Thursday, September 2, 2010

Wilderness article

                                                      The Escape

Given your geographical and calendar preference, it’s either late autumn or early winter. Not that the date matters when heavy snow has thrown its white canvas over our southern mountainous landscape. These aren’t the best conditions for a midweek solo climb, but I’m desperate.

Post-storm, the weather clears to bluebird skies, and I’m planning to wander up the Hopkins Valley before making my way into the intimacy of the Huxley, a side valley. In his guidebook to the area, Ross Cullen describes the Huxley as ‘a delightful hidden world of beech forest, grassy terraces, river and peaks’. Climbers and trampers alike are repeatedly charmed by the way the Huxley gently reveals itself, especially after the prolonged river flats of the Hopkins.

Upon leaving the Hopkins, and after crossing over a forested spur, grassy flats lead easily to the Huxley Forks Hut. Steep bluffs frame either side of the valley, supporting the summit of Boanerges to the north and the outliers of Rabbiters Peak to the south. On this day all is covered with a generous blanket of snow.

Hare tracks crisscross through the shallow drifts ahead of me as I finally approach the hut. Beneath the snow the earth is already locked down with permafrost, and overhead the forest canopy is flecked with white. The scene has an enchanted feel of a northern Christmas. At the Forks Hut, the chimney is smoking. Looks like I’ll have company for the evening.

When I haven’t escaped to the hills for a time, or when the weather repeatedly forces cancelled trip after cancelled trip, I find myself losing touch with the feelings mountaineering induces. I begin to imagine that I’m not capable enough any more, lack confidence in my previous ability to pack accurately, move succinctly and make safe decisions as the flat land drops away.

No amount of local cragging or hill running keeps me prepared. I’m forced to scan maps longingly, pour over guidebook photos and route descriptions, telling myself the bad weather can’t always fall on weekends and, sooner or later, I’ll get to test myself in the high wilds once again. I yearn for the satisfied ache that comes from blurred hours hauling a pack jammed with climbing paraphernalia. I want to clear the cobwebs of too many morning-tea flat whites, escape the small towers of dirty dishes from three nights ago, and poke the proverbial at all vicarious living associated with staring into a box of moving pictures for the answers that lie within ourselves.

Yeah, it makes me bitter. I get grumpy that the weather won’t work around me when four months passes between trips, and when I’m more familiar packing and unpacking my ice axes than actually swinging them into an unsuspecting but otherwise appropriate blob of polystyrene ice.

A new set of unscratched crampons is laughing at my inadequacies, not to mention these morose ramblings. Herein lies the attraction of the elusive beast we appropriately label ‘The Great Outdoors’. I can almost see it when I look out the upstairs window. And when the day finally arrives, I’m like an eleven-year-old at my first school dance.

Inside the well-warmed Huxley Forks Hut two old-timers eye my footwear from their huddled perch beside the fire. They are almost identically attired – chequered bush shirts, grey beards, thick woolly hats and saggy long-johns the colour of discarded dishwater – perhaps the quintessential old-school back country traveller, I note upon traipsing in on their quiet musings. Wiry and undoubtedly fit beyond belief, these guys have probably had more trips into the hills than I’ve had hot dinners.

‘Cold tootsies?’ the one in the green shirt enquires.

‘Rather,’ I reply, knocking each frozen running shoe against the door frame to clear away the snow. ‘Beats getting my boots wet in the river crossings.’

‘I guess,’ the other allows. ‘Didn’t you use the high track?’

‘Takes too long.’

‘Only if you’re in a hurry. Guess you’ll be wanting a brew then?’

I nod. ‘Love one if it’s going.’

I drop my pack just inside the door of the hut, and take a pew on the nearest vacant bunk.

‘Didn’t expect to be bumping into anyone up this way, especially after that blow,’ the second man comments as he passes me a steaming mug of black, sweet chai.

‘Thanks. Me neither. What are you guys up to?’

‘Little as possible,’ the guy by the fire says.

‘Fair enough. How long have you been up the Huxley?’ I ask after blowing across the enamel cup.

