I was still an undergraduate student, but recently married, when I first did the Overland Track with my husband, and had my first glimpse of Mt Olympus. It was love at first sight: it looked so impressive and imposing perched up there above Lake St Clair. “What a view it must have from the top,” I thought to myself.
Time went by, but we never lost our love of Tasmania, and were always on the lookout for a job here that would enable us to live in this magic place and do more walking. Years later – after we had had children – the move eventuated, and one of the first things we did with our daughters in their new island state was to walk the Overland Track. I have a photo of them excitedly running in the direction of Mt Olympus (they seemed to finish every day running with excitement. They were aged 6 and 8 and adored the trail). Each time I have done the track (6 so far) or been in the area (too many to count), I have wondered about the view from the summit, and have wanted to sleep up there. Last weekend I got my wish.
It is normally the case that I like to write my blog while the impressions of the expedition are fresh in my mind, but of all mountains, this one of my dreams is one where I need time to forget – to forget the overwhelming and all-consuming pain I was in on the second day of my venture. Sadly, I might need weeks before I can once more feel positive about Olympus.
I knew my foot was hurting when I set out, but kept thinking I just had a silly (mysteriously hidden) blister. However, I now have a protruding lump which is the cause of my grief, as there is no room in my shoe for this unwanted extra. And just to make sure I was miserable, an old shoulder injury decided to use this weekend to flare up, sending waves of pain around my upper back. When I finally took my pack off at the car, I was doubled over with agony and howling. Ridding my back of the burden sent it into spasm. Where were you, wondrous beauty, to rescue me from this, to help me dismiss it in the face of your majesty? Somewhere, struggling to come to the fore. Later, when I look back, it will be the beauty I most remember, and the pain will be an historical fact with little emotion attached to it, but that moment has not yet arrived.
Meanwhile, I had had a night from hell. This night will be funny maybe in a month or two, but that perspective also needs time to develop. Right now, the joke still eludes me, but certain scenes have a kind of slapstick-comedy appeal. But the night was preceded by a day – a day that went well. Let us start at the beginning.
The day was hot, and I love being warm. I was anticipating another wonderful balmy night on our summit. To be on top of a Tasmanian mountain in mild conditions is one of life’s supreme treats: gazing out at the foison of indigo peaks set against the evening sky, whatever its colour that night: peace, sublimity, vastness and wonder. Rest for my soul.
We caught the ferry down the sparkling lake, and began our climb to Byron Gap, along the pad that leads through the fabulous rainforest. All the creeks were running and we drank plentifully from their cool, refreshing waters before popping out at the Gap itself, where we had lunch gazing at the seemingly ubiquitous Frenchman and his beret.
Now it was time to depart the quasi-track and climb steeply through the obligatory band of scrub, complete with scoparia that was sparingly in flower, but the red of which gave a quite Christmassy feel to the scene, and on, higher, to Lamonts Lookout, a rocky perch with a grand view. More rocks, more traversing, a bit more climbing and there at last was the summit cairn. The wind picked up mildly as we breasted the final rise, but nothing to cause concern.
We dropped a few metres to the verdant green spread below and chose our spots – a tarn or two to each person, right at the tent door if we wished, and views to dream about. I chose an angle that included a gaze that embraced most of the mountains I love from the Overland Track region. I could discern everything from Pelion West south. Heaps of friends there! Over dinner, Paul recounted a time when someone once asked him: “What mountain is that?”, to which his reply was: “I don’t know, but I’ve climbed it.” (He has climbed every Abel and every mountain worth a point on the peak baggers’ list. When he completed, he was the second person ever to do so.) Obviously, I have not climbed as many peaks as he has, and yet I am starting to at least understand how it must feel, as when I look at the skyline these days, it full of mountains whose moods and intimacies I know.
I photographed the sunset out on a perch using my tripod for the long exposures. It was a bit breezy, but nothing to trouble my photography (or me). Our tents flapped rather noisily, but nothing in our purview bespoke danger. No one suggested retreating, although everyone agreed we could be in for a noisy night until the wind abated. Far from receding as predicted, however, the wind intensified as the night progressed, constantly changing direction, and often making the fabric crack like a whip as it lashed in a new tack. I had tightened everything before turning in, but by midnight, had to get up and redo each peg and guy rope.
At 2 a.m., the lashing was so odd and violent I had to get my head torch and go outside to examine what was happening. The fly had filled with air like a spinnaker, and had lifted the pegs out of the ground. They had been hurled into space and were not to be found. I went out into the dark to try to find rocks to provide stabilising anchors, but the wind made mincemeat of that. As fast as I attached a loop to a rock, the wind just filled the fly and it rose, tossing off its rock as if it were a ping pong ball (I am talking rocks that were bigger than rugby balls). I placed the few pegs that were left into key positions and retreated.
Unfortunately, this lasted a mere 15 minutes, and thus needed repeating at quarter-hourly intervals, from then until nearly 3.20, when conditions changed. By this time I had lost an absurd number of pegs, and rain now started. The wind intensified even further. The fly flapped and banged, a wild thing; I was lifted from the ground with each gust as my moorings were gone. I wondered if I was about to end my days being blown away in my tent, over the cliffs of Olympus. I also thought about how wet I and my sleeping bag were about to get now that it was raining and I lacked the benefit of a fly. I am highly susceptible to hypothermia, so was entering dangerous territory. How long do you leave it before you cry for help when doing so is going to greatly inconvenience someone else? I lay there.
3.40 was crunch time. There was an almighty crack as the wind twisted and broke one of my pole sections and drastically rearranged another, thrusting it through the fabric. Now what was left of the tent crashed against my face. Only the guy ropes prevented the Great Escape. I was about to get soaked. Time to exit. Still I was reluctant to disturb anyone else, so circled the others’ tents, wondering which one to use as my new harbour. The Microlights’ vestibules were full, I could see, but the Hilleberg looked as if it had room. Rohan was sleeping, I assumed. I didn’t want to wake him and didn’t want to impose, so circled some more, finding his gaiters that the wind had stolen from his vestibule and transferred to the nearest tarn. I fished them out. Rain strengthened. I was going to wet my only clothes if I continued this vacillation. Reluctantly, I called him to ask permission to sleep in his vestibule. Permission granted, so in I climbed and, exhausted, fell asleep on the ground there. However, I was only wearing my light orienteering gear with a jacket on top, so soon woke up, cold. Rohan kindly leant me first his overpants and then his bed socks. Once more I drifted off. Later, he realised I’d be warmer if I came in, so I accepted that offer, too, with gratitude.
The rest of the day is a blur. I can tell you we exited by the Cuvier Valley which I have never liked as a lot of prickles lean over the pad and, when it is wet, the mud on the buttongrass plains can be tiresome. There was no mud to speak of, but the way was long and it hurt. Mostly, I was plodding along trying to last to the end in the face of increasing pain which had now set in rather badly. I also felt defeated, which did not engender great brio. Somewhere near the end (5 minutes from it had all gone properly) it seemed that the track had disappeared. Every way was the wrong way. I was almost delirious with pain and could not see clearly – either literally or metaphorically. Thinking was beyond me. I no longer cared what happened. I decided the only way back was to find the river using logic of the lie of the land and follow it downstream to Watersmeet Bridge. I was executing this plan (slowly, in an almost oneiric trance) when I heard Angela’s voice, sounding distressed. I called back and headed towards her. She was worried about me. The only warming thing that happened to me on this day was her obvious pleasure and relief at seeing me safe.