Monday, August 29, 2011

Hiking Mt Sonder - the proper true summit

When I first did the Mt Sonder hike back in August last year, when I reached the top I discovered - much to my horror - that the trail lead to a false summit, not the true summit of Mt Sonder. Initially I figured it was for safety reasons, but later people replied to my blog, informing me that the Arrernte People had special beleifs about Rwetyepme (Mt Sonder), and that was the reason the trail did not reach the true summit.

Mount Sonder (proper), West MacDonnell National Park, Northern Territory

At Glen Helen a few days ago, having traipsed across the countryside for three days in search of Mt Zeil, I had flicked through a collection of newspaper articles in the cafe. I stumbled upon one from the Sydney Morning Herald from back in 2005, when a reporter did a story on the Mt Sonder hike. He had fished around, suspicious of the story of the false summit trail. Interviewing a park ranger, James Pratt, "he shattered one illusion when he explained that the supposed Aboriginal legend was 'just an urban myth'. ... He also confirmed that the official summit was not the real one. 'It was a decision made for safety.'" They held beliefs of the mountain, just not the one that is being thrown around, and it was not the reason the trail did not go to the true summit.

Enough said, I was convinced. We were off to reach the real summit. The newspaper article referenced a Norwegian professor, Petter E. Bjorstad (referenced below). He had climbed many mountains around the world, including the true summit of Mt Sonder. He had some track notes, we were set.

At the campsite on the dry sandy banks of Redbank Gorge the night before our hike, we met Jas and Kev, from Parkham in Melbourne. They had just completed 19 days on the Larapinta Trail, hiking out from Alice Springs. The wildfires had chased them down the trail. They had one final section left, the climb up to Mt Sonder. They were keen to reach the true summit. We shared our track notes.

The next we saw of them was when Graham and myself reached the false summit early the following morning. Off on the distant true summit, we could see a couple of silhouetted people wandering around the summit cairn. They were only about 750m away across the rocky cliff-sided saddle, but we could hear their voices. They had risen at 4.30am, so they could enjoy watching the sunrise from the false summit. We didn't care for the early rise and hike in darkness.

Reaching the false summit is easy, a 7.5km track along the rocky spur from Redbank Gorge. Reaching the true summit was another matter. We headed back along the track, down from the false summit cairn, then headed north to the cliff edge. From here we surveyed possible routes down. The Norwegian professor included a photo of possible routes down from the false summit peak to the saddle below. From there crossing the saddle and then climbing the true summit was straight-forward. We were watching Jas and Kev return down the true summit. We thought we might wait it out for their advice since they had just made the crossing. We shouted out our hellos, and they soon shouted back their directions.

We climbed down the steep slope along the rock strata, heading for the top of the steep gully. Halfway down, we met up. They looked maggotted. Truly. The steep gully was tough work, returning later to make the ascent was even tougher. This was the hardest bit of the climb from the false to the true summit. Having reached the bottom, we contoured around to a small saddle at the base of the true summit, then climbed the rock 'staircase' to the true summit.

Jas was right, it was glorious and well worth the hike over. There was more to see, and unlike the view from the false summit, no thumping big mountain in the way of a 360 degree panorama. We could see wide wildfires burning on the western horizon.

We did a few laps of the stone cairn searching out the illusive logbook. We kept up the search, there must be one. Then I caught a glint of plastic, there, buried deep from the top of the cairn was the logbook. Placed there in 1965, in quite a rustic steel container, we found lots of pieces of paper, no book as such.

Leafing through the papers, I was surprised to find none from this century. That's right, not this decade, but this century. Not for a moment do I think we were the first people up there in 12 years, I mean Jas and Kev had been here moments before. I think it was more a matter that the logbook had been lost deep in the cairn for a number of years. I really was eager to find it, you see, I knew there had to be one lurking around somewhere. The Larapinta Trail was opened in 2002, which would have included that trail up to the false summit. The number of people reaching the true summit probably would have dropped around then, but the sheer number of people who reached the true summit in the '90s was proof enough that many people would have been up here since then.

  • Have you hiked up to the true summit of Mt Sonder? What route did you take?
  • Did you find and sign the logbook?
View in full screen format
Download GPX file - for use as a navigational aid in a GPS unit
Download KML file - view in Google Earth

View full hike from Redbank Gorge to Mt Sonder South (the false summit) and onto the true Mt Sonder summit in full screen format
Download full hike in GPX file - for use as a navigational aid in a GPS unit
Download full hike in KML file - view in Google Earth


Proceed back down the marked trail some 180 metres from the cairn on the false summit. The ridge is wider, the track having just come off from steep north-south cliffs facing the east. There is a number of small paths leading off the north (GR528901), some no doubt in part to take in the view of Mt Sonder proper. A number of rock stratems lead downwards to the west. 50m to the east there are three pines on the east facing cliff edge mentioned before. Study Petter E. Bjorstad's photo of possible routes, taken from the true Mt Sonder, looking back to the false Mt Sonder summit. It is easy enough to use his red marked route, you can ignore the blue rope-using route. Walking down the steep strata, proceed down the steep gully. Careful, there are lots of loose rocks on the slippery surface, plenty of spinifix and other hostile bushes you will need to be friendly with (they don't really want to be your friends.) The grid reference around this steep gully is 529 903. From the base of the steep gully, contour around to a small saddle at grid reference 533 904. From here, climb the rocky 'staircase' to the true summit. Return by the same path, being careful to pick out the right steep gully to climb. It took us 2.5 hours to hike from the false summit to the true summit, and return again. It is 2km return. I wouldn't tackle this section unless it is in the morning, without a breeze it can be insatiably hot climbing the steep gully with the northern sun.

Mt Sonder (proper)
Redbank Gorge to Mt Sonder South, then onto Mt Sonder proper
Distance 17.3km
Start Time 6.30am
End Time 12.50pm
Moving Duration 4h26m
Stationary Duration 1h47m
Moving Average 3.9km/h
Overall Average 2.8km/h

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