A few months back in Autumn, I mountain biked a track called the Australian Alpine Epic. It was filled with hard work, difficulty, madness and fun, but it fell a little short of the true meaning of an adventure Epic.
This weekend, I underwent something a little closer to an Australian Alpine Epic, complete with snot, tears and blood.
To set the scene, back-country skiing is something I’ve only had limited experience in. This year I’ve had a little more practice with it, and was feeling confident enough to take my dad, my teenage cousin, and a family friend’s teenage son for a few days of back-country skiing.
For me, being a leader of a group on an outdoor adventure is something I’ve rarely done. I am usually going out with a bunch of much more experienced people, and unfortunately, the way that usually goes is they lead, or if I try and lead, I know there is always someone else more experienced to fall back on if shit hits the fan. This trip though, I made some important discoveries about leading – some I suspected, some I knew already, and some that surprised me.
I had been planning this trip for a little while – I was going to take my dad, my 15 year old cousin Ethan, and a family friend’s 16 year old son, Nathaniel. We were going to ski out to White’s River Hut in the Snowy Mountains, and spend a few days exploring on skis out there.
Global warming had other ideas, and I watched as the snow started to melt and get washed away by heavy rain with horror.
After consulting with Kirren, I decided to do an alternate trip – hike/ski up from Dead Horse Gap, over across to Thredbo and then on to Seaman’s Hut to stay for 2 nights before heading back the same way.
I’d never attempted this route before – usually I ski up from Perisher, along past Charlotte Pass and to the hut from that side. But fear of getting a ticket for leaving that car at Perisher, and glowing reviews on the internet, made me go with Kirren’s recommendation of Dead Horse Gap.
Friday afternoon found dad and me driving from Bulga, picking Ethan and Nathaniel up from school, and making our long drive down to the Snow.
We arrived very late at night to the Diggers campground just outside of Thredbo village, and set up camp in the miserable, freezing rain.
Saturday morning rolled around, and the relentless rain paid no attention to the partly cloudy day that was forecast for Saturday. We packed up in the rain, packed our packs in the rain, and were cold and soaking even before we started our hike.
We left Kirren warm and dry in the back of his car, and made our way to Dead Horse Gap. The plan was to meet him at the top of the Thredbo chair lift, and head out all together to Seaman’s Hut.
We began trudging up a spur in the rain, our shivering slowly subsiding as we got warmer from the exercise. The mud turned to wet snow, and we started trudging through that, until it got too deep and cold. We put on our skis, and started to slip and slide our way steadily up the mountain.
I was trying to navigate our way through the thick trees using a GPS borrowed from Kirren. I soon found that although the waypoints marked in the GPS were correct, the GPS didn’t have an internal compass, and I started to suspect the way it was pointing North was not actually North. I eventually dug my compass out of my pack, and found that the GPS was pointing in almost the opposite direction to the compass. I put the GPS away and started using the compass, knowing that the chairlift was generally NE from the spur we were taking up.
We were making very slow progress. Our packs were heavy, we were very wet, and neither of the two boys had ever skied before, so they kept falling over and having to get help getting back up because of the heavy packs. The hours were ticking by, and I started to worry about getting to our destination on time, and meeting Kirren before he started to worry about us.
Nathaniel had started to lag behind, and was having a bit of trouble keeping upright. So I told Dad to stay with him and help him out, while Ethan and I powered up the hill to try and find the way. We left them behind fairly quickly, as we moved determinedly up the hill.
Eventually we made it to a pass, where we came across a track marked with poles. The track went either West or South East. Neither of these directions were the ones I was supposed to take, so I decided to wait with Ethan for Dad and Nathaniel to catch up.
The wind picked up, the rain turned to sleet, then on to snow. We were beginning to get cold. I found a boulder with a wide split in it, and Ethan and I hid inside it out of the wind.
I began to get really worried. Where were Dad and Nathaniel?
