Sunday, 28 April 2013

Frenchmans Cap - Walk Description

Northward view from the Lake Tahune helipad around sunset.
Northward view from the Lake Tahune helipad around sunset.
The Frenchmans Cap area is one of the most spectacular parts of Tasmania. It is wild, remote and quite inaccessible, except for the one track leading from the Lyell Highway to the summit. Walkers usually take three to five days to climb Frenchmans and return. Longer itineraries provide more opportunities to reach the summit. Parties need to be fully prepared for poor weather, and accept that the weather may mean they cannot climb the peak.


In common with many other Tasmanian walks, Frenchmans Cap has obvious hazards - precipitous cliffs, snakes and poor weather. People often under-estimate Tasmanian weather. It can be bad enough to cause hypothermia in any season, and deep snow can fall on the higher peaks at any time of year. Read this guide before undertaking walks in Tasmania. Although not to be relied on, there is Telstra 3G access from the summit and other high points along the track. the carrying of a registered personal locater beacon (PLB) is recommended.

Distances and times

The walk is 27km each way from the Lyell Highway. Walking times will vary significantly depending on fitness. I think it is occasionally daywalked in 12 -15 hours return by extremely fit and experienced "walkers", but for most of us this is beyond reach. The Loddon Plains are about to be largely circumvented, which will reduce walking time and improve comfort on the first section. Approximate one-way times are:
  • Lyell Highway to Lake Vera - 5 to 7 hours
  • Lake Vera to Lake Tahune - 3 1/2 to 5 hours
  • Lake Tahune to Summit - 1 to 1 1/2 hours
The Lions Head, just to the north of Frenchmans Cap.
The Lions Head, just to the north of
Frenchmans Cap.

Choosing an itinerary

Very fit parties walk from the highway to Lake Tahune in a long day, but for most people walking this whole distance on their first day is not a good option. A three-day visit would normally be undertaken by walking in to Lake Vera and daywalking the summit from there. This will make for a long second day, and provides only one opportunity to reach the summit and see the view, around lunchtime on day 2.

Four-day trips would normally include a summit trip either (i) on the afternoon of day 2, having walked up to Lake Tahune in the morning, or (ii) on the morning of day 3 before walking back to Lake Vera, or even (iii) both. Five day visits allow more flexibility again, providing more opportunities to go to the summit and more leisure to take the quite arduous walking at your own pace.

A further option would be to walk out from Lake Tahune to the highway in one long day. This would be less arduous than the inward journey. Some parties also choose to walk out as far as the Loddon River and then do the last bit over Mount Mullens on a final day.

If you are not fit and experienced in this sort of walking, I strongly recommend a four or five day choice. On my recent trip, I allowed 5 days, and used them all, although I considered walking back to Lake Vera on day 3 having been to the summit that day.

Accessing the walk

Driving from Hobart, you head for Queenstown. The road is slower than you might imagine given the distance, so allow extra time. You drive to Derwent Bridge and then around 29km further on there is a large carpark and information display. Just a warning, theft from vehicles has occurred at the start of this walk in the past, although I haven't been able to determine if anyone has had trouble recently. Leave no valuable items in vehicles.

Walk description

The timing shown assumes you have allowed five days.

Day One: The walk commences descending to the Franklin River and crossing it on a suspension bridge, before turning west and undulating around the hills and across some small plains. A boot-washing station is passed, and then the track starts to rise. There is a quite solid climb to the shoulder of Mount Mullens, before the well-made track descends steadily to the Loddon River. Getting there is likely to take two hours or more. Depending on start time, this may be a good spot for lunch, and there is even a seat. You can camp here.

The Loddon River is crossed on a suspension bridge, and you are now on the (sodden) Loddon Plains. However, the track has been greatly improved over this first section. After a while, you will notice a significant deterioration however. This is the soon-to-be avoided southern section. A new track has been cut and will open sometime soon (as at Apr 2013). This track will head up Laughtons Lead, cutting off the southern Loddon Plains and Philps Lead. It will no doubt be impossible to miss once actually opened. For now, the old track heads south across the quite muddy plains - the wettest bit of the old track. It then turns southwest up Philps Lead, and this section is less muddy, although just as wet, and tends to consist of standing or flowing water in runnels. However, these runnels have mainly eroded down to the gravel beneath and make for better walking. UPDATE: The Laughtons Lead section is now open, and you will find the track should now be a doddle. Hopefully it's made well enough not to collapse into new bog holes any time soon.

At the upper end of Philps Lead (where the new track will emerges), the track re-enters the forest and climbs quite steeply over the hill and down to Rumney Creek and then the Lake Vera Hut. This hut sleeps around 20, but would be pretty cosy at that capacity. The hut has a coal stove. Firelighters are very useful for getting these started. (Visitors note, huts are unattended. You can't buy food there.) There are some tent sites further along the track, but visitors are requested to use the hut in preference.

