Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reflections #4: Deadfalls

Much of the Alps has been burnt by either the 2003 or the 2006 bushfires. This is a major cause of the problems with track overgrowth. Wherever the canopy has been cleared by fires, dense saplings spring up covering every available inch of ground. The other problem is dead trees. Many of these have blown down and block the track until Parks can get to them with a chainsaw. If they can get to them. But worse still are those still standing.

I had just refilled my pack from my drop on the Jamieson-Licola Road. I was walking along Middle Road below Mt Skene, a relatively level, narrow 4wd track. The fog had moved in but there was no perceptible wind. Not a zephyr. Out of the stillness I heard a loud 'crrrraaaaacccckkkk' then a loud 'crash-kaboom'. I turned and watched as the tree fell across the road not 20 metres behind me, where I had just passed.

I looked at all the foreboding ashen grey dead trees that lined the upper bank and overhung the road I was on. In the eerie fog they looked ominous and all looked ready to fall. Not 20 minutes later I was stopped by another crack. This time it was ear-piercing and resonated through the forest. There was a long pause as the 'craaaaaaccccck' echoed before a massive 'KAAABBBOOOOMMMM!' followed. All the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I couldn't tell how far away that was but I felt the ground shake with the impact.

That old riddle about 'if a tree falls in the forest and no-one hears it does it make a sound?' came to mind. Bloody oath it makes a sound!

Reflections #3: That Incident

It was 1:50am. I know that because I was startled out of a semi-sleeping stupor to the sound of engines. One to be precise. Must be a 4wd, nothing else would get in here. Lights flashed across my tent and swept around the clearing below me. My tent was perched amongst the trees on a bench above the main clearing. Again the bright white light sweeps across me, turning night into day. I jump up, excited at the thought that someone has come to rescue me from my misery. The sudden sleep induced euphoria is soon swept aside by the realisation that they are not here for me. I am not in any distress. Extremely uncomfortable with the tent leaking on me but certainly not in any need of rescue. Then the harsh reality sinks in: at 1:50 in the morning on a rough 4wd track deep in the mountains they can be up to no good. So my initial urge to stick my head out and wave has gone full circle and now I hunker down low in my small tent, feeling very vulnerable. I curse the reflective guy ropes. The engine roars and they circle the clearing. Well the lights all turn away from me. Good, they are going. They completed the 360 degrees and then trained all lights on me! Oh great, target practice time. I lie with my heart beating so loud that my ears throb. The engine roars again and they are gone. For good I hope.

I lie for a long time listening to the wind in the trees and the rain splattering on the tent not inches above me sending a mist of spray each time. Patchy sleep overwhelms me again.

Reflections #2: Snakes galore

On the first afternoon I was moving pretty fast with the full pack (not trail running fast but hiking fast). I startled a brown snake and he scurried off. He was a good 4ft and I came upon him suddenly so it gave me a bit of a fright. My radar was switched on now, just as well as it turned out.

Not long after I came around a corner and right in front of me a huge black shiny snake was crossing the path. I stopped suddenly and he turned and came towards me. His body was as thick as my wrist. He was glossy black and his head was big and slightly flattened like a cobra. His tail was stunted and not the usual taper. The afternoon sun shone on his shiny scales and glinted in his menacing eyes. I took a step back as he started towards me. And then another. He stopped and I swear he was eyeballing me. His forked tongue flickered and his unblinking gaze gave the appearance of trying to mesmerize me. I fumbled for my camera. It wouldn't work. I dug out my phone, not taking my eyes off him. Likewise he was unflinching and not taking his eyes off me. I turned my phone on and still the standoff continued. I held it up and took a pic. The electronic shutter noise startled him and he arced up towards me hissing and I backpedaled rapidly. (I seem to have lost the shot in the process!) He settled but still did not move away. I picked up a branch as big as him and threw it between us. It landed in front of him with a thud and he still didn't flinch. Such bluff and bravado was clearly being backed up by intent. There was no way around. And then as I stood wondering what to do he slowly turned, happy that he had made the point that this was his turf, and slid off the track.

Not half an hour later I came around a corner and nearly stepped on a tiger snake slithering in the same direction. He stopped as suddenly as me. He was stretched out and probably as long as the last one but not nearly as thick. And again I was stuck but at least this one wasn't threatening. Again I threw a stick nearby but no movement. Then he decided to move but continued along the track at his own pace. I followed at a distance until finally he too turned and slid off.

Later that day as I was jogging to make camp in daylight I came very close to putting my foot down on a small grass snake. And the next afternoon as I trotted down the track to the Jamieson-Licola Rd once again I came very close to putting my foot down on a yellow-belly black snake. I was carrying 2x10cm compression bandages but out there a bite from anyone of them (except the grass snake) could have been fatal. Apparently the big black one was a blue-bellied black snake and I still get a chill when I think of the encounter.

Reflections #1: Black River revisited

After spending ages first trying to find the route out of the river and then many hours fighting our way up to Mt Shillinghaw against failing light in 2009/10, I dreaded the Black River section. Especially alone, with no moral support. Even the name was ominous: the “Black River”. And with the repeated flooding throughout Victoria over the summer I was concerned about how deep and fast it might be flowing.

