Sunday, June 19, 2016

Cathedral Ridge

By the end of the 2nd day of hiking in Australia my feet and legs were pretty sore so when I heard what the loop was that John had planned for the 3rd and last day (somewhere around 12 miles/19km) I realized that it would be pretty hard for me to finish that without some fairly serious problems developing in my feet.

John compromised on my suggested 5miles by offering up a trail that would take use more like 8 miles from a small campsite called Cook's Mill in the Cathedral Range state park.

We left before sunrise.  I had forgotten to turn off my alarm and it rang at 5am so we figured we might as well head out.

There was a fairly dense fog.  I have learned later that the highest risk of colliding with wombats is at night and kangaroo around dawn and dusk.  We saw a few kangaroo and other small animal casualties on the side of the road over the few days of riding up near the mountains.

We stopped in a town called Alexandra where an annual Truck and Rod show was being hosted over the long weekend.  Fortunately the show activities were still hours away so we had a quiet breakfast in a quaint little store on the main road before heading on to the Cathedral Range National Park.

The road off the paved Rt B360 into the park is a dirt road and within seconds of turning off John spotted something jumping to our right in the fields.  I have heard that kangaroos are grayer and larger than wallabies so it is not clear which these are.

As we started our hike we came across a group of wallabies (this time it is clear) grazing near a tent in the campsite.

The hike took us up an all-wheel drive road for a kilometer or two before branching off into this wonderful rainforest.  The trees are huge and there is a thick covering of ferns growing about waist height in some places.

The path led to another dirt road with a parking lot just below the main section of Cathedral Ridge.

This was a pretty busy day up there.  Still not quite as busy as Mt Mondadnock in the summer but we passed a fire department rescue and survival training outing and then came across at least 12 parties of hikers through the course of the day.

The ridge is impressive.  A short hike from the road are some ledges and scrambles up a few cliffs (12ft high in some places).  I stopped to ask a fireman at the parking lot what the sign that said "some rock climbing" meant.  For me, rock climbing involves ropes and belay stations.  He hesitated and then said "it is rock climbing but you shouldn't need ropes, just hold on carefully".

We came across a couple of stranded hikers half-way up - I assume too scared to go up further with us so hot on their trail.  They whispered "be careful" as we passed them and I couldn't help wondering what I was doing scrambling up this rock when I was supposed to be jet-lagged in a hotel room in Melbourne.

The scramble was scary in places - particularly the last section which was exposed something like 20ft from the bottom.  There were good hand and foot holds so with some concentration not hard at all.

I turned to get a picture of John after coming over the top of the last part of the scramble.  To the left is a straight downward drop.

We were treated to a spectacular view from the top with the morning fog gradually burning off below us.
Ahead of us the ridge (a razorback) disappeared into the distance with the path criss-crossing the exposed edges of the ridge all the way.

I was due for my next surprise as we climbed down from the main summit to the path along the ridge.  A drop of about 8 feet with another 12 feet of not quite vertical terrain below it gave me pause.  I had watched John slide over the edge and land his leg on a foothold further down but when I stepped forward to do it I realized that this slide was more or less without hand-holds to control it.

I took a chance at it and felt my body get propelled to the left - only marginally, but enough to change my mind about going down that way.  I wanted to be in full control of the angle and direction of my descent and so I retreated and thought about where to place my hands and feet (and the meaning of my suddenly very precious life).

I saw an option off to my right - more exposed because it was down a slab with a more severe drop - but seemingly with better hand-holds and an option to edge to the right and back onto the rock that John had so deftly landed his foot on.

It took several minutes for me to choreograph this all in my head - long enough that John - already somewhere further off down the path wondered where the hell I was and came back to ask if I had everything under control.

In the end it was all pretty straight forward but I was instantly sobered by a plaque in the rock some yards ahead set as a memorial for a 15year old boy who had died from injuries sustained in a fall on this trail in 1983.

We moved quite easily over the remaining trail - passing a couple of groups of teenage hikers.    I stopped to get a shot of John on one of the prominences that make up the ridge along the trail.
Some of the rocks showed evidence of anomalies which caused uneven erosion and left little knobs that are more resistant to erosion.  I supposed that this rock is igneous and that these are crystals that formed when the rock was forming.

