A slide on the wild side: Tasmania’s Du Cane Range

Tasmania’s Du Cane Range is truly a slide on the wild side. The mountains in the area are some of the highest in Tasmania and hold some of the best coverage of snow on the correct aspect. The scenery which is in a class of its own. A high plateau called The Labyrinth is dotted with delicate alpine tarns and lakes framed by some of the state’s most inspiring peaks.

Snow Action’s Tassie back-country ski guru Shaun Mittwollen says it’s probably the most popular ‘out there’ ski touring locale down there, with good reason..

Ferry across Lake St Clair en route to ski the Du Cane Range, Tasmania
Not many ski trips in OZ start with a ferry ride! Crossing Lake St Clair © Shaun Mittwollen

The scene really does epitomise a magical winter wonderland. It’s with good reason that its frequented by snowshoers, photographers and ski tourers during the winter months.

The access is relatively long (even more so if not aided by an expensive ferry ride) and fairly difficult under deep snow conditions. But it’s not outrageously so.

Did someone say ice axe? © Shaun Mittwollen

On our attempt at skiing the Walls of Jerusalem the week prior we had looked across at the Du Cane area and seen mountains far more cloaked in snow. When we returned back to Hobart, Mark Oates’s fantastic trip report from the same time period in the Southern Du Cane area highlighted the fact that heading into the Walls was indeed the wrong choice!

So we made a plan to head into the Northern Du Cane Range as soon as the next weather window allowed. After a few days unsuitable weather a break opened up as a high pressure blob meandered in from the west. To aid our endeavours it bought a few centimetres of fresh snow with it.

Hiking through rainforest to ski the Du Cane Range in Tasmania
Getting wetter and wilder on the hike in © Shaun Mittwollen

We made our way to the ferry with a snowline on the surrounding peaks of about 800m. The ride over Lake St Clair was rough and fun as strong winds created a decent swell. The boat even caught some air as we hit a particularly large wave at speed.

Soon we reached the north shore, off-loading our ski gear much to the interest of the hikers finishing the Overland Track. From here a relaxed walk to the Pine Valley hut took a few hours up a stunning rainforest valley.

Hiking toward 'The Acrtopolis' on the Du Cane Range, Tasmania
Heading higher past tarn lakes with ‘The Acropolis’ looming large © Shaun Mittwollen

Passing by Mt Gould, which Mark and Grant had completed the week earlier, it was looking very tempting for a line. But knowing the difficult access, and the incoming weather, we pushed on to our original goal. Soon enough the next burst of weather was on us and we were thankful to have the refuge of a warm and dry hut.

I spent the afternoon photographing the mossy jungle scenes, which really took me back to my youth photographing the rainforest on the Illawarra Escarpment after heavy rain.

That night it rained and rained and rained. Our optimism for good snow became less and less. Surely with so much rain there would be no snow left? Perhaps the season was over?

Vies to Mt Geryon in the Du Can Range, with some of Tasmania's steepes skiable lines
No need to head to Chile – check out Tassie’s Mt Geryon instead © Shaun Mittwollen

Regardless we packed our gear and headed on upwards into The Labyrinth through the drizzly rain. We’d come this far, at least we might as well go have a look. As we crossed the misty Labyrinth lingering drifts became more frequent and we caught sight of Mt Geryon. Mt Geryon I think is one of the most impressive mountains in Tasmania. Its shear size is not well depicted in photos and the shape of the skyline reminded me of the Fitz Roy Massif down in Patagonia.

Ben, who has worked as a guide on the Overland Track, recounted the story of the harrowing first winter traverse of the range using primitive alpine gear well back in the 1950’s. Our first goal for the trip was the couloir on Walled Mountain.

Ben skiing along the Du Cane shelf © Shaun Mittwollen

We would camp on the summit and then ski the couloir early the next day before moving on to Du Cane Range was the plan. Unfortunately as the mist cleared we had a brief look at the chute and it was low tide conditions with a large cliff band mid-line. In an excellent season this cliff would be completely buried in snow. But not this year. Since we left our climbing gear at home this was no longer an option. We passed the turn-off for the climb and continued north to the Du Cane Range.

Crossing the slick rock on the approach the evidence of glaciation in the region is astounding. Huge expanses of rock polished into rounded domes by the movement of ice interspersed with u-shaped glacial valleys. Some 10,000 years ago the whole area would have been covered with glaciers filling the valleys and sharp peaks rising out of the ice. What a sight it must have been!

The amount of glacially sculpted terrain in Tasmania dwarfs that on the mainland © Shaun Mittwollen

These days climate change is having the exact opposite effect, with fickle snowfalls and warmer than average temperatures highlighted especially in 2020. This has been the worst snow year I’ve ever experienced in Tasmania. For us skiers its too bad CO2 has a warming and not a cooling affect.

