To the summit, one last time
… Russ Grayson. Originally published 2002.
Early summer, 1980…
“Here, take hold of this”. Peter leans out and offers the end of a length of nylon climber’s tape to Robert. “Pass it to Keith”.
Keith takes hold of the tape and shakily steps onto the ledge of sloping dolerite. Holding the tape gives him a sense of security that is completely false. The slanting ledge he steps on to is only a metre wide but it drops away into what looks like an airy abyss. It is this that has spooked him.
A long, steep climb
It is a long, steep climb to the summit. The walk starts where a dark brown, tannin-stained stream flows past the carpark. This is the place for a long, last drink. There will be no more water until the summit plateau is reached.
The climb starts. Muscles hurt and breath comes in short gasps until we get into the rhythm. Over the years the passage of walkers boots has incised the track into the grassy slope. We follow it automatically, head down, not noticing how quickly we gain height. A stop for a break reveals the party well above the carpark and we look out over the Lake Pedder impoundment to the ranges beyond. And what ranges they are, here on the edge of Tasmania’s South West wilderness. The long, jagged carvings of glaciers long gone, they emerge from grassland and forest, their upper slopes of brown rock rising above the treeline and baking in the summer sun. In winter, those ridges and peaks are covered in snow, but today winter is far off and as we climb we feel the trickle of sweat on forehead and chest.
We are in our element, those making up this small group. We are habitués of the mountains, travellers of this island’s wild places… some of us have made tiring journeys together before and here on this steep track we feel as at home as we have on so many tracks before. None of us, however, know the significance of this day.
Mt Anne Plateau, the broad ridge that leads to the summit, is part of a complex structure that radiates from the central pinnacle. Walking is easier here, above the tree line. We cross the rocky ground and stop at a remnant snowdrift that has somehow persisted through the warmer months. This we slide down, making loud yahoos to express our exuberance at being in the mountains this warm, early summer day. We do not slide too far, however, as the bottom of the snow slope is perilously close to a vertical wall that falls hundreds of metres to a lake far below. We move on and, at last, reach the scree that abuts the summit cone. Here the scramble starts… first there is a notch to get over, then a traverse of the slope to the troublesome ledge where Peter’s nylon tape gives Keith the false confidence he needs to continue.
It is now a short scramble up a series of stepped ledges to the summit, the few, flat square metres of dolerite that constitutes the pinnacle of Mt Anne, highest peak in Tasmania’s South West.
As is often the case on this island, summer has brought calm, warm weather. It is as if the season has settled into a relaxed, wound-back lassitude before the onslaught of the winds and sleet of Autumn. The sky is clear apart from puffs of scattered cumulus and the air is still; there is the quietness that comes with the isolation of a summit. All but Wendy take off their shirts to feel the sun soak into their skin. Peter stands, shades his eyes with his hands. He squints and looks northwards. He is silent for awhile as he surveys the horizon and then speaks to nobody in particular.
“It’s very clear today. You can see a long way. There’s the Franklins” …he points towards a sawtooth range beyond the Pedder impoundment, off to the northwest. “There – over there on the horizon – they’re the mountains around Lake St Clair”. We follow his gaze to a series of bumps on the line of the horizon, faint blue outcroppings that that almost blend into the hazy blue of the sky. “You glad we came up?”, he says as he looks towards Keith.
“You don’t really need a rope to climb to the summit”, Peter continues. “It’s just a scramble”. True. But Peter is a climber and Robert is not. Peter’s scramble is Robert’s rock climb and Peter does not consider how the proximity of height – what climbers call ‘exposure’ – can be a psychological challenge to non-climbers. I know this from the time Peter introduced me to rock climbing. That was a sunny Saturday afternoon in The Gorge in Launceston. It was a minor wall, a slab only a couple tens of metres in height, but the vertical world was new to me and it took some getting used to. I sympathise with Robert and feel Peter’s comment is a little harsh.
An hour passes, maybe more. We sit in silence. Up here we seem separate from the landscape of mountain and plain that unfolds below us but at the same time we are a part of it. I look around… Peter nibbles at the food he has brought, his thinning, wispy blond hair hanging down over suntanned skin and blending with a beard equally wispy… Robert, thin face wrapped in thick dark hair and beard, gazes into the distance… Wendy, a few years younger than the rest of us, appears lost in her own thoughts. Keith just sits quietly. Being together on the summit has become a solitary experience.
I think about the journeys I have made with Peter… caves like Khaza Dum and Croesus, ski touring along white ridges where the light reflected from the snow so strongly it hurt your eyes, summer hikes into the Walls of Jerusalum. There was a shared social life in Launceston… Friday evening meetings of the Northern Caverneers in a cafe in town, a fine excuse to enjoy a meal and each other’s company, dinner parties with friends and, once, a drive over to the east coast where we stopped at the pancake restaurant at the top of Elephant Pass.
Peter, I recall, has a reputation as a womaniser, meaning he finds it hard to keep his hands off females who he finds attractive. That’s quite a lot of them, unmarried well as married. .. he’s not that particular. A married man… his wife is a school teacher and is well aware of his waywardness… he eloped for a week or so with the pretty blonde wife of a private school outdoor education teacher. “That lasted until they ran out of money”, his wife told me. That made sense because she is the source of regular income in the relationship – Peter’s working life can best be described as piecemeal. He sometimes teams up with a diver friend to do inspections of piers and the like, and he has worked with surveyors, but there’s little by way of continuous employment. Peter’s attraction to females is something that will bring complications in future, several times over.
