How our fates and destiny can change in the twinkling of an eye!
It had been snowing all night and morning (yes; this is Tasmania; yes, it is December. The snow had not been forecast). This was not the weather in which to climb something as hard as Nereus, so, sadly, we had cancelled our plans and formulated new ones to fill the five days we had allocated to this climb. I didn’t like plans B, C or D, so thought I might as well go home. I suggested we have an early lunch before we all packed up and headed back down the valley. (I am happy that my reliance on food is a contributing factor to the final success of our mission).
We were packed. Rucksack on, I took a few steps in the homewards direction, but Andrew was fighting his Aarn pack’s front panniers, so didn’t immediately tuck in behind me. In the waiting time, Geoff said to me: “You know, those clouds are lifting a bit. If we got as far as the Mac’s saddle tonight and popped in a sixteen hour day tomorrow, we could still get that summit.”
This seemed a much better use of time that going home. At least we’d have tried to do it and maybe failed. Walking out wasn’t even a try. “I’m happy to give it a crack”, I said. Andrew looked up from his wrestles and added his assent to the mission. I did a volte face and all of a sudden we were heading up the mountain, not down, and towards our goal, not away from it. Just like that.
To climb Nereus, you have to go over Walled Mountain (five or so hours from the ferry terminal), nearly over Macs (the next mountain along that range), over Urquarts Messa (1272 ms high, so not entirely insignificant), down its cliffs at the halfway mark, along another ridge and then find a way up through the cliffs to Nereus with its unwelcoming palisade, not only of vertical, almost chuteless cliffs, but also of more scratchy scrub on top, climbing into trees until you finally make the summit. It is not a mountain that welcomes strangers (or even good friends), with its repulsion via cliffs and prickles being matched by its aloofness of distance from any possible source of water (and from any possible starting point). There is no quick route to this mountain. But I like that. I like challenges. I would be bored if it were easy. I don’t want life ‘easied’ up and dumbed down.
When you mention the name “Nereus”, those in the know regale you with horror stories of failure: of being repelled by strong winds, falling rocks, accidents, driving rain, deep snow or heat exhaustion and dry, waterless ground. Everybody knows a longish list of people who have been benighted out there, who have been delirious with dehydration, exhausted with all the bushbashing, or just something mild like looking like a pin cushion covered in scoparia jab wounds. Some just sigh, and tell you they’ve had three failed attempts, or five or seven … whatever.
Anyway, we were doing fine, and had made it to the Macs saddle with oodles of time. There is actually not a lot to do in this saddle once you’ve put up your tent. It’s not exactly inviting to go for a stroll – not without armour on and a machete to make life bearable. I looked at my watch and wandered just how early you could eat and legitimately call it dinner.
We killed some time with careful packing for the morrow: extra clothes and a bivvy bag in case we, too, got benighted; head torches for finishing after dark; stashes of food to fund such an extreme amount of exercise; and three litres of water to guard against dehydration.
I set my alarm for 4.55 a.m. In the gloaming we threw down breakfast, and while I did so, I fretted about the first section of the climb. When I had gone out to call Geoff, I noticed that my tent was covered in a carapace of pure white ice crystals. This was very attractive, but could mean that our first task after a bit of a climb – viz., working our way along a lengthy band of microwave-sized rocks that decorate the bulging belly of Macs Mountain – could be slippery and a bit dangerous, and thus slow us down. Would that consume so much time that our task became impossible?
Luckily, they weren’t too bad, and we made pretty good time to Urquarts saddle.
I had found a good lead on my previous visit to this area, so lead us up this slope. However, in the three years since I had last been there, the vigorous scoparia had claimed much extra territory, and the going was disappointingly slower than last time. I felt I had failed us somewhat.
From near the top of Urquarts, Geoff took over to lead us down the thick, resisting slope (cursing it at times) leading to a more open, flatter area at its base above a line of cliffs. In the distance, urging us through this junk, we could spot a patch of shine which we believed to be a small tarn. We didn’t need water, having brought heaps, but it was still nice to have it as a goal, and to eventually pause by its freshness in this mass of scrub. That flat part was some of the easiest walking of the day and a welcome respite. And then it was Andrew’s turn to lead the push and shove until we reached the button grass section. Now our goal was very visible. We were definitely going to reach it.