The hike back down to the parking log through the rainforest was uneventful and pleasant (except for my now very uncomfortable feet and ankles).  We had hiked a total of 57km (35mi) over the three days and I was ready for a rest.

We decided to drive up over the road that we had crossed to get to the bottom of the rock scramble so that we could see the ridge from the road.   We weren't able to get a clear view of the main summit but did spot one of the prominences further along that we had hiked over.

Our route back was through the Yarra Forest - beautiful large trees on a winding road.

I held the camera out of the window for a vertical perspective from the car.

The road trip and hikes were slightly marred by the traffic on the way back through Healseville and Lilydale with back to back traffic for a stretch of about the same distance of one of the day's hikes.

The traffic cleared as we approached the M3 and made our way to the fancy hotel reserved for us for our business trip.

John and I arrived in three days of hiking clothes, muddy boots with a half-gallon of milk under John's arm which prompted the hotel receptionist to ask "Where have you come from?" in a slightly high-pitched voice.

I felt the urge to say:  "We've come too far to turn back now." but we politely told her we'd been to Bonnie Doon.

More pictures here

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Mt Feathertop - Australia

I woke sore-footed from the previous day's hiking up Mt Buller.

We had decided the night before to get up early because there is a long drive from Mansfield to Mt Feathertop (2hours) and the last 2km down Buller was in the dark.

The silhouetted trees on the edges of fields made for an attractive early dawn with fog still lingering in places along the way.

We stopped in a small town at about 7am for breakfast.  The gas station attendant suggested the bakery around the corner and I found a really nice steak, kidney and onion pie there for breakfast - along with the espresso coffee that is fast becoming a favorite here for me.  They call it a "flat white" and it is like a Cafe Latte in the US - but somehow more delicious!

Once we found the trailhead and parked the car we walked past a farm where a fellow hiker came out to ask if we were heading up Feathertop.  He said he had tried to go up a little while earlier and was turned back 20min into the hike by a stream that was impossible to ford without getting your feet wet.  He said that the water was flowing too high over the rocks and at a rate that doesn't make for an easy crossing.

John turned to me and said "We've come too far to turn around now, Tim" and so we shouldered our packs and started hiking.

About 20min later we came to the ford of the rive that the hiker had told us about.

We spent about 15min trying to find a different location to cross and then John just walked to the edge and waded over the most prominent rocks to the other side, reporting that he barely got any water in his boots.

The temperature at the start of the hike was -1C and, though the water wasn't as cold as I'd expect, I have had some experience hiking with wet feet in winter.  It is not recommended.

With John on the other side my only options were to take my shoes off and wade through or do as he suggested and take my chances with my boots on.

I stepped onto the first rock - the water reaching up above the top of my boots and about halfway up my gators.  So far so good - the water was rushing so fast that it was trapped outside the gators.

Four more steps and I was over with perhaps a couple of tablespoons of in the shoes - I rationalized that I'd sweat that much in the next few miles anyway.

The vegetation in the low reaches of the mountain felt like a rain forest - thick ferns and bushes with large trees above.

We saw multiple instances of scat that had us puzzled - it was about 35mm diameter and the consistency of clay.  Some googling now makes it likely that this is wombat poop.  I spend most of the weekend talking about seeing a wombat so I suspect that John will be skeptical of this claim.  Google images shows that eastern grey kangaroo and wombat scat looks almost the same and I notice now that the kangaroo poop is clay colored while wombat's is darker.  I think we saw both.
Mt Feathertop was visible from the road before we began the hike, but we had views of it as we started off up a really steep, relentless path that went on for multiple kilometers without letting up.

We had started hiking at 8:30am and by 12 we had reached the Melbourne university hut which is a few km from the summit.  The hut is interesting - a set of bunk beds with a mezzanine floor built into the dome shaped building.

The interior was very damp and my glasses and camera misted up when I stepped inside.  I did a panorama while John was walking around the room so he appears twice in the photograph below.

At this time, the tax of the previous day's hike, a lower carb meal (pork ribs and vegetables) and not having hiked as much as usual over the past couple of months started to take a toll.  (I suppose I shouldn't discount being jet-lagged too).