Tahune Hut stove
Tahune Hut stove
Day Two: From Lake Vera Hut, the track twists and turns around the edge of the lake. This section of track has been upgraded in recent years which makes it easier, but progress is not rapid. At the far end of the lake, a creek is crossed on a small footbridge, and then the ascent to Barron Pass commences. This is a long, steep, wet climb, with many tree roots and slippery sections. However, it has also received a lot of attention, and many of the harder bits have been improved in recent years. This climb takes some time, but eventually you will emerge at Barron Pass, a great spot for a rest in good weather. If it is clear, you will have a magnificent view of Frenchmans Cap and surrounds from here. Alternatively, and probably just as likely, you may be inside the cloud. The pass is flanked by Sharlands Peak to the north and the ridge leading to Philps Peak to the south.

From here the track falls and climbs steeply and roughly around the slopes of Sharlands Peak. This section takes some time, and requires care with a large pack. After a while the track descends into Artichoke Valley, a wet area over-shadowed by strange rock formations. This area was severely burnt in the 1960s, and the dead pine trees are very obvious. The track climbs and falls steeply beyond here, partly on ladders, before emerging quite suddenly at the Lake Tahune Hut. This hut is spectacularly located below the northeast cliffs of the Cap, and has a helipad with grandstand views to the north, including the Eldon Range. There are a few tent sites along the track that goes to the lake shore. The hut supposedly sleeps 16, but this would be very cosy. It has a coal stove.

Lake Burbury from Frenchmans Cap
Lake Burbury from Frenchmans Cap.
Day Three: The track continues past the hut and starts to climb steeply up the obvious gully to the North Col. The track was re-routed here a long time ago, and now makes a large zigzag across terraces above Lake Tahune. The climbing here is quite easy, and the views around make for very enjoyable climbing.

Having zagged back towards the Col, the route heads more steeply up the rock to the left (south). There are some scrambly sections, including one bit some will find tricky in a gully. With care and thought, this will be passed with little difficulty for most people. In snow or ice, you will need to consider whether proceeding is actually safe given your level of skill. There are certainly a couple of spots where a slip could result in serious injury.

Misty views seen from the northern slopes of Frenchmans Cap.
Misty views seen from the northern
slopes of Frenchmans Cap.
The route is well marked and winds up the steep slopes, eventually becoming more gentle and arriving at the summit at the edge of the enormous cliff. Of course, great care is required, as a fall would be undoubtedly fatal. On a clear day, the views are astounding, and well worth the effort required to get there. Hopefully you have made time to be able to remain a while and soak it all in. You can spend a fair time wandering about the plateau.

If you have a full day for exploring the area of the peak, you can make your way to the North Col and beyond. A track heads further west along the ridge of the Lions Head, and eventually drops a long way to the Franklin River. This makes for a long return climb if followed all the way, but the first part of the ridge provides good walking and different views for those with some spare time.

The return is merely a retrace of your inward journey, and as noted above your return itinerary is up to you.

Other peaks

Nearby Sharlands Peak can be climbed relatively easily from along the track. Clytemnestra, Philps Peak and Mt Agamemnon are more complex. The book The Abels Volume 2 (Bill Wilkinson) contains descriptions of how to attain these summits. They all require off-track walking and navigational expertise.


Frenchmans Cap Walk Map and Notes - I suggest getting the laminated waterproof version from the Tasmanian Map Centre at 100 Elizabeth St, Hobart.

For really good detailed info, get the 1:25,000 maps Vera 4031 and Loddon 4032. These are also available laminated from the Map Centre as above.

Other information sources

The Parks and Wildlife Service have a page about this walk here.
The Abels Volume Two - Bill Wilkinson has good information about climbing Frenchmans Cap and surrounding high peaks.
John Chapman's South West Tasmania has a good description of the walk.

Frenchmans Cap - Four Seasons In One Hour

Clytemnestra seen from the summit of Frenchmans Cap - 1st Feb 2013
Clytemnestra seen from the summit of Frenchmans Cap
Frenchmans Cap is one of the most spectacular walking venues in Tasmania. The area is very steep, accessible with any ease only along one actual track, and potentially subject to the full variety of Tasmanian weather even in the middle of summer. Most trips take three to five days, with longer itineraries allowing more chances to climb the peak and obviously reducing the daily effort required. Overall, the walk is more challenging than walks like the Overland Track, and requires good foul-weather gear. Fortunately, the mud of the famed Loddon Plains has been partly tamed, and will shortly be largely circumvented by a new section of track.

I have provided a full walk description here which has some more photos.

