Saturday, 12 July 2014

Just Add Snow: Part 2

Snow was falling,
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness. 

- Mary Oliver

Ah, snow and imagination! Such powerful and persistent allies, even in the face of our actual experience of snow’s discomforts and dangers.

[Fiercely beautiful: summer snow in the Swiss Alps] 

We are traversing a little-walked route at the back of the Cradle Plateau. We are defying a “woolly” weather forecast, which has now taken a turn for the worse. Just after our point-of-no-return we enter a snowy, whooshing white-out.

The snow presents us with two problems. One is way finding, as our route has become disguised and there are no snow poles. We walk on into the white anyway: a little apprehensive, but keen to try ourselves out.

[The point-of-no-return? Heading into snow on the Cradle Plateau.] 

Snow’s second problem soon arises, and that is movement per se. Post-holing isn’t something most walkers in Tasmania get to practise. We usually only have brief skirmishes with snow, and its odd amnesiac properties wipe former difficulties from our memory. Right now we have to re-learn what an apt term post-holing is for what happens when you to try to cross fresh, soft snow.

We’ve started with visions of softly traversing the snow’s surface a la Legolas the elf. This is punctured as quickly as the snow, as first one leg then the other sinks thigh-deep into the snow. Only with a shuddering and inelegant heave do we extricate a back leg, scissor it up and across our front leg, and then plunge into a new hole.

We do this over and over again, wondering why we thought walking in snow would be fun. Even breathing is a challenge, as snow lashes our faces and the cold wind swipes the air from us. After a relatively short amount of this energy-sapping exercise we are exhausted, even a little demoralised. A little voice tells me it’d be wise to lurk behind the lead walker and use his steps as mine. But it’s a variety of slipstreaming that is usually noticed by the leader. It will soon end with one or other of them “allowing” me my turn; if my pride doesn’t make me take it first.

[Back on track: the Horse Track, Cradle Mountain] 

That day on the Cradle Plateau was only a brief taste of hard snow walking. We soon found the better marked Horse Track and dropped down out of the worst of the snow, and back to a warm hut.

And now, despite all that I have just written about the difficulties of those few hours, I look back on that day with overwhelming fondness. In asking myself why, I have begun to think that there’s something deeper at work than just the aesthetics, the prettiness, of snow.

As I write this I am looking out on a snowy kunanyi/Mt Wellington. It is cold here at 200m, but up there it is way below zero, and winds of 40kmh are blowing from the south-west. The snow up there is deadly as well as beautiful. And perhaps those two sides of snow have always been deeply embedded within us.

There is a fierce beauty to snow. It can kill, but it can uplift: like death, like love. Was that what Danish writer Peter Hoeg was getting at in Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow when he wrote these words?

Maybe falling in love, the piercing knowledge that we ourselves will someday die, and the love of snow are in reality not some sudden events; maybe they were always present.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Just Add Snow: Part 1

I was recently interviewed on radio  in the line of duty  about bushwalking in winter. The interview covered things like appropriate clothing and suitable tracks for Tasmania’s cool season. But the S-word did come up, as it inevitably will in winter.

[A Christmas snow-dome: our fantasy of snow?] 
Snow is a word freighted with thrills and chills. Yet while we join the world in enjoying the aesthetic lift a covering of snow gives a landscape, it seems Australians are oddly naïve about the real thing. Think of our plethora of kitsch snow-domes, with snowy scenes of places as unlikely as Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef!

Perhaps we should blame it on the weather in our big cities. Winter in places like Sydney and Melbourne can be as miserable as anywhere in Tasmania. But being that few degrees warmer than Tassie, and lacking nearby mountains, those cities miss out on our snowy compensations. (Although they do boast their own snow-domes.)

Having snow, we Tasmanians can readily step outside the dome and get acquainted with the reality. Lynne and I spent our first Tasmanian winter in Fern Tree, the highest suburb in Hobart. It nestles into the slopes of kunanyi/Mt Wellington at an altitude of over 400m. When forecasts speak of “snow in elevated suburbs” you can bet that includes Fern Tree.

[A dusting of snow on the slopes of kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 

That year was 1980. We’d come from mainland Australia expecting our first child, and with our “fur-kid” in tow. Wuppy was a border collie/kelpie cross, a smart and lively dog, bred to round up sheep on the western plains of NSW. If we were naïve about snow, he was utterly clueless. After our first decent fall, we let him outside for a look. He stood there wide-eyed, barked, looked uncertainly back at us before bounding out into the snow. He then barked some more before repeatedly biting into the “big white thing” that had invaded his space.

Gradually we have become more closely acquainted with Tasmania’s infrequent, unreliable yet delightful snowfalls. We even choose, at times, to bushwalk in it. 

One winter a group of us heads into the high country north of Lake St Clair, despite a bushwalker’s weather alert warning of snow. We have all the right gear: good waterproofs, down jackets, tents, winter sleeping bags and plenty of food and cooking gear. We plan to sleep in a hut and are walking on a well-known track. What could possibly go wrong?

