Friday, 4 September 2015

Rocking Cradle 2: A Bluebird Day

The evening is full of exotic sounds and smells. There’s the tish and paff of hail and snow on the roof, and the pop and sizzle of cooking, its smoky whiff blending with that indefinable essence-of-wet-walker smell. But most surprising of all is the whirr of a solar powered extractor fan, doing its best to remove those same whiffs.

By the time we’ve finished dining, the snow showers have cleared and the wind has withered. The hut thermometer tells us it’s already below zero. I shrug on my down jacket and step out for some star gazing. A half moon keeps the stars quiet, but shows up the brilliance of the snowy bush. Apart from the low gurgle of a nearby creek, it is breathtakingly quiet and still.


[A very promising start to the day!] 
I wake early, keen to see if dawn is as clear. Above the dark slope of the land, the sky grades from soft ochre through pale golds into deepening shades of blue. Low in the blue Venus is a bright, imperfect gem. There’s not the hint of a cloud.

As we set of it is still very cold. We’re careful on the steps leading down to the Horse Track. Every surface is frozen, the snow crusted with fresh ice, the wet surfaces now solid and slick. We cross the gurgling creek, past bushes festooned with icicles, and climb towards Crater Peak. Where yesterday we’d been postholing, we’re now crunching across the surface.


[Tim crosses the creek near our hut] 
I give Lynne a go of my snowshoes, and she takes to them immediately. She heads up the hill ahead of us, passing yesterday’s tobogganing slope, and makes for the dark bump of Crater Peak. The sky above is now an impossible blue, contrasting starkly with the monochrome landscape.


[Lynne takes off on the snowshoes] 
We soon find it’s not the snow that will slow us down up here. Many sections of the old corduroy track are covered with ice, the normally sodden surface now a frozen cascade. Without cleats it’s almost impossible not to slip on the track, so we fan out to travel off-track. And now we dawdle, as much because the frozen world is full of small wonders – a rimed bush here; a frozen pool there – as for reasons of care and safety.


[The frozen corduroy track] 
We’re exchanging frequent grins. I’ve heard talk of bluebird days* a few times this winter, and now we’re definitely walking through one. By unspoken agreement we spread out and immerse ourselves in this day. We’re walking in a winter wonderland, too wrapt to be concerned about cliches!

We pause atop Crater Peak, a pile of rock slightly higher than the surrounding plateau, and have a quick snack. We take dozens of photos, finding it hard to stop. Everywhere you point your camera the scene is stunning. Yet it gets better. We now leave the Horse Track, aiming to wander cross-country, close to the rim of the plateau, and enter an extensive field of snow.


[Happy trampers on Crater Peak] 
Lynne hands the snowshoes back, and I take a few minutes to strap them on. But the snow is such easy going for the others that I struggle to catch up, even with my “floats”. As we walk up slope, the bold block of Cradle Mountain, its face thickly daubed with snow, grows larger before us. We see only one set of ski prints in the otherwise virgin snow.

I’ve been up here many times in snow, and have climbed a snowy Cradle Mt a few times. But I have never seen this much snow on the Cradle Plateau. A couple of cornices must be at least three metres deep. As we make for the rim, Lynne and Merran can’t resist having another bum slide down a slope. I content myself with filming the event.


[The snowfield between Crater Pk & Cradle Mt] 
We have a long and lazy lunch on a knoll overlooking Crater Lake. Its surface scintillates, reflecting back the bright sun. We think we can make out small ice floes on the lake. Their see-through shapes drift and shimmy down the sparkling lake, driven by gently persistent breezes. That’s presumably cold air draining off the plateau, because here on the heights there’s barely a puff of air.


[Our lunch spot, high above Crater Lake] 
After we’ve finished lunch we linger at this superb vantage point. It’s even balmy enough for us to stretch out for a while. Soon enough we’ll need to start our descent, but for now we just want to remain immersed in this best of mountain days.
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* the term is used by skiers – and others – to refer to a clear, calm day after snow.


Monday, 31 August 2015

Rocking Cradle 1: Small Expectations

Unexpected gifts, by definition, are not expected. 
You cannot prepare yourself for them.

In the case of weather, no matter how fervently you hope for a particular outcome, or how much faith you put in forecast accuracy, weather is still driven by a chaos engine. Que sera sera!