‘A week.’

‘A week? What was the storm like?’

‘Stormy,’ the man who passed me the tea replies, smiling faintly as he sits back down. ‘You’ve got all the gears there,’ he adds, nodding at the ice axes and helmet attached to the outside of my pack. At least my shiny crampons are packed out of sight. ‘Must be serious.’

I can’t work out whether the two are poking fun at me, or just naturally laconic. At least with conversation this dry, my feet won’t be wet for much longer.

‘You never know,’ I reply. ‘Are you guys brothers or something?’



I run out of things to say, so lean over to my pack for a bag of cashew nuts stashed in its top pocket.

‘Where’s your climbing buddy?’ Green Shirt enquires, poking his thumb back down the valley.

‘I’d be it.’

‘A loner?’

‘Out of necessity rather than choice, I’m afraid. Everyone else is working.’

‘You got any plans, or just carrying that stuff round for laughs.’

‘More often than not. Actually, I’m going to have a nudge at that,’ I say, pointing past them out the window at a distant peak.

Green Shirt stands and squints at the window pane for a time.

‘Is that Anita Peak?’

‘No. Anita’s three to the north, I think. That one’s unnamed.’ And unclimbed apparently, which is partly why I’m here.

Peak 2265m is a knuckled joint in the backbone of the Huxley Range. Soloist Peak sits a couple of summits further south, and Peak 2235m is a closer neighbour. 2235m was climbed in December 1947 via the east-ridge by local climbing pioneers Bob Bauld, George Moir and Arch Wiren. But it seemed no one could be motivated enough or bothered to have a crack at 2265m. I am hoping to follow their initial route up an obvious side-stream before angling onto a steep bush-covered spur towards 2265m, and then a rock step and snow slope above.

Green Shirt sits back down next to his brother.

‘Bit keen doing it alone, aren’t you?’ he enquires.

I shrug my shoulders, explaining that I’ve left route intentions and a timeline at home, and that I plan to carry bivvy gear.

‘Not my cup of tea,’ he replies. ‘But each to their own.’

Later, I thank the men for the brew and decide to retreat to the smaller second hut for the night. It’s a fair bet these two are world-class snorers, and I’m a light sleeper at the best of times.

I leave before dawn, crossing the swing bridge in half light, and follow the track beside the south branch of the Huxley River. In places the snow has a frozen crust, which hopefully means for easy travel further up the mountain. Within an hour I reach the side-stream, and then up on to the steep spur. Pulling at tree roots and edging over loose blocks, I climb within a dark layer of beech. Occasionally, lumps of snow fall from the canopy, making a whompfing sound, and I keep my collar zipped up.

For me, climbing alone can be a ghostly experience. There is no one to talk to or make judgement calls with. At times I have to turn around to see my tracks in the snow, confirming that the strangeness of the experience is solely in my mind. Some over-protective pillars of societal wisdom deem this practise as too risky and something to be discouraged at all costs. What is it that brings solace to each individual? Surely it is for that person to decide, as long as it doesn’t harm others. Being alone in the mountains is like being alone at sea. An internal cadence takes over. Everything becomes so much simpler. Compared to drowning one’s sorrows in nightly alcoholic binges, this is a Godsend.

Birdsong from a lone bellbird filters through the forest canopy. No doubt the little guy is fully puffed, insulating himself from the cold. Sunlight begins to finger down among the branches of beech trees, creating jigsaw patterns of the snowy undergrowth. Ferns and hebes compete for what subdued light makes it to this patch of steep-sided woodland.

I stop to listen to the bellbird. Once my breathing eases, the only sound is its questioning call, and the distant tumble of the Huxley River a few hundred metres below.

For a time I forget about everything. Eventually the feeling returns. It is always there, but I’ve forgotten how to recognise it.

The summit above beckons. Hidden behind bushy outcrops and rocky spurs, its final broad snowy peak is still hours away. But, for me, it’s not the summit that I seek. It’s the process of getting there, the external challenge and internal strengthening, a yearning to escape.

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