Snow in Western Australia:
Information and tips on visiting snow on the Stirling Ranges
Where To Go
When seeking something as elusive as West Australian snow the obvious place to look is on the Stirling Range summits, where it has the best likelihood of being found ... on the rare occasions it actually falls. Of all the summits, the summit of Bluff Knoll is recommended for the following reasons:
- Altitude - being the highest peak means colder conditions, and the greatest probability of snow anywhere in WA.
- Summit area - Bluff Knoll has a larger summit area and more surface above 1000m than other peaks.
- Snow retention - the top of Bluff Knoll slopes gently to the southeast, making it more suitable for both capturing and retaining snow than peaks such as Toolbrunup (1052m) whose summit is a steep rocky knob.
- Good access - as the most-climbed peak, Bluff Knoll has an good well-graded track to the top. Its not too steep, has steps where needed, and in wet or icy conditions is the least hazardous track to climb.
- Good facilities - Bluff Knoll has a car park at its base, reached by sealed roads, with toilets and drinking water.
As for the other highest peaks ... the track up Toolbrunup Peak is steep, rocky, and hazardous in the wet, as I've found out the hard way. Ellen Peak (1012m) has no clearly defined track and is a lengthy walk from the nearest road. The other peaks over 1000m (Pyungoorup, Coyanarup) require first climbing either Ellen Peak or Bluff Knoll, which are higher, then traversing untracked ridges - of no value if simply finding snow is the priority, although some good alternative views could be obtained with sufficient extra time and effort.
From Perth it is about five hours driving time, plus rests, to reach the car park at the base of Bluff Knoll. From Albany it is about an hour's drive. There is no public transport. From the car park its maybe another one and a half to two hours to reach the summit, depending on fitness.
If you wait for reports of snow sightings to filter out to the public before commencing the journey, by the time you get there the best conditions will probably have passed. Planning ahead is best, if possible, and staying in the area is even better.
A convenient option is to stay at the Stirling Range Retreat, which is only 8km from the Bluff Knoll car park. This is a pleasant area of bushland on the national park boundary containing tent and caravan sites, on-site vans and park cabins, hostel rooms, rammed-earth cabins and very comfortable chalets. It is well run with good clean facilities, a rich diversity of wildflowers, and is an ideal home from which to explore the area. See the Stirling Range Retreat website for more details.
When To Climb
Most people don't arrive on the summit until after mid or late morning. Unless the snow conditions are exceptional, my recommendation is to get up there as early as you can.
The main reason for this is that the most spectacular conditions usually occur early in the day. The temperature is lower, which preserves whatever snow and ice buildup (rime on trees, frosted leaves, frozen puddles) has occurred overnight. As the day progresses the temperature invariably rises above freezing, and together with the wind and sunny breaks this causes some melting. If the snow cover was minimal to begin with, such melting can drastically reduce it; even further daytime snowshowers may not replenish it. Even with a good snow depth, daytime melting can change the consistency of the snow from a pristine dry fluffiness that covers everything, including every plant, to a slush restricted to the rocks and ground. Its still snow, but not as beautiful.
A second reason for an early start is to get there before other people. So far When I've encountered snow on Bluff Knoll's summit, I've been the first one there, and enjoyed the privilege of seeing the wild and wintry scene in its pristine state. To have such a rare (for WA) environment all to myself for a few hours made it somehow more special. If you're after wilderness-type landscape photos the opportunities are better without the evidence of other people - their footprints, or areas where snow has been scraped off rocks to make snowballs.
Climbing Before Dawn
Another reason to start early - very early - is the potential to see the sunrise from the highest point in southern WA. I say "potential" because it may not be visible through the cloud that accompanies a snowfall and lingers on the peaks afterwards. But breaks in the cloud do occur, and the lucky soul who is there at the time can be rewarded with a stunning scene.
A pre-dawn climb involves leaving from the Bluff Knoll car park at least two hours prior to the official sunrise time, which in winter / early spring means starting between 4:00 and 5:00 am. Staying nearby at the Stirling Range Retreat means not having to rise so early.
To determine the sunrise (and sunset) times at Bluff Knoll for any day of the year, go to Sunrise/Sunset Calculator (Bluff Knoll) - click on the "Bluff Knoll" link to populate the fields, select "Sunrise/Sunset" near the bottom of page, then click on "Compute". Sunrise and sunset times for any other place in Australia can also be calculated from the calculator's Main Page.
