This weekend was one that I’d thought might not actually happen, for a few reasons. I’d even thought about not going, which is almost unheard of. But a particularly unique and generous woman changed all that, and so here I am, lying in my tent which is about the equivalent of an ice cave.
There’s crystals glittering on the walls and roof in the light of my head torch as I turn it on, and everything else has a layer sprinkled over it. My wet boots and socks are frozen solid, despite them being inside. I later found out that my lunch (egg and avocado) was also frozen! It’s hardly a wonder that I’m awake and typing this on my phone to pass the time at some ungodly hour!
This was another of those set aside three day weekends, with no particular destination. The weather chose for us, coupled with the fact that the Lake St Clair ferry doesn’t run according to its usual schedule in winter and neither of us wanted to pay $240 one way. So, with a desire to camp up high (it had been a while), we settled on Cathedral: the forecast was good, cold but hopefully not too wet, not too windy, and maybe a bit of cloud on the walk out.
After the usual night’s work, and an accidental nap before meeting up, we set off, Graham kindly driving again. The 4+ hour drive flew by as we talked about important things, joked about less important things, and enjoyed thin bands of mist, shadowy trees, and early morning light, and later clear blue skies and the happy hope that the weather would hold.
We got to the end of the road, found the makeshift car park and got our gear ready. Then, neither of us having been before, made the assumption that the old logging road that seemed to head off in the direction we wanted was indeed the way to go. Yep, it was, but it was a gentle reminder not to be too complacent when walking with people you trust. There is no substitute for research and knowing where you’re going, which we were to learn the slightly more interesting way!
Off we trundled, up the road, which quickly turned into a single file walking track through mossy green forest. Quite nice walking really. The suspension bridge was just a bit more fun than the usual ones, because there was no sign that limited the load to one person only. That meant a little bit of bouncing ;).. until the bridge made some funny noises! A little further in and Graham was signing the book, I was taking off thermals – it was a lot warmer than I’d anticipated! There was one party ahead of us, but not going to Cathedral.
More forest, blackwood trees, myrtles, and a whole lot more… the vegetation changed as we gained height. I took a moment to breath in the smells, listen to the birds (mostly rosellas), run a hand over ferns. Back home, and ready to enjoy a weekend with nature. Another log bridge, and then we were into snow.. light, and on and off, but definitely a feature now!! It made light pattering sounds as it dropped off branches and onto the ground.
Finally on top of the ridge, we looked down at a steep descent towards Chapter Lake, and carefully picked a way down, aware of how slippery things were. Glimpses of patterned water tempted, but logical reasoning said that if there was a good view point there’d likely be a decent pad out to the water’s edge, and we didn’t come across one, so we figured there wasn’t one.
A little further around we happened across the campsite, and the cameras came out to photograph a pandani in front of our first view of Grail Falls. Not knowing what lay ahead, we took another pad out to a spot further along the river that runs from the falls into Chapter Lake. Pressed back against scrub, and trying not to get wet feet, the cameras were out again.
That did have us laughing a very short while later when we popped out onto the perfect viewing platform, that gave a complete view of the falls. It was complete with a tripod and other bits and pieces of gear that the two guys ahead of us had left in place while they went off and explored. We took more time for photos, and I was glad not to have to rush off.
Silver grey skeletons with their many hands and fingers stood guard, like sentinels. The roar of cascading water, powerful and yet peaceful, has a similar effect on me as the sound of the ocean. Though I had always thought of climbing Cathedral in summer, so as to go swimming in the tarns, I was kind of glad that we’d chosen to go now, when the falls had a decent amount of water. Little did I know what else lay in wait for us!
We explored a little further along the track, found some icicles, then decided that we must be heading along the track to Rogoona, and turned back, deciding not to consult Chapman’s notes (which Graham did have with him) and go with the Abels instead. That resulted in a backtrack, some searching around, and finally settling on a crossing of the river just before Chapter Lake, on the right of the falls. Wet, COLD, feet.. and then scrub and no sign of a track.
Oh well.. a bit of push and we were into the myrtle forest, as promised. Still not much of a track to be found, but we happened across the bottom of the falls, where the sound was rather thunderous and had me smiling. More photos, and a play with shutter speed for me. Then up something looked kind of pad like and took us out onto rock platforms above the falls, with a cairn or two. Finally, some reassurance that we were ‘on track’. Oh, how wrong you can be!
