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.

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