We donned our skins and climbed onto the range up via a small chute. From here it wasn’t long to camp, climbing into the blowing mist for about an hour through open rolling snowfields akin to the Main Range approach.

The wind was howling from the west but we were able to find shelter on a small eastward bench with what would be a grand view as the clouds cleared. Here the range drops as vertical cliffs, cut occasionally by narrow chutes through weaknesses in the dolerite and below us cliffs dropped into the misty abyss hundreds of meters below. We retreated into the tent before the next icy rainstorm blew over. By the next morning the weather still hadn’t cleared but was showing some promising signs.

Sunrise skiing on the Du Cane Range, Tasmania
Ben finds a mellower sunrise line along the Du Cane Range © Shaun Mittwollen

Short breaks of blue whizzed amongst the mist overhead. Out tent and gear had been coated in a centimetre of freezing rain; rain that freezes on contact forming a thick layer of ice. I passed the time waiting for gaps between the ice squalls and then running outside the tent to grab a few photos, beating a hasty retreat at the first sign of moisture.

By about 2pm the weather had improved enough to ski and we headed to our first line. The pass that separates the Du Cane Range and Mt Massif is marked by expanses of boulder fields along with a prominent rocky tower that apparently looks like a big gun. Personally I couldn’t see the resemblance, but it is here that the first couloir dropped through a band of weakness in the dolerite, aptly dubbed Big Gun Couloir.

Skiing the Biig Gun couloir, Du Cane Range, Tasmania
Ben drops the relatively easy Big Gun couloir on the Du Cane Range © Shaun Mittwollen

Not a super impressive couloir in terms of what else is around the area, but it was a good warm up lap to test the snow conditions. We hiked to the top of the range before dropping in, giving us another 50m of vertical on open snow slopes.

As we headed into the couloir the floor steeply gave way into a broad hallway about 5m in width. The couloir held very decent snow compared to the norm – half way between spring slush and wet heavy fresh. We made some casual turns out onto the apron before climbing right back up the guts.

From there we headed over to the main event. Ben had skied what he called the steepest line of his life a few years earlier, Sisyphus. As we peered down the tight chute it was indeed very steep and narrow. With the differences in snowfall this year it wasn’t quite as steep as for Ben’s initial descent, but definitely a worthy contender.

The line was entombed in rock rolling over at nearly 50 degrees and about three or four meters wide. The line widened slightly before taking a dog leg path out of view and into the wilderness. Given Ben’s recounts of the chute’s reputation for steepness, I was a little nervous clicking into the bindings.

Skiing the super stepp Sisyphus Chute on the Du Cane Range, Tasmania
The Sisyphus chute ups the ante © Shaun Mittwollen

Suddenly the thought that I don’t want to fall to my death skiing a line become very apparent. But as I dropped in the fears took a back seat, with safe soft snow easily holding an edge and masking any lack of technique. As I approached the dog leg the sluff-fall took a very distinct path, cutting a deep channel on the right side before launching off a chock stone gap. I cautiously side stepped the middle third of the line to avoid getting tangled up in the narrow concave runnel – does this count as skiing I thought to myself?

Hmmm. I guess ski mountaineering is rarely completed in good snow with style. From there the crux presented itself. The chock stone had to be bypassed to the right side. Another awkward routine of side stepping with only the tips and tails engaged with the snow ensued, before I was finally released onto the fun apron running out into the snow covered scree and scrub. Wohooo! That was pretty fun but also close to my personal limits. Maybe I’m not as gnarly as I thought I was. The mountains always have a way of humbling those who push their personal limits.

The next day we were due to head back out. However with superb weather we delayed those plans slightly and I went up to take a closer look at Geryon. A short somewhat vegetated climb and I was right up there in its face. Off on the left some of the largest cliffs in Australia in felt downright airy exploring the plateau directly to the north. There were even a couple of near suicidal ski lines on offer through the cliffs.

Hiking out from the Du Cane Range with snow melting fast
From ice storms to 20° C plus on the hike out – you get it all in Tassie, sometimes in a few hours.. © Shaun Mittwollen

Much to the contrast of our hike in, we headed out under intense sun and temperatures well into the 20’s. It really did seem like winter was beginning to wrap up down in Tasmania.

But would we have one more chance for another ski tour? That remained to be seen…

Shaun and Ben’s adventures this winter were underwritten by a North Face Adventure Grant – they won the 2020 grant, check the link for how to apply for 2021.

The North Face gear for the trip sure helped too .. full marks to the tent we say! Stay tuned for test reviews, shop it here.