The two guys (and their dog!) had returned to their tripod and gear below. The water still had us mesermized, as did the folded rock and trees, and it was a little while before we thought about where we were going from there. Instinct told me to cross the flow of water, and continue up the relatively open looking rock on the other side, but there was no mention of that in the Abels. So we stayed on the right hand side, and pushed and climbed our way up through myrtles and rock. It wasn’t particularly difficult, nor was it easy, but it was time consuming, and irritatingly not as expected. It niggled, but not enough to question. Eventually we broke out, and in light of the directions to ‘fan out’ so as not to cause a pad to form, we weren’t expecting one.
Instead we kind of beelined towards the northern side of Tent Tarn. Again, progress was slower than anticipated. Snow ranged from nothing to mid-shin/knee deep (for me, the ‘short arse’), and seemed particularly thick round the patches of scrub we descended into and had to then climb back out of. The minor undulations seemed innocent, but felt anything but! Graham spotted a wombat, and later we disturbed a possum (a bit weird to see one out in the snow in daylight!). Progress was further hampered by the desire, verging on need, to capture some of the beauty of the many small frozen or semi frozen tarns we walked by, partially reflecting the clear blue of the sky, lined with green pines and colourful rock, under the watchful eye of Rogoona.
You couldn’t have more perfect walking conditions in winter, I don’t think, and the number of times we made comments to that effect was indicative of our amazement and sheer delight. By mid afternoon though the light was changing, we still had a way to go, so after Graham took an unintended mid-thigh dip in a snowed over water hole/creek we put our heads down and upped the pace. The night’s work was catching up, so I stopped looking at things I wanted to photograph, and tried just to keep up and not fall prey to too many of the hundreds of trip hazards lying in wait under the innocent soft white blanket of snow.
As the sun laid golden tips on the pines we rounded the northwest end of Tent Tarn, looking for somewhere sheltered and not too boggy to pitch tents. I had my own third criteria, if possible: little to no snow on the ground. Graham found a spot he was fairly happy with, and we dropped packs, but both continued to have a bit of a wander. I was too tired to go far, and quite fancied a spot under two pines, on a bed of low coral ferns, that only had a light sprinkling of snow. When Graham returned from his search, I asked him what he thought, and he gave his approval.
It was all about speed and comfort now. Ok, not quite.. first a photo of the last bit of light over a frozen tarn with what might have been Twin Spires behind (definitely more important!). Tent up. Get in. Wet gear off. Warm gear on. Thermal top and bottoms, two synthetic insulation layers and a downie, beanie and gloves, socks. Sorted. A lie back for a moment or two just to be, and to wonder whether I’ll get out of having to cook and eat dinner, I’d much rather just sleep.. I don’t like my chances though!
Sure enough, when I reappear, it’s soon apparent that it’s going to be easier to cook and eat dinner than have Graham to reckon with. But first, there’s the minor issue of frozen toes to attend to. I knew mine weren’t too happy, and I asked Graham how his were, aware that he’d taken the more recent dip in freezing water. I was a little concerned to hear they were still numb too, and figured now was as good as time as any to test out some hand warmers (thanks John and Wendy!). I was a little dismayed to read they took 15-30 minutes to activate, but figured it’d have to do.
Funnily, while I was shaking hand warmers in my tent to activate them, Graham, who knows how cold I get especially when tired, was pulling out two reusable gel packs for me/my feet! So we laughed as we exchanged warmers, chattered away as we thawed out, and eventually got around to cooking dinner. Despite feeling too tired to eat, warm soup followed by noodles, then custard and strawberries, and (of course) chocolate, went down relatively easily. A brief peek at the stars, too cold for a proper gaze, too tired to even write any notes.. it was time to sleep and I was out like a light.
It was no warmer in the morning, but the hand warmers I’d given Graham were still going (I’d stolen them back after they got too hot for him – a good thing, I figure). I have to say I was pretty (ok, VERY) impressed. Definitely a few of them going in the first aid kit. I didn’t particularly want to take them out of my socks, but the light was changing, the sun was on its way up, and no amount of cold was going to stop me from getting out to see it!
