The evening is full of exotic sounds and smells. There’s the tish and paff of hail and snow on the roof, and the pop and sizzle of cooking, its smoky whiff blending with that indefinable essence-of-wet-walker smell. But most surprising of all is the whirr of a solar powered extractor fan, doing its best to remove those same whiffs.
By the time we’ve finished dining, the snow showers have cleared and the wind has withered. The hut thermometer tells us it’s already below zero. I shrug on my down jacket and step out for some star gazing. A half moon keeps the stars quiet, but shows up the brilliance of the snowy bush. Apart from the low gurgle of a nearby creek, it is breathtakingly quiet and still.
[A very promising start to the day!]
I wake early, keen to see if dawn is as clear. Above the dark slope of the land, the sky grades from soft ochre through pale golds into deepening shades of blue. Low in the blue Venus is a bright, imperfect gem. There’s not the hint of a cloud.
As we set of it is still very cold. We’re careful on the steps leading down to the Horse Track. Every surface is frozen, the snow crusted with fresh ice, the wet surfaces now solid and slick. We cross the gurgling creek, past bushes festooned with icicles, and climb towards Crater Peak. Where yesterday we’d been postholing, we’re now crunching across the surface.
[Tim crosses the creek near our hut]
I give Lynne a go of my snowshoes, and she takes to them immediately. She heads up the hill ahead of us, passing yesterday’s tobogganing slope, and makes for the dark bump of Crater Peak. The sky above is now an impossible blue, contrasting starkly with the monochrome landscape.
[Lynne takes off on the snowshoes]
We soon find it’s not the snow that will slow us down up here. Many sections of the old corduroy track are covered with ice, the normally sodden surface now a frozen cascade. Without cleats it’s almost impossible not to slip on the track, so we fan out to travel off-track. And now we dawdle, as much because the frozen world is full of small wonders – a rimed bush here; a frozen pool there – as for reasons of care and safety.
[The frozen corduroy track]
We’re exchanging frequent grins. I’ve heard talk of bluebird days* a few times this winter, and now we’re definitely walking through one. By unspoken agreement we spread out and immerse ourselves in this day. We’re walking in a winter wonderland, too wrapt to be concerned about cliches!
We pause atop Crater Peak, a pile of rock slightly higher than the surrounding plateau, and have a quick snack. We take dozens of photos, finding it hard to stop. Everywhere you point your camera the scene is stunning. Yet it gets better. We now leave the Horse Track, aiming to wander cross-country, close to the rim of the plateau, and enter an extensive field of snow.
[Happy trampers on Crater Peak]
Lynne hands the snowshoes back, and I take a few minutes to strap them on. But the snow is such easy going for the others that I struggle to catch up, even with my “floats”. As we walk up slope, the bold block of Cradle Mountain, its face thickly daubed with snow, grows larger before us. We see only one set of ski prints in the otherwise virgin snow.
I’ve been up here many times in snow, and have climbed a snowy Cradle Mt a few times. But I have never seen this much snow on the Cradle Plateau. A couple of cornices must be at least three metres deep. As we make for the rim, Lynne and Merran can’t resist having another bum slide down a slope. I content myself with filming the event.
[The snowfield between Crater Pk & Cradle Mt]
We have a long and lazy lunch on a knoll overlooking Crater Lake. Its surface scintillates, reflecting back the bright sun. We think we can make out small ice floes on the lake. Their see-through shapes drift and shimmy down the sparkling lake, driven by gently persistent breezes. That’s presumably cold air draining off the plateau, because here on the heights there’s barely a puff of air.
[Our lunch spot, high above Crater Lake]
After we’ve finished lunch we linger at this superb vantage point. It’s even balmy enough for us to stretch out for a while. Soon enough we’ll need to start our descent, but for now we just want to remain immersed in this best of mountain days.
* the term is used by skiers – and others – to refer to a clear, calm day after snow.
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