Stepped Hills 2015 Feb

Stepped Hills 2015 i Feb. Failed attempt

Up they climb
What is it about some mountains that incites in us a “must climb” response? Is it the shape? The myths and tales that surround it, adding mystery and allure? With regard to Stepped Hills, it is certainly not the name: “Stepped” may well be descriptive, but “hills” is an insult. For me in this case, it was definitely the shape, and the shadows cast on its striated layers the first time I saw it. Perhaps also it was the enormity of the Gordon Gorge that guards its southern flank, announcing the impossibility of approaching from where I stood. I saw it from Clear Hill (also not a hill) and wanted to be there. I saw it when I climbed the Thumbs and wanted to be there. It was always so near and yet so very far with its gulchy uncrossable moat. But here I stood at last with five friends, ready to tackle her despite the forecast of a scorcher. I was full of eager anticipation, although wary of the enormous climb in heat like we had been promised.

A well-deserved pause

Off we set at 7.15 from the carpark. Over the Gordon we went, knowing we’d want a swim at the other end of our journey. At last we were at the business end of things, staring from down in the golden valley up at Mt Wright which guards our goal from the east. First, we had to climb her and descend the other side before we could begin the quest in earnest. Wright belies her ruthless steepness when viewed from the valley below, but I know the reality of her slope and so had kept my pack as light as possible (which did not include forgoing the pleasure I get from having my full-frame camera on board). I was, however, only carrying 600 mls of water at this stage, planning on getting another 600 at the creek I knew we’d cross about an hour from the car. This creek, for me, acts as the start of the business end of the climb – the hand pulling on tufts of grass and bushes, feet at decidedly acute angle to leg, tripping over contour lines type of climb that one engages in on Wright.

Playing at the arch while we wait for the others

Everyone wanted to stop at “table top rock”, but I wanted to check on the creek a tad further up before I had a break: I had been most disconcerted to note a desiccated tarn shortly after leaving the Rasselas track. I said I’d meet the others there. Dismay. The channel of gurgling bouncing waters that had threatened to soak my boots in December was nothing but dust and brown moss today. Oh dear. Mt Wright with a full overnight pack, including tent and stove and fuel, on 600 mls water. Better save my precious drops for later and just watch others drinking right now. I know myself well enough to know that I can survive under these conditions. Please don’t try to copy: I’m a freak. Possibly being a little like a spider helps (minimum torso, long limbs – good surface area for reducing heat, and no fat to insulate it).

View through the arch

Up to the arch we went, with me conserving energy by going nowhere near my aerobic threshold, keeping my heart rate low. The arch provided a welcoming band of strong shade which we would use to have a break in. The heat haze hadn’t developed yet, and the scenery was wonderful and crisp still. Everyone was coping well. Off we set again, this time to the highest point that we would go (5 mins short of the summit) and then down the other side on the rock scree to a point under a rocky knoll that offered the next section of dark shadow for an early lunch. Here I had my first drink – 300 mls. Meanwhile, to our enormous relief we could see two little circles of light far below where we were heading that signified water. Olay.

Beautiful light while climbing Stepped Hills, looking towards the mountains surrounding Lake Rhona.

Now began a challenging descent, made so not only by the brutal gradient, but exacerbated by the fact that the microwave-sized rocks were not stable, and every third one moved under you as you put weight on it, threatening a landslide. I was very tense as I negotiated this peril. Firstly, I had my very expensive camera attached to my chest, and secondly, I have a hand that is still officially broken, but whose protective covering has been reduced. This would not be a good moment to have a fall. When we stopped for a break about half way down, I realised I was stunningly tense, almost shaking, and the relief of relaxing my guard under the filtered shade of the gum trees was bliss. I had another 100 mls of water to celebrate.

Shadows elongate on The Thumbs during our return to camp

At last the dangerous section was over and we now only had to trudge through the long button grass to the tarn we’d seen from above. On the way we discovered a small soak that we could use to pour water over our heads and to quench our thirst. Wonderful. We drank greedily.

Dawn next day

Tents erected (with difficulty, actually. The button grass surrounding the tarn was very lumpy and the shorter grass above was prickly: I feared the bottom of my tent would be pierced, so pitched on pure rock); tiger snake warded off; day packs sorted and we were off with no real rest at all. We didn’t have the luxury of spare time for that. It was, alas, after 4 pm.