A torch of some sort is essential for climbing in the dark, preferably one that attaches to the head. A full moon doesn't show enough detail, and there are some steep drops off the side of the track so tripping over isn't a good idea. I use a headlamp with three super-bright LEDs and find it to be just bright enough. Spare batteries or a backup torch are wise.
Some words of caution. In the cold conditions of an early start, ice can form on the upper mountain, causing slippery conditions. It forms first on the logs and planks used for making steps on the track. Some wet rocks can turn icy while others nearby remain merely wet, and in the dark its hard to tell the difference. Other hazards can be avoided but even the most careful of us can occasionally slip over - so watch out! Those climbing later in the day usually find that the icy bits have thawed by the time they get there.
If wandering around on the summit in the dark be sure not to accidentally walk over the northwest edge - its a 250m vertical cliff face. For that reason, and also for easier navigation near the summit where the track is not as clear, it is best not to arrive on the summit ridge until within half an hour of sunrise, when the sky begins to lighten. Also slow down and look out for Kangaroos on the road to Bluff Knoll if driving in the dark - they're abundant in this area!
Climbing Bluff Knoll In Snow
Allow two hours for the climb from the car park to the summit of Bluff Knoll, plus a bit less for the descent. A relaxed pace (my euphemism for unfitness) and frequent stops for photos or to add or remove clothing can extend this, also it can be icy on top which makes rushing unwise. At least half an hour should also be allowed on the summit for an adequate rest (the time goes quickly), but for exploring the winter wonderland and waiting for photo opportunities, much more time is desirable.
Anyone who has discovered the benefits of trekking poles should use them, as the track up Bluff Knoll is sufficiently wide for vegetation not to get in the way. They are handy for balance on slippery bits, and can transfer more than 20% of your weight to your arms when descending - great for the knees.
Food and drink should also be carried, even if not planning a long stay - some nibbles to provide energy for warmth, and some water to replace that lost by sweating on the long climb.
What To Wear
I don't want to sound like someone's mother, but it really is very important to dress warmly. Temperatures below freezing combined with gale force winds can be encountered on top, with no shelter other than a few rocks to sit in the lee of. The risk of hypothermia for anyone lingering in these conditions without sufficient protection shouldn't be underestimated.
On my 2004 snow trip I enjoyed a dawn temperature of -1 with a wind around 30-40 knots. This combination can produce a wind chill as low as -20. By midday the temperature still hadn't risen over +1. I hung around on the summit for four hours and stayed warm only by sitting behind a rock and wearing six layers of clothing ... and I don't feel the cold easily! This included thermal underwear (top and pants), a waterproof outer layer (goretex jacket and pants), and another four layers in between on my top half, not to mention hat and gloves. This sounds excessive for Western Australia, but anyone who's experienced such conditions - while inactive - would see the need.
The effects of combining wind with low temperatures can be measured using this Wind Chill Calculator
Some people climb Bluff Knoll inadequately dressed, then descend after only five or ten minutes on top due to finding it too cold. The warmth generated by the climb can keep someone warm for only a short while; once the metabolism slows and the body cools, an icy cold wind becomes harder to endure - and dangerous. Especially if clothing is wet from sweating. After going to the time and effort of climbing Bluff Knoll to see the rare sight of snow in Western Australia it would be a pity to not be able to enjoy it on account of a few bits of clothing left behind. To fully savour the experience, explore, photograph, etc, you need to be warm enough to hang around as long as you want to.
The downside of being properly equipped is having to carry excess clothing on the climb and descent. The lower two thirds of the Bluff Knoll track are sheltered from much of the wind when a southerly is blowing, and with the exertion of the climb a person can become very hot and sweaty. For the climb, only one or two layers may need to be worn, with the rest stowed in a backpack or large daypack. Together with food and drink this may lead to a large load, but is a small price to pay for safety.
The Obligatory Disclaimer
Most people have enough common sense to realise that climbing a mountain in extreme cold with ice and high wind has potential dangers. However, in today's society it doesn't hurt to state the obvious, so here goes. If you sit around in very cold weather with insufficient clothing, you may get hypothermia. If you slip on ice and fall onto rock you may hurt yourself. If you wander around the summit in the dark and accidentally walk over the edge, you may fall down a 250m cliff face. I've pointed out hazards and precautions, but your own safety is ultimately your own responsibility. Be careful!