[Could we hope for weather like this?] 
So in preparing for our recent 3 day trip to Cradle Mountain, we needed to cover all manner of gloomy possibilities. The weather station in Cradle Valley receives just shy of 3 metres of precipitation a year. That falls at least every other day, more often in winter, and average maximum temperatures for August are below 5 degrees. As we’d be staying at a higher altitude, we knew it would be windier, wetter, colder, cloudier and snowier. Over 3 days we’d undoubtedly have rain, and probably snow, sleet and hail.

In light of all this we booked a hut, and made sure we stocked it with food, beverages, books and games. Good conversation and companionable silences in a warm and dry place would help us while away our days if – or more likely when – the weather stopped play.

Add to that mix the previous week’s weather. Heavy snowfalls had blocked the road to Waldheim and Dove Lake, and covered the mountains with thick snow. A day or two out the forecast for our three days was for showery weather, with snow at higher altitudes. That would surely include our hut, which sat at nearly 1100m.

With suitably small expectations, we arrived at a cloudy, showery Waldheim early on Sunday afternoon. That morning Tim D had made himself a pair of snowshoes, and was keen to test them out in a snowdrift near the carpark. I was more than happy to join him, as I’d just procured some second-hand Yowie snowshoes that also needed trying out.


[Tim tests out his bespoke snowshoes] 
As Tim stomped about in the snow I eyed his creations – a confection of lawn mower grass-catcher bits and bread crate cast-offs tied up by wire – with a mixture of suspicion and mirth. Still they passed their (not exactly rigorous) test run, and were soon strapped onto his pack for the 1 hour wander up to the hut.

The boardwalk sections near the start were only partially snow-covered, so snowshoes weren’t warranted. But the whole landscape was cold and icy, with low clouds scudding by, occasionally dropping rain on us. We kept our waterproofs on despite the warm work of trudging up-slope.

I had tried not to talk up the hut to Lynne, but I was hopeful she’d be pleasantly surprised by its level of comfort. A Scout-owned “lodge”, it was opened in 1960, but has been greatly modified and updated over the years. As we trudged through the now deep snow, we were all pleased to see the hut. We ascended the snowy steps that lead from the track to the hut’s deck area and entrance, already impressed by its well-kept appearance.


[Approaching the hut] 
The inside smelled clean. We’d passed the previous hut occupants on the track, and they’d obviously used disinfectant liberally. From my previous visit in the 1980s, I could recall only the hut’s airy feel and pine-lined interior. It had retained those, but the layout seemed neater, better equipped, and the stainless steel lined kitchen was an eye-popper. It felt truly modern and comfortable – not something I would normally associate with mountain huts.

That in itself was something of an unexpected gift. But there was more to come, once we’d unpacked and claimed bunks. Through unspoken agreement we knew we hadn’t yet earned rest or refreshment. Besides, we had snowshoes to test out, and snow to play in. So despite ongoing showers, we put our waterproofs back on and went out to play.


[In search of a good downhill run] 
At the first good snowfield Tim and I put on our snowshoes. To be honest Lynne and Merran didn’t look at all envious, as showers had made the snow slushy. Their realism was soon confirmed when, a few minutes into their maiden voyage, Tim’s creations fell apart. It seems lawn mower grass-catcher isn’t snow-tempered, and it soon parted ways with the rest of the shoe. Tim hid his disappointment – and his defunct snowshoes – and post-holed his way up to a decent snow bank. His flesh and blood toboggan wouldn’t fail so readily.



[Lynne takes off on her waterproof-gear toboggan] 
If getting up to the snow bank took effort, sliding down didn’t. We simply sat on our bottoms, lifted our feet, and slid and yahooed our way down a good 50 metres. Then we did it again. But the effort of climbing back soon combined with a mini-blizzard to cut the sport short. Through icy bullets we mooshed and hooshed our way back down to the hut. We were convinced – in our own minds at least – that this bit of adventure had earned us some rest. Tomorrow, as we would discover, would be another adventure.


[Heading back to the hut] 

Monday, 17 August 2015

Microadventuring

I have long wondered what it would it be like to unlock my week days; for any day to be the same as the next in the context of getting out and about. That dream has been held in check for many decades by full-time work. My outdoor adventures generally had to wait till weekends and holidays.