Shifting my attention from Peter, I see below us the artificial lake of the Pedder impoundment… to the south the jagged ridge of the Western Arthur Range… eastwards the distant, forested country over towards the Picton. This truly is magnificent country and to sit here on the warm dolerite looking out on it brings a calmness to mind and body.
Long walk shortened
As recently as the early-1960s it took days to walk to Mt Anne. Now it is just a long day to the summit and back thanks to the road driven into the wilderness to service Lake Pedder’s hydroelectric station.
A change like that brings a different comprehension of the mountains. Older walkers tell tales of epic trips to get here. It is easy to imagine them struggling through the wet forest towards Mt Anne, their uncomfortable A-frame packs heavy on their shoulders, boots squishing along the muddy trail, stopping now and then to remove leeches from their legs with salt or match. If you had the chance in their lifetimes you could take aside people like Jack Thwaites and Jim Brown and listen as they related stories of journeys no longer possible, journeys before this vast wilderness was penetrated by roads, journeys the memory of which is fading with their passing.
Other ranges more distant in the South West, rugged chains like the Eastern and Western Arthurs, still have an allure of isolation and distance. This, too, is in part a legacy of those older walkers, the men and women who pioneered Tasmania’s wilderness from the 1930s to the 1950s. Hidden in their memories and too-seldom documented are stories of expeditions into country still unknown in their youth, of trails trod by few, of unclimbed peaks, broad button grass plains and unvisited lakes. They lived in a time when exploration was still a possibility, though one quickly fading. Theirs’ was the freedom of wild country trodden by few. I fear their stories will be lost.
Same mountain, different time
Early summer, 1977…
“Turn that thing off or I will throw it out the door!”.
It is around midnight when the voice booms from the sleeping mezanine of Mt Anne’s tiny, High Camp hut. A small, steep-roofed building of stone erected by bushwalkers in the 1960s, it is the only hut on the Anne range and the only refuge when the weather comes in. Situated where the grassy slope of the climbing ridge makes the transition to the scree slope leading to the summit plateau, the hut nestles on a scrubby ledge.
The angry voice belongs to Les Linsell, a school teacher of tough, wiry build, tanned, weathered face and bushy, dark beard. At this time of night, at any time of day or night, his is not a voice to challenge.
Meekly, those below obey and the noise stops. Wisely, they decide it is time to get into their sleeping bags. The offenders arrived at High Camp some time after our party and proceeded to play, very loudly and inconsiderately, on a boom box that they had lugged up the climbing ridge, audio tapes of doubtful sexual humour. Just why anyone would bother to carry such a thing up here is a puzzle, but people sometimes take strange things into the mountains. A case in point is the story of the climber and National Geographic photographer. The climber, knowing that the photographer would ask what he carried in his pack, had stuffed a large watermelon into it. This he nonchalantly unpacked when they stopped atop some peak and proceeded to eat it as if it were an everyday item carried by climbers. Such is the humour of mountaineers.
But that evening the offending group had broken the unspoken etiquette of the mountain hut. We lay awake in our sleeping bags, hoping they would realise that it was time to show a little consideration. They did not. Les acted. Peace was restored.
The summit, one last time
Early summer, 1980…
It was a simple trip, that one, a straightforward climb to the Mt Anne summit, a relaxing time slouching around on top and a rapid descent. The weather could not have been better, nor could the company. Most of those who ventured out were friends whose association was mediated by mountain, river and forest and, for some, by social life in town. Such durable relationships were, perhaps, something we did not fully value at the time. Sure, we liked each other’s company but we took each other for granted as constants in our lives. We though little of the future and of the changes life would thrust on us.
That warm day on the summit was the last we would be together in the mountains. Unknowingly, it was the culmination, the finale of many trips we had taken as a group. Circumstances changed, new priorities appeared, relationships were fractured, people moved away.
After that climb, Peter would return to Launceston and continue to make a living in a variety of ways but, always, a life restless and unsettled. Eventually, his sometimes good, sometimes troubled relationship with his wife would end in separation. She would move south to a teaching job in a town near Huonville. Peter would find a new love and, later, would cross oceans in the forlorn pursuit of it. Years would elapse before he found a new what might have been a permanent partner but his tendency to be distracted by women would bring that to a sudden end.
Les Linsell loved to explore the widerness, whether with others or alone. The Franklin River was then hotting up as a conservation issue and Les was drawn to explore it. He bought an inflatable rubber raft, a ‘rubber duckie’ as they are known in Tasmania, and set off on the Franklin. Les became the first casualty of that river’s wild torrents.
Keith and Wendy stayed around the bushwalking, climbing and caving mileau in Launceston for awhile but, like the others, they too moved on. What had been a close-knit team was unravelling.
And the author? His work in the adventure equipment industry would soon come to an end. The following year would bring a new life far from the dolerite peaks of South-West Tasmania and the people in whose company he had enjoyed climbing them.