Sunday 6 April 2014

Frenchmans Cap 3: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

[Tim avoids the void, Frenchmans Cap] 

“Timing is everything.”
“Summit windows are small.”
“Short sentences sound hardcore.”

The truth about our Frenchmans Cap summit day is that we basically leave when we’re ready to – probably a bit later, in fact. And the truth about Tim and I is that our reputation has little to do with being hardcore, and lot to do with supreme PFA-ing*.

Three Victorian walkers who’ve shared the hut with us have left more than an hour before us. But their window is small; they plan to be back at Lake Vera Hut for the night. We’ll have another night at Tahune Hut, so our window could be re-opened the following day, if we really wanted it to.

It’s in this somewhat blasé mood that we check out the weather and gradually get our gear together. It’s cool and overcast, but the clouds that have hovered between our lake and the rock walls above seem to be lifting. There can be advantages in being slow coaches.

From Tahune it’s pretty much straight uphill towards North Col. 31 years ago we had come here from Lake Vera, rushed past Tahune and clambered directly up to the col. That track is now closed high up towards the col to allow the eroded gully to recover. Instead the track slices diagonally left, missing the col itself, before sidling further left across the steep walls for a few hundred metres.

[A panorama of the track from Tahune towards North Col] 

Just before it does a hairpin back in the direction we’ve come from, we meet the Victorian trio coming down. They’ve summited okay, but the clouds have only parted briefly for them.They’re still in high spirits though, and we promise we’ll send them some photos from the soon-to-be-clear summit. Everyone laughs in a “yeah, right” kind of way, and we go our separate ways.

Shortly afterwards Nick decides he might leave the hairy bits to us. As it’s got steeper he’s become more cautious and has begun to doubt his comfort on the really steep bits. He leaves us at the hairpin and heads down. Tim and I cinch our day packs tight and turn towards the top.

It’s not long before we reach parts that make Nick’s decision look wise. We come to a track junction with signs pointing straight ahead to the Irenabyss Track (via the col), and back behind us to Tahune. And the summit track? The sign just points up. Rather than walk, it seems we’ll need to climb or at least scramble straight up a steep quartzite wall. 

We switch to Russian accents. Part of our strategy for coping with difficulties is to use a variety of appallingly inept accents. Irish works well for comfortable strolling; uppercrust English seems good for gradual downhills; but there’s nothing like Russian for those steep uphill pinches. Ah the games we play, just to take our minds from the labours of hard walking!

Although there are several of them, the actual steep bits never last long. But with intermittent drizzle wetting the rocks, we take our time. Every now and then the clouds part a little; the sky brightens momentarily; and we wonder whether our window is coming. If timing is everything, dumb luck has a big say too.

[Tim negotiates a steep bit on Frenchmans Cap] 
After several “faux plateaux” – our term for false summits – the track turns a corner, the incline lessens, and a little white-brick-road meanders up to a remarkably broad and level summit. The memories from 31 years ago surge back as I see the summit cairn; the familiar blasted rocks; the swiftly shifting clouds; and the feeling of being high without actually seeing the evidence for it.

Yes, I’ve summited Frenchmans again, in the cloud again. Yet far from feeling it’s “strike two”, I actually feel quite euphoric. Tim does too. We settle down in the summit cairn-cum-shelter, grab a handful of scroggin and swig some water. And then? We sing of course: a rousing Russian rendition of the Carpenters’ “Top of the World”, which we video for posterity – and for our fellow PFA-er Jim, who took so long getting ready that he didn’t actually make this walk at all.

[Tim and I on top of the world, Frenchmans Cap] 
That formality over, we look up and suddenly realise that that the clouds have parted. We immediately revert to Irish, castigating ourselves for the “eejits” that we are for fiddling while the clouds lift. We rush over towards the edge of the summit to see what we can see. Huge cliffs drop 400m or more from here to the still unseen depths. But what can be seen – through gaps in the cloud – is the stately summit of Clytemnestra, and other peaks further off to the south-west.

The Romantic poets coined the word sublime for just this sort of view. It goes far beyond being merely pretty; it surpasses beauty even. For me it hovers somewhere between “beyond words” and “evoking deep feelings of simultaneous insignificance and significance”.

[A sublime moment: Clytemnestra from Frenchmans Cap] 


* P.F.A. is an acronym for a slightly crude Aussie phrase that refers to dithering, delaying, or taking a long time to do anything. (P = P*ss; F = F*rt; A = Around.)

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