The buttongrass was, well, buttongrassish, with all the usual mud channels and small hillocks to negotiate, lifting legs high to avoid obstacles. This ceded to the worst crap of the day – a horrid marshy bit with cutting grass over our heads, zero visibility, and melaleucas that resisted my most earnest attempts at shoving them sideways. It was, unfortunately, my turn to lead, and I was not going well through this wall. Behind, Geoff was reading a line off a garmin screen and calling out “left”, or “right” according to the screen’s line. I had no goal, no visibility, no sense of any big picture or shape of the land (I could see absolutely nothing). In frustration, I stopped and got out my map. AH. There was different vegetation to the north, mapped as a darker green, which suggested to me, rainforest. I said I was taking us over there, and to my relief I discovered a wonderful area of rainforest, and got permission to actually navigate using the land and the map rather than a line on a screen. My route took us to the ridge leading eventually to the summit. The ridge was cluttered with many obstacles, but still not as difficult as the dry sclerophyll forest had been. I wanted to attack from the north, actually, but was outvoted (the screen route did not go that way), so we continued up this line until we reached impenetrable cliffs.
We lost quite a bit of time trying possible chutes that each ended up too difficult to use. We eventually got up, but were not impressed by the paucity of holds and the general drop below us, which is kind of good, as after we had reached the summit, I was allowed to use the northern route I had wanted all along to lead us out and back … but first, it was time to enjoy our hard-earned views and to dine on the summit.
Was it really true that we were there, by the seemingly unreachable summit cairn? That we had summited the Inhospitable One, das Ungastfreundliche and repulser of all who seek its secrets. We sat by the unprepossessing cairn and, while we ate, enjoyed the unique views that none of us intended returning to ever see again. Did I feel victorious? Not really. Elated? No, not that either. I guess, more than anything, I was relieved, and each of us was very aware that we still had to get back. We joked, as people in this situation often do, that a heli ride home would be nice, but the reality was that we had taken 7.5 hours to get there (5.75 walking; 7.5 elapsed), and the homeward “half” would be the tough portion of our lot. Would we, like so many other accomplished bushwalkers, be benighted?
Time to begin to find out. I led us out by the northern route, as said above, through beautiful rainforest. I told the others my route would be longer than a straight line, but easier, as it would be through nicer terrain, and, dreading a meeting with the marsh or exhausting buttongrass, they agreed to my adding distance. It was lovely, and I landed us at the point where we had had a break on the outward journey, just below the nasty scrubby climb up to Urquarts Messa. I was pleased to have gained us some time, as this was much faster than in the opposite direction, and almost everything from here on would necessarily be slower … and tougher. Gulp.
Geoff took over the lead. This was a really nasty bit – uphill, thick, resisting … TOUGH. It was hard work for all, but hardest for Geoff in the lead, bashing down the scrub as first strike, having to use his brain as well as his legs, while we behind could rest (relatively speaking) on his laurels. After the respite at the little tarn after the cliffs, it was Andrew’s turn to fight the uphill battle and punch some kind of hole in the scrub. We were tiring, but the scrub was not one patch exhausted, and continued to offer strong resistance in the skirmish.
But somehow, eventually, we landed on top of Urquarts Messa, and had a pretty quick slide down the other side. It was only late afternoon. We were definitely going to get back to camp. We rested a short while on a patch of bare rock before the last tough climb up to the rocks on Macs. This section had been quite quick with gravity to help us, but was anything but on the rebound. Meanwhile, I was dragging my feet. I thought I might be about to either vomit or faint or both. Andrew noticed and kindly offered to take on some of the weight of my pack. I said that wasn’t my problem. I felt I needed salt, but had none. He produced a gel with sodium that he insisted he didn’t need. Unbelievable. Even after the first mouthful, my stomach felt more settled. By the time I’d managed to get the lot down, I was back to bouncing vigour.
Up the slope we continued until we reached the rocks that decorate the belly of Macs Mountain. By now, late afternoon had morphed into almost sunset, and the sky was taking on golden hues; the mountains becoming more mystical and hazy. It was beautiful. We were definitely going to make it to camp, so I asked if we could stop for ten or so to take in this beautiful sunset that was unfolding. What a wonderful vantage point. We sat and gazed as Walled went red; the clouds, pink. Everything was marvellous. When we started again, I felt as if I had drunk a draught of magical ambrosia. I glided over the next section of rocks, floating and upheld by beauty.
