Monday 29 November 2010

Thoughts from the Overland Track: Part 1 - Mt Pelion East

[part 1 of a series of reflections on a November walk through Tasmania's Overland Track]

Mt Ossa and the rest of the Pelion Range from the slopes of Mt Pelion East

Pelion Gap, at an altitude of 1126 metres, is the high point of day 4 on the Overland Track. It is a place more exposed than most to the wild weathers that made, and continue to make, this high and rugged area what it is. My rule of thumb that there is always snow in November in the highlands holds true today. Showers turn to flurries of sago snow as we sag down at the Gap.

Its been a constant hour and a half trudge up from the Pelion Plains, but the promise of fresh bread from a friendly commercial guide has drawn us on. We top the bread with homemade raspberry jam, cheese and other delicacies. The heavenly taste brings internal sunshine even as the next snow shower swoops over the Gap.

Four members of the group think better of our earlier plan to climb Mt Pelion East. That leaves three of us to don extra layers, including gloves and overpants, before we continue up the mountain. Ive been here twice before, but it is hard to resist the short, sharp ascent up what looks an impossibly steep summit ridge.

My hazy recollection, that you walk straight towards the nipple-shaped summit before skirting left then ascending from that side, proves accurate for once. But as we start to clamber up the final steep band of dolerite, sago snow engulfs the mountain and us. We shelter behind some pillars, the sago piling up like tiny styro-foam pellets at our feet. We are in no danger. This is a half-hearted sprinkling of snow that will melt within the hour. But it does make me wonder what it would have been like here 12 000 years ago, during the last Ice Age.

Waiting out the snow showers, Mt Pelion East

Back then the confetti of snow at our feet would have been several hundred metres thick. And we would have been waiting a couple of thousand years for it to melt, giving the slowly flowing snow and ice ample time to grind away the bulk of Pelion East. The peak itself is a nunatak, meaning it stayed largely above the deep snow. But its flanks, exactly where we are standing, would have been buried deep. The brutal and relentless mass of ice would have gouged away most of the mountain side. Later that day we will find glacial erratics large boulders carried and dropped by the moving ice peppered throughout the Pinestone Valley.

I am sobered by the thought that Aboriginal Tasmanians were here during that whole age. Without the likes of boots, down jackets, Gore-Tex, polar fleece or ruck-sacks, and carrying only fire and essential tools, they ranged throughout this whole area, leaving their own erratics in the form of quarries, middens and all manner of other artefacts. The Pelion Plains and similar open buttongrass areas are probably the largest artefacts of all: the result of aeons of systematic Aboriginal burning.

The snow soon stops, and we scramble the final few dozen metres to the summit. Tim is in his element, reminded of foul-weather scrambling during his years in Scotland. Rose, from the Netherlands, is just thrilled to be in such a wild and elevated place.

From the summit we can see for a hundred kilometres or more in every direction. Across Pelion Gap is Mt Ossa, the states highest peak. For a short while the snow showers have cleared its bulky eminence, as they have the other mountains of the Pelion Range: Mt Pelion West, Mt Thetis and Paddys Nut. The wind too has dropped, and it looks like we will have at least five minutes to enjoy the summit before the next shower. On a day like today that is more than we could have asked.

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