Last week I’d been worried about being the only female in a group of five. This week, I was the only one in a ten-name list of expeditioners. Oh dear. “Tough, experienced mountain men”, they got called ….. and then there was Louise. Here we go again.
By the start line, ten had become nine, as A had hurt his leg.
Off we set. The pace was fine. Phew. I didn’t struggle, but was nonetheless glad when we arrived at the Geryon base camp and were thus finished for the day. I was sad to have bypassed a couple of waterfalls I hoped to return to, but my watch said they were too far back, and I just wanted to pitch my tent and chat with the others. We were a very pleasant group, and socialising was fun. The rainforest was glorious and lush, and we admired the greens while boiling our billies and rehydrating our dehydrated dinners, which all bore a remarkable similarity. Although the setting was lovely, I still feel closed-in camping in a forest. It seems dark and restricting, and I was looking forward to the rest of the nights when we would be camped high.
Day 2. Please note: I m about to tell the story of an accident. This event is nobody’s fault: it is one of the risks we all take when we go into the wilderness, and we venture in, perfectly content in the knowledge that something we don’t want may befall us; but that is nature, and we are prepared to take what comes. There were nine of us there, which means there are at least nine possible tellings of this story. This is the event from my perspective, and mine alone. Each of us brings his / her own perceptions and ‘imaginings’ (Vorstellungen, to use Kant’s word) to any event, and this one is no exception. This is how I experienced it.
Geryon South, which we were to climb this day, is, in my mind, Tasmania’s second most dangerous mountain. I was intent on treating it with respect, and with concentrating on the task at hand, even in the early stages. I was not the only one who was uncharacteristically quiet this morning. Lucky that. My concentration and extra alertness, I believe, saved my life.
Our first break was in the middle of steep rock scree – a former landslide. Already we had spread out a bit, so that when the last three arrived, the fastest person bounced up and began to bound up the slope. As a former athlete, I know too well the effects of lack of oxygen in the brain. I could hear these late arrivals breathing heavily. This would endanger their decisions later and that could have negative effects on the group. We needed all of us to have good judgement with well-oxygenated brains, so I called out to The Bounder and pointed this out as politely as I could. I felt rude doing this, but safety was at stake, and I was grateful when the leader thanked me for speaking up.
Once everyone was breathing normally, we set out again. Upwards, ever upwards. Soon enough we were up very high … just short of what is “affectionately” called Death Slab. Is that name there to torment the nervous? Just before we reached said inviting slab, however, we had to clear a very steep chute.
Here is where (and when) we ran into trouble. Three had gone on ahead to the extent that number 4 didn’t see exactly what their route was. I assume they thought it was obvious. However, it wasn’t so to number 4 (part of the earlier heavy-breathing group). He went straight up as he could see their forms higher above and missed a tiny pad off to the left. Number 5 also missed it, no doubt tucked in at that stage quite close to 4. I had been hanging back slightly so as to never raise my pulse, so was a couple of metres behind (now as number 6).
When I looked up, as one does, I saw 4 straddled over a boulder. His limbs and general body language suggested struggling and straining. He was, in fact, reaching very far forward trying to get a hold of the next rock so he could proceed. If he fell backwards off this rock, there was a long way to fall and nothing nice to land on. He was not in a good spot. I didn’t like the obvious struggle I was witnessing, so looked to my side and saw there a hint of a pad. Number 7 also saw it and we simultaneously decided to take it: it must surely be easier than what we were witnessing. 4 was taking what seemed like quite a long time to overcome the difficulties presented by his rock. I nodded 7 to go first. Meanwhile, number 5 didn’t like what he was seeing either (soil getting very loose) and pressed himself hard against the rock beside him. Good move; that saved his life.
I had taken one single step when the loudest imaginable crash echoed in our narrow chamber and the huge rock that number 4 had been on (1 x 1 x 1.3 mts in dimensions), accompanied by a mass of debris, came hurtling past less than a metre from my shoulder. Had I not taken that step onto the pad, I would not be here to write this story.
But now my attention turned to number 8, who was now first in line. I also didn’t know the fate of 4 or 5, both good friends. Well, everyone there was a good friend, and I had no idea at this stage how many of us were still alive. Had 4 gone with the rock? What about 5? Were 1, 2 or 3 on it when it fell, helping 4? My stomach heaved with ugly possibilities, but my first concern was 8. I was too scared to look down at possible death, but had to in case he needed help. He was alive, hoorah, but on his back and upside down in a bush. Doubtless, scoparia saved the day again.
However, being upside down and on his back with a now injured arm, he was struggling in a way I imagine Gregor the metamorphosed beetle in Kafka’s famous short story flailed when he awoke to find he was on his back with many tiny helpless limbs. He didn’t reply to my calls, but was definitely alive. I was now in trauma-shock myself, and have a kind of amnesia about the next fifteen or so minutes. All I can tell you is I wanted to vomit. (Well, didn’t “want”; I guess “need” is a more appropriate word).
The outcome is that we all sat with 8 (and 5 who was also shaken and grazed) for a while to see how they felt after a rest. At the end of that time, 8, manifestly hurt, said he’d just stay there, but he was fine to wait while others climbed; I said I’d stay with him, and the rest, after a bit more deliberation and reassurance that it was fine, went on. While they were away, however, 8 started shaking quite badly. Shock was setting in. I have no idea how he eventually got himself down that mountain with one very injured arm and aching ribs, but he is astonishingly capable and resilient and somehow managed. He needed to be helicoptered out the next day when his injuries were even worse. One of us escorted him down to Pine Valley. Now we were seven.
