Mt Buller ice climbing

Ice climbing at the Waterfall, Mt Buller. Photo: David Ridley.

 

Good ice climbing in Victoria is hard to come by. There aren't many places in Victoria with ideal characteristics for technical ice climbing. For instance, on Mt Bogong ice rarely forms waterfall-style formations, because its steeper areas lack precipitation (water runoff). Mt Feathertop isn't steep or craggy enough. Whereas, Mt Buller's south and west faces are steep, with rock buttresses and gullies. In my opinion, it's the best place in Victoria to practice mountaineering skills. That is, moving on steep snow and ice with crampons and ice axes.


Who Should Climb at Mt Buller?

Mt Buller is not for the inexperienced. If you don't possess the specialist skills required to read the landscape, things can go horribly wrong very quickly. To climb here, you need to have done a Technical Mountaineering Course, or have the proper equipment and sound experience in mountain environments. It's not a place to learn to climb. Rather, it can be a good spot to get a bit of climbing in between overseas mountaineering trips, in the right conditions.

In the wrong conditions, frost-loosened rock, sub-optimal snow/rime cover and rapidly changing weather can make all the climbs here unsafe for anyone – no matter your experience.


The Climbing Style

It's similar to Scottish winter climbing. That is, a combination of rock, ice, snow, and even turf. You're not climbing a huge mountain; it's more like winter cragging.

There are many lines and rocky/snowy ridges to clamber up. You can even create a mini mountaineering mission, pitching up to the Waterfall. It's 40- to 45-degree snow most of the way, 60 for a few metres, and then up the Waterfall itself, culminating in about three pitches.

Ice climbing at Mt Buller demands a style that's creative. For instance, you might need to use ice screws for one section, and bash in a piton, place a nut or use an axe or deadman anchor in the next. The rock can be loose, and ice and snow may be all that's holding it firmly in place. So, finding solid protection can be challenging.

Mt Buller ice climbing

When to Go

The problem with Mt Buller – like many potential ice climbing areas in Victoria – is that conditions are rarely in.

You need significant precipitation and cold for a number of days. If it's been cold for a few days, the ground will be cold, which means that when snow lands, it won't melt. Snow and ice will build.

For ice to form, what you want is that freeze-thaw cycle. Generally, the temperature is always above zero during the day. But, ideally, you want the temperature to have been comfortably below zero (say, -3 to -6 degrees Celsius) for four to five days straight, to have a shot.

Obviously, a cold snap can happen at any time during winter. For your best chances, you have to be flexible during the months of July and August.

It's not uncommon for people to make the trip to Mt Buller multiple times and find conditions average, at best. At worst though, you'll be taking a walk in the snow in a beautiful environment. So, it's worth checking it out.


Where People Climb

The main area where people go ice climbing is called the Waterfall Gully. It has a vertical section, and a climb with top anchors (if you can find it in the snow!). There are also lines to the left and to the right. If conditions are in, you can actually do quite a lot of fun and fairly challenging ice climbing here.

If you're confident and comfortable climbing with crampons and ice axes, the standout routes are climbs in the Waterfall Gully area, and a route called Way Out West. The latter's crux section can have an icicle-tied anchor!

In the past, when I've gone to Mt Buller for ice climbing, we'd set off at 5am and arrive just in time for the first lifts to get going. We'd get a Scenic Chairlift pass to get us up to Spurs Lookout, walk up over the summit and down the West Ridge to get to the fun stuff. We'd be climbing by 9–9.30am.

The South Face offers more easy-angled options. It's a great environment to hone cramponing and ice axe techniques in preparation for a mountaineering trip.

Mt Buller ice climbing

Dangers

There are quite a few bluffs where if you lose your footing, you could slide off.

Also, it's easy to get disoriented if the weather closes in. It would be very easy to get lost and make bad decisions, even though you may be fairly close to the resort.

Later in the day, when the ice melts, climbing gets more dangerous. The sun warms the mountain, which means you can get big chunks of ice falling off. Tip: Arrive and start climbing early; finish by lunchtime.


More information on Mt Buller: The information at this link is out-of-date, but there's an email listed if you want to find out more. http://www.chockstone.org/MtBulla/MtBulla.htm

More information on ice climbing: To learn to ice climb, consider a Technical Mountaineering Course. If you're based in Australia, generally the closest place to learn alpine skills is by completing a course in New Zealand.


Bogong Equipment sells a range of mountaineering equipment. Visit us, email us or call us (03 9600 0599).


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