km (3.1 miles) trek along a firebreak to a small trail. Just another hour or so and we had reached the base of the ridge!
From the base it looked steep. It did not disappoint.
The first ascent was a continuous uphill that, at times, saw us scrambling on all fours. We very quickly left the flat plains behind and continued ever upwards. As we reached the top of the first ascent and paused to catch our breath another group of three men passed us. We chatted briefly about our plans before they went on their way. Slightly refreshed we started the second ascent that would take us to the base of Ellen's Peak itself.
There was a lot more vegetation in this section and the path became unclear. It's not really marked apart from the very occasional cairn (a stack of rocks used to indicate the presence of humans) and boot print symbol set into a rock. Annoyingly the officially path clue symbols, the boot print, were often found at a fork and gave no indication which way you should go. There's no photos of this as we were too busy figuring out which way we should be going. We had to double back a number of times but, undeterred, we arrived at the foot of Ellen's Peak.
Ellen's Peak itself looked even more steep up close and we quickly came to a unanimous decision that it would be too dangerous to try to climb it while wearing our packs. The wind was really picking up (and would eventually reach gale force as a storm headed our way). The combination of having approximately 15kg (33 lbs) in a pack that at times felt like it was doubling as a wind sail made the idea of clinging to the side of a mountain seem laughably dangerous. We made the decision to go around the peak itself, drop our packs in the saddle between Ellen's Peak and Pyungoorup Peak then climb the peak without our weighty packs/wind sails.
Circumventing Ellen's Peak meant traveling along what looked like a relatively gentle slope covered by bush surrounding the peak. It was border on one side by the sheer side of Ellen's peak and on the either by a sheer drop to the plain below. Once into the bush visibility was extremely limited and we were frequently forced to push our way through the abundant plant life. It was quickly apparent that the ground beneath the canopy was in fact extremely uneven, very steep in parts and featured the occasional drop off. The drop offs in particular forced us to back track several times. If there's one thing better than dragging yourself and your pack through dense undergrowth its dragging yourself and your pack through dense undergrowth, encountering a drop off, having to go back the way you came before looping around the obstacle through yet more dense undergrowth. Eventually however we reached the saddle between Ellen's Peak and Pyungoorup Peak.
At this point we were seriously behind schedule. We were also tired and had consumed more water than was expected. Staring up at Ellen's Peak we decided to forgo climbing the peak altogether. The saddle was devoid of any vegetation above knee high and standing there with the wind buffeting us we decided that we would leave the peak itself for a calmer day. Instead we began making our way west along the ridge and up Pyungoorup Peak.
Half way up we ran into that group of three guys except this time they were coming back towards us. They all looked uninjured but we made our way towards them and, while standing looking out over the countryside far below us, we had a serious discussion with these three strangers.
Like us, they were making their way towards a particular cave where we all intended to spend the night. Given the gale force winds no one was keen to spend the night on the exposed mountain side. Like us they had encountered a multitude of problems making their way through the bush. Once they had made their way clear of Pyungoorup Peak they had made a few attempts to find the cave but had been foiled by steep drop offs.
With limited sunlight remaining and, no doubt, with their nerves frayed by an apparent surprise encounter with a stomach churning drop they had decided to turn back and make for home. This raised an interesting question for us. Did we want to push on and try to find the cave knowing that failure would mean spending the night huddled on the mountain side? Or should we turn back?
We decided to take a break. We would all sit down, drink a little water, have something to eat and then make a decision. While we needed to decide quickly it was nothing that couldn't wait a few minutes. We sat ourselves down, got out of the wind the best we could and took in the wonderful view.
Finally, it was deciding time. After a brief discussion we decided that, given the navigational challenges we had faced so far, it would most likely take longer to find the cave than was previously thought. Would we be able to find it by sunset? A night on the side of the mountain would not be fun and moving around in the dark, even with appropriate lighting, could be potentially life threatening. And once we made it to morning, did we even have enough water left to complete the entire ridge? With at least two days worth of ridge ahead of us and only one days worth behind us there were too many questions and we decided to turn back.
