Sunday 19 July 2009

Federation Peak - Part 2

[part 2 of a 15 part series describing an ascent of Tasmania's Federation Peak]

2) A Cautionary Tale
Hobart, late January 1991

Ever careful with his preparation, Jim has found out that his friend, Alderman Rob Valentine*, went to Federation in the early 80s. So we’re all at Jim’s place for a briefing on the climb from Rob. His account is calm, methodical, and shocking. The party he’s with has reached Lower Bechervaise Plateau via Moss Ridge a couple of days ahead of another group approaching the mountain from the Thwaites Plateau route. Rob & co. have had a rough trip up Moss Ridge in very hot weather. Their exhaustion is compounded by dehydration, and they decide to have a lay day in order to recuperate.

So it’s the following day, rested and ready, that they finally – and successfully – climb the peak. They are back at Bechervaise campsite in the late afternoon when they hear the yahooing of the following group, more than three hundred vertical metres above them. It is, they guess, the sound of a successful summit climb. Some time later they hear more yelling, and assume it is simply more summit shenanigans. After returning to Hobart they are shocked to learn from the television news that they’ve actually heard the scream of a fatal fall. Two walkers have been climbing as part of a larger party coming up from Thwaites Plateau. They have reached the top, and on their way down one has successfully negotiated a nasty part of the descent just below the summit. She waits below for the other, the next to descend, encouraging him with comments on how his longer legs are making it easier for him. But then, momentarily forgetting where she is standing, the first walker has stepped backwards into thin air. She has fallen more than 100 metres off the southern face of Federation Peak to her death. Her companions have screamed in horror and disbelief – apparently the sound that Rob’s party have heard. At the site of the fall, Rob reminds us, the total exposure is some 600 metres to Lake Geeves below.

We listen with horrified curiosity, and a rapidly growing doubt about the wisdom of our whole venture. The knot in my stomach leaves no room for the supper Cheryl brings out at this point. To be fair to Rob, he hasn’t come here to scare us. In some ways he’s encouraged us with his self-disparaging account of his own summit success. He implies that if a less-than-athletic man such as himself can do it, we should have no worries. We mutter half-hearted agreement, ask about some track and navigation issues, and politely shuffle bits of cheese and dip around the plates. But what I take from that night are the scream and the fall. And they stay with me over the coming weeks.

* My thanks to Rob Valentine, former Lord Mayor of Hobart, for his assistance with this section of the story.

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