Alone in the Storm

“I finally make it back to the pack at the bottom of the trail just as the storm rolls over my head. The day turns dark as the heavy cloud sets in. Only moments later the darkness turns a heavenly white. The mountain sings a loud song of sharp winds, and heavy snow.”

A NIGHT OF RAIN AND RUIN

It is the middle of the week and I’ve managed to acquire a few day off work. Winter is coming to an end and the sun has risen its’ head from what seemed like a long hibernation behind rain clouds. I can’t think of anything better to do than head for the mountains. I plan a one night trip to back of Mt. Field, following the Tarn Shelf on the first day, and on the second taking the back route up the Newdegate Pass, then over the Ranges and back home. It wasn’t long before I realised things were not going to happen as I planned.

I start the first day with a quick stop at the various waterfalls in the Mt. Field National Park, before making my way up to the mountain for an early afternoon start. Small pockets of snow cover the famous lakes at Tarn Shelf. The day goes by relatively quick. Soft winds and a gentle sun accompany me along the Shelf as I take various photographs. As the day comes to an end, I get excited about setting up camp, as I have brought a new tent to try. Just as I finish constructing the frame, clouds crest the ranges and rain starts falling. I crawl into my sleeping bag, but as the night sets in I feel small drops of moisture fall onto my face. The moisture building up in the tent makes it feels as though it’s raining inside as much as out. “This is the last time I ever take an untested tent into the wilderness”, I think to myself as the rain starts leaking through the seams.

THE WHITE SONG OF THE MOUNTAIN

As is common to the Tasmanian climate, and most certainly to the highlands, the promise of a sunny day is a fool’s dream. Light snow starts to fall as I set out early for the Newdegate Pass. “At least it’s not rain”, I tell myself, “a few quick photos and I’ll be around the back, over the top, and descending to the car park in no time”. Unfortunately, like many photographers I’m often incredibly bad with time when  I come upon a scene worth capturing. After spending some time taking photos on the highlands I come across the formation know as the The Watcher. This collection of rocks, like giant toothpicks protruding out of the earth, stands tall above the flat highlands. In my mind’s eye I can already see the amazing photograph from the top of those giant toothpicks. The day is getting late, but I cannot let the opportunity pass.

I drop my hiking pack at the bottom of the trail up to The Watcher and start climbing with my camera gear. Weaving in and out of the cracks and crevices along the path, I scramble atop the final rock to a view that shocks me. It doesn’t shock me because of its beauty, but for two reasons I didn’t foresee. The first is that rather than the magnificent view I had envisioned, a long valley of logged forests confronts me. This valley is hidden away from prying eyes, tucked behind the thin veil of the National Park’s boundary. The second unforeseen reason is that an ominous storm of thick dark clouds is thundering towards me. A slight panic seeps into my body. “Still time for the shot”, I tell myself. I quickly pull out the tripod, look for the best angle I can find, and start fumbling for the camera. Click, click, click. “Quickly pack the tripod up, don’t drop your camera, careful on the rocks”, I mumble away. It’s funny how we often talk to ourselves in moments of panic. As if a voice spoken aloud could somehow protect us from the inevitable disaster. “I should have bought a better coat”, I tell myself.

I finally make it back to the pack at the bottom of the trail just as the storm rolls over my head. The day turns dark as the heavy cloud sets in. Only moments later the darkness turns a heavenly white. The mountain sings a loud song of sharp winds, and heavy snow. The ground is covered white with fallen snow, the track hidden beneath. The cloud is so thick I cannot see more than ten metres in front of my position. Soft light from the vanishing sun reflects a white hue in all directions. The only way I can describe it is to imagine yourself in a purely white room full of fog, a freezing white room. Mountaineers know it as a ‘whiteout’. These storms are near impossible to navigate through. I realise I will be stuck here for a second night, unless by some miracle the storm clears. Of course, no miracle occurs.

I consider my options. Should I setup my soaking wet tent? The idea doesn’t seem very promising; I don’t like the thought of being a frozen popsicle in a leaking tent again. I open the map and carefully consider my position. I notice an emergency hut around two kilometres away and decide it’s the best choice. Luckily, I had a compass with me. Attempting to move one kilometre in a whiteout without one is the stuff of disasters. I triangulate my exact position off The Watcher I had descended, and the track I followed, and take a bearing for the hut.

After two hours of very slow and careful navigation, I sit down on one of the wooden benches inside the hut and start boiling a cup of tea to get some warmth into my frozen form.

