Photo credit: Set in Stone Photography
As the trip approached I was hopeful of providing a review on a week of camping, climbing and exploring Blue Lake, in Mt Kosciuszko National Park. Nonetheless the trip that was presents an opportunity to discuss the issue of dealing with mother nature wreaking havoc with your plans. A situation all mountaineers face on a semi regular basis.
Blue Lake has never been high on my list of places to visit because after all, it’s ice climbing in Australia. However when the opportunity came up to join four other psyched individuals to visit this isolated winter crag I found myself jumping at the opportunity. Because well, it’s ice climbing… In Australia.
Our group of five was split into a team of three and a team of two. I was partnered with Chase Tucker from BaseCamp who has a similar level of mountaineering experience as myself. I had only met Chase once briefly before the trip to do a final gear check but got to know him better on the 18 hour drive down from Brisbane. We talked about all manner of things from climbing, our views on drugs, the existence of alien life, ghosts and what podcasts we enjoyed. Our philosophies in climbing and life appeared to align and our psych levels to check out what lay in our own backyard were high!
Having a tent mate and climbing partner you connect with is paramount to your wellbeing in the mountains. When things turn grim, the weather closes in or you are faced with tough decisions (as you inevitably will be), the ability to be frank, open and honest with each other without wanting to kill each other comes in handy. It makes the whole experience seem more like an enduring adventure and less like a nightmare. So I was thankful that I was partnered with Chase and confident we would enjoy each other’s company during the forthcoming week.
We had all the appropriate equipment for a week in the hills including two Personal Locator Beacons (PLB’s), 2-way radio’s, maps of the local area and enough coffee to make any Melbourne hipster proud. The weather forecast on Sunday when we commenced our four-and-a-half-hour trek in to camp was ordinary for the first night but fine for most of the week thereafter. We were all jubilant for the opportunities that lay ahead.
We found a nice little boulder on a non-descript spur of Little Twynam, which put us a 20 minute hike out from the climbing at Blue Lake. It looked like a nice spot for a base camp and minimal work was required to set up platforms for our tents. Soon enough we found ourselves snug inside the tent warming ourselves with a fresh brew of coffee. It was nice to be back in the wilderness!
At about 8pm that night it started to snow. Quite hard in fact. And the wind had picked up to a constant 70km/hr gusting to more than 90km/hr. Just after midnight we heard commotion outside and it quickly became apparent that some of the other guys were outside trying to strengthen their structure. This was confirmed about 10 minutes later when Scotty came over and shouted through the tent walls that they had had to dig out their tent and offered to do the same for us seeing he was already outside. We eagerly took him up on his kind offer.
The wind and snow continued throughout the night and we were constantly woken up to snow build up behind our heads, causing us to adjust our already cramped positions. At about 3am Chase decided to go out and clear some more snow away. 3 hours later as dawn approached it was my turn to brave the conditions and dig the tent out. Neither of us got much sleep.
As dawn turned into day it was obvious that we would not be climbing but rather stuck inside our tents trying to keep dry and warm. The wind remained high and even when it wasn’t snowing, the wind was picking up the snow and slamming it horizontally across our camp. The tents formed a barrier and as a result snow quickly built up around all sides of the unnatural structures. Our group spent a few hours carving ice blocks building a wall to protect our camp however this only had a marginal effect on our situation.
As it turned out, the routine of laying in our sleeping bags drying out our gear, shovelling snow every 3-4 hours, or whenever it was starting to encroach on our personal space too much was to be our life up until we decided to walk out.
Chase and I talked intermittently about nothing in particular. Mostly we rested and were left with our own thoughts. We were both so overzealous about the climbing potential of the week that we neglected to bring a book. I distinctly remember the night before our departure thinking to myself I should pack a book before quickly retorting, “nah the forecast is ok we will be having too much fun to read!” Ohh how we both wished we had of brought a book now!
So what did occupy my thoughts? To be honest they were of relatively simple things. What the climbing was going to be like once the weather cleared, what delicious de-hydrated meal I was going to devour for dinner, how I could make my little slice of the tent more comfortable. That type of thing. I couldn’t even count the stiches or squares on the tent walls due to their violent flapping!
I found the sound of the wind and snowdrift slamming into the tent calming and I distinctly remember thinking how much I loved being there. Sure, inside the tent it was cramped, we had nothing to entertain ourselves with and sure, it was hellish whenever you had to venture outside to shovel snow or go to the toilet. But hey, I was amongst the mountains, where I wanted to be, we were in control and at least I wasn’t at work!
When I mention this to my girlfriend and others who ask, they don’t quite understand. “Are you not worried? Isn’t the sound of the storm scary?” I was never really worried. We had the right tools, knowledge and experience to keep the risk levels manageable.
“How do you not go crazy with boredom?” I am definitely not doing what I would prefer to be but focusing on that and the frustration that can cause would be of no benefit. Personally I like to remain pragmatic. Focus on what is going on around me and try to make the most of the situation at hand. Though this keeps me focused on simple things, it is enough to keep me from being bored. More importantly, it keeps my frustrations in check and my mind from wondering too far down the rabbit holes of ‘what ifs’. Patience is a virtue in life, but particularly in the mountains.
By Monday night with the storm system holding steady and our stoke depleting, we discussed our options. The forecast was not improving until at least Thursday, a further 48 long hours away. Even that weather window was small with another system predicted to move in later that evening. Add to this an increasing difficulty to keep things dry and I was quickly becoming an advocate for walking out. I felt our time could be better spent than sitting it out for another 48hours for a potential morning of climbing. Eventually we made the decision to pack up and walk out the next morning.
Given that conditions would remain starkly dire, the task of packing our bags and the tent was not one I was looking forward to. The tent provided shelter, relative warmth and comfort. Once we dropped the tent, there was no turning back. Our hands would be wet from digging wet snow and we would be exposed to the wet, cold and windy savage for as long as was required. And it was this that would put us at greatest risk of frost-bite and hypothermia. Your body can handle the cold much longer than it can handle being wet and cold. The lead up to this was when I felt most anxious.
The morning arrived and to minimise our exposure the group decided to stagger the order in which the tents would be dropped. Furthermore, one person would be inside packing belongings whilst the other was digging the tent out before swapping. This worked relatively well and after two hours we were on our way back to the car park with somewhat frozen digits.
So our trip to Blue Lake did not yield much of what we had hoped. It had wreaked havoc on all three of our tents which now sport a number of holes, snow had buried a couple of our possessions to become future booty and we walked out sodden, cold but with smiles on our faces. For me, it remains a place that exists purely as a few poor photographs and trip reports on the internet. Alas, like every journey into the wilderness this one provided lessons to be learnt if you are willing to play the student.
1. Patience and managing your frustration is paramount if you are to enjoy a long and prosperous career climbing in the mountains
2. Snow skills such as digging platforms, snow, carving ice blocks and building walls are essential skills for any aspiring backcountry adventurer.
3. Never underestimate the power of mother nature – she does not care for your plans and even less about your ego (I think this lesson I learn every time I venture into the wild…)
4. No matter what the forecast… bring a bloody book!