[A picturesque amount of snow: Mt Field National Park] 
The short answer is: quite a lot. Deep snow can make your progress perilously slow; it can exhaust you; disguise the track; cause you to miss a hut. Icy conditions can easily lead to slips, falls and injury. And an immobilising injury in freezing and snowy conditions can quickly become much more serious.

We’re not oblivious to all this. We mindfully, carefully walk on through a magical snowy forest. Its trees shield us from the worst of the freezing winds. The snow is of the slushy Tasmanian variety: not deep enough to delay us; not hard enough to crunch beneath our boots; just slippery, soft and endearingly squeaky. As we trudge beneath snow-laden branches, the occasional barrow load of snow plops down around us: a harmless form of Russian roulette.

[Old man's beard and snowy forest near Windy Ridge] 
We play a more favourably-loaded, but far more dangerous form of that game on a snowy walk in New Zealand. As we approach a steep, sidling bit of track we see a prominent sign. With typical Kiwi candour, the sign warns us not to stop between this sign and the next. A local tells us this is an avalanche zone that's especially active in winter and early spring.

He cheerfully adds that a football-sized chunk of snowy ice whizzing down that vast slope could take our heads off. This is a little worse than risking  a bit of snow down our collar. Even though it’s late spring, and the snow is thin, there’s an extra zing in our steps as we cross that slope! We’re not keen to meet the hard reality of snow literally head-on.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Gullible, Me?

[Something light for a change]

Did you hear theyve taken the word gullible out of the dictionary? Of course you wouldn’t fall for that old one, but millions have. Apparently the people at the Oxford English Dictionary regularly receive letters complaining about this. Or so I have read!

Gullibility is an old and rather endearing human trait, and one that keeps the outdoor gear and bushwalking world ticking. Its a world where science and magic meet; where woofle dust is as potent as truth; where the carefully crafted words of catalogues, online blurbs, or sales staff, can tip you from rational to impulsive.

Take these words, used to sell a popular outdoor product.

Light output is optimized to guarantee the chosen burn time. The wide, mixed or focused beam gives lighting that can be adapted to any situation, from close-range to distance vision.

Is this describing the lighting system for an FA-18, or a Porsche Cayenne? No … its for a head torch. A torch that will set you back around $175 (batteries not included)!

Or consider this piece of outdoor apparel.

The fabric upgrade takes the update of a classic utilitarian design to a new kind of utility—shelter against severe weather but guaranteed comfort during dashes between locations or longer outdoor experiences.

Despite this whole new level of “utility”, it seems you shouldn’t use it for TOO long in some conditions. Its only suited to “regions that evade winters full onslaught.” Disappointed? Maybe this will sway you. “In line with the more dynamic approach, a map pocket that is easily accessible on the go replaces the traditional chest pocket.” Yep, Id certainly be glad of being able to access a map in my $1000+ raincoat!

Im intrigued too that the search for waterproof footwear hasnt stopped at waterproof boots and shoes. You can get “waterprooof” sandals from several companies. Their definition of waterproof is a bit “special”. They use woofle terms like hydrophobic mesh lining and waterproof upper materials but ignore the elephant sitting in the puddle. These are, after all, open-sided sandals, as waterproof as fingerless gloves. Your feet will get wet, folks!

But wait …” I hear you say, “what if I have waterproof socks?” To which I reply: thats another whole exercise in the fantasy that moisture only comes from outside. The bad news here is that we sweat, even through our feet. Stroll carefully across wet grass, wearing waterproof socks and sandals (and putting aside, for the moment, any notions of fashion), and your feet will stay dry. Gumboots would do the same job, as might plastic bags. But try any proper walking, in rough, wet, muddy conditions, for an hour or more, and your feet will become moist. And smelly too.

Woofle has invaded the sleeping zone too. My mate Jim is eyeing off a new super-duper sleeping bag. Ive seen the Toad of Toad Hall look in his eyes as he scans the glossy photos, and reads the hypnotic blurb that tells him the bag has:

A permanent* Nano-level water repellent polymer treatment applied to a high loft, high quality down. The Nano-thin treatment vastly improves the downs reaction to water without effecting its weight or loft performance.

So the $600+ bag apparently dries 60% faster than normal down. I remind Jim that he usually uses his bag in (dry) huts. I then stress the wisdom of him not getting his bag wet in the first place. But a dangerously glazed look has come over his eyes, and I fear that the words “poop poop” are on the tip of his tongue.

For all of my steely resolve to remain unswayed by the type of hype that has infected Jim, I will confess that I’m not immune. There's one item of news that is close to winning me over. It concerns some truly wondrous-sounding Japanese underpants. The blurb tells us that these undies are:

coated with ceramic powder to absorb all kinds of less-than-pleasant body odors, from sticky perspirations to gaseous emanations. Metal ions in the powder break down malodorous compounds. . . . Up to 80 percent are eliminated within 30 seconds. They remain effective even after being washed 100 times.

Having walked a lot with Jim, I can see a genuine need for these little beauties. Ill be seeing Jim tonight. If hes not glad of the news Im sure there are others in our walking group who will be. I might even pass the hat around.