Sunday 25 January 2015

A Mt Anne Epic 3: The Still Point

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.
T.S. Eliot

For more than 30 years I have wanted to be in this place. I don’t suppose I envisaged arriving in the manner I have. Like some penitent rascal just scraping into heaven, I have limped and slipped and staggered my way down to Pandani Shelf.

[Camping on Pandani Shelf, with Lots Wife behind] 
It is too late in the day to see what kind of smaller beauties it holds, but the shadows falling from the steepling bulk of Mt Anne and her sibling peaks, and the deep darkness in the valleys below, give us more than a hint of the grander scene.

On the soft pineapple grass beside a small pool, I sleep like the dead until around 4am. All is profoundly silent, except for my monkey-mind, which begins jumping from wonder to worry. How bad is my ankle? What if I can’t walk out? I unzip the tent to test it out, and to relieve myself.

Climbing out is awkward. I wince as I inch my injured foot into a Croc, and again as I stand up in the pre-dawn chill. I stumble a few metres from the tent, shivering in the cold. Yet as I stand there, the chill somehow eases the soreness of my ankle. Perhaps walking won’t be impossible, especially after the coming rest day. I slip back into the tent and eventually back into slumber.

In the full morning it’s only the sun striking our tents that brings us out. No-one is in a hurry to get going after the rigours of yesterday. But as we mingle over breakfast, it turns out the “rest day” might include some effort for some. Paola is very keen to try for the summit of Anne. Not wanting to do it on her own, she works on getting Tim to join her. She knows he’s already shown an interest, and that there’s no chance the rest of us will be in it.

Tim is undecided, so Paola plots a recce up the ridge. Lina joins her “just for that bit”. Eventually the women wander back. Paola is full of beans, even though they haven’t found an easy route. Despite our head shakes and talk of “worlds of pain”, Tim soon caves in and they hoist day packs and start climbing. It’s a long and steep climb, but they’ll be visible for parts of the route, and audible practically the whole time. They take the PLB just in case.

Mick, Lina and I go for a slow wander around the shelf, discovering that it’s actually multiple shelves, some of them split-level. They’re separated by bands of scoparia, pandani and other scrub species. I had expected to find prominent patches of cushion plants, but initially it’s mainly pineapple grass, rock slabs, bushy scrub … and a lot of water.

[Some of Pandani Shelf's plentiful water] 
As we push through some bush on a lower level, we meet our first bright green expanses of the aptly-named cushion plants. Actually the name is only apt for their flattish, pillow-like appearance. As we touch them we find they’ve got the texture and ungiving resistance of coral. Bolster heaths, as they are also called, are usually made up of a number of different cushion plant species, often interspersed with other plants that variously piggy-back on, grow alongside, or compete with the “cushions”.

[Sundew on a cushion plant (Abrotanella forsteroides)] 
The surface of a cushion is made up of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of tiny, densely-packed, overlapping leaves. Their uniform growth enables them to form a tight barrier against the harsh conditions experienced in these highlands. This keeps the interior temperature and humidity of each “cushion” remarkably even, making them highly resistant to snow, wind, sun, lashing rain, hail and grazing animals. However prolonged drought and human footfall are both capable of harming these communities, breaking the surface and opening them up to the harsh weather conditions.

[A large cushion plant, with Mt Lot and Lots Wife behind] 
I have seen cushion plants many times, ‘though never in the profusion that we are soon finding. We turn a corner and find one continuous clump that is more than 20m wide. It wobbles and undulates like an enormous quilt hastily thrown over hiding giant-children. I half expect one to emerge with a sudden “boo!”

In and of itself this clump is stunning enough; the equivalent of a giant forest spread low and dense. But as we stand back to take it in, the magnificent backdrop of Mt Anne, Mt Lot and the deep clefts between us and them, has a transcendent effect. For a time we are literally speechless.

[Cushion plant, pandani and Mt Anne] 
The spell is broken when we suddenly hear voices from on high. It’s not a heavenly host, and there’s no hallelujah: it’s just Tim and Paola talking to each other from somewhere high on the mountain. We can’t see them; don’t know whether they’ve made the top or not. But at least they still have breath!