Looking back at Stepped Hills shortly after dawn 

Before we could start climbing Stepped Hills, we still had to drop into and cross a creek, so down we plunged, sliding down some interesting cliff lines. At the bottom lay a creek. We could hear running water. Oh joy unbounded. This creek was nothing short of divine. Never, never has water tasted so absolutely, miraculously wonderful, so full of life and so utterly refreshing. It cooled the body and revived the soul. We drank and drank and drank some more. We ditched the tepid tarn goo and drank some more again. The coolness was a magic wand. Now we could climb some more, but alas, the shadows were starting to lengthen, the light was adopting a golden hue.

A whole wilderness to oneself: my little tent in the vastness of the broad ridge

At 6.30 we were still 200 mts from the top. We could easily get there in the light, but the others were worried about the trip back and wanted to turn around. Certainly it had been a long, punishing day (just short of twelve hours at this stage). Our noble leader, full of guts and grit, was ignoring his spent body and ruling with his mind in his desire to continue to get the summit. Then he’d only be nine Abels short of a full set. I, too, was still wanting to summit. I know from orienteering night championships, and from several summits I’ve done with my husband at sunset, that I can navigate back to the tent in the dark with few problems, even steering a man with Parkinson’s without coming to grief. However, I was here with a fine bushwalker who is significantly larger than I am and who was looking the picture of quintessential exhaustion. If weariness got to him and he collapsed, I couldn’t carry him or move him to safety. He might take 40 mins more to the top and then another three hours back. Even more to the point, I was uncertain as to how much battery power I had left at this stage, and I do need light to navigate. I tried to imprint in my mind the angle between the tent and the summit of Wright, which I assumed I would be able to see by starlight if it came to the crunch. I know that it is not too bad traversing scrub once night vision kicks in if you take it at a sensible speed, but there were a lot of uncertainties in the equation I was forming. The problem was solved by D admitting reluctant defeat, so we all stood up and turned around. Stepped Hills will have to wait a bit more. I had still had a glorious day.

Breakfasting in the early light

Our goal was denied us, but we were all happy. We’d worked well under hard conditions; we’d enjoyed each other’s company and delighted in the wonderful wilderness around us. We were contented as we ate our meals in the fading light, watching moonset to the left, the rise of the evening star to the right, and the increasing glitter as the Milky Way did its sparkler thing above. I felt a wonderful sense of peace.

I took a slight deviation for photographic purposes on the way back up Wright

I won’t say much about the climb back up and over Wight, which was enjoyable, as I want to leave space to tell of the final half hour of our journey: a swim in the Gordon River. I have lived here 26 years but dared my first swim in a Wild River (or any river, for that matter) on this trip. This is not because our amazing wild rivers are ferocious, but because I am a wimp. I am president, secretary and treasurer of the certified wuss club, and I hate being cold. If I tell you I wore a merino icebreaker top the whole weekend (35 degrees in Hobart) does that not say it all?

Returning to the dumped packs after visiting the summit

Our wild rivers have an entire mythology surrounding them. They are truly magical, set mostly in pristine temperate rainforest of the lushest green possible. We have fought hard to save them from the clutches of edacious developers who can only interpret the signs of beauty with its translation into money and who seem to have no soul to understand anything ethereal. Just the names – such as Franklin or Murchison or Gordon – are enough to evoke a frisson of delight. The Gordon is no longer wild, thanks to conservationists losing the first battle of the war, but the upper reaches are still untouched and are very special places to witness. To be fully immersed in such water, to feel its lenifying coolness and taste its sweetness is superb. My friend sat there and drank the water she was swimming in, delighting in the fact that she could do so. Petals from a leatherwood tree floated past. What a perfect end to our adventure. Thanks to a moving rock on the way back up Wright, I had a bruised and bashed body (camera fine, don’t worry), but now my spirits sang with delight. What a great thing it is to be alive and to have the Tasmanian wilderness to be alive in.
For the records, we climbed 700 ms up Wright (in a very short distance), dropped 465 ms; climbed a further 265, dropped the same and then climbed another 100 back to the tents on the first day.

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