I had started to feel a little dizzy and although I had been able to keep going at a constant pace, it was not a very fast one. We looked at the distance to the summit and the time and concluded that we might not make it all the way up and back down again before dark.  John suggested that we push on until the cutoff time of 1:30 - which we did.
From the hut the path climbs up a ridge (to the left of this picture) and then dips down before going diagonally up the main face of Feathertop.  We stopped before this final diagonal trail and turned around.

It is always disheartening having to do this and I felt some regret that we hadn't realized that this would be as taxing as it turned out to be - we would have known to start earlier.

The trail features such a long steep section that you are well advised to give yourself longer than the expected time for this distance.

The sun was out and the sky was clear so looking back from our vantage point of the pre-summit ridge was spectacular.

The hike back down was painful and slow.  My feet and legs were sore from the two days of hikes and the relentless gradient did not make it easier.

The woods just before going down the most significant steep sections offered an interesting view of the vegetation and the unusual trees.

We reached the river crossing after a painful journey down and found that someone had dropped a tree partially over it - I suspect in an attempt to cross.  The tree slowed the water down on the largest rock and since I couldn't find a clear path on top of the rocks, I just waded across and came to the other side with at least a coffee mug's worth of water in the bottom of my boots.  I reached back and loosened the log that had been dropped partially over the stream to give John more leeway.

I recorded John's crossing on video.

The final stage of the hike in wet socks and shoes didn't help to make it less painful but we eventially made it to the car at 4:30 - almost an hour before it got dark.

The ground was cold as we took our wet boots off and settled into the car for the drive home.

Back at the motel in Bonnie Doone I had another well-earned beer and ate a large noodle dish for dinner before bed and the prospect of (hopefully) an easier last day of hiking on our third and final day in the Australian Alps - Cathedral Ridge!

More pictures here

Friday, June 10, 2016

Epic hikes: Mt Buller, Australia

A business trip to Australia from the US poses a few problems - not the least of which is the incredibly long flight through the dateline and into the next day.

I was slated to go ahead of the rest of the team to make sure that the lab we had constructed was ready and to do some dry-runs of our demo before the team arrived.  John had also planned to come earlier to get some hiking in before the customer meeting slog started so we co-ordinated our plans so that we would arrive together on the Friday.  Not long after making our bookings we discovered that the Monday was a public holiday in Australia (the Queen's birthday) so it turned out to be an opportunity for three hiking days.

John went over the options with me before we left and we had settled on staying in a town called Bonnie Doone.  The town is close to Mansfield and about two hours North East of Melbourne near an area called the Australian Alps.

Winter in Australia is pretty green and as we drove out on the backroads towards our motel I was struck by how pretty the countryside is.

The road was dotted with ranch-style farm houses and the hills are steep-sided bumps in the landscape which are quite striking (compared to the rolling hills I am used to).

Autumn foliage is sparse but quite striking and the bottoms of the trees have this even line which reminded me of how the goats in Africa eat to their height and no more.

Not long after the start of our journey we felt quite comfortably "at home in the countryside" - John remarking that it didn't feel too alien until we saw a few roadsigns warning us of the local wildlife.

We collapsed into our beds at about 9pm after a total of 24 hours of travel with less than 6 hours of sleep.

The next morning we had some really good coffee at a local gas station and headed for Mt Buller, the site of the best skiing in Australia.  The season is short but the mountain is equipped with a snow making machines and two ski lifts.  Our trip coincided nicely with the beginning of the ski season.

As usual I didn't give a huge amount of attention to the plans for the hikes.  An Australian at the demo lab site told us not to expect too much in terms of height.  The mountains are modest by Colorado and European standards but turned out to be around the height of the mountains we are familiar with in New Hampshire.

Mt Buller is a respectable 1805 m (5922ft) high and the trail that John had chosen led us from a parking lot about 2 mi from the main entrance to Buller up a jeep road and then up a path over the top.

Within a few minutes John pointed out some movement in the bush just in time for me to see the second of two kangaroos vanish off the path.  Wallabies look like kangaroos but are darker and smaller and are more common.  