Stirling Range Ridge Walk Western Australia

View West from Pyungoorup Peak: Bakers Knob, dominant Third Arrow of Mirlpunda, Isongerup Peak and Bluff Knoll, Wista 4×5 Field Camera

The Stirling Range Ridge Walk is probably one of the more difficult overnight bush-walks in southwest Western Australia. It becomes even more challenging when you hike with a large format film camera in your backpack. I would encourage anyone considering this walk to be aware of, and use, minimum impact walking techniques.

bluff knoll stirling range
Below Bluff Knoll

Stirling Range Ridge Walk

The Stirling Range Ridge Walk is a challenging walk even for experienced bush-walkers. When I walked it two decades ago it is an unmarked route through mountainous terrain with very limited water supplies.

Weather conditions can change rapidly and visibility can be reduced to less than a metre if clouded in. Before undertaking the ridge walk you should have highly developed navigation skills, have a high degree of self-sufficiency and be using the appropriate outdoor gear.

Sunrise on Bakers Knob looking to Bluff Knoll

Research the Stirling Range ridge walk before attempting it. You should be a competent map and compass reader. You may want to look at the publications by AT Morphet.

Use minimal impact bush-walking techniques which includes not lighting fires and disposing of your human waste properly. Go with a walking colleague of equal or greater experience than you.

Navigation and Safety

Navigation aids for Stirling Range maps compass
Map reading is an essential skill

Nowadays, personal GPS navigation would be a good idea as well as a Personal Location Beacon. Both are relatively inexpensive. Don’t rely on mobile phone coverage or Google maps. There are many mobile phone black spots due to terrain and remoteness. That said, it hasn’t stopped people using mobiles from summits to calling for emergency help.

You should carry and know some basic first aid. Let someone reliable know your route and intended dates of return. They, in turn, need to know who to contact should you not return by those dates.

Horizon CalendarImages of Western Australia

stirling range ridge walk
Grass Trees, Bakers Knob, 4×5 film, Horizon Calendar 2000

In 1997 I was photographing and publishing my large format Horizon Calendar of West Australian landscapes. Many of the images featured in the calendar were made in national parks.

Since the early 1980s I had been visiting the Stirling Range with a 35mm film camera. But the Horizon Calendar images had to be made from my field camera using 4×5 inch Velvia sheet film.

I kept all of the calendar production here in Perth, from design layout to reprographics and prepress, right through to print production. A1 paper stock was chosen for its superb press reproduction quality.

The colour press reproductions were superior to any pro lab prints. The calendar’s print details were exceptional. The high definition and clarity of a 4×5 inch transparency film combined with high print production values made the calendar an exceptional image platform. It received several awards in recognition for its excellence in print.

First Arrow, Mirlpunda

So when it came to including images of the Stirling Range and Porongurup Range, I needed to make 4×5 images during my hikes. A field camera, tripod, film holders, lenses and focus cloth all add to backpack bulk. To maximise my photography time, I planned to spend 3 days and two nights traversing the ridge. I could carry just enough sheet film for 12 exposures. This was the dilemma confronting me on my in the pre-planning stage for a Stirling Range ridge walk in 1996.

Horizon Calendar Stormlight Publishing Alex Bond
Stirling Range images published in the Horizon Calendar

Protecting Camera Gear

Protecting camera gear backpacking is essential if it is to remain usable when traversing rugged environments. The Ridge Walk terrain is challenging with a heavy pack. You should have a modern backpack with shoulder and hip harness. My advice is that all your gear should be stowed within your backpack, nearer the top where you can reach it easily.

I would avoid attaching bags or items on the outside of a backpack. In rougher terrain, you may occasionally slide a pack down a slope in front of you. Or you may need to negotiate a slope with rocks jutting outwards into your pathway. Either way, you do not want anything to snag on your pack or break. Worse still, is unexpectantly falling because your centre of gravity is so far out.

Stirling Range The Arrows
Looking West along The Arrows, Mirlpunda, Stirling Range National Park

Attaching gear to the outside of your pack moves the pack’s centre of gravity further away from the body. This can result in additional strain on your back or again could cause you to lose balance. My simple rule of thumb, if you can’t pack it in your backpack then you don’t take it.