In order to keep warm, Ethan decided to follow the tracks for a little way in either direction, to see if they eventually swung around to the North East. I watched anxiously as he disappeared into the clouds and snow, trying to keep an eye on his dark shape through the flurries, lest I lose him too.
He came back, without much luck, and only slightly warmed up.
By this stage, I was beginning to recognise some of the early signs of hypothermia in myself, and started to get anxious.
Did Ethan and I pick a direction, leave an arrow or marker for the other two, and continue on to keep warm and moving, risking leaving the others behind/lost/hurt?
Or did we go searching for them, heading back the way we came, and risk missing them and getting lost in the trees?
Or did we simply stay put, wait for them and get even more hypothermic?
With desperate fumbling numb fingers, Ethan found a bar of reception on his phone. I called Kirren, on the verge of tears. I felt like a failure, and admitted I didn’t know what to do.
He asked me where I was, and I had to admit I didn’t know that either.
He then reminded me that although the GPS might not be working for directions, it would still have our coordinates on it. I fumbled with the GPS until I found the coordinates and repeated them back to Kirren, feeling stupider and stupider.
Ethan had gone really quiet and still, and was sitting hunched in the crack. His lips were blue. Tears leaked out of my eyes, and I whispered in to the phone “Can you come and find us? I don’t know what to do.”
At the time, I felt like pathetic. I felt that this should have been easy – that I should have been able to know the way, that I should have been able to know what to do, that I should never has separated from Dad and Nathaniel in the first place, and that it was all my own stupid fault.
Kirren came to the rescue though.
It turned out that neither of the two directions the path went were the right one, and that I wouldn’t really have been able to navigate the way properly because the pre-loaded way points in the GPS lead through areas now not covered in snow with exposed rocks.
As for Nathaniel and Dad – they were plodding along slowly. They had been following our fresh tracks up the hill, but were slow because Dad was towing Nathaniel’s pack behind him to help Nathaniel get up the hill.
I learnt a very valuable lesson about leading trips: you don’t need to be the only leader in a group. Dad was perfectly capable of leading Nathaniel through the tough terrain, helping him out and logically following our fresh tracks in the snow, in a general North East direction. And asking for help meant we were able to go in the right direction and not get lost.
We made our way through the horrendous weather, finally all together as a group, to the cafe at the top station at Thredbo.
It was late – much much later than I had hoped. We sat quietly in the cafe, eating a late lunch, and warming ourselves up.
Our plan had been to make it the Seaman’s Hut. But with the group being incredibly slow moving, and being already incredibly exhausted and wet, we had to make a decision then and there about what to do next. Did we continue on? Did we turn back? Did we push for the hut? Did we continue on and set up a camp in a sheltered area along the way?
In the end we decided to attempt to push on, and see how we were moving in an hour. That would give us enough time to either find a camp before dark, or head back if we needed.
The rain had finally relented, but the wind had picked up outside. I hadn’t quite warmed up after my dose of hypothermia, and was feeling cold to the bones as we headed out into it.
The movement was only slightly warming, but the wind cut through my jacket and kept me cold. I wanted to power up the hill to keep warm, but noticed Nathaniel was lagging behind again. I kept back with him, trying to keep him motivated.
We skied on for a long while up a hill, following snow shoe and snow-mobile tracks. The visibility was poor, and clouds swirled around us in the wind.
I tried to keep Nathaniel motivated, tried to keep him moving up the hill. He couldn’t match the pace of everyone, so I stayed with him at the back at his pace, while Kirren tried to stay in between us and the other two as a visual connection. Eventually, the light faded, and we decided it was best to stay together as a group.
With the poor visibility and the fading light, we somehow missed a ridge or a gap, and found ourselves on the wrong side of a mountain. Instead of turning around, however, Kirren recognized vaguely where we were, and started navigating us through the dark around to the Hut from the other side. We traversed along the side of the ridge for a long time through the darkness. The groups energy started to fade, and motivation was dropping fast. We passed through a fairly protected valley, and the idea of setting up camp then and there was toyed with. I decided that we should keep pushing on, because we were all soaking wet, and we were most of the way there, and shelter, with a fire, would be the best way to get warm again. Most people weren’t feeling too cold at this point, and liked the idea of setting up camp now. I insisted we push on.