Towards sunset, just as we’re settling in to cook our dinners, we hear the climbers on the ridge nearest us. Nearly half an hour later they wander into the camp with a restrained “whoo hoo”. It turns out they haven’t quite summited; the last 20 metres proving just a little too intimidating.

[Paola and Tim celebrate their "almost!"] 
Still, we’re surprised - and a bit proud - that they’ve managed as much as they have. We make them a brew and hear all about their mammoth effort. They even show us photos of people they saw, and talked with, who were on the summit. So close!

We’re glad to hear that during their last half hour they’ve seen and photographed some of the cushion plants that have so thrilled us. For Mick, Lina and myself, what we’ve seen has been its own mammoth experience. Perhaps keeping (almost) still can be as big an adventure as (almost) making a summit.

Saturday 17 January 2015

A Mt Anne Epic 2: Hands-in-Pockets

Overnight the storm rages. The nor-westerly trough that brought the storm over the mountain is replaced around two in the morning by a sou-westerly change. There’s more lightning, more thunder, and the winds stiffen from the forecast 30km/h to well over double that. My sturdy old Macpac Olympus tent isn’t bothered by the wind, but the uproar keeps Tim and me awake for a time.

[On the ascent above Eliza Hut] 
 Having been woken, I find I’m a little anxious about the unknowns of the day ahead. But our recce up Mt Eliza in the afternoon has been valuable on a couple of levels. First we’ve been able to introduce Lina to the new-to-her concept of boulder scrambling, and without having to carry a large pack. She is mildly disturbed by the experience, but lives to tell the tale. And at least she knows what to expect first thing tomorrow.

We’ve also been able to quiz a friend we met up there about our intended route around Mt Anne. We won’t use her real name – for reasons that will become apparent – although “Janet’s” words are inscribed in our memories. She breezily recalls that the section between Mt Anne and North-East Ridge is a “hands-in-pockets” walk. Those of us who know Janet best are a little wary, given her “glass-half-full” take on life, and her reputation as a strong walker. Still we can’t help but be a little reassured, especially since none of us has been that way before.

The disturbed night and low cloud combine to keep us in the tent late. We have no desire to climb Eliza in wet cloud. Instead we discuss our day’s tactics over a slow and convivial breakfast in the hut. Just as we’re cleaning up, as if on cue the cloud breaks up and the sun starts to peep through. Our minds are made up for us.

Considering yesterday’s dose of heat exhaustion, I’m feeling quite good, and am pleasantly surprised to reach the top of Eliza with ease. Lina surprises herself too, coping well with the large boulders. She pauses on top of her first Tasmanian “mountain” for a quick celebration.

[Lina on top of Mt Eliza] 
 The wind is still fresh, though nothing like the overnight blasts. It’s pleasantly cool: ideal walking weather. We come across a party we’d met the day before. They’re on their way down Eliza, ahead of schedule, after a terrible night at Shelf Camp. Two of their three tents have had poles snapped in the overnight wind. They’re cold, wet and not keen to stay and chat. We try to resist a dose of schadenfreude, knowing full well we had planned to camp in the same spot last night.

We wonder what has become of Janet and Geoff, but the returning group has no news. They certainly hadn’t seen them at Shelf Camp. As we wander across the alpine plateau, we come across a tent nestled among some low rocks. There’s no-one there but we’re pretty sure it belongs to Janet and Geoff. As we pause for lunch a little further on, the pair walks by.

They tell us of a scary night in the open, with gale force winds and lightning strikes not far from their tent. Given that experience and a tight schedule they too have decided to head down rather than continue their planned Mt Anne Circuit. “We might check out Schnells Ridge instead.” We freshly quiz Janet about the way around Mt Anne, and glean a few more details – including her pointing to our best route – before she and Geoff return to pack up their tent.

After lunch we have a few sublimely hands-in-pockets moments as we wander over to the edge of the plateau. We take in views over glacially-carved Lake Judd to Schnells Ridge and beyond. Then, our packs back on, we make our way towards the shoulder of Mt Anne, herself massively torn by the actions of ice over the last few million years.

