Hike to the Summit of Mt Zeil

Wednesday, Jan 11, 2023 at 16:10

ExplorOz - David & Michelle

Mt Zeil is the tallest mountain in the Northern Territory at 1531m and is also the highest peak west of the Great Dividing Range. This puts it in the State 8 - top 8 peaks in Australia (one for each State/Territory) so it is a bucket list hike for serious mountain peak climbers. We were a little bit daunted by this knowledge as we weren't actually prepared for this type of hike but we had faith in our ability to do it so we figured we'd give it our best shot.

This is a story about our visit to Mt Zeil Wilderness Park in August 2022. We reached Mt Zeil after a couple of wet driving days long the Gary Junction Road (see Previous Blog) so our first day was spent washing mud off the car/camper, washing and hanging out our clothes, and trying to plan our hike.

Prior to our summit attempt, we walked some of the shorter hikes in the area the day before to get our bearings and test our boots against the rocks, and spinifex and to get a feel for the challenge ahead and gave ourselves time to contemplate if we really wanted to do this.

Despite getting a little phone service around the office/store, the internet was very patchy but we got enough information, together with input from Skye, to realise that no one has ever published a GPX file for this hike. (Now that we have completed the hike, our track log file is published here at the bottom of the page, and also can be downloaded as a GPX from the Track Logs section of this website).

There is a ranger based in Alice Springs that has shared a Relive file but its impossible to use it as it only plays when online. So David spent most of the next day reviewing the contours and seeing if we could devise a suitable path. From previous travellers reviews/comments we'd learned not to go up the gorge (it becomes too steep sided and impassable), and to stick to the long way round by going up to the right and traversing the top of the ridges the whole way until making a big left hand turn where one ridge joins another. In fact from the campsites and office its almost impossible to make out which ridge leads to the summit - it isn't very distinctive.

The last thing we wanted was a failed attempt but Skye had warned us that 90% don't make it. Our packs only had 3L water bladders not 4L but we each carried a 600ml water bottle in our hands for the first flat 2km section of the hike from the carpark into the base of the gorge where we tucked them under a rock so that we would have extra water available to pick up for the last section of the return hike.

Starting early also meant we had to deal with the extremes of temperature range typical of winter in the West McDonnell Ranges so rather than take bulky jackets, we wore multiple layers of light weight technical fabrics. In our packs we carried various snacks in zip lock bags and a lunch wrap. We had waterproof matches, 2x handheld UHF radios, first aid, and our phones. With the Traveller app on our phone we had offline maps and the app shows your current position so we would always know where we were, could take photos, and could pick up phone service on the mountain due to the repeater station position half way up in case of emergency.

We checked the weather, the sun and moon rise and set times and realised that if we started very early we would have the advantage of walking with the light of a full moon setting just before sunrise.

The first section is an easy flat walk from the carpark into the gorge itself but then it instantly becomes challenging. Whilst the summit is to the left of the gorge, there is enough information about failed routes to know that you don't start up the left embankment. Instead you start climbing the peak immediately to the right of the gorge. On maps and in the cold face, it doesn't look logical and the temptation to take short cuts nags at you.

Early into our walk we could hear voices and at the top of our first peak we spotted a small group of 3 other walkers coming up behind us. When they took a slightly different route to us, we didn't let it deter us from our own chosen path. At times they seemed to get closer and at others they seemed to fall behind. We know we are very fast hikers so as they started to catch us we became curious and noticed they were finding ridges that we didn't seem to find. So they were making time on us whilst we were expending much more effort on complicated ascents and descents. It was genuine rock scrambling not hiking for the most part and often we had to back track to try another approach when one way became too overgrown or impassable.

But we made our checkpoints within our allocated time yet David had planned for us to cut across the gorge at a particular point to cut off a longer section along the ridge but it was very difficult to gain a true perspective of the terrain on the other side. When we made the decision to cross, the other walkers kept going. Our decision slowed us down immensely and we took 1 hour to travel 1km, meanwhile the other walkers stayed higher and seemed to find the elusive ridge line that skirts all the way around the top. They were able to walk more easily but travelled a greater distance. Our path was meant to take off about 2km but the others overtook us as we struggled through the dense overgrowth of bushes and rocks and trying to make forward progress on the side of a mountain. There was a lot of time spent trying to place each foot safely but we eventually made it across and into a clearer area and realised we hadn't put on our specially made spinifex gaiters (cut up supermarket shopping bags and duct tape!).

Once we put them on we realised how much easier it was to push through the overgrowth. Both of us had fallen over numerous times and landed in spiky spinifex and we had spinifex cuts all over. As I write this blog it is now Christmas (4 months since the hike and we are still picking spinifex out of our skin). The enjoyment was starting to wear thin and it was around this point that I started to struggle and slowed down. I was tired mentally and physically and I found the final section to the summit exhausting. The other walkers had got ahead of us and were chatting away constantly sounding happy! Who were these people?

We reached the summit a few minutes behind the other walkers. At the top there is very little space so we all had to sit together. They were lovely and we enjoyed our chat and took photos of one another and then respected one another's time to contemplate our achievements and admire the view in peace. There's a visitor book and some antennas and we all wondered how the infrastructure got there as it would be impossible to land a helicopter and impossible to hike it in. We agreed it must have been air dropped.

The other hikers were very young, possibly in their early 20's and they lived in Alice Springs and were hiking friends. This was not their first hike to Mt Zeil but this was their first successful mission. They had tried to come up the gorge the previous time but didn't make it.

Usually a return walk feels quicker and easier but not this one. It started to become very uncomfortable about 2 hours from the end and every time I placed my foot down I seemed to crumple and assumed my hip muscles had given up (hours later back at camp when I took off my boots I realised it was blisters!). I struggled so much in the final few kilometres that I actually gave up walking and slid down the rocks on my butt and there may have even been a few tears! Once at the bottom, we got our water bottles and I thought my body told me I had the energy to jog the final 2km back to the car but my feet wouldn't let me so it was a slow foot dragging limp instead and I took one final look back at the mountain and swore at it. Definitely the hardest hike I've ever done. You can see all the details in the Track Log below recorded on a Garmin Fenix 6 sports watch then uploaded the TCX file into the Traveller app. We both recorded the walk using the Hike mode on our Fenix's but one (the Fenix 5s) seemed to have a GPS failure of some kind and recorded very unusual data and had to be ignored. We also recorded the walk on an iPhone 13 via ExplorOz Tracker so this didn't pick up heartrate data so have chosen the Fenix 6 file to display here. Total distance 15.7km. Total elapsed time 10 hours 20m. Moving time 8 hours 52m. Start 7am, finish 5.20pm

After completing the hike, we took a rest day and did our online bookings on the NT national parks website and then left the following day making a 4 night stay at Mt Zeil Wilderness Park. It costs $22 per person per night but its well worth it for such a unique camping and hiking experience.
David (DM) & Michelle (MM)
Always working not enough travelling!
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