The rest of us, however, continued on that afternoon, and packed up our tents and climbed up to the Pool of Memories. This was such a fun climb, requiring us to pack haul at one stage and access the next level of rock using some pretty strenuous climbing and upper body work, some kind of in trees. I enjoyed the challenge and I think it helped me to forget a bit of the earlier drama for a while.
And just to make sure we all rejoiced in the fact that we ourselves, and all our friends, were alive, we were treated to an almost balmy evening with a magnificent sunset. We took our stoves and food down by the lake and cooked and ate down there. There are some times when beauty and peace in the wilderness quite overwhelm you and fill you with great joy, and this was one night when it was so.
Just as he was going to bed, Pete looked at his boots and commented: “Guess maybe I should put these under cover.” I looked up at the clear sky. “Yes, Pete, we could easily get a frost tonight.” We did. White tents and rising mist off the lake greeted us next morning.
Day 3. I fought rocks all night, so was a little tired next morning, but otherwise fine. Jonny, however, had sore and swollen knees, partly as a result of kissing (or being kissed by) rocks, and decided to sit this day out, despite the presence of FOMO.
Now we were six as we set out for today’s goal, Geryon North. I have climbed this mountain before, and really love it, partly because you actually have to climb it as opposed to “walk uphill”. Some of the manoeuvres are a bit tricky, but I never felt particularly endangered here, even though you do have to be careful, as you could easily maim – or even kill – yourself if you fell at the wrong time.
It was a beautiful, clear day; the air was crisp and the vistas enormous. The cliffs near Geryon are vertical and the drops, infinite and dramatic, and it is a total pleasure to be in their presence. Oh, life is sooo good, and what a day on which to celebrate that fact.
I was so happy being up high with the space, the views to infinity and a gentle breeze to refresh me that I suddenly resisted the fact that we were going back down to camp and losing our height. I asked our leader if hew minded if I dropped back for a while and just sat up there, and he was cool with that. I sat and stared / meditated for quite a while, then sang a bit, photographed some more and just enjoyed the state of being. At last, full of existential joy, I rejoined the others.
Sunset that night was a bit of a fizzer, but after such a perfect day, I didn’t really care, and it was nice just to chat with the others for a change rather than go off and photograph. Both activities are pleasant. It was time to stand around and enjoy the evening sociably tonight.
Day 4. As our start for this day was not at all early, I had time to get up and ‘shoot’ the dawn in a leisurely manner, choosing an unnamed tarn beside which to set up my tripod and enjoy the moment photographing. As with the other day, despite the zero temperature, I later cooked my porridge by the lake so I could enjoy the scenery better.
I was shocked to find one less tent in our cluster. I hadn’t realised that Nigel’s nod as he passed my tent window at 5.30 a.m., just as I was rising, was a farewell one: he is a teacher and had to rush out early to catch the midday ferry so he could work next day. Poor fellow. Now we were really six.
We packed and walked and then climbed out of the labyrinth. For two of our gang, that climb was kind of the last straw after a lot of strenuous work over the last few days. By the time we reached the Parthenon saddle, they announced they’d go back the short way, and meet us next day for the ferry.
And now we were four.
The day was warming up greatly, and the climb up the Minotaur was thus a bit taxing. Number 4 began to tire. By the time we dumped our packs at the side of Gould on a beautiful shelf that had some water, he was finished for the day. We Remainers pitched our tents and packed our daypacks ready for the final climb. Yes, now we were three.
I have climbed this one before, solo, using a rocky scree to the left as you stare at the mountain. Kent led us up further to the right this time, using fun grassy slopes (very steep, but everything on Gould is steep). I like using new routes. And in around 40 minutes, we three were feeling very satisfied on the summit, staring out at mountain friends far and wide.
There was no sunset this night, which is a shame, as part of the reason I wanted to be part of this expedition was to sleep high and have beautiful sunsets and sunrises, but with nature you take what it gives you, and the whole adventure, even counting our nearly fatal accident, was totally enjoyable, even without achieving my sign-up reasons. I just love being in the wilderness and camping high, whatever the weather. And I did not lug my tripod and full-frame heavy camera in vain: sunset on day 2 and sunrise days 3 and 4 ensured that! Magic would no doubt be taken for granted and only appreciated half as much if it were not so fugacious.
Day 5 was all about making the ferry on time. We had to skirt the rest of the way around Gould, do battle with a bit of scrub in the process, and finally walk along the Gould Plateau, descend by the steep track through the rainforest and then do the final tiny stretch to Narcissus Hut and the ferry wharf.
Jonny was so keen for his hamburger with the lot that he phoned ahead to the Hungry Wombat to tell them we were coming, and with a request that they thus don’t close the kitchen early. He promised we’d eat a great deal, … and kept his word. Hamburger with the lot seems to be an integral part of bushwalking in Tassie. It’s filled with fabulous fresh vegetables and has the salt and fat that your body needs after a few days of rehydrated formerly dehydrated food. Three had now grown with our merging at the ferry to eight. We sat around the table talking and laughing and stuffing our faces before our adventure was finished and we went our separate ways.
I was still so filled with the joy of the gift of life that I played the happiest music I know to keep me awake: yodelling – folk music from the alps. I sang along, happy scenes from the past five days flashing through my mind as I drove towards my family and dog.