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.

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