Trees. Birds. Rivers. Sky.
Running with my Uncle Hec.
– hunt for the wilderpeople
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.
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.
It’s nearly week 3 of PrincessLua and my SE Asia whirlwind tour, and we’ve been having a wonderful and adequately chaotic time. There have been many a mishaps, serendipitous adventures and general terribly planned Mowgli-ness. There have also been plenty of lazy days hiding out under fans, reading books and doing absolutely nothing too.
Like today, where I’ve taken a day off being the responsible adult and carer for my 16year old sister and have decided to spend the day inside our guesthouse room being totally antisocial, eating mango chips and writing.
But no one wants to hear about that (or about the hour of washing I just completed using soap and a spare toothbrush for scrubbing accumulated monsoonal season sweat stains from my clothing).
So let’s hear about our time so far in Siem Reap.
After catching a long bus from the smelly capital Phnom Penh, we arrived at the much smaller, much nicer Siem Reap, and to a cheap but awesome guesthouse tucked away in some quiet backstreet. After waking up early the next morning, nomming on some awesome banana pancakes and iced coffee, we hired out the guesthouse bikes and explored the streets of Siem Reap, enjoying our newfound sport of AsianTrafficDodging™. But before we could get 10m down the road, the ancient rusty skeletons of Hipster Bikes Past coughed and spluttered and Lua’s tyre went flat.
That was flat tyre number 1. The rest of the day we pedalled along the river, out of town and to the shady jungle road that leads out to Angkor Wat. We visited museums, had our souls and energy sapped from us in the way all museums do – even if there is airconditioning – then pedalled home through a storm.
Day 2: we woke early, breakfasted early and left early, only to find out the ticket office for Angkor Archaeological Park had moved 4kms away from its original place, and so after a long hot and sweaty detour – we arrived late.
The riding itself is brilliant. Flat roads, the wind of cars and tuk tuks passing 2cm away cooling you down, and the pressure of having to pedal your heart out taken away by the simple fact youre on an ancient rusty Fixie.
We chained our bikes up and entered the tourist mecca of Angkor Wat. I’ll write about our day in this awesome temple complex later, and skip straight to the cycle home.
A storm was rolling in and around us, teasing us with sprinkles. We decided it wasn’t going to get any better so we left the temple to ride home through the refreshing rain. At our bikes we immediately saw a problem. Lua’s front tyre was completely flat, sagging all over the place like old lady boobies.
I started walking around, looking for other cyclists who might have a pump or anything useful.
A tuk tuk driver approached us, asking if we needed a tuk tuk.
“No, but we need a bike pump.”
He grinned, licked his lips. “No bike pumps here. Have to go back to siem reap. Tuk tuk?”
I replied that there MUST be a bike pump somewhere here, with all these hundreds of stalls and vendors with their bicycles.
He insisted there wasn’t and argued we would have to take a tuk tuk instead.
I moved on, with a worried Lua tailing me, quietly wondering whether we should take the tuk tuk.
I found a banana stand lady. No English beyond “banana?”. I pointed to luas flat tyre. She pointed up the road.
We smiled, waved and left. Banana stand ladies were to become my favourite Cambodians.
Sure enough, down the road, was a tiny little shed with bike tyres pinned to the trees, plastic chairs, Coca-Cola umbrellas and chickens.
We arrived just as the rain started pelting down, and stood all together with 2 young guys, our bikes, us and a few scraggly chickens under the faded Coca-Cola umbrella. The young guys started disassembling the tyre, and replacing the torn-beyond- repair inner tube.
The rain had not subsided when we paid $3 for the tube, and the boys laughed and wished us luck as we rode out from the safety of the umbrella and it’s plastic chairs.
Within 2.5seconds we were soaked through. It was difficult to see where we were going, so with hands shielding our eyes we wobbled down the drowning road. Tuk tuks, with their shielded up windows, drove past at alarming speeds. The tourist occupants inside glanced out the windows on the back, staring at us with pitying eyes as we slopped down the road.
A lone motorbike came up beside us. On it, a mother, a child, a toddler and a grandma – all in soaking clothes – were laughing as they, too, shielded their eyes to try and see. They all waved enthusiastically at us, laughing with their faces turned to the sky, sharing in our refreshing misery. Even the grandma got in on the waving action. We laughed and waved back, sharing for a few moments the universal hilarity that is finding yourself absolutely drenched in a warm summer storm.
We slopped on home, through streets that were now rivers, and up our muddy little road.
Day 3 found us heading out again, tempting fate, on our rusty hipster bikes. We thought, surely after replacing the tubes and having 2 days of bad luck, we would be spared a third day of trial.
We hadnt even ridden 1km past Angkor Wat , when Lua’s back tyre started deflating. I could have quickly stopped at the same tyre place as the day before, as we had just passed it, but being me – I said it’ll last the trip.
At Bayon Temple, I went looking for a banana lady. I found one. I pointed at Lua’s tyre. She pointed back down the road we had just come along.
It seemed we would have to go all the way back to the same place.
Trudging, sweaty and thirsty, and extremely hot and annoyed, we wheeled the bikes in the direction we had just come. But not 5mins later, we stumbled on another chicken overrun, bike repair shed. Thank-you banana ladies of Cambodia!
After a small hole was fixed in Lua’s tube, I warned her that if she were to pop another tyre again this trip I would leave her to walk home.
Surprisingly (Praise be to Buddha and all of the Hindu Gods of the temples) the rest of the day went without anymore tyre incidents, and only a mild storm related incident.
Our clothes are now drying, and I’m doing research to find out if there are any tyre repair places out near the temples we are visiting tomorrow.
Purpose-built single track.
Over 2,000m cumulative descent.
