Saturday 12 July 2014

Just Add Snow: Part 2

Snow was falling,
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness. 

- Mary Oliver

Ah, snow and imagination! Such powerful and persistent allies, even in the face of our actual experience of snow’s discomforts and dangers.

[Fiercely beautiful: summer snow in the Swiss Alps] 

We are traversing a little-walked route at the back of the Cradle Plateau. We are defying a “woolly” weather forecast, which has now taken a turn for the worse. Just after our point-of-no-return we enter a snowy, whooshing white-out.

The snow presents us with two problems. One is way finding, as our route has become disguised and there are no snow poles. We walk on into the white anyway: a little apprehensive, but keen to try ourselves out.

[The point-of-no-return? Heading into snow on the Cradle Plateau.] 

Snow’s second problem soon arises, and that is movement per se. Post-holing isn’t something most walkers in Tasmania get to practise. We usually only have brief skirmishes with snow, and its odd amnesiac properties wipe former difficulties from our memory. Right now we have to re-learn what an apt term post-holing is for what happens when you to try to cross fresh, soft snow.

We’ve started with visions of softly traversing the snow’s surface a la Legolas the elf. This is punctured as quickly as the snow, as first one leg then the other sinks thigh-deep into the snow. Only with a shuddering and inelegant heave do we extricate a back leg, scissor it up and across our front leg, and then plunge into a new hole.

We do this over and over again, wondering why we thought walking in snow would be fun. Even breathing is a challenge, as snow lashes our faces and the cold wind swipes the air from us. After a relatively short amount of this energy-sapping exercise we are exhausted, even a little demoralised. A little voice tells me it’d be wise to lurk behind the lead walker and use his steps as mine. But it’s a variety of slipstreaming that is usually noticed by the leader. It will soon end with one or other of them “allowing” me my turn; if my pride doesn’t make me take it first.

[Back on track: the Horse Track, Cradle Mountain] 

That day on the Cradle Plateau was only a brief taste of hard snow walking. We soon found the better marked Horse Track and dropped down out of the worst of the snow, and back to a warm hut.

And now, despite all that I have just written about the difficulties of those few hours, I look back on that day with overwhelming fondness. In asking myself why, I have begun to think that there’s something deeper at work than just the aesthetics, the prettiness, of snow.

As I write this I am looking out on a snowy kunanyi/Mt Wellington. It is cold here at 200m, but up there it is way below zero, and winds of 40kmh are blowing from the south-west. The snow up there is deadly as well as beautiful. And perhaps those two sides of snow have always been deeply embedded within us.

There is a fierce beauty to snow. It can kill, but it can uplift: like death, like love. Was that what Danish writer Peter Hoeg was getting at in Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow when he wrote these words?

Maybe falling in love, the piercing knowledge that we ourselves will someday die, and the love of snow are in reality not some sudden events; maybe they were always present.

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