[Looking over Lake Judd towards Schnells Ridge] 
 I recall taking my brother-in-law Mike up this mountain one cold and windy day back in the 1980s. In basic day-walk gear we boulder-hopped and scrambled our way up the intimidating peak. Mike wore a plastic poncho in lieu of a rain jacket. In the wind it acted like a crazy spinnaker, blowing him on a dangerously erratic course across the boulders.

More than 30 years later, as we negotiate our way across those same boulder fields, I wonder how we survived that day. This time there’s certainly no hopping involved. We pick our wary way across the rough rocky slopes that surround the mountain.

 [Traversing boulders beneath Mt Anne]
 We’re soon scrambling past the normal route to the summit. We’ve been told there’s a “back door” to the summit, further around. Some of our group are keen to try this out, though given the time we figure that might be tomorrow’s challenge.

Although the distance to N-E Ridge on the map is not great, it is a rough route, and we wait in vain for the hands-in-pockets section to begin. Instead I find a much less desirable foot-in-hole moment. As I’m leading a steep sidling section I put my left foot down on what appears to be a vegetation-covered boulder. Instead there’s a hole beneath it. My left foot goes down 40 or 50cm further than expected, leaving my right foot high above. The mechanics being all wrong, my right ankle wrenches sideways and backwards.

I shout out in pain and drop to the ground. Have I heard a crack, or was that just the wrench shooting up through my nerves? I’ve never broken a bone, so I’m not sure what it would feel like. But the phrases “personal locator beacon” and “helicopter rescue” definitely come to mind!

[Tim straps my ankle: photo by Mick Adams] 
 Tim is first on the scene, and he asks all the right questions. I take off my boot, and find I can wiggle my toes and move my foot without too much pain. Not broken, then … but can I walk? Tim binds the ankle firmly. I swig some water, eat some scroggin, then put the swollen foot back inside my boot. I try out a step or two, and it seems workable if painful.

The rest of that walk down to N-E Ridge is slow, rough and horrible. Each time I put my right ankle down it protests and I wince. But using a trekking pole as part walking stick/part brake, I am able to hobble slowly along the scrubby, rocky ridge.

[Hobbling along N-E Ridge: photo by Paola] 
 After some hours of slow and literally painstaking traversing, we find what might be a way down to Pandani Shelf where we plan to camp. Our descent route is steep and undignified, but where legs don’t work well I find a bottom does fine. Nothing in this part of Tasmania is easy or straightforward, but we finally reach the shelf as the last of the sun is setting over the far mountains.

[The shadow of Mt Anne creeps towards Lake Timk, with Lots Wife and Mt Lot] 
It’s probably a beautiful place; it’s certainly surrounded by magnificent peaks; it’s quite possibly the perfect place for a hands-in-pockets rest day. Tomorrow will answer all that. For now I’m just glad to be here more or less in one piece.

Sunday 11 January 2015

A Mt Anne Epic 1: Some Like It Hot

Some like it hot. I’m not one of them. So when the forecast for our planned four day trip in the Mount Anne area suggests a hot first day, I push our start time as early as possible. That way we might avoid the worst of the heat on the steepest part of the climb.

I’m hoping the forecast cloud will delay the heat. But as we turn onto the pale gravel of the Scotts Peak Road, well over two hours after leaving Hobart, the sky is clear and blue. In south-west Tasmania that’s usually a cause for celebration. Nearby Strathgordon averages two and a half metres of rain a year, and Mount Anne considerably more. There are only 16 clear days a year, and this is one of them.

[Tim points out Mt Anne from the lower slopes] 
Considering a 680m climb carrying full packs, we’re not as excited as we might be to see the mighty pyramid of Mt Anne stark against the blue. After a car shuffle and the usual mucking around, we heave our packs on at around 9:30. It’s already over 30 degrees, and our plans of avoiding the heat have melted before us.