We simply didn't have the time to make it all the way off the mountain however a few hours back we had passed a camp site that looked suitable for our needs. There's not a lot of sheltered flat clear ground up there so we quickly decided to make our way back there. Better to make for a known site along a path we've just traveled than to race the sun making for a site none of us had been to.
Progress making our way mostly down hill along a path we know knew was much more rapid. It was aided not only by familiarity with the route but also by our sudden abundance of water. Without the long journey ahead there was no need to limit our water intake so we all happily drank our fill.
We arrived at the camp site shortly before sun down and quickly set up for the evening. We were all exhausted so we ate and went quickly to sleep despite the howling wind. I slept heavily although I was plagued by dreams of being blown off the mountain.
In the morning we packed up and were on our way. Yesterday's wind had given way to dense fog. Visibility was not great but it did give the place a dreamlike quality that was quite pleasant.
As we continued on our way we were able to get phone reception allowing us to call the Stirling Ridge Retreat and ask to be picked up at our drop off location. The rest of the descent was fairly uneventful as we made steady progress down to the plains, along the winding trail back to the fire break. From there it was just a matter of following the fire break 5km to the pick up point.
Once we had been picked up our savior consoled us. He himself had attempted the ridge walk many times and had been successful in only about a third of his attempts. Once we arrived back at the retreat were were provided with a collection of stories of other peoples experiences on the ridge. Apparently they used to give this information to people BEFORE they attempted it but found that that caused lots of cancellations.
Highlights of the stories included two men attempting the ridge during a week of 40+ degree days (104+ Fahrenheit) only to find themselves hypothermic after a cold snap on the ridge. They were in fact so cold that they were unable to work the buttons on their phone to answer a phone call asking if they needed assistance. Another group became so dehydrated that some members began to hallucinate and had to be restrained to prevent them doing themselves harm (like running off a cliff). Another group found themselves largely blinded by a surprise mountain top rain storm despite it being summer, got lost, climbed down a cliff thinking that would get them back to where they should be, realized the were now effectively in a deep hole surrounded by wet slippery rock face and ultimately had to resort to tying a rope around one individual before physically hauling them up a cliff face to get back to their original lost water soaked starting point.
Most of these situations were resolved by groups either limping to Bluff Knoll to get assistance from passing tourists or by groups being evacuated by helicopter.
Their stories certainly helped to make us feel better about calling off our attempt. None of us had any desire to have our story added to the list of examples of the Stirling Ridge taking its toll. As we were reading these stories heavy rain began to pour down. Had we still been on the ridge this would have resolved our water shortage as we had suitable gear for collecting rain water. We would have also been getting pounded by torrential rain so there were mixed feelings as to whether or not the rain would have been good or bad for us had we continued.
They say you learn more from failure than from success. Maybe its true. Here are some things we learned:
1) If at all possible include a member in your group who has previously completed the Stirling Ridge Walk. This greatly reduces any navigation challenges you may face. Doubling back wastes a lot of time and energy.
2) Cut every gram of weight and every cubic millimetre of volume from your gear that you can. The reason for cutting weight should be obvious. Pay attention to the volume of your gear to. If you have to make your way though dense bush constantly having your pack snag is a real, well, drag. It slows you down and wastes energy.
3) Try to pack food that needs zero preparation and don't need water added. That means no dehydrated food. Having to prepare food takes time and energy. Also, in an environment like the Stirling Ridge Walk water is at a premium. Having to allocate part of your limited water supply to cooking makes things hard. Personally, I've come to the conclusion that for the duration of the journey you should forgo taste and settle for a combination of something like nuts, spinach and dried beef, all of which can go straight in your mouth without preparation or the addition of water.
4) Get really fit. And running on flat ground or even up and down hills won't do it. Go find the steepest hill or set of stairs you can, put on a heavy pack and climb up an down it. There is a place in Perth called Jacob's Ladder that would be perfect.
5) If you have a copy of the guide book by Morphet be aware that his time estimates may prove to be extremely optimistic unless you are an experienced mountain climber.
6) You're probably better off going east to west as we did rather than west to east. Going east to west means finishing at Bluff Knoll. It is a large obvious end point that is visible in most conditions. Also, it means you are starting at the most remote end and working you way back towards both human beings and road access.