Saturday 15 February 2014

A Vigorous Change: Part 2

As much as I love a good map, it’s not the same as a landscape. Its lines, shapes and colours convey only the vaguest hint, even to the map-literate, of what you might experience when your actual feet traverse the actual land.

Nor are weather forecasts the same as the events they try to predict. You might read the words – even mark, learn and inwardly digest them – but you will have only a shape, a glimpse, a hazy impression of what that will mean when you meet the real weather in the real world.

[Campsite before the change, with the green "Storm Shelter" in the rear]

Back in Jim’s tent, the aptly named “Storm Shelter”, we had some time to ponder such matters. As the early afternoon showers settled into steady rain, we began to consider exactly what “vigorous” – the adjective the forecasters had used to describe the change we were experiencing – was going to mean to us here on the Cathedral Plateau, with nothing but a thin skin of nylon between us and the sky. We had a while to wait.

The afternoon leaked away slowly. We snoozed, chatted, listened to the thunder and the rising wind. At first the latter two were not easy to distinguish, but soon flashes of lightning, followed, one … two … three seconds later by crashing thunder, resolved any doubts. The storm was in our vicinity, if not directly over us.

[Storm brewing over Cathedral] 

The thunder was impressive. My childhood explanations: God moving the furniture; giants playing skittles; clouds bumping into each other, returned to me. The arguably more prosaic truth, that thunder is a greatly scaled-up version of the crackle made by static electricity, does little to dampen your wonder when you’re enfolded by storm. One clap became a round of applause lasting fully sixty seconds as it rolled and rebounded and ricocheted through the surrounding mountains.

Eventually, around 3pm, the show moved on. But the rain remained, keeping us inside. We had set our tent back towards some rocks and pencil pine trees, which we figured would protect us from the forecast strong westerlies. As the wind began to rise, our exposure to the south became an issue. The wet clouds racing over us were coming from the west, sure enough. But the winds were swirling and careening all over the compass.

A roaring gust now smacked into my side of the tent, bowing the short cross-pole and whacking the tent wall down on me. Startled, I looked up at the pole to see if it had bent. It seemed okay, but the winds didn’t let up. No longer a symmetrical dome, the tent had become a skewed, bellying blob with us inside it.

Another gust hit, and this time the diagonal poles were flattened across me. I held my hand up to them, hoping to stabilise the structure a little. Five, six, seven times severe gusts hit. Some were preceded by a warning runaway-locomotive sound; some came with no warning. After each episode I lay back down, hoping for the best. But even the less-than-vigorous winds were still straining the tent’s fragile structure. From where I lay the triangular vent flap looked like the ravening beak of a huge bird of prey, jabbing and probing towards me with each gust.

This kept up for an unnerving hour or more, eventually tipping me over into action. During a slight lull I got out of the tent and went in search of a more sheltered spot. The last thing we wanted to do – relocate the tent – had finally become the second last thing. Being ripped out of the tent by a gust was beginning to look a worse prospect. I told Jim what I thought. We debated the inconvenience factor: a full tent, with gear strewn everywhere, is no fun to pack up. And especially when the wind and rain are as fierce as they were. We moved anyway, into the shelter of a pencil pine grove.

[Our tent sheltered in the pencil pine grove] 
Putting your tent among trees in a gale may not seem wise. But while pencil pines can be blown over, we felt this very unlikely. Alpine conifers know how to bend, and seldom seem to break – at least in comparison with eucalypts.

The other factor in favour of moving because of wind is Murphy’s Law. Getting out of the wind is highly likely to bring about an abatement in conditions. Indeed there was enough easing of wind and rain for us to cook and eat a quick meal just after our relocation. But we were soon driven back into our tents to ponder why the forecast “occasional showers easing” had turned into several hours of continuous rain, including a prolonged and un-forecast thunderstorm. Jim eased our grumps by reading aloud some Bill Bryson. It worked a treat, and laughter became our only post-lunch exercise.

[Morning in the pine grove: photo by Jim Wilson]
When morning came, the rain had cleared and the sun was back. As we packed and left Cathedral, the superb weather felt like a benediction. Only later, once back in mobile range, did we learn how fortunate we’d actually been. Our phones were quickly full of news: wind gusts well over 150km/hour; blackouts and road closures; at least one tent destroyed (on another mountain); and worst of all a fatality due to a tree fall.

[Sunshine in rainforest near the walk's end] 

There’s nothing like perspective to turn your grumps to gratefulness.

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