These words stood out on the glossy pamphlet of the Mt Buller mountain biking trails map, as Kirren drove us back down the steep and winding road from Mt Buller over a year ago. We had just finished a day of mountain biking around the Mt Buller trails – my first real day of mountain biking – and I’d grabbed the pamphlet while returning my hired bike to the shop.
I grinned into the blinding sunset over the Victorian snowy mountains and made kirren promise we would come back here one day.
Fast forward a year and a bit later, past all the tantrums and struggles of actually learning how to mountain bike, and Kirren and I are making our way down to Mt Buller again. This time to tackle the Australian Alpine Epic.
I had just returned from 6 glorious weeks of hiking through New Zealand, and was fit as a fiddle – ready to tackle the 40kms and 1000+m of elevation gain.
Kirren, on the other hand, was still recovering from a rather terrible bout of pneumonia.
Like the wonderful girlfriend I am, I made him go anyway.
As a present, kirren and his wallet* hire me out a shiny dual suspension bike that fits me like a glove, instead of the crappy hard tail $200 too big bike I’ve been wrestling around the smooth ACT trails.
After a delay in the getting out of bed, and a kerfuffle with petrol, we are off on the trail for a bright and early start at the crack of mid-morning.
Things are going well. Life is good. Julie (my new name for the dual suspension wonder beast below me) is good. Sun is good. Tralallalaa.
Kirrens lungs are even behaving reasonably, and it doesn’t cause excruciating amounts of pain for him to breath in.
Then, about, oh, 5kms in to the 40km ordeal, my medically trained eyes zero in on the greatest hernia I’ve seen in 6 months.
Except its on the side of a bike tyre.
And that bike tyre is kirrens.
We hummmm and ermmmm and uhhmmm for a few precious time wasting minutes.
The inner tube is intact, but it won’t stay that way long. Should we go back?
Just like with Kirrens pneumonia, I refuse to let smell medical speedhumps ruin my dream.
We end up risking it, and with the help of my 8 weeks of standing bored around the operating theatre at Armidale Hospital watching hernia repair after hernia repair, I get to work.
I scrub in, put my surgical gloves, mask and gown on, and begin the delicate operation I have seen a thousand times.
Except I use medical tape, a $5 note and some super glue instead of sutures and hernia mesh.
And my patient didn’t get time to recover, because we are off pedaling hard to try and make up for lost time.
If you’ve ever done the Epic you’ll know you get to this certain point in the ride, where you’re not even 1/4 of the way through and its already taking way longer than you thought and your lungs are about to explode and you actually just want to die and nothing can be worth this absolutely shitty grovel.
Kirren and I were literally ready to give up. His lungs were aching and he was coughing and spluttering and looked rather ill (good work dr Mowgli) and I just hate uphill mountain biking. Then, suddenly, we were at the top.
It’s amazing how quickly you forget the sufferfest when you start going downhill. Then there was just a little more uphill to go, but by that stage I’d forgotten all about how much I hate uphill because the best part of the Epic was coming up.
10+km of sweet single track whipped me down the mountain and I was flying.
I flew past alpine bush, past subalpine ferns, past rocky bits in between. I Flew past burms and over jumps and down drops and along logs and just kept flying.
My knees were weak, my quads screamed, but I kept flying.
Then all too soon (not soon enough! My thighs yelled) we were at the bottom, and racing the clock up the river to the last shuttle bus of the day.
As we retraced our footsteps from a year before, I grinned into the blinding sunset over the Victorian snowy mountains. I made kirren promise to take me back (and his wallet to buy me a dual suspension bike).
I am sensationally terrible at planning things.
I love to dream about, write lists about, and even checklists about future adventures.
But actual nitty-gritty well-thought out plans? Nope.
Even though this method of living my life rarely pays out, and it is always a lot more trouble than it is worth, do you think I ever learn? Noope.
So, when I woke up one morning in the boot-turned-Mowgli-sized-bed of my tiny maroon car to the first cloudy grey sky I had seen on my multi-week trip, do you think I stopped for a moment and thought “huh, that’s odd. Maybe the weather is changing. I should check a forecast…”?
Of course I thought that.
Do you think I actually checked the forecast?
I just packed up my little camp, drove to the base of Mt Tibrogargan in the Glasshouse Mountains, and said “she’ll be right.”
Mt Tibrogargan is one of the more adventurous ‘hikes’ in the Glasshouse mountains area, with the majority of its 364m being more rock scrambling and climbing than hiking. There are plenty of opportunities to pretend you are really climbing while scrambling up the rocks just by holding on to some slopey polished handholds and turning to view the vertigo below.
I was the only one on the top of the mountain when I arrived, and I took a few minutes to enjoy the silence and the view down the way I had come, not noticing the rainstorm bulleting towards me from the coast on the other side of the mountain.
It was too late by the time I walked over to view the other side, and the rainstorm was touching the edges of the mountain.
I wasn’t looking forward to the down-climb from the mountain – I hate down-climbing at the best of times. Even in dry weather with ropes on and friends all around you to yell encouraging things at you and, in the event of your death, go home and tell your loved ones what befell you.
As I tried to move as quickly as I could down the rock scrambling surface – but not too quickly that I might slip and plummet to my death – I became acutely aware of my predicament. If my increasingly numb and wet fingers slipped on the polished slimy rock, there would be no rope to catch me and no friends to put a plaque up in my honor at the bottom of the mountain reading “Here lies the body of Tess, who died doing what she loved to hate the most: down-climbing slippery rocks in the rain.”
I then spent the rest of the slippery, cold and deceptively easy down-scramble verbally abusing myself out loud for not checking the weather, for never checking the weather, and for any future times that I don’t check the weather.
Needless to say, I made it back to the car, made myself a cup of tea out of my boot and vowed to always check the weather forecast.
That promise lasted nearly 24 hours.