[Bleak beauty on the windswept summit of kunanyi] 
It didn’t matter that a plump high pressure system – that signal of stable, fine weather – was about to sit over our island; or that a rare heavy snowfall was slathering the mountains. If those weather windows occurred mid-week I, alas, would be found on the inside looking out. Longingly!

Enter the “flexible” work arrangements that have come with my nominal retirement. Suddenly this weather watcher has become a weather nerd. Add the fact that my usual walking companions are mostly in a similarly “flexible” situation, and you’d think we’d at last be getting our fill of the outdoors.

Alas you’d be wrong. Work may be an ogre, but it alone is not responsible for every ill. There are also obligations, and injuries, and even questions of motivation. And of course there’s the cat-herding act of getting friends together in the same place at the same time. So, six weeks or so into this new regimen, the overnight adventure score is still nil.

What’s to be done? Rather than let the great be the enemy of the good, if I can’t get any grand trips organised, I’ve opted to sneak out of those weather windows for brief periods; to start this new era with what some call microadventures.*


["Are you serious? We go down there?!"] 
My first mini-trip was just a few hours long, and involved three of us making a very steep and rocky descent to a couple of kunanyi/Mt Wellington’s mountain huts. As Jim and Tim had never been to them, I had to lead the way. By looks and words, I could tell they had little faith in my memory of the route. Smarting at their doubt, and wondering just a little whether I actually did know the way, I had a moment of mini-triumph when the first hut came into view.

As we inspected the stone hut the others muttered in mild approval. I assured them the second one had an even better set up, and that we should walk on for “another … um, maybe 10 minutes, I think … er, from memory”. The other two exchanged more of those looks, but I managed to distract Jim by telling him we had a mobile signal here. With him duly engaged in facebook business, dissent was quelled.


[Tim & Jim set the world to rights by the fire]
Of course we did reach the second hut, with its rustic chairs and grafittied table. Crucially it also had the promised fireplace (Jim sometimes needs such motivations). We collected wood, got the fire going and boiled a billy for “real coffee” in my plunger. Over the glow and crackle of the fire we chatted in the relaxed and occasionally mocking manner that we’ve pretty much perfected over the years. Despite the gaspingly steep ascent back to the car, not one of us complained; a sure sign of a successful – albeit tiny – adventure.

The next microadventure involved just Tim and myself. After our recent dump of snow, I suggested we should check out the mountain as soon as the weather settled. Again time was limited, so we agreed to drive up the mountain as far we could, and go the rest of the way on foot. We reached precisely the end of my street before we met a Hobart City Council road block. (A little ice on our roads can lead to the kind of molly-coddling that would cause laughter in places that really have snow and ice.)


[Tim approaches The Springs] 
Snow was sparse at our starting altitude, so we tromped up the steep Fingerpost Track in the hope of getting into the thicker stuff as quickly as possible. We were not disappointed, ‘though certainly puffed, by the time we reached The Springs. The ground was well covered, and trees drooped under the weight of snow, which occasionally plopped down around us.


[Tim and I relax at The Springs] 
With the road closed there were very few others in the normally busy picnic area. One couple skied past, and two or three walkers ambled by. In luxurious sunshine we sat at a picnic table, complete with a snow white tablecloth, and scoffed chocolate washed down with thermos coffee. There was just time for a gloating message to Jim, who had a prior engagement, before we slipped and slid our snowy way back to the car.

A few days later Lynne and I took advantage of the mountain road being open, and drove to the summit for a little snow play. It was a Monday, one of her non-work days, and we got away early to avoid “the crowds”. We needn’t have bothered. Although the summit was clear, blustery conditions and thigh deep snow kept most people close to their cars.


[Lynne braves the kunanyi cold] 
We walked on a slightly cryptic snow-covered track towards South Wellington before veering off-track to a high point. We were finding it hard to loosen up our limbs, and the wind was bitingly cold. But the scenery was stunning, with views through to the snow-covered Southern Ranges. We had time enough to take a few “hero shots” and explore some of the frozen world around us.


[Frozen ripples on kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 
The only signs of life were footprints – a few human, most wallaby – though we saw not another soul. Without the encouragement of a hot drink, we were soon enough ready to retrace our steps. That’s what I love about microadventuring. Although you don't have to be far away from comfort, you’re still getting a small fix of adventure.
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* The term owes much to Alastair Humphreys. More details at http://www.alastairhumphreys.com/books/microadventures/