Food, water, shelter

Hiking the Stirling Range ridge walk requires some serious forethought in your pre-planning stage. Some hikers use caves for overnight shelter. My preference is a lightweight alpine tent. This gives me further reach onto the ridge than where the caves are. Planning includes three days of food and fluids. I hope to find additional water en-route. Water cannot be guaranteed and if no water can be procured then it probably means abandoning the walk at the first Arrow. You can also climb down to a spring and then climb back up with water…. if the spring is running.

Add a 4×5 field camera and a tripod into the above mix of prerequisites and your problems multiply. A heavy backpack can slow you down, is less manageable in rough terrain and tires you more quickly.

Third Arrow Mirlpunda Stirling Range Ridge Walk
Third Arrow, Mirlpunda

Working with a field camera presents its own unique set of challenges of volume and weight. The obvious concern is about camera weight. This is certainly a consideration, but you may be surprised to learn how heavy modern DSLRs and their lenses have become. A Canon EF 70-200mm digital zoom weighs 1.54kg. My 4×5 field camera weighs just 40 grams more! By comparison, a 300mm Nikkor lens for 4×5 weighs about 390 grams, nearly the same as a Canon EF 50mm f1.4.

I restricted my food to 500 grams dry weight per day. To supplement the water I would need to find en-route I carried another 7 litres. Water was, without doubt, the single heaviest item I carried.

large format camera Stirling Range
The author completion of the ridge traverse with the 4×5 camera at Bluff Knoll 1996.

Camera basics

When using the 4×5 in this environment I cut down the camera gear to its bare minimum. I study maps, estimate times of the day and my position and think about the photographs I hope to make. What lens is needed? What is absolutely necessary and what can I leave at home?

My 4×5 kit consists of two lenses and two film backs. That is a maximum of 12 exposures on 4×5 inch film. So you are not going to blast those off in the first hour of hiking. I take a  light meter and focus cloth. Plus of course a tripod. It’s rather pointless to make all this effort to walk the ridge if you can’t make the most of the photographic opportunities it presents. Up until the mid-2000s I was using an aluminium Manfrotto 190. These days the price of lightweight carbon fibre tripods has come down which I would certainly use in preference now.

What would I change all these years later?

There have been massive changes in technology since my earlier ridge walks. There are mobile phones -although I am not suggesting you rely on them in the Stirling Range, there is GPS navigation, personal EPIRBS and of course there are digital cameras. Given the new professional quality digital cameras and software available there are more choices available for such arduous journeys.

Stirling Range Coyanarup Peak Australia
Grass trees below Coyanarup Peak velvia 4×5

If I was not making images for the calendar, the obvious choice to me would be one of the new mirror-less digital cameras with interchangeable lenses and a tripod. The later would benefit from being carbon fibre and therefore lightweight. This would be far lighter than a current 35mm DSLR. If you are not concerned about the combination of electronics, cold, rain, grit and jarring, then, by all means, get out your scales and weigh up the options with a medium format digital such as Phase One.

If I wanted to use film in preference to digital it would be hard to go past the 4×5 sheet film format. Its camera system is simple and robust, able to withstand wet weather and dirt. Best of all it does not require batteries. Medium format film is also an option. The other alternative  35mm film camera. A tripod is still, in my opinion, essential for quality work. Galen Rowell made wonderful mountaineering photographs with 35mm Nikon and Kodachrome 64 (and then later Velvia 50).

Moon rise over the Stirling Range

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Reader Comments

  1. Peter Campbell

    Hi Alex, I’ve just read this blog on hiking the stirling ridge with camera gear and camping gear. I really admire you. I have done the ridge walk with a 35mm camera In those days the camera was of secondary importance . Since I got my 4×5 camera I have been up Bluff Knoll and Ellen Peak with camera gear and tripod but only for a day walk. Carrying everything for 2-3 days, thats impressive! I check your site every now and then and there’s always something there of interest to me.

    • alexbond

      Hi Peter, thanks for your comments. Water is the most important thing and the heaviest to carry during the longer trips. Glad you get something out of the blog articles. Always happy when people can learn something useful from anything I write. I hope to add some new blog articles soon.

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