Frozen boots (oh yep!), camera, and off to find a nice spot for a view. Instinctively we headed eastish, and found a slight rise that gave a nice view out to Rogoona and the Walls of Jerusalem. Looking back, the tip of the Twin Spires had turned a bright, almost violent, orange. The only bit of colour in a greyscale snowscape.
Everything was crisp, and except for our footprints, new and untouched. And then the first kiss of light as the sun rose behind the Walls. As the light softened, then warmed, the frost that coated everything started to glitter, and the world seemed almost magical. I was torn between just standing and watching, and trying to capture even just a tiny part of it while it lasted. A wallaby had been out too, after water, and I wondered if it had had any luck with the frozen tarn.
It’s probably a good thing sunrises don’t last any longer than they do, or I’d have struggled to leave. As it was, after returning to our tents for breakfast, the menial task of filling up water bottles for the day turned into another photo taking session (I’m still not sure how I got lumped with that task for the both of us, while Graham took photos).
It was 10am by the time we actually started to head for the hills, but I know I wasn’t particularly fussed. Snow and frozen water has a way of bringing the beauty of a place to your feet, and there is less of a pressing need to go out and find it in the views.
That’s not to say we weren’t set on climbing mountains though! We were, and Graham set out at as decent a pace as the snow and scrub would allow. Reading over a trip report back at home I later discovered that apparently there’s a decent pad up the ridge, but we were clueless, and made a rough beeline through the scrub. Higher up it was lower and more sparse, and theoretically progress was quicker. But of course that meant we found other things to slow us down: frozen icicles, the view back to Chalice Lake and Rogoona, the hint of views out to Ida and Olympus, snow drift patterns, colourful lichen, shadows.. and maybe.. just maybe the odd snowball fight.
And then we popped round the side of a small bump we had to climb before Cathedral, and what we had thought had been awesome views, just became a whole lot better. Blue snow dusted mountains lay before us along the horizon, from Olympus on the left all the way through to Cradle. Geryon South in particular stole my attention, but Ossa and Pelion West were also impressive. It was hard not to laugh, which was kept in check only by a very strong feeling of gratefulness.
It was hard to take it all in at once, actually. But slowly, with plenty of just standing and looking, some photographing, and a bit of talking, it started to sink in. And we walked the last 800m to Cathedral. I missed the rosella that had been sitting on top and flew away with a sqwark when we approached, probably too preoccupied thinking about this being the mountain that would take me over the ‘halfway’ point on the peak baggers list, and all the other mountains that had been before.
As would be the case with the other peaks on this trip, Cathedral was less of a ‘mountain’ and more of a view point and an experience, and there was nothing to do but soak it up. The drop straight down, the expanse of forest between us and the Overland track/Du Cane mountains, glimpses of huts, the sun and snow and kind of cool breeze. There was a very decent sized rock column just past the summit, that required a short leap across a chasm, and so begged to be stood on for photos too.
We did eventually decide we should be moving on to Twin Spires, and dropped back the way we’d come, pausing at more frozen tarns with views out towards Ossa and Pelion West, thinking it’d be a nice place to camp in summer. The going was open and relatively easy now, it was just the views slowing us down.
40 minutes later and we were on the northern summit, once again enjoying the views. This time we had a wedgie, spotted by Graham, to entertain us. Just when you thought things couldn’t get much better…
It was probably about here, at 1pm, that Graham tentatively mentioned that we might not get all the way out to Dean’s Bluff. I’d already thought that myself, just hadn’t brought it up, but the almost hesitant way he spoke had me smiling. He knows all too well that I get rather disappointed at not getting to places I think we should be able to make on a walk, he was there for the three big ones: Mt Jerusalem (my first), Jim Brown (250m off), and Shaula (middle of the Western Arthur range). But the last few months or so things have changed, and on this particular day I was enjoying just being, as much or more than needing to climb peaks, and it honestly didn’t raise even the smallest niggle. I’m not sure whether he believed my attempt at reassurance that really, it was ok.
But we had time for Bishop Peak, and so we wove our way down the descent. I might just have been a bit naughty, realising that being behind gave me the higher ground as well as the element of surprise, and therefore a perfect advantage for another snowball fight. I was a little bit kind though.. allowing Graham the time to zip his camera case shut this time (having landed a snowball in it last time, which might have annoyed him more than just a little bit, though he tried not to show it)..