LONELY AND FREEZING

It’s amazing how quickly confidence can shrivel to loneliness and fear in moments of isolation-  when the body is cold, and the hands are bright pinkish purple. It’s 3:00 AM and only small pockets of sleep have come and gone. The mountain still sings its song of white outside the small hut. I keep my hands tucked into my groin trying desperately to warm them. My sleeping bag isn’t doing the job it’s theoretically capable of because it is still wet from the previous night. Pulling myself out the sleeping bag, I decided a warm cup of tea will help the chill, and having a task to perform will shift my mind away from lonely thoughts. The hot tea invigorates my body from the inside, and a few nuts provide some energy for the coming walk. “When the sun rises, I’m walking over this mountain”, I tell myself. I look out the small window and ask the mountain to be kind tomorrow before falling back to sleep.

It’s 9:30 AM. I’ve managed another hour of sleep here and there and decided the time has come to trek over the Range. As I open the door of the hut a wall of snow confronts me! A small gap the width of my hand remains clear at the top of the doorway. “Drat”, I think to myself, “this is going to be a long trek”. After shoveling an escape hole, I start my ascent for the peak. The weather has cleared a little and I can feel a slight warmth from the light glow of sun through the still thick cloud cover. At least the snow has stopped falling and the wind has died down somewhat. It doesn’t make the walk much easier. Each step I take is grueling, and the snow comes to just below my waist. The track is largely invisible, and every few hundred metres I fall down into some unseen crack between the rocks. Each fall drains my energy and spirit, nonetheless, I am committed and forward is the only direction I’m moving in. As I continue the ascent, I enter the cloud line, and find myself in that white reflective room once more.

A few hours of painfully slow movement pass until I enter what appears like a den or oblong colosseum. Tall rock walls surround me. The snow grows deeper, coming above my waist. The cloud is so thick and close to my head I can reach up and scoop it from the sky into my hand for a fleeting moment before it dissipates. It’s like a white blanket floating atop my head. I must be high on the peak of the mountain and deep in the cloud. For a small moment the wind silences itself to a whisper. “It’s beautiful”, I think to myself. I want to unpack my camera and take a photo, but something stops me. I don’t know what it is exactly, the cold metal camera body and the pain I know it will bring to my fingers? Perhaps it’s the fear of being stuck here longer? I sit silently for a moment taking solace in the peace, and building energy for the final push. I leave my camera packed. Some images are meant to remain uncaptured. It’s as if nature had offered her most beautiful side when she knew I could not capture her. Or perhaps a moment of peace was my reward for reaching the peak of the mountain?

By my calculations, I am around three quarters through the range. I’ve developed a love affair with my compass and the occasional orange trail markers that poke out from beneath the snow. These little orange caps  atop pole are like small dots of relief and joy, and each one give me faith in my bearings. I go half an hour without finding one and my spirit grows heavier. Doubt enters my mind. I recheck my bearing, retrace my footprints, modify my bearing by a few degrees and set out again. Another marker! I am hopeful once more until too much time passes between markers and my hope fades.

This dance of hope and worry drags on until I notice something. “Am I descending?” The cloud seems lighter, my vision stretches a little further, when suddenly, an ecstatic joy fills my body as I breach the cloud line and my visibility returns. I can see the way out below. A flat layer of snow hugs the walking track. I yell thankfully into the mountain pass.

THE DANCE OF SPEED AND SLOWNESS

As I’m driving out of the National Park I reflect on the fact that in mere moments, I have travelled further than I was able to walk in three days. Hot air blasts from the heater as the car engine warms up. My frozen feet start to thaw and a tingling sensation runs through my hands as heat returns to them. My backside is finally comfortable on the cushioned seat, and my face untouched by the heavy wind, encased in the security of the glass and steel car. It’s amazing how far technology has brought us, and the subtle comforts it offers. But as I sit there thawing out comfortably, with kilometres speeding by in moments, I cannot help but feel a sense of loss and disconnection from something deep inside myself.

Some kind of inner primal self calls back to the mountain. It longs for the adventure once again. It is as if the mountain took a piece of me, or perhaps as if something inside me can only be uncovered when walking slowly across the land. In that slow walk I was connected to each and every bend and corner, to every stream that I drink from, to every hill that I climb. The warm comfort of my car seems sterile and lifeless in comparison. I have flashes of the logged landscape when sitting on The Watcher. I look out at the forest around me and wonder if it also is just another thin veil over a hidden and devastated wilderness? The speed of the car keeps me ignorant of such matters. I think of the moment when I was struck by the beauty of nature in the throes of the storm atop the mountain, and how in the slowness of walking I was more connected to the changes and movements of nature. Moving with such speed seems to make me a disconnected observer, rather than a sensing, and feeling participant. The speed of modern living has locked us away from the elegance of nature, which reveals itself only to those with patience and sensitivity to its subtle changes. Thoughts of how the speed of modern living have changed our connection to the land, and politics of nature, haunt my thoughts as I drive home.