Discovering new rides: Mt Hotham the hard way
There may not be an easy way to ride up the Hors Categorie (HC)-rated Victorian climb of Mt Hotham, but there sure is a hard way. It’s a route that makes the grindingly slow steep sections on the traditional road climb, like the Meg, seem less intimidating and the long unrelenting descent an easy roll down. There are rocks, icy river crossings and climbs that can make a pace of five kilometres an hour seem like an achievement. Though it’s not a ride that’s about being masochistic and miserable because all thoughts of ‘why bother’ quickly disappear once the scenery unfolds. The views alone make tackling Hotham the hard way worthwhile, and there is so much more.
A couple of years back I’d never really thought about climbing Mt Hotham any way other than via the main road from Harrietville. The mountain had thrown enough challenges at me this way, challenges that went beyond the steep gradients of the Meg and CRB Hill.
My first attempt on one of Victoria’s toughest road climbs included summer sleet, a close encounter with a passing car (so close that my brake lever was scratched) and howling winds near the top that whipped the bike sideways. Feeling cold, vulnerable and defeated, I turned around shortly before I reached the top. Mt Hotham had shown it was a challenge worthy of respect, but it was a while before I felt like attempting it again and I opted for many other mountains instead. However, years later that sense of unfinished business eventually drew me back, and this time my experience was so much different.
It was a sunny warm day, with blue skies and I got to climb at a leisurely pace while I had a chat with other cyclists on the way. Hundreds were on the mountain for a Domestique ride, a series designed to help cyclists tackle some of the toughest climbs in the Victorian Alps. It was a pleasant, relaxing morning out on the bike, there was even energy left for another ride that afternoon. While it was great to have conquered the 30-kilometre long climb with an average gradient of 4.2%, the fact that it yielded so easily this time after I had long held this image of it as a monstrous climb, was a little deflating. Sure, next time I could try and make it more of a challenge by riding faster, but Mt Hotham had lost some of its mystery and with it, its appeal. Well for a few hours at least…
That afternoon following a family mountain bike ride in Mt Beauty we saw two cyclocross bikes on a parked car that my bike-loving husband and I couldn’t resist inspecting a little more closely. A conversation with the couple that owned them about what riding they had been doing in the area ensued. When I mentioned that I’d ridden up Mt Hotham that morning they started telling us about this incredible long and exhausting day they had out on the bikes riding up Mt Hotham, going straight up from Mt Beauty.
I was a little puzzled, there wasn’t any road up that way, but of course there were dirt tracks and fire trails. The moment I heard this story of working up to Mt Hotham over rough rocky terrain with ridiculous gradients, through rivers and isolated bush, the mountain got its appeal back.
That night we got out the trusty worn map of the area and plotted a course over fire roads and tracks from Mt Beauty to the top of Mt Hotham. We knew it was possible, now we just had to do it. Life and the weather kept getting in the way but my mind kept wandering back to that ride and finally more than year later it was time to find a different path to the top of Mt Hotham.
We decided to ride mountain bikes and take the car in part of the way on the dirt roads that ran past one of our favourite climbs in the area, Big Hill, and then down toward the West Kiewa River. We would stop before the river crossings and cut the return trip to 45 kilometres with around one and half thousand metres of climbing.
That made it sound comparatively easy and we started off feeling pretty relaxed about what lay ahead. After all, we had much of the day and only 22 kilometres to go to the top of Mt Hotham at an average gradient of 5.3% – how hard could it be? It started with the difficulty free riding of the hard packed dirt and the mostly gradual climbs of the West Kiewa logging road. The river crossings were made easier by the low water levels. Even so, we did decide to walk a couple of them in case those ripples of the water hid a rock jutting out or a deeper patch. It seemed sensible to save the potential dunking that could came from riding through a river for the way back.
We came across the odd person taking advantage of a peaceful river campsite, a lyrebird running across the path and the old skiers and cattlemen’s shelter of Blair Hut. The slowly burning off fog revealed the height of the surrounding mountains looming above. When we first checked our progress on the map we were convinced we had plenty of time to stop, take photos and enjoy the scenery. We had reached the battery for the old heritage listed Red Robin gold mine, the halfway point, with ease.
The road ahead was now closed to vehicles and had a caution sign, warning that after a recent bushfire there was a high risk of falling trees and branches, dislodged rocks and deteriorated track surfaces. What it didn’t warn us about was how steep the path ahead was.
In front of us we had five kilometres with an average gradient over 10% on a road scattered with debris fallen from trees and loose rocks. To put that in perspective, one of the toughest grinds on the main road up to Mt Hotham is CRB Hill. It also averages 10% but for about a fifth of the distance, and there are no big rocks on that road that you need to keep momentum to roll over. At times when I looked down at my GPS to see why it seemed so impossible to pedal, I was greeted with gradient readings that flicked into the 20’s and 30’s. I would have welcomed the Meg’s 0.2 kilometres at 10%, as I struggled up pinches averaging around 30%.