Some decent shots, a lot of laughter, and eventually an unspoken but accepted truce, and on we went. Down and back up the other side, to a point that didn’t seem like much of a summit, but did have a cairn if you looked closely enough.
The views were pretty similar, just a slightly different perspective, but the real treat was in TWO wedgies. We both stopped in our tracks, on our respective bits of rock, and watched as they glided up and out over Convent Hill. Then up, and up, towards the sun, dancing together. I could have stood there for hours! As it was, I’ve no idea how long the moment was.. it just was. And it was awesome.
On the way back the light was just starting to get nice, and with a little extra time given we weren’t going out to Dean’s Bluff, we did enjoy some more photos of snow drift ridge thingies, frozen tarns, and trees. It looks like there’d be more lovely camping up that way too. It was a bit of a pity we couldn’t stay for sunset, but already frozen toes would have made that very uncomfortable, if not dangerous.
Back at the tarn after finally having some luck with an open lead, and we were taken by the evening sun on grass stalks in the water, reflections and pines. It seemed that the day had been less about peaks and very much more about just enjoying and capturing moments of time.
We finished it off cooking dinner while looking at stars, warming toes, and chatting. It was even colder than the night before, and retiring to my tent wasn’t much fun. And so I watched as the roof and sides grew ice crystals, and everything on the floor developed a frost.
That resulted in not so much sleep and a bit of note writing, and it was only 6 or 7 that I started to feel slightly warm again, and like I could get some sleep. But when the sun started to rise, what started out as a challenge of ‘how many photos can I take from inside the tent’, turned into ‘how far can I walk in thongs and socks without getting wet feet, and will my camera battery last’ (I was already taking it in and out, warming it up every time it died just to get a few more photos out of it).
Turns out you can walk a fair way if you stick to the patches where the coral heath sticks above the snow (not always possible).. and that the Olympus OM-Ds will keep going for a bit if you keep the battery warm. It doesn’t help when you go resting it on a partly frozen tarn to take photos of frozen stalks in front of the rising sun.. but I just couldn’t resist! It also doesn’t do good for your own body temperature to be lying in the snow while doing so!!
A warm breakfast while sitting in my sleeping bag helped warm me back up, but that changed pretty fast when it came time to pack up. I’ve never had a problem before, but when I put my frozen boots on (and that took some doing, they were like metal) my feet froze, instead of warming my boots up. They were colder than they’ve ever been, hurt to stand on, and were making me feel really rather nauseous. I had trouble concentrating on what I was doing, and I think Graham was even ready to go before I was (usually I’m one of the first to be packed).
As a result, we didn’t muck around, and Graham made the wise decision to stick closer to the edge of Chalice Lake on the way out. That meant he walked right onto the cairned pad that leads all the way to Grail Falls. We did kick ourselves for being such dopes, double checked the Abels description and ascertained that we’d interpreted it correctly, but then decided that despite the fact that we could have avoided getting wet feet on day 1, we wouldn’t have seen all the frozen tarns that we did, and that it was kind of worth it.
After very easy walking along the cairned pad we eventually arrived back at the top of the falls, and then zig-zagged our way down the south/eastern side, deciding to take ‘a quick look’ down a pad we thought might lead to the bottom of the falls.. hmmm, we don’t do quick too well sometimes! It was probably just as well my camera was well and truly dead by now, and my point and shoot just not up to the job, or we might have taken even longer! The falls were still thundering, water falling so heavily it propelled jets of mist out horizontally, which then swirled around in the wind before gradually descending.
But we did keep moving, eventually, wanting to be back at a decent time. We discovered we had been on the right track, gave ourselves another kick, then decided we might as well enjoy the falls for a little longer while we ate (in my case, frozen) lunches. And so we sat with feet dangling over the edge of the ‘viewing platform’, listening to the sound of water falling.
And then it was just a bit of down to go, through the forest. Plenty of time to reflect on the weekend, the sheer beauty of the place and the perfect conditions, and how lucky I am to be able to experience it all. I wonder how long for.. who knows? I hope until I’m old…
All up: 28.7km, 1500m ascent.