“I’m setting out tomorrow to try to climb Federation Peak,” I told my friend. “I’m scared,” I added.
“Yes”, he said, “I can hear it in your voice.”
“But Louise,” he wisely appended, “if you WEREN’T scared, I’d be worried about you.” Yes. He’s right. A little respectful fear is an asset. However, I rather think that I had far more than a little respectful fear. What I was feeling was more akin to uncontrolled terror. I had never felt quite like this before, and I have done some pretty scary things in my life.
Ever since the incredible email arrived from my friends Alex and Nitya asking if I’d like to join in on their attempt at Feder, I had been in an odd state of generalised anxiety. Every single night in my dreams, I fell off Feder. The only variable that altered was the amount I fell before the first bounce. I always woke before landing exactly in Lake Geeves 600 ms below. I guess my friends didn’t realise quite what a cot case I was when they were so foolish as to invite me.
I told myself that the drive to Hobart was actually more dangerous, with a much higher chance of death than Feder offered, but this statement of reason only mildly attenuated my fear. Sometimes you have to confront your worst demons, however. Sigh. Feder, here I come. If I live, I will be a better person in that I will have been made a bit stronger by jumping a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. I bid my dog an almost tearful farewell, took in my lovely home view for possibly the last time, and headed south.
Luckily for me, the CD I had in my car disc slot was mountain music. There is nothing more calculated to make me feel happy and confident than music from the Alps. You can belittle me for loving yodelling, alpine horns and the like, but you can’t ever stop them making me feel totally joyous. I arrived to meet my friends in a pretty good mood. Andrew, my climbing partner for some of my most fun and hardest peaks, was also coming, so the four of us were meeting up so that introductions could be done over coffee and sweet treats rather than on the track. I had met Alex and Nitya in a mountain hut eight years ago, and, although we have maintained email contact, I hadn’t seen them since.
Fast forward: now we are on the track. Our goal for day 1, Cutting Camp, just before Moss Ridge. It was to be a pretty long day. This part of the route was attractive, much of it being beside gurgling water on the Farmhouse Creek track, but after 8 hours 45 mins’ elapsed time (6 hrs 40 walking time: it was a VERY hot day), I was very happy to be dumping my rucksack. After dinner, two other guys from Melbourne, whom we had passed along the way, rolled into camp. Now we were a fun group of six. I wasn’t even scared now, just living in the moment and enjoying the company. I still had no commitment whatsoever to actually climbing, and thought I would back out of the real action fairly early once it began, but I was looking forward to sleeping on Bechervaise Plateau the next night.
Our programme for day 2 was to take the tents etc up to Bechervaise in the morning, have a rest, and then summit after lunch. Rob and Hugh, the two guys who were also in camp, hoped to do the walk in a day without the heavy packs. We original four set out nice and early after breakfast, up the amazing Moss Ridge. You could pay $500 to an amusement centre and not get such a fun obstacle course. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. Not was it the best fun workout ever, but it was also, as its name implies, mossy – and green and cool and wonderful along with it. It climbs rather a lot.
And there we were at Bechervaise: place of great reputation, and the starting point for the climb in this direction. Just as we were about to set out again, Rob and Hugh arrived, with Hugh exhausted as he is suffering badly from “Long Covid”. His fatigue meant that he only wanted to lie down and rest while we climbed, so Rob joined our little party. It was such a happy group, it was hard to abandon myself entirely to fear. Off we set, up a slope that gains no mention anywhere, but which has pretty perpendicular sides with a sizeable drop should you decide to leap to the side with no care. I looked down and thought: “Oh heck. That drop is awfully exposed, and nobody even gives it half a thought. I just can’t do this, but I’ll go until I really can’t.”
Up we climbed, joining the infamous Southern Traverse, where a girl fell to her death just a few years ago. I haven’t actually a clue about which part of this traverse effected her demise, but was not in a mood to seek more specific information. All I can tell you was that when I looked down Geeves Gully to the lake 600 odd metres directly below, I freaked out (very quietly), and offered to go back. I hadn’t even got to the face of my mountain and I was terrified.
Luckily for me, Alex didn’t accept my offer, but, rather, encouraged me by telling me this was definitely reputed to be one of a very few extremely challenging (emotionally) bits. I broke it into sections. OK, I can go as far as there (pointing) and reassess. One ‘there’ led to another, and soon I was looking up at the chockstone which held no particular threat as far as I was concerned.
The rest of the climb has left very few details in my brain. I was there in body, but my mind was totally absorbed, concentrating on the moment, on the very immediate task of taking the next careful and safe step. Mostly I had the comfort of knowing that Alex was behind me, leading from the back. Immediately in front of me was Nitya, an extremely good climber who is small like me, so who was choosing “little person” routes and not necessarily those taken by the taller Andrew and Rob up ahead.
Sometimes the route became unclear. It seemed there were cairns everywhere and with no pattern. We had to explore several possibilities. This was done mostly by Andrew and Alex, so that gave me a little time to detox (and photograph).
