Thursday 23 July 2009

Federation Peak - Part 9

[part 9 of a 15 part series describing an ascent of Tasmania's Federation Peak]

9) On the Southern Traverse

Bechervaise to the Direct Ascent, Thursday February 7th, 1991

It’s light at last. I seem to have been awake all night, or at least since a strong wind blew up in the early hours. It had fair roared in from the nor’ west; whistling through the stony turrets above us; tearing through the trees around us. The campsite may be sheltered from the worst of it, but the tents have been buffeted nonetheless. The aeolian clamour matches my mood. Wilderness is supposed to be about inner peace, or so the posters and calendars tell me. Instead I feel like screaming, or running and hiding. I miss Lynne and the children, and wish I could just be home with them. Is it really supposed to be like this? I thought the mountain itself was hard enough; must we also contend with gales, fatigue and lack of sleep?

I keep the whinges inside, just, and rise to greet the group. They don’t appear to have faired any better in the sleep stakes. Only the Doc seems chirpy, although it could be good old English fatalism. Peter and Natalie are very quiet, both searching their breakfast bowls for courage. Jim and Bill are also looking serious. As I join them for a cuppa, they’re talking wind. Jim’s compass tells him it might not be so bad on the mountain’s climbing side, which is exposed to the south more than the north and west. I’m not sure he’s convinced himself, let alone the rest of us. But we’ve come this far, and the only way to find out is to go up and look.

Feeling more focussed, I surprise everyone by being the first one ready to go. Only a couple of Ray’s party are up by the time we’ve all got our day-packs on. Joe, young and full of beans, tells us it’s a piece of cake. We add a large grain of salt to his cake, but we know that he means to encourage us.

A combination of adrenalin and anxiety carries us off the plateau and onto the rockier ground towards the summit block. We’re out of the wind and making good headway on steep ground when I turn to find Jim and Bill stopped well back and in deep discussion. Arms are waving and fingers pointing. The Doc and I wait, continuing a conversation begun two days earlier. Bill finally joins us to explain the delay. He’s redder than usual, ‘though not from exertion. It seems he’s forgotten the rope, which we’d agreed we’d take at least as a safety line. Jim has gone back for it – a delay of perhaps 30 minutes. We gently chide Bill with words like “stupid bastard” and “gormless eegit”. He grins and we all laugh, tension released. Soon enough Jim rejoins us, an obvious length of rope protruding from his small day pack. He gives Bill a look of mock anger, sighs and takes a painfully exaggerated swig from his water bottle, feigning exhaustion. Point made, Jim walks on and we follow.

The mountain now looms like a great contorted castle. Were it one, we’d guess we’re over the moat, with only the wall before us and nowhere to go but up. That impression is soon corrected. A steep rocky climb leads to an even steeper and quite sudden drop. Rob Valentine had mentioned this in his briefing, but we hadn’t pictured so dramatic a descent when we were supposed to be ascending. We scramble down, face outwards until the slope becomes serious enough to turn us over. We then have to chimney down the slippery quartzite chute facing inwards like proper rock climbers. It should be nerve-wracking, but somehow concentrating on the immediate issue of foot and hand holds is a fine distraction.

Once down we pause to look at the map. We figure we must now be on the Southern Traverse proper, a steep, airy sidle around the southern “wall” of Fedder. This route eventually meets up with the track that comes in from Thwaites Plateau. It may have a name, and it may be a “track”, but there is precious little relief in that. We choose every foot and hand hold carefully as the track steeples now roughly up, now sharply down. We’re very much aware of a vast airy space on our left, with varying but vertiginous views of cliff, forest and lake. Most of the time we only take in the view when we’re stopped and certain of our footing. Under the circumstances admiring the scenery has to be optional, but I can’t help being impressed by the sheer vertical beauty of it all. This is real mountain country, and the danger only increases its fierce beauty.

If you’re not leading, the best walking tactic here is to watch and learn from the person in front. But at this point that’s me, so I’m the one nervously scanning the way ahead not only for good footing, but for signs of the track. Those might be rock cairns, or wear marks or muddy patches. In my anxiety not to miss the turn-off that marks the Direct Ascent, I move very slowly. But in the end there is no missing it. While one track continues west around the tower of Federation, a cairn marks a track that leads straight up. I wait for the others to confirm what I’m already sure about. Here beginneth the Direct Ascent!

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