And so push on we did.
We paused for a moment, sitting in a narrow valley. I noticed some weird patterns in the snow under the weak moonlight. On close examination, I realized it was avalanche debris. I cut the rest break short, and forced everyone to continue on, quickly moving away from the steep and narrow valley.
It was not long after this, that Nathaniel, exhausted, sat down again. He took of his skis for a break, and not watching properly, let go of them. They slid off down the hill into the darkness. Kirren rushed on down the hill to try and find them. He found one, and stuck it up like a pole in the snow. We decided to leave it, and come back in the morning to search for the other.
We were nearly at the hut, and around the next bend we could see it on the ridge in the distance. Exhaustion and hunger and cold crept up on me, and now that I could see our goal, all my strength evaporated.
I had already told Kirren I was feeling a little hypothermic, so when he saw me stumble a few times and have difficulty getting up, he came up behind me and prodded me onward. I began to fret about everyone behind us, and wanted to wait, forgetting my dad was at the back making sure the boys were ok. Kirren prodded me up the final hill, and got me indoors. Ethan was right on our tails.
Eventually we all made it inside the hut, out of the wind, and very, very thankful we had made it.
I started bossing everyone around, ordering them all out of their wet clothes, into dry ones, and to hang their wet ones up by the fire. I made sure the fire was started by dad, and that lollies and chocolate were being eaten, along with water. I had quite forgotten that I was the hypothermic one, and that I was still in my wet clothes, and not eating, when Kirren sat me down and made me eat some rice crackers.
It was 9.30pm by the time we were all settled around the fire, and thinking about dinner.
We decided to sleep in the hut, all camped by the fire and cozy.
The next morning, Kirren, Dad and I left the boys in charge of tidying up the hut while we went out into the beautiful sunny day in search of the missing ski. By the light of day, and in the sunshine, the horrible world outside transformed from its nightmare the previous night into a glorious white playground. We found the ski with ease – it had slipped down to the valley floor and landed near a patch of grass. The other one was still standing up as a marker.
Taking advantage of the sunshine, and the moderate winds, Kirren decided to practice some kite skiing on his 11m kite.
The rest of the day was passed by as a mix of playing in the snow, practicing our telemarks on the hill behind the hut, and eating lots of food.
Kirren bid us goodbye that afternoon, and began his journey back to Thredbo, and eventually on back to Canberra and work the next day.
We spent a second night in the hut, which we shared with two split-boarders, who were happy to have company and some of our excess biscuits.
The next morning broke bright and sunny, and extremely icy. We packed up our bags, said goodbye to the hut, and began the icy ski back to Thredbo.
As the day wore on, the sun slushed up the iciness and the snow became quite enjoyable. With lighter packs, the boys were making great progress on their skiing. We were making excellent time, and decided to stop for a play on some slopes near the Kosciusko look out.
After a long play, we had lunch, and then made our way to the chair lift.
Some friendly skiiers the day before had mentioned that you could get on the chairlift down to the bottom of thredbo without needing a ski pass.
So, instead of navigating back down to Dead Horse Gap, and its patchy snow, steep hills and trees, we decided to try and snake a lift down the chairlift.
According to logic, anyone about to get on a chairlift back DOWN to the Thredbo would have had to have bought a ticket. So, no one asked for a ticket as we lined up to catch the lift back down, and rather than realizing how crazy we truly were, we all felt rather chuffed. Because, who is insane enough to head out on a wild woolly weekend, ski UP to the top of a mountain, and then catch the chairlift back DOWN?
Other than don’t be crazy – fork out the $40 for a chairlift to get up past the patchy snow – what did I learn this trip?
I learnt that I can make decisions, that I can be a leader, and that being a leader doesn’t mean being the only leader.