I could never, ever, I am sure, have managed the testing ledges and “mound” without having Alex nearby, instructing me as to the next safe hand or foot hold, or just encouraging me that I had chosen the right one. Ahead was Nitya choosing a route over an obstacle I had been dreading rather than going around it as others had spoken about. I could do that. Hoorah. Soon Alex was telling me I had done all the hard bits. Now I just had to stroll up to the summit. I could feel it was true. This was an utterly unbelievable fact: meagre Louise Fairfax was about to summit Australia’s ne plus ultra when it comes to mountains. I had trouble holding back the tears as I took the final few steps. Rob said later he felt like an imposter being up there, and I totally got it. I was there, but only because of my team, because incredibly supportive and capable people had invited me to join them. But I was there, and to say I was “happy” is an understatement that brooks the absurd.
I had always thought (in anticipation), that I would be in a rush to get down, out of danger, but once there, I was totally comfortable, and there was no need at all to escape or to rush in any way. Our tents were not too far away, and there was still plenty of light. We ate, photographed and enjoyed the lingering moment before making a leisurely descent.
Going down is, they say, harder than ascending, and, technically, they are right, but for me the big obstacle was conquering the fearful enormity of just getting there, and Alex had been such a strength placed behind me, with Nitya before (and, of course, the others in front of that) that I felt confident I could do what I had just done in reverse. I felt no particular terror on the way down, merely the need to keep concentrating. The drop to Lake Geeves had not magically decreased; it was still necessary to do all the things I had done on the way up, and, most importantly for me, it was “keep three points of contact and don’t look down”.
We didn’t arrive at camp until 5.45. Considering one thing and another, we suggested the guys stay up with us, even though they had no food or bedding. We said we could feed them, and they did have a tarp. They stayed, which was fun to continue the party.
My final words before going to bed were: “Don’t you two go getting hypothermic; if you need to warm up, both Andrew and I can move over in our tents and make room for you.” Nitya and Alex’s tent was full.
Next morning Alex, Rob and I were up at 5.30 to photograph the beautiful dawn together. Alex asked me if I’d slept well, and I said: “Not really. Sorry Rob, I’m sure you were pretty cold, but I was too hot, and had to strip down to my undies.” It was then that I discovered the embarrassing fact that Rob and Hugh had both been freezing. Hugh had knocked on Andrew’s tent, and received hospitality. Rob came to mine and kept saying: “Louise. Louise. Are you awake?” Everybody else was, but Louise didn’t stir. Not a scrap. Alex thought maybe I’d managed to climb Feder but had now had heart failure. Nobody could rouse me. Poor Alex and Nitya, who had no room, manufactured some out of nowhere. I slept comfortably on (it seems). I heard the strong wind. I saw at times the bright moon. But I never once heard my own name being called – and I no longer fell off Federation Peak in my dreams!
On day 3, we all walked out from Bechervaise to the cars, with the most dangerous event being an electric storm that was rather enthusiastic. We were tired but happy. Unfortunately, there was nothing much open (I think it was Australia Day), so we had to settle for greasies in the gutter at Huonville. Somehow, to my warped sense of humour, this seemed a fun and fitting end to our unexpected adventure.
Why does one put oneself through something like that? It certainly wasn’t to give myself bragging rights, or to tick another box. I guess I – and most of the others who climb Feder – am a person who likes to be the most capable version of the me that is possible. I don’t push boundaries to be smart, but to fully “self-actualise” in Rogerian terms. Like Killian Jornet, I feel very alive when I have extended myself to do something I considered a difficult challenge. If I fail to do something, I want it to be because I am just not good enough rather than because I never gave it a decent attempt. Of course, to try something that you clearly can’t do, and which is dangerous, is mere stupidity. I guess I was lining up for Feder because I did feel I was ready if things went well. I was not committed to attempt it at any cost, because those people can die.
Cognitive Dissonance Theory says that if you expend a great deal of energy or time or money on a task, then, to avoid cognitive dissonance, you will rate that task as having been very worthwhile. Meanwhile, both Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, when examining their theories of the beautiful and the sublime in the 1700s, acknowledged that going to the very border of our fears and then retreating to safety leads to a feeling of expansion and joy that is labelled sublime. Both thinkers linked a feeling of the sublime with terror, danger, awe and pain. I went to the very borders of my fears and have retreated to safety. I feel a huge sense of wellbeing, expansion and satisfaction. I love Federation Peak. I confronted my greatest fears and came out alive.
Before I close, I have to say that my debt extends further than to the fabulous people mentioned in this trip. I would like to publicly thank “tortoise” from the Bushwalk Australia forum, who talked to me about overcoming her own fears of Federation. Taking up her advice, I did a high ropes course out at Hollybank to practise being 25ms up in the trees with nothing under my feet but wobbly planks of wood and bits of rope. It was truly fantastic. And I did a climbing and abseiling course with Ian at https://www.mountainbiketasmania.com.au , which also helped to boost my confidence. I paid fully for both, and was not asked to say that. Both are small businesses which do not pollute the environment, and so I wish them well.