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PacificEdge | July 26, 2017

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Just a minor incident

Russ Grayson

Tasmania, the late 1970s.

UP AND UP. Through a dark, wet forest of towering trees. Along a rough track that never saw the work of a maintenance gang. Squishing through muddy patches, slowing as we climb the steeper sections. All familiar stuff to mountain walkers.

It feels as though we have been in this soggy forest for hours but, in reality, it cannot be more than two. For some reason, time this morning seems to be spinning out when, on ascents, it usually passes quickly. We walk on in silence.

The forest ends abruptly as it does on all Tasmanian peaks of this height. There is a transition to a scrubby vegetation of low trees and tall, wiry shrubs. These are tough plants as they must be up here where storm and wind prune the foliage and where winter brings its burden of snow.

Along a track

The door gives way with a push and we enter the small, single room. There is enough space for all so we squeeze in although the hut is only small in size.

Here we take a break before the final few metres up to the ridge. Out comes the food. We relax and talk, but we will be less relaxed when we returned to the hut in the afternoon.

Our path now is along a track that makes a narrow cut through the low scrub. It leads to the final, short pitch after which we stand on an open ridge and look into the heart of the South Coast Range. A splendid vision it is as we stop to take in a landscape of peak, valley and ridge, a landscape in which bare rock dominates. Only the most hardy of vegetation survives up here, protected from the weather by compact growth, stiff foliage and millennia of adaptation.

In the deep valley below are the grey waters of the twin lakes known as Pigsty Ponds. Southwards are more open ridges leading to the conical pinnacle of Pindars Peak. And there, in the far distance, standing above the wilderness beaches of the South West coastline is the corrugated ridge of Mt Bobs. The few who have traversed the trackless country from where we stand to that mountain, and from there down to the South Coast track, report thick scrub, difficult going and, according to one brave walker, snakes that move through the branches rather than over the ground.

This is landscape sublime over which we gaze for some time, as if a mere few minutes it too short to take it all in. It probably is. In the far distance lies the hazy blue of the Southern Ocean, a blueness that goes all the way to the horizon where it fades into a kind of greyish blur, sea and sky there being indistinguishable. Far beyond that, across a tempestuous sea, is the Antarctic.

This is visually inspiring country the openess of which invites you to walk on and on. You feel you could follow those open ridges way out to those distant peaks… they look not all that far away.  But distances here, in this clear air, are deceptive. This is a landscape with an absence of trees.

The day is advancing and we want to be back to the forestry road, where we left the cars, by nightfall. Walking is easy over the rocky ground, so we hurry on and soon stand by the summit cairn of Mt La Perouse. From here, the view is to Cocks Comb Ridge, so named because its profile looks like the jagged comb of a rooster.

Comparatively few Tasmanians visit the South Coast Range. Even fewer mainland walkers come here. Yet people do come; the trail up through the forest is evidence of that, and someone must occupy that little hut high on the shelf below the summit ridge. Perhaps it is only the firewatchers.

There are pockets of semi-remote mountain terrain like this tucked away all over the island state. They are bound, sooner of later, to be ‘discovered’ as more and more people search out places less visited. There seems an inevitability to this.

Fossils in the rock

“Look. It’s fossilised ripples in the sandstone”, comes the surprised voice. He turns over the piece of sandstone he holds in his hand.

Sure enough. There are a series of parallel ripples incised into the yellow slab. And looking around there are more scattered over the rounded hump of the summit, evidence of the massive movement of the earth over timescales unimaginable, but movement so substantial that they have made a mountaintop of what was an ancient seabed.

“This is just the remnant of what was, in the distant past, the sandstone capping of a much larger area of the state”, adds someone with greater geological knowledge. “Over all that time the capping has been eroded down to the underlying dolerite. Now this bit, up here on the mountaintop, is all that remains”.

Return

We return the way we came out to Mt La Perouse. The onset is as sudden as it is unexpected.

It happens like this: We walk in sunlight under a blue sky. Coming close to where the ridge starts its fall to the narrow shelf below, from where it plunges as forest-clad slope to the valley far below, we notice a mass of grey cloud coming towards us. It is at our altitude and it has appeared with very little warning. Now, the temperature falls and then we are enveloped in this grey mass. Visibility is poor. A fall of fine snowflakes star to descend.

Most of us have experienced snow in the mountains in the non-winter months before, so we think little of it. Nor are we overly concerned at the cloud that obscures the shelf and its hut below.

Then, somebody notices that Grant is having difficulty. He had slowed and complains. Not feeling well, he says. But this is no place to stop, out here on the open ridge in a snowfall and declining visibility.

“Can you make for the hut?”, someone asks. We look at Grant . “It’s ok. I can make it”, he says quietly but in obvious discomfort. Flora, his partner, gives a nod of approval and we move on more slowly, keeping an eye on him in case his condition worsens.

At last, the edge of the ridge where the track descends to the hut… down the narrow trail through the low scrub, knowing that it will lead us to shelter although the hut remains invisible in the mist. Then it emerges out of the greyness and it is with relief that we push the door open and get Grant to lay on the bunk and rest.

“He’s exhausted, I think”, says Flora. “He was up late studying for an exam last night”. Ok, so it’s exhaustion, but to go on in this condition would be to risk hypothermia. We contemplate spending a cold night up here and I go through, in my head, what we will need to find… enough firewood for the pot belly stove to last through the night, water, cobble together what food we have that remains… and sufficient clothing to keep Grant warm. Only a few need stay, I think, the rest could go down and get assistance if Grant needs to be evacuated.

Flora sits with Grant and keeps him warm while the rest of us wait. We put off the decision about who will stay until the last moment, but that cannot be long because the day is moving on and no one wants to negotiate the slippery forest track in the dark.

And then the unexpected. After less than an hour, Flora says that Grant has perked up some and feels well enough to walk out. The rest and a bit of food has revived him although doubts linger about the wisdom of moving on. Finally, consensus is reached.

As we drive away the range is hidden by cloud. It had been a rare day in mountains often obscured by poor weather, a day among the peaks and on the open ridges, a day we thought would become two had it turned into a rescue.

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