I reached the river at 10:30am after a knee smashing descent down a little used 4wd track. I treated 3 bottles of water. I still had over a litre on me. I budgeted on about 4 hours to the top where I had a litre of water and a coke stashed for the road bash to my full food/water drop on the Jamieson-Licola Rd. I had used up all that water by the time I emerged.

10:45 and I was wading downstream. Forget the guidebook that talks of tracks along the riverbanks and crossing back and forth. The jungle has reclaimed that track and the river is your best bet. It was cool and clear but became inky black where the undercurrents swirled into deeper pools as it wound its way around corners and over and under logs. I didn’t remember going so far downstream. I ducked under a couple of logs and around a few corners. My thighs were wet but no deeper thank goodness. Then rounding a bend the familiar big log high above the water reaching horizontally from one bank to the other. I scrambled up the left hand bank. It was fiddly but I got onto the log and walked out into the middle.

I put some orange flagging tape out for Dave who was coming through in a couple of weeks time. Then climbed down onto the right hand bank and up into the scrub. There was no track. There were no markers. I was glad I had been here before. I knew I had to angle across to my left and climb onto that spur in front of me. Still no track. But as I started up the narrow spur I saw the remnants of a burnt diamond marker on a tree. Then it got interesting.

It was worse than last year. Way worse than I remembered. Even with the added flavouring of 12 months of nightmares about it. The same12 months of extra vigorous growth made it worse. I actually saw another burnt off marker and found a couple of short sections of track but otherwise it was just find the least resistance. And stay on the spur. Sometimes I was cocooned and caught in vines and branches and couldn't move at all. And it was hot. There was no air. No wind. The branches would snag on my pack or wrap around me and I would have to fight to move forward. It was claustrophobic. And I was climbing the whole time. But stay on the spur. And keeping fighting through the growth or climbing over the burnt logs.

When I finally got to the knoll where I was supposed to turn right (north-east) all I could see was a sheer drop into thick bush. Last time we had taken that, following the gps and ended up in thick impenetrable bush. After hours of bush-bashing I was keen to try and avoid more of the same. So I kept going across the knoll along the right hand edge hoping to pick up the trail leaving the knoll. I checked the gps frequently. I should have crossed the trail. Nothing. Just dense bush. Eventually I started dropping off the back of the knoll and realized so came back onto it. My heart sank. I would have to just make my way down into the saddle before climbing up to Mt Shillinghaw as best I could.

I lined up parallel to the trail based on the gps plot. It was terrible, sliding where it was open and strangled where it wasn't. I went back and forth hoping to pick up the track or just trying to find the least dense path. When I finally bottomed out in the saddle it was impenetrable and I couldn't see a thing. Fck! I went back and forth trying to find a way through. I gave up and started just angling across to where I thought the trail should be again based on the gps. I got into a little clear space. Out of the blue a footpad appeared coming across my path from the left. Which surprised me as I thought it should be on my right still. But I was so excited to see it I just angled slightly to follow it. I started climbing straight away. Oh yes, I was already climbing Mt Shill. I wanted to celebrate but something told me not to be cocky until I reached clear ground again. Then I hit another wall of bush. Bugger. I looked down at the gps to get a heading and WTF? I was headed back up to the knoll! Angling onto the trail had taken me back the way I had come. I couldn't believe this so checked the compass and map and sure enough I was going the wrong way. In the dense undergrowth I had worked around in a semicircle until I hit that path. I was shattered. I turned around, now totally unconfident with where I was going and went back across the saddle, again hitting a blank wall. I rechecked my compass and gps and just plowed on following the heading.

It was so hard to make headway. I was hot, tired, frustrated and disappointed. But above all else I was calm and focused on just getting through there. There was this overwhelming understanding that I had to just keep going until I was out, no matter how hard it got. There was no option of giving up. There was no other way out.

Slowly I started climbing again and eventually I hit the old overgrown vehicle track and just kept bashing until I saw the ribbon I had put out last week when I hiked in from the food drop on the road. Now I was happy. And relieved. I stamped my poles into the ground in a little celebratory exclamation! I had beaten the Black River. I thought then that I would get to Tharwa for sure.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Defeated and disappointed but a little wiser and dryer

How good is hindsight. Because the decision to go it alone meant a change in approach I bought a new light-weight tarptent suitable for one man to replace my tried and tested 2.5 man version. Time pressure dictated that I had time to practice pitching and get the seam-sealing done but never a proper field test. I will describe in some more detail the rest of my adventure later on and provide gear and track insights for those keen to follow but just to explain my decision now.

On the third afternoon I was pretty much on target. Just reloaded at my Jamieson-Licola Rd drop barrel. A misty fog had rolled in and it was getting late so I opted for the low road around Mt Skene. Then the rain started. Drizzle at first. But gradually stronger and like the frog in the boiling water I was soaked through before I realised. No problem, I carried a dry set of sleeping clothes. I made it to Rumpf Saddle and found a cosy site on a bench amongst some small trees above the clearing. I set up the tent quickly and stripped and crawled inside and put on warm, dry clothes and made up my bed. No hot dinner tonight.