By the end of the rocks, darkness had gained its hold. The others got out their headtorches, but my night vision was fine, so I led us down through the last nasty patch of scrub until at last our campsite was gained. 10pm. Time for dinner!
The next day, for me, was very short, as I wanted to stay high, while the others wanted to retreat to the valley to be sure of making the 12.30 ferry in time on the morrow. I trusted myself to get from the summit to the ferry in time, and wanted to remain in the freedom and space of the truly wild high places, so we would part for a while after Walled, and meet at Narcissus Hut (hopefully) the following day.
And so, I spent the whole afternoon just wandering around the summit area, choosing my real estate for the night, poking my nose into various crannies and getting to know this beautiful part of nature at an intimate level. It was pretty breezy, but not too bad. I felt delightfully expansive up there; somehow my being extended to the vast realms around me and I was part of the wider universe. Nothing closed me in.
At last sunset came, and with it, stronger winds. I consulted my weather app. It said winds to 55 km/hr. That was OK. I went off to enjoy the colours and feel of the close of day.
My app seems to have got it wrong. Maybe 55km/hr was a kind of gentle base from which gusts of maybe 100 km/hr would then burst. The gusts became more frequent and fiercer as the night progressed. Sleeping was impossible with the noise of howling and the relentless bashing and cracking of the fabric as the wind whipped it. By 12.10, it was necessary (possibly not, but it felt reassuring to do this) to lie on my back with my feet in the air adding force and stability to my central pole … just in case. I did that until 3.10. While I did so, I thought about the storm scene in Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther, where Werther and Lotte, the two central characters, go out onto a balcony to revel in the wild fury of the storm, musing together on the wonders of the poet Ossian, who also loved a lashing storm and embraced rather than recoiled from a tempest.
I thought of a more modern hero, Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places, labouring up a snowy ridge of England’s Lake District in a nighttime blizzard, in a desperate attempt to try to find wild places in his over-tamed country. And I thought about a favourite philosopher, Immanuel Kant and his treatise of 1764: Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen (or Observations about the feeling of the beautiful and sublime). Kant postulates that when we go to the very edge of our fears and then retreat to safety, the process of fear followed by relief engenders a feeling of the sublime, which he relates to awe, terror, majesty and eternity.
Experiencing the sublime is important to my well being. I was at the far edge, -but not over – my fears as I pondered these matters. If we never approach the edge of our comfort zone, we do not experience the fulness of life. In the words of The Rose (which members of the Pandani club and I sang while we searched for my missing husband, and which we later sang at Bruce’s memorial service):
That never learns to dance;
It’s the dream afraid of waking
That never takes the chance;
It’s the one who won’t be taken
Who cannot seem to give;
And the soul, afraid of dying
That never learns to live.
Soma tablets, eat your heart out.
I don’t sing very well lying on my back, so I just thought the words, and especially the final two lines. When the greatest endurance athlete ever, Kilian Jornet, was asked why on earth he would run up and down the Matterhorn at such dangerous speeds (smashing the world record by over 15 minutes), he replied that he felt terribly alive when he did such things, pushing himself to the very edge of safety.
Well, with all that thinking and pole propping, I was pretty exhausted, and decided I needed to trust my excellent Hilleberg and lie down properly. As it was now 3.10, I noted as I lay my head on my clothes that my alarm for the dawn would go off in two hours. The next thing I knew was the sound of that alarm. At last I had fallen asleep.
I arose to welcome the day and to delight in the dawn colours and shapes, and later to enjoy breakfast on high, even though the wind was still pretty strong (my app said now 50 kms/hr).
It was a challenge later to manage to pack up my tent which bucked and kicked like a bull at a rodeo, but I managed, and slowly and reluctantly turned my face to the valley below and my journey back to “civilisation”.
(I made the 12.30 ferry with plenty of time, and was reunited with my two scrub buddies, without whom I would never have had the strength to get near the summit, so we could celebrate with a burger with the lot at The Hungry Wombat – a kind of bushwalkers’ ritual. This time it was not just a celebration of a single mountain, Nereus, but also of the fact that Geoff had now climbed all the Abels. What a one to leave until last!).
Oh. I nearly forgot to mention: on the way back to Narcissus, I took time to visit a waterfall I had heard about, issuing out of Lake Cyane, so I have called it here the Cyane Falls. They were worth the stop. Their context, with the Guardians in the downflow direction, and the Acropolis behind their head, was wonderful.