Frigid… just as we like it

Photo: Taking a walk on the frozen waters of Twilight Tarn.

This is the story of three days we spent in Tasmania’s winter mountains quite some time ago.

FRIGID. Yes, that’s the word I’m after. Frigid. Cold.

But that wasn’t yet as we swing packs laden with three day’s food and supplies onto our backs in the Lake Dobson car park. But frigid it will become.

My companions are a mixed lot. There is Adrian, tall, wavy blond hair and beard of matching colour, strongly built and suggestive, to me anyway, of an Antarctic explorer. He is an adventure instructor with the National Fitness Council. I was on an earlier journey into Tasmania’s South West wilderness with him when we made a futile attempt to reach and climb Federation Peak. His wife was on that journey of a week or so. In appearance she is his opposite, petite and also blonde, like him perhaps in her fourties. She is one of those woman whose stature hides an internal toughness gained through years, maybe decades, of rough travel on foot in wild places.

Another of those making their way through the dripping foliage of Pandani Forest as we climb towards the open, snow-cocvered ridge high above is also an outdoor eduator. Tall and lithe, Peter’s dark hair encloses a long face with a prominent nose and falls to his shoulders. Over our three days in the mountains I find he lacks Adrian’s patience and philosophical approach to mountain travel.

Personality is a charactristic often ignored in selecting partners for travel through the mountains. People usually consider stamina and experience for longer, more difficult journeys and ignore the psychological. Yet, the psychological is critically important when we rely on people to quietly accept the hardships and discomforts of rough travel and to be reliable if something goes wrong.

The other three are unknown to me. This is an all-male trip, though that is by accident rather than by exclusion, no women volunteering to join us although virtually all of the journays I have made in the bush and mountains included women. All are around my age, all have been bushwalking for some time and all of us are experienced in winter travel in the mountains.

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Building a snow wall to protect the tent from the winds so common in these mountains.

The ridge

Traversing the minor ups and downs of Tarn Shelf, passing the iced-over lakes gourged by glaciers gone these past 15 millennia, the snow never reaches more than mid-calf deep. We know it will be different once we reached the rige above, but that won’t be until later in the day. That, though, is just as we want it.

Once passed Twilight Tarn we take the ascending pass. It offers the easiest route to the ridge of Mt Field East. Come this way in summer and there is a clear track to follow. Now, in winter, it lies below snow that increases in depth the higher we climb.

Travel on foot through snow is slow and it is mid-afternoon by the time we gain the end of the ridge. Rock hopping where the boulders are exposed, we are aware that night comes early this time of year. We descend and find a relatively flat and more or less sheltered place among some trees and pitch our three tents.

These are the traditional tents favoured by Tasmanian bushwalkers. Made of fine-weave japara cotton and lacking floors, if well-pitched they keep out even torrential, wind-blown rain. We build a low snow wall around the windward side in case it becomes blowy during the night. Soon, the small, shellite-fueled bushwalkers stoves known locally as choofers on account of the noise they make are melting snow for our evening meal. As often in the mountins it is early to our sleeping bags, tying the tent door closed behind us.

Night comes

Mt Field East descends to K-Coll then climbs to the flat plateau of the Mt Field West ridge. This we follow after taking down the tents, making a hasty breakfast and loading our packs.

Again, it is that familiar action of slinging packs onto backs and getting into that familiar stride, as much as the deep snow and protrouding boulders allow. Soon, protesting legs adjust to the pace of our journey.

Again, the weather is kind. The sun shines from a clear sky and warms us as we traverse the cold landcape. This is the type of weather that walkers in the winter mountains love. The air is clear and the forested country far below is visible for many kilometres to where it falls to the valley.

Distant horizons, how they stimulate the imagination at the same time they bring calmness. Looking into the distance as we move I feel thankful for being here, in the grand Tasmanian mountainscape at this time of year in such good weather. That is an appreciation that comes from trips plagued by mist, close and dark skies, sleet and blizzard.

We stop early this afternoon after finding a more or less sheltered location with a deep snow bank. No tents tonight, something different. We set about carving compacted snow blocks and spiralling them into an igloo. Then we dig a snow cave into the snow bank, poking a hole in the top to allow fresh air circulation. I opt for the snow cave, having slept in igloos before, spread a roundsheet over the sleeping shelf and layout my sleeping bag so it lofts up ready for the night.

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Igloo building.

Night comes, and with it comes one of the mnost memorable nights I have spent in the mountains.

The fine, clear weather of day continued into the night. We light our choofer, make a simple meal then sit around talking, as is the practice on mountain journeys. We are doing this as one of the crew comes back into camp. Come look, he says, beckoning us. We follow. And we gaze on a scene we will remember.

Someone guesses the temperature has fallen to around minus ten centigrade, maybe lower. Cold, even for Tasmania’s winter mountains. The air is clear, crystal clear and still. The stars bright.

We stand gazing in silence. The closer, forested ridges below are dark in the night’s light. But the air is so still and clear that we can see far, far into the distance where the lights of farmhouses are clearly visible as diamond white pints of briliance.

This superb, distant view holds our attention. This, momemts like this, moments of being, is the best of mountain travel, the best of life in the moment, the best of life in the mountains.

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