Back in 2012 when I declared that I wanted to join a bushwalking club to have company on longer, harder walks and to meet others who shared my passion for wild places now that my husband’s Parkinson’s disease prevented him from joining my wilder adventures, I had a nebulous, undelineated vision of the kind of walk that this might involve.
The walk I did last weekend, in which a valiant group of us climbed The Thumbs (a sharp, slippery, skywards-pointing column of rock at 1204 ms asl) in mist and intermittent light rain, seeing little but experiencing much, was an articulated version of exactly what I had had in mind.
Everyone was cheerful at our meeting point, all happy to be undertaking this challenge. I, too, was mildly excited, but also apprehensive: I had no expectation of actually reaching the top as I was temporarily operating with only one hand, and I was sure I’d need two for the final, vertiginous climb. I’d get as far as I could go, and enjoy the journey, however far it took me. The slippery conditions reduced my chances considerably. I also had stomach cramps that made me a little sombre. One foot in front of the other: let’s see how far that gets me.
We arrived at our intended overnight spot, set up our little tent city and retreated into our self-erected shelters to eat in the dry before reassembling to attempt our goal. The distance to the top was not far, horizontally speaking, but the vertical challenge meant that the expectation was three hours in each direction. Here we come.
Mud meant that sometimes we slid backwards more than we pushed forwards. Often it was the case that clutching grass or small bushes was the only thing that stopped us slipping back to a ridiculous extent. My hand was weighing on my mind as I did my single-handed grabs. Was I ridiculous to even try when I am in this state? We came to a spot where I just couldn’t haul myself up, and asked for a shove from behind. “It’s going to get a lot trickier than this,” Glen warned. I thought he was right. I looked back down the slope, thinking about bailing out, but knew that would cause more problems than it would solve, considering I was part of a group, so continued on. In fact, we were both wrong: for a one-handed climber, that particular moment was the trickiest part of the entire undertaking.
Graham, one of the few who STOOD on the summit. Most of us were content to just sit.
The mist was thick and the drizzle pretty drizzly as we arrived in a little saddle before the summit. Graham, our worthy leader, said our path lay around the northern side, so we had more circling to do. In that shroud, it was hard to find the mountain, let alone the best way up. On we went, looking for a promising chute to use to gain height. All shapes were obnubilated, but I could see with great clarity the fact that there was no way that I would be attempting a climb like this in these conditions without the presence of a group. We fed off each other, providing many sets of eyes, giving each other verbal or practical support. “Na. Too airy,” said Ben as he explored one lead. “This way looks OK,” offered another. One person failed at “over”; another reckoned we could fit under. Bit by bit we worked our communal way upwards.
Descending using the preferred five-points-of-contact method.
At the very top, the rock was slippery, the penalties for falls in any direction fatal. As G summarised it: “If someone falls, there’d be no point in setting off a PLB. We’d just try to console the family afterwards.” I found it an endearing factor that guys and girls alike treated the summit with enormous respect. Most of us approached and exited the highest point crawling or by “bumming” it. On a dry day, we would have probably approached with dignity and aplomb, but this was no dry day, and you could feel the slip factor with most steps you took. We gave it the obligatory touch and departed quickly to less sloppy ground. Thanks to the group effort, every single one of us got there – injured and uninjured; vertigo sufferers and the unchallenged in this regard; the fit and the less so. All of us made it, and I regard that as a huge testimony to Graham’s leadership.
Looking back at our conquered goal
And looking down at part of where we’d come from (our tents are still out of sight, way below).
I had wondered how on earth I was going to descend such a slippery, steep slope with only one hand, but had refused to contemplate this problem before it confronted me directly. As it was, there was very little difficulty: I just used the one good hand twice as often. Soon enough we all got back to the tents unscathed.
It was great to be warm and dry for the first time in about ten hours. I felt full of respect for my fellow travellers, almost all of whom had had to overcome some challenge or other in order to reach that goal. I love being with people for whom doing something like that is more important than maintaining creature comforts at home. I love people who are prepared to get dirty, uncomfortable, sweaty, cut by razor-sharp grass, carry heavy weights, be bruised a bit by the odd rock, fall in disguised mud holes, get exhausted fighting obstacles, soaking wet from rain and bushes, or decidedly out of breath – all in pursuit of an experience of the sublime: an encounter with the infinite and with a factor far, far more grand than the self.
Evening light at tent city. Clear Hill behind left.
The next morning, we walked to a point overlooking the Gordon Gorge before our walk out. I was so starving by dint of the weekend’s exertions that I ate the equivalent of two full dinners while driving home in order to eat a third one prepared by my waiting husband.