We have little time to settle into our packs before we hit the brutal climb up the shade-less buttongrass slope. We’re carrying plenty of water, are slick with sunscreen, and have hats tugged over our faces. Still, it’s inescapably hot. Between heaving breaths Tim and I fantasise about solar-powered air conditioned hats. “There’s a gap in the market” Tim reckons.

We trudge slowly upwards, stopping frequently for water and sometimes scroggin. Over the decades I’ve done this part of the walk many times in all kinds of conditions, but today feels the hardest. Is it Christmas/New Year over-indulgence on top of the heat, or am I just getting older?

[An early break on the way up Mt Eliza] 
At least the views out over the south-west are as good as ever. We tell Paola and Lina, the two German walkers who have joined us, the names of the various ranges. Tim and I linger over the saw-toothed profile of the Western Arthur Range, remembering separate epic trips there. We recount the story of the original Lake Pedder, and the impoundment that now covers it. They are gob-smacked by their surroundings, and teach us some German expressions of awe and wonder … or possibly they’re just expletives!

We’ve planned a lunch break at the Mt Eliza Hut. I remember it always taking quite a while to come into view, but today it is stubbornly tardy. Mick and the frauleins decide to walk on and wait for us at the hut. Tim stays with me, doing his best to jolly me along. I’m struggling, barely able to put more than 50 steps together before needing to stop again.

There is no respite from the heat, no trees to shade us and precious little breeze. I feel as though my brain is boiling inside my hat. We reach the top of a slope, or what turns out to be a false top. I slump to the ground again, turn my head as far away from the sun as possible, mutter apologetic words of exhaustion to Tim.

[Mick at High Camp Memorial Hut, aka Eliza Hut]
After a while I look up, as though to will the hut to appear. Instead I see Mick coming towards us, without his pack, carrying two bottles. He gives each of us a bottle of fresh cool water. The bad news, he says, is that the hut is still 40 minutes away. The good news is that he’s happy to carry my pack to the hut. I bless him, take a slug of water, and we set off.

I start to realise I’m not just tired when I find walking just as hard without the pack. Tim recounts his experience of heat stroke on a Frenchmans Cap trip. It included nausea and vomiting, but as I’m not feeling sick, I don’t think I’ve got that. But it could be heat exhaustion. Distracted by such speculations, we suddenly reach the hut. It’s only taken 20 minutes. Mick has a sly smile. “Thought it’d be better to overestimate.”

[Is this heat exhaustion? Resting outside the Eliza Hut. photo Mick Adams] 
I drop to the ground outside the hut, in the shade of a myrtle beech tree. I can’t even lift my head to drink, let alone think of eating. I lie there for 15 or 20 minutes before starting to feel human again. We have lunch and discuss the options for the rest of the day. I’m not the only one suffering in the heat, and given we’re only just over half-way to our destination at Shelf Camp, and that rain is forecast, we eventually choose to stay at the hut. We’ll re-assess our onward options in the morning.

Over lunch Paola gives me an orange-flavoured magnesium tablet to dissolve in a bottle of water. It’s supposed to help replace electrolytes after physical exertion, and seems to hit the spot. After an hour or so of rest and rehydration, I feel well enough to join the others on a recce of the track above.

[Stunning views over Lake Pedder from above Eliza Hut] 
The track is steeper and rockier than ever, but with tiny day packs and superb views, it’s surprisingly do-able. But any thoughts of staying up there for sunset views over Lake Pedder are overturned by a coming storm. We turn back and reach the hut just as a long line of bruised black cloud rolls towards us over the lake. Lightning flickers, a veil of rain is draped beneath the cloud, and thunder rumbles. We estimate its time of arrival, then Tim and I tighten our tent guys and retreat to the shelter of the hut for a spectacular show.

[The storm approaches Eliza Hut] 
The beat of the rain drowns out normal conversation, so we have to shout our gladness that we’re not caught out on Eliza Plateau during this! Perhaps my heat exhaustion was a blessing in disguise. As I share some wine with Mick – a small thank you for his kindness – I raise a glass to dry huts and fortuitous decisions.