As the darkness took over I soon realised the rain pounding on the tent was coming through. To my horror with every heavy drop a misty spray was being transmitted. I mopped the moisture with my small cloth repeatedly but it was going to be a long, sleepless night. As soon as I would doze off the spray on my face would wake me again. My down sleeping bag stood up well with it's lightly water-resistant shell but by morning it was damp through and my sleeping mat was soaked. I packed up my bedding and night clothes to avoid more exposure to the water and put on my wet socks and rain pants and jacket and wrapped myself in my space blanket to ride out the day of rain.

Another night of similar but less heavy rain and my spirit was broken. Decision time. I could take an uncomfortable situation and create a dangerous one by going deeper and higher into the mountains with wet and dodgy gear. Or I could hike out to the nearest town and give up. Not ever wanting to put myself in a situation that forced others to come rescue me if I could avoid it, I hiked the 43kms to Licola and got a ride home.

Sitting in the sun this morning I wondered, as we always do when we quit before the end, if my decision was a little soft. Then I remembered what the conditions were like and how much worse they can get and how dangerous it could be wet and exposed to the elements. In hindsight my error lay in trusting an untried piece of critical equipment. With a dry tent I would still be out there. A day slower but still going. Lesson learned. The hard way. I still got to spend 5 days out in the mountains. I saw some spectacular country, awesome snakes, and climbed some killer hills. I conquered the dreaded Black River that has given me nightmares since the last time. And I came home safe.

I have sent Dave Byrnes my best wishes and some tips on the trail. I will watch his progress eagerly. Beau was still going as of yesterday and aiming for Falls Creek Friday night. A great effort and he now has the toughest trail ahead but will be hardened and should be ready for it.

Thanks to Phil for the line of communication and Dave McK for monitoring the safety watch and my wife for supporting my effort and driving all over the country to drop me off and collect me.

Friday, March 11, 2011

AAWT 2-0 Mellum

Well with regret Andy has pulled the pin on his solo unsupported attempt.
Combination of bad weather and a crap tent, wet clothes and sleeping bag his undoing. He is now 'walking 40km with tail between his legs to Licola'

Bummer mate, next time we do it together with crew and beat it!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Slow progress

Wet and Cold

Latest report:

Andy made it in and out of Black River after a big day, lots of tricky navigation and long hours on his feet. Weather turned at Licola Rd camp and after a very sleepless wet night (tent didn't cope too well) he decided to push on to Rumpf Saddle before bunkering down to wait out the weather. Fear of getting spare (dry) clothing and sleeping bag wet before he sets off into the Wilderness Area(Crosscut Saw etc) for 4 days before his next drop at Hotham made the decision easy, that and only 10-15m visibilty.

Hopefully tomorrow will bring better conditions so he can forge on.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On route to Black River

Latest from Whippet:

Doing it tough with weight, might not make it to river tonight, otherwise ok.
Picture at Mt Easton. 'brutal, overcast but tough day.

Edit: 'Stopped at Fiddlers Green, fresh start tomorrow'.

Go Champ!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Day 1 Update

Whippet has reached the Baw Baws, saw some track workers out there.
50kms in 11.5hrs. Going well...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ready to go

Startline at Walhalla

Drops are done!

Whippet has finished his drops and is flying back to Melbourne today in readiness for a start tomorrow morning. Whilst out there he bumped into Beau's crew waiting for him at Kiandra.
He is ready to go!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Nearly packed, time for drops

The never-ending sorting-packing-shuffling is nearly complete. I have food and supplies for 22 days. I hope not to need that much but I learnt last time not to underestimate and it is miserable out there if you are really hungry. Really miserable. The logistical changes from a crewed traverse to an unsupported one are immense. I have gone over the topos, the guidebook, Karl's blog (and notes he sent last time), feedback from other runners and several other recorded traverses many times trying to anticipate how long each section will take, how much I will need, where I can camp and most importantly, where I might find water. I have bagged up each days food (700g/day) with a stash of treats at each drop barrel to top up the calories. My pack has come in heavier than I wanted with a base weight of 7.7kg before food and water are added but I also hate being cold so have a full set of dry thermals/clothes to change into each night. And I have gone with a slightly heavier but more robust Aarn pack that will allow me to move more freely and reduce back strain because of the balance pockets at the front. And I am expecting the blackberries to be rampant so the heavier material might pay off. I can still run with the pack up to 12kgs but it becomes too much after that.
Turns out I can't get my silly little phone to send pics to the blog so will be relying on others to forward those on.
I will set off tomorrow driving to Canberra via the mountains to deposit the drop barrels. I have to admit that the excitement is being drowned out by a healthy dose of fear as the start looms so close. I think having seen the worst last year is not helping as I now know what I am in for until I reach the clearer ground after the first week. But with fear comes respect and this is a trail and a course that cannot be approached without that. I have trained hard. Done my homework. Now I will see if I am up for the challenge.