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Helicopter Spur - Mt Howitt Circuit trip report

Wed 11 Apr, 2012 6:19 pm

The plan for Easter was to do a circuit from the Upper Howqua Camping Area, climbing Helicopter Spur, camping at Hellfire Creek, onto Mt Howitt, the Crosscut Saw, camping at Mt Speculation on night 2, then returning along the Crosscut Saw and descending Stanley Name Spur to finish. It didn't quite turn out this way, but I thought I'd do a trip report anyway to help others avoid our mistake!

The moral of the story first for those who don't want to read the whole thing:
Accessing Helicopter Spur - Cross the remains of the bridge into the Upper Howqua Camp Area. Stop now! Don't turn left and walk into the camp area proper. Straight after the bridge veer to your right onto a steep, overgrown 4WD track. This is the track that will lead you to the base of Helicopter Spur. There should be a sign, but there ain't.

The drive to Upper Howqua Camping Area in our low-slung 2WDs (a Golf and a Commodore) was something that we were a bit nervous about, but we'd been advised on this forum that we'd be okay. We took the south route on Circuit Road (the north route was closed) and had no problems. There were a few nervous moments on Bindaree Rd, but we arrived at our destination without any major issues. I would advise people in 2WDs to TAKE IT SLOWLY on Bindaree Road - there are some tricky sections, some big potholes, and some large 4WDs that are quite capable of flying along these roads!

We crossed the remains of the vehicle bridge over the Howqua and walked along the well-worn track leading into the camp ground proper. After using the dunny we began looking around for the "closed 4WD track climbing south away from the campsite", as described in the track notes for the Howitt High Summits walk in Glenn van der Knijff's book. We thought we'd found it, and started climbing south. After about 20 metres however, the track disappeared. We tried again, and found a definite foot-track. Thinking back, it was probably heading more south-east than south, but it seemed good enough at the time. We crossed a stream and began climbing. The track came and went, but we seemed to be heading in the right direction. After 45 minutes or so, I began to have some doubts. There wasn't much track at all, and I felt that we should have been heading more to the south. We checked the map and decided that we were probably on the wrong hill, not leading us to the bottom of Helicopter Spur. We descended into a valley, bush-bashing through very thick scrub, crossed a stream, then climbed the other side of the valley. It was very tough and slow going, but we eventually popped out on an overgrown 4WD track. We thought this could be the right track, so we continued along it until it became impassable. By this stage it was after 2pm and we thought that we probably didn't have time to get back to the start, find the right track, and get to Hellfire Creek before dark (sunset at 6, no water before Hellfire). So, we headed back the other way, before too long popping out on an established 4WD track. This was obviously the right track, but we had no choice but to descend back to the start. After 2.5 hours of walking, never getting more than 1.5km from the start, we set up camp. We felt slightly less silly when we saw that the track really wasn't very apparent at all.

Helicopter Spur Take 2.
Having come down on the right track, we knew exactly where to find it in the morning! We headed off happily, enjoying the fact that we weren't getting scratched to bits this time. The 4WD track climbs gently to the south. There are 2 junctions on the way up (the first is so overgrown that it's hardly noticeable). We kept to the right at both and before long were at the start of the spur. The 4WD track ends completely and a track leads up the spur to the left. From here it's quite clear where to go: up. The climb was a good bit of fun - a bit tricky in parts but not too bad in dry weather. The highlight was a wedge tailed eagle circling majestically just below us as we had a breather. We stopped for lunch at Picture Point, where we met a couple of walkers heading the other way. They told us that they had also once tried to climb Helicopter Spur but, like us, had failed to find the start of the walk! The bloke who'd been navigating said he'd lost 5 friends over the incident! We felt even less silly now!

We then headed on towards Mt Magdala. The views from the summit were fantastic and we celebrated with shots of Icelandic schnapps. We continued on to Hell's Window, then down onto the saddle where we found the Hellfire Creek camp spot. A very lovely place. On my way to collect water (a rather tricky 300m walk) I chatted with a bloke camping ultra-light style at the other end of the saddle. He'd come up Helicopter Spur that day as well. Like us, he'd failed to find the start of the walk! After some bush-bashing he had found the same very overgrown 4WD track that we'd found. Unlike us, he'd persisted on that track until it led him to Helicopter Spur.

We were glad for our fire in the evening, as the clouds cleared and it started getting pretty damn cold. It then rained most of the night and we awoke to a soggy saddle covered in cloud. I pitied the ultra-light chap sleeping under a tarp.

In our wet weather gear we headed on over Big Hill and up Mt Howitt. As we approached the summit it started snowing. Only lightly, but blown by a cold south-westerly wind. There was a tent pitched on the summit, snow collecting on its fly. We said hello to check that its inhabitants were okay and they replied happily enough. We had hoped to continue along the Crosscut Saw and descend on Stanley Name Spur, but with bugger-all visibility, snow, and a nasty wind, we decided to get straight down from West Peak, onto Howitt Spur. A couple of hours later we were back at the cars.