My recent visit

This was my third visit to the Frenchmans Cap area. My first two were in 1998 and 1999. The first was an ill-conceived attempt by two only barely fit blokes to do Frenchmans in three days. The weather cracked up, and we were met at Barron Pass by horizontal sleet and hail, then found the creek had risen about two feet and broken its banks at the bottom of the hill when we returned there. My second visit was the next year, but was planned over five days, and in glorious weather I climbed Frenchmans Cap twice and wandered around the ridge towards the Franklin River. I was hoping for a repeat this year, but the weather forecast wasn't optimistic.

Lake Vera hut
Lake Vera hut
In the event, I had an enjoyable although occasionally uncomfortable walk, and spent an hour or so on and about the summit in chilly weather which included snow and hail. Day one was a little drizzly, with occasional moments of rain, and I walked into Lake Vera. The track has been significantly improved, and a new segment of track up Laughtons Lead is apparently nearly ready for use. I couldn't locate the ends of it, otherwise I'd have used it in preference to the southern part of the Loddon Plains and Philps Lead, which were somewhat wet and muddy, but not too bad. I heard that the new track was supposed to be opened in March, but I haven't seen it in the news. When it is complete, most of the mud will be remediated or avoided, making it a much more pleasant track.

Lake Tahune hut
Lake Tahune hut
Day two it at least drizzled all day, and was often raining properly. I climbed Barron Pass and made my way to the Tahune Hut. They have installed a stove, and this was superb for drying out wet stuff. It makes the hut a much more comfortable place. There were even some fire lighters there to give it a good start. It was very pleasant and snug sitting in the hut while the rain and hail fell around.

View of misty hills from the slopes of Frenchmans Cap
View of misty hills from the slopes
of Frenchmans Cap
Day three was quite clear although chilly at around 4am. I should have headed up the mountain then, because by 7am the clouds were swirling around again and drizzling. However, the sun broke through regularly, and I set off up the hill towards the col. After about ten minutes, a solid, lengthy shower of hail caused some indecision but it cleared quickly and the sun came out, making it feel quite like summer. The clouds cleared more as I traversed the terraces high above Lake Tahune, and the sun shone on the hills to the north, making for good photographic opportunities. At the summit, there was initially no view, and it shortly commenced snowing on me. However, after a brief descent and return, the clouds cleared quite a bit providing views to Clytemnestra, Lake Burbury and other points. The summit, at the edge of the huge cliff is a spectacular and exhilarating place, and is well worth a visit. The views are great on a clear day, and even with only partial views the precipitousness of the whole landscape is obvious.

View downwards from the summit
of Frenchmans Cap to Lake Cecily.
Returning to the hut, I decided to stay a second night and see if the weather was clearer in the morning for another trip to the summit. It hailed now and then through the afternoon. The sunset was quite attractive and I broke out the tripod on the helipad. The next morning the weather was actually worse, so it was time to head back to Lake Vera. There were occasional views down to the lakes in the valley, but drizzle accompanied me most of the way back to the Lake Vera hut. My final day was relatively clear, with just occasional drizzle and some rain. I couldn't locate the southern end of the new track segment, so I had to plod down Philps Lead and up the Loddons again. A hamburger at Derwent Bridge for late lunch was very welcome.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Grey Mountain - 13th April 2013

Rain over Huonville from
Grey Mountain - 13th April 2013
I'm a bit out of sequence here, but I will go back and add in a couple of walks soon including Frenchmans Cap and Chalice Lake/Cathedral Mountain. Meanwhile, on a sometimes rainy Saturday, I went to Grey Mountain.

This walk commences from Van Morey Road, Margate, (see map here) and offers views of the Huon and the mountains beyond. On the strength of this, it makes it into Walk the Huon, and I've updated the walk description there. The track and mountain are within what is now known as Snug Tiers Nature Recreation Area. This appears to be a sort of reserve in which 4WD vehicles and motorcycles are allowed, but the area is protected from some things, such as the taking of firewood not being allowed. If you do this walk, you will share the tracks with 4WDs and bikes, but these are all subject to the road rules and must be registered and drivers/riders licensed. My experience yesterday tells me the rule about registration is not adhered to, but the vehicles that were there were being used sensibly. There is one well-burnt car body along the route.

Buttongrass on Snug Plains, Grey
Mountain Track - 13th April 2013
The top of Grey Mountain has a trig point and a couple of communications towers. Views normally include various close and distant peaks, but there was little to view yesterday. I had a view down to the river, Castle Forbes Bay I think, and an occasional glimpse of Collins Bonnet through the rain to the north. The walk traverses easy 4WD tracks and overall rises maybe 500m with some ups and downs. Much of the walk is across the undulating Snug Tiers with steeper climbs at the start and finish. I suspect that Spring would be a good season, with the flowers out, and a rainy autumn day was less than ideal. Nevertheless, the summit is only 831m, so on a rainy and windy day it's probably a better bet than some other places. In any case, it makes for a different view of the Huon area than those usually acquired. The walk overall is a little over 20km return, so requires some solid effort.