Tuesday 21 July 2009

Federation Peak - Part 8

[part 8 of a 15 part series describing an ascent of Tasmania's Federation Peak]

8) Bechervaise

Bechervaise Plateau, Wednesday February 6th, 1991

Bechervaise Plateau is actually an undulating, partly open moor surrounded by mountains and scrubby forest. But all is overpowered by the presence of Federation’s north-east face – a bulging, misshapen forehead of rock jutting 350 metres straight up from the plateau, and towering massively above us. Our relief at getting there is muted by Federation’s stunning physical presence. It is too close for good photographs, yet still forbiddingly far above us.

At a far more prosaic level, we’re also slightly miffed to find all the good tent sites taken. At least we know it’s Ray and his party, who have been a day ahead of us the whole way up. We drop our packs and slump beside them to rest and drink. When we eventually recover enough to look for alternative tent sites, we hear voices from high above. We pick out the very familiar two-noted “Awww Oy” call from Ray. He’s shouting out to us from the summit. They’ve made it! Ray is in his 70s, and has been trying to get to the top of Federation for nearly a decade. Three or four times unfavourable weather or injuries in his group have turned him back. At last this tenacious and legendary bushwalker, my first walking mentor in Tasmania, has achieved the best of summits. We are thrilled at his success, and yell our congratulations on high. We follow up with the question “How long?”, meaning how long has it taken them from Bechervaise to the summit. After much miss-hearing and repetition, we think they are telling us “Four hours!”

I can’t believe he was thinking it possible, but after the exchange finishes, Jim says to us “that’s four hours up, maybe three hours back … which makes it a bit too late for us to try and reach the top this arvo’.” We consider it for a minute. If we leave now we wouldn’t be back till at least 10. Dusk lasts well past 9pm, and the weather is clear and calm. But that could leave perhaps an hour’s descent in the growing dark, not a good mixture on an unknown mountain. When we add to that Jim’s fall and the physical efforts of the day to this point, it’s clear that we should stay put. We return to looking for tent sites, although the summit is still very much on our minds. Every now and then we hear one of the summiting party. They’re really enjoying being up there, but eventually they leave the top and start descending on the far side of the mountain, mostly out of earshot, if not out of mind. Bill finally articulates what a few of us are thinking: “Good old Ray. Ya know if he can make it at his age, and his whole party with him, then we’ve got no excuses.” I doubt that we need any more motivation, but if we do, there it is. We know most of those in Ray’s party, and while some are excellent walkers, some are having their first foray into the south-west, and one or two – including Ray – are far from spring chickens.

We have to place the tents a fair distance apart, and even then they’re on lumpy or wet sites: beggars can’t be choosers. After the tents, the “kitchen” and a hot cuppa are the next priority. The weather is sublime, sunny with high cirrus in a blue sky. We relax and enjoy the afternoon, sharing the chocolate around, resting bones and backs weary from two hard days, and minds wary of a harder day to come. A couple of us even take out books, although the occasional biting march fly keeps us from totally relaxing. When Jim jumps up with a sudden “ooh”, we wonder what’s bitten him. But instead he rifles through his pack, triumphantly bringing out a strange looking brown pouch. It turns out to be an old style wine bladder filled with vintage port. Jim assures us it’s an authentic Spanish wineskin, made of leather, “as used by shepherds in the Pyrenees”. It’s a very welcome bonus, and a few of us agree to help lighten Jim’s load. We’re near the end of a warming drop when we again hear voices – this time much closer. It’s Joe and one or two others from Ray’s party, back from the summit.

Before long we all get together to hear the full story. Like two packs of related dogs we’re excited, eager to share news, and just slightly diffident with each other. We find out that we’ve misunderstood their shout from the summit. They meant four hours return – Bechervaise to Federation. Jim and I exchange “we could’ve done it” type glances before switching to the weather. We ask Ray what he thinks it will do, and the notoriously optimistic walker, who uses a dangling handkerchief as often as a barometer to predict the weather, shakes his head doubtfully. “Cirrus comes before a change … a front’ll probably come through early tomorrow.” We brush his prediction off, and end our time together with hearty congratulations all ‘round. But the weather is uppermost in our thoughts as we go to our tents that night.

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