What's New in July 2016
LARGE Format - Suitable for enormous prints metres wide
The first time I hiked into Craigs Hut via Mt Stirling was some 30 years ago. Back then I was a kid with a camera, enjoying the company of my father (sadly now passed). We schlepped our packs over the steep terrain and finally set up our little tent near the hut only to be astonished when a busload of tourists arrived by road.
Since then I've revisited, by foot, or by car, nearly every year. I've seen it in all seasons, and watched it and its environment change over time. The loss of the alpine grazing, bushfires (at least once resulting in the hut being rebuilt), and abundant regrowth have all played a role in its transformation. It remains, however, an icon. Forged by its role in the classic Australian drama movie "The Man from Snowy River", and woven into legend by decades of visitors flocking to the picturesk locale.
So how then does one capture an image that stands out from the crowd? Winter is the answer. During the snow season the gates are locked by parks authority and there's nothing for it but to don some snow shoes or cross country skis and have at it. It's a crippling walk at the best of times, requiring you to summit Mt Stirling twice before the return journey is complete. The result, however, is that it is very possible to have the place to oneself, even on a weekend.
With this plan in mind I've made several winter assaults over the years. Sometimes it was frustrating. I can recall arriving once only to find the snow stopped literally metres from the hut. At other times there was nice coverage, but it had already melted off the hut roof, or the weather gave me nothing in terms of colour in the sky or light on the building. Suffice it say I've put a great deal of effort into this scene. Well finally this year it all came together, fresh snow even on the hut roof, not a single footprint, lovely sky, and direct golden light. Magic!
Driving up in the night I arrived at the base of the mountain in good time and began to gear up. My camera equipment is very, very heavy, but I'm not prepared to compromise in that department, so instead I all but eliminated the camping stuff. No tent, no sleeping bag, no stove, no fuel, basically none of the myriad items you'd usually take. Just some warm clothes, three litres of water and a little food. Even then the pack weighed considerably more than most would carry for an overnight hike.
Heading off into the dark with my snow shoes and head torch I immediately noticed the ski trails were not groomed, and that mine were the only tracks. This boded very well in terms of having the place to myself, but did cast an aura of isolation over my efforts.
I made the summit in good time, but was very fatigued by the steep gradient. Rather than hang about getting cold, I plunged straight down towards Craigs Hut pushing myself onwards. The track loses hard earned altitude very quickly, then eventually deposits you beside the iconic shack after some hours. I got there with maybe a few minutes to spare before dawn, completely exhausted but driven on by my excitement at the perfect conditions.
Being very familiar with the scene I needed little time to compose. I shot through the sunrise and morning, then lay down inside the hut for some much needed, though fitful sleep disturbed by bouts of shivers. I rose in the afternoon and continued shooting through until sunset, utilising my big umbrella to keep falling snow and wind off the camera.
By this stage my water was gone and I was down to chewing on snow. I had no intension, however, of adding pack weight so began the return journey sans liquid, opting instead to sip from the little snow melts beside the track.
As I regained Mt Stirling summit my legs were like jelly and it was well dark, but I figured I'd broken the back of it. I also noticed some other hikers, sensible ones, camped in one of the summit huts and the trails had been groomed in my absence. I headed down towards my car, picking the black ski runs and any other shortcuts I could find.
The hours wore on as I trudged. Plod, plod. One foot in front of the other, my mind dozing, and my world reduced to the dim circle of torchlight. I started to regret not hiring skis. Although I'm rubbish on them I could have slid down so much faster. Would probably hit a tree knowing my luck. Plod, plod. My knees are taking a beating from so much downhill.
A sign says 3km to go. I'm jubilant for a while, but it feels like the longest 3km walk in the history of mankind. My back aches from the weight. I flop down on the track and have an involuntary cat nap right there in the wet. Should have filled a water bottle. Probably dehydrated. Get up and move! I know there's a chocolate bar in the car which I'd stupidly left behind because I don't usually eat the stuff. I use that thought to lure my weary body into action and drag myself the remaining distance.
Finally the car comes into view. I strip off all the wet gear, get into dry clothes, crank up the heater (it's minus 5 degrees), scull water, scoff the chocolate and I'm almost human again. Total walking time 6.5hrs in, 5 hours out. I'm knackered, but it sinks in that I've captured, at long last, a shot I've been dreaming about and working towards for the last 30 years and a smile spreads across my face.
Above: For anyone wanting to really fill a wall I've alternative versions of these scenes covering a much wider aspect ratio. Send me an email if you'd like a super-wide print from the Megapans Gallery.