A few photos below...
On the spur. Finally...
Helicopter_Spur-12.jpg (234.25 KiB) Viewed 7509 times
The nasty bits looming large
Helicopter_Spur-16.jpg (200.5 KiB) Viewed 7509 times
Approaching the summit of Magdala
Helicopter_Spur-54.jpg (125.12 KiB) Viewed 7509 times
View south from Magdala
Helicopter_Spur-67.jpg (143.82 KiB) Viewed 7509 times
rain from Big Hill
Helicopter_Spur-89.jpg (72 KiB) Viewed 7509 times

Re: Helicopter Spur - Mt Howitt Circuit trip report

Thu 12 Apr, 2012 10:00 am

Yes, Drew, there are two tracks up onto Helicopter Spur from the Upper Howqua campsite. We descended HS in Jan 2009 and followed the 4WD track from the spur down to the campsite. At that time, it came out near the back of the toilet. However, again in Jan 2012, we followed the 4WD track but, to our surprise, it came out near the washed-out bridge. We concluded that the track had been realigned.

You mention a 300m walk to water at Hellfire Ck saddle. I’ve noticed over time that the footpad to water has changed – as you indicate, it now descends quite a way down to the creek proper. In the past (and still accessible), the footpad contoured across about 150m (dropping only 10m) to a length of poly tubing wedged between some rocks – much less effort to reach. Follow the footpad from where it leaves the track in the saddle to the point where it turns sharply left down the gully (only 40m or so) – instead of left, contour straight ahead for 100m to an obvious (but small) gully. The footpad is indistinct but the water obvious.
One of the bluffs on Helicopter Spur – Jan 2012
A pity you missed out on Mt Spec and the Crosscut – but it’s still there for next time :)

Re: Helicopter Spur - Mt Howitt Circuit trip report

Thu 12 Apr, 2012 6:02 pm

Great pics! Definately will get back out there.

Yes, the HS track on Spatial Vision Map 2009, scale 1: 50 000, GDA94, is little different from the 2006 edition. About 1 km or so from / to Upper Howqua campsite. Check out Buller-Howitt Alpine Area, bushwalking map. Based on personal experience, it is rather easy to find a foot pad or a minor track on the descent; but it should be on the right spur; if not, a hard work would be in return.

Thank guys and hope that falling tree/s won’t be a problem for the drive in and out.

Re: Helicopter Spur - Mt Howitt Circuit trip report

Sat 14 Apr, 2012 12:38 pm

If it's any consolation (other people's bad experiences are usually consoling) we did the same trip in reverse a few years back and couldn't find our way down Helicopter Spur. Coming down you have no sense of what's likely to be a viable route. The track notes said to stay on the north side of the spur but maybe we didn't go far enough north and didn't see any clear tracks. Tried several routes down, all of which ended in sheer drops - not huge, some were only three or four meters - but there was just two of us, late afternoon, no ropes, and the thought of a bad fall or even just a sprained ankle meant that we couldn't take the chance. From the bottom of the last route down we could see the spur sloping away, but just couldn't get there. Ended up having to climb all the way back up and spend the night at Lovicks, then lucked out and got a lift down from there the next morning.

Re: Helicopter Spur - Mt Howitt Circuit trip report

Sat 14 Apr, 2012 4:22 pm

As discussed, thats my own experience. Steps I often do on coming down a spur are:

to observe the way ahead. If necessary, carry a mono-binocular (will do so on my planned walk, part one of the AAWT over Christmas and New Year.

Keep an eye on the bearing. A wrist compass comes in handy (will try to look for a suitable one).

Plan having plenty of time in case of things not running smoothly. Start early.

take time checking out grid references via a reliable gps and so the distance from/to the location.

What you went through I did too. Absolutely understandable. Lucky for you that there were you two, that can keep you both warm and close.

Regarding ropes you mentioned, check out “Helicopter Spur” thread. From memory, NNW did not use them. But, there’re two tracks (ref. Bernie’s walk early this year). Thanks for sharing.

Re: Helicopter Spur - Mt Howitt Circuit trip report

Tue 17 Apr, 2012 10:22 am

Yes, it definitely helps to hear of more people struggling to find the track!

I imagine that the descent would be fairly tricky without having done the climb - much harder to see a safe route looking down over steep cliffs than looking up at them. I would certainly recommend climbing up the spur over descending it, as long as you can find the start of the track!

Re: Helicopter Spur - Mt Howitt Circuit trip report

Tue 17 Apr, 2012 5:48 pm

Sorry, i did not make it clear enough. It happened on other trip/s, not on this one. Agree there. A sign at the start of the track would be helpful.

Re: Helicopter Spur - Mt Howitt Circuit trip report

Sun 22 Apr, 2012 11:49 am

*scratches head*
Odd, I never had any trouble finding the right 4WD track from the campground, even on my first climb, just had to keep checking the map to make sure I was taking the right turnings because the now unused sidetracks were much more obvious then as they were still in use.

And having trouble on the descent is not hard to understand. I'd not have any difficulty now, but I've been up there three times and know it well enough. For a first timer it could be very tricky.

Re: Helicopter Spur - Mt Howitt Circuit trip report

Sun 22 Apr, 2012 6:56 pm

I've been down Helicopter Spur twice, both times used a rope to drop packs, pretty sure this is the bluff in Bernie's pic above. I have read that you can avoid the bluffs by sidling around to the right. Apparently there's a pad, but I haven't been there.

Re: Helicopter Spur - Mt Howitt Circuit trip report

Sun 22 Apr, 2012 7:20 pm

I have been down the spur without ropes and with relatively straight forward rock scrambling. We did always go the right (north) side to get around the steep sections. Parts of the route are vague and so it takes a bit of time to find the path.

Re: Helicopter Spur - Mt Howitt Circuit trip report

Sun 22 Apr, 2012 10:34 pm

If unsure, pack a 6m rope and start early.
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