The slog up from the battery to the actual mine seemed far longer than a few kilometres, and the speed dipped below three kilometres an hour at times. That’s when I began to think it would be faster to walk. Then I got to test that theory as I had no choice but to walk.
The tough climb had its rewards however. We were no longer looking up to the mountain tops, but straight out to a horizon full of them. There was that sense of being on top of the world and towns, sealed roads and the swarms of people holidaying in the area were all hidden amongst the mountain ranges, so you were just looking out to a vast wilderness. The only signs of civilisation were the rough road we were riding on and the rusted vestiges of the old mine that looked like little had altered since it was first established in the middle of last century.
Still, the climbing wasn’t over yet, the steep gradients didn’t abate and if anything the surface got more difficult to manage. At least with views of Mt Feathertop and the Razorback unfolding it seemed a little easier because there was a sense of how much height had been gained.
Before long we were onto the less well defined track of Machinery Spur, where the tall trees gave way to heathy undergrowth and clumps of eerie snowgums. As we worked our way toward Mt Loch, our high point, the view of Mt Hotham ahead was a welcome sight. The riding was spectacular but we had been out on the bike for hours, with that last ten kilometres inching by at a ridiculously low speed, and were beginning to wonder if the slow pace would stop us reaching our destination before our self imposed deadline for turning around.
By the time we had wound past a chair lift and some ski fields to reach our destination, the Great Alpine Road on Mt Hotham, the shorter 22 kilometre climb by dirt had taken me about a third longer than my last ascent of 30 kilometres on the road.
There was time for a quick break, before we turned back and retraced our path and replaced the challenge of climbing with that of bumping our way down a rough, steep descent and most importantly not stacking and wrecking our bikes or ourselves in the middle of nowhere.
Now it seemed kind of nice that there had been plenty of time to look out at the view as we were grinding our way up. On the way down I didn’t dare take my eye off the road ahead, in case I failed to veer around a particularly large rock or fell into a rut that would run me off the edge off the road to whatever steep fall was at the side. Sitting on the saddle wasn’t an option for much of the way down either as legs were needed as extra suspension and the body weight had to be moved quickly to manage whatever the next loose or uneven surface that seemed to want to buck you off the bike was. It was a little scary, but one hell of a lot of fun, and it seemed no time till we were back to the more mild gradients and river crossings near where we started our journey.
This time without the threat of hours of riding in wet clothes ahead we were a little more game to stay on the bike to cross the rivers. Making it through without a dunking, but with a few close calls, was enough to leave us finishing the last stretch to the car with adrenaline pumping and big satisfied grins on our faces.
It was an exhilarating and tough enough ride to add to the allure of Mt Hotham and remind me how much fun taking a punt and exploring the unknown can be. Though, now with more knowledge of the path ahead I’m looking forward to next time leaving the car behind and rolling out the front door in Mt Beauty to take on a full 100 kilometre dirt return trip with over 2500 metres of climbing. The map is all ready, so maybe I’ll manage to get around to this next ascent sometime before 2018.
If you decide to take on this trip or one like it here are a few things that might help:
- Take extra precautions to keep safe when going remote. There was no phone reception for most of the ride and for extended patches there was no easy vehicle access so it pays to let someone know where you are going and be well prepared. We had additional food, water, first aid supplies (particularly snake bandages given the number we’d seen in the previous couple of days), extra layers of clothing, a personal emergency beacon and fortunately some extra bike repair basics. That quick chain link tucked in the bag meant a snapped chain on the ride only resulted in a couple of minutes extra in repair time rather than a really, really long walk.
- Don’t forget to take a map. It’s easy when you are riding in populated areas to get in the habit of relying on your phone to look up your location, but you don’t want to get caught out relying on this option when there is no reception.
- Consider the weather. Even in the middle of summer the weather in alpine areas can be vile and you will be crossing icy cold rivers, riding with wet feet and possibly more (its damn hard to stay upright sometimes crossing a river, even when walking with bike shoes on slippery rocks). It’s a ride best saved for a day when it’s not too cold, but of course not so hot and windy that fire danger becomes an issue.
- Choose your shoes carefully. Believe me, you will be walking at one stage or another. It may be through rivers with slippery rocks where you desperately want some grip or up steep climbs with a loose surface so wear some bike shoes with a bit of grip and perhaps not your best ones. The state of my shoes after this ride, with chunks of rubber hanging off and deep indents, has given me the perfect excuse to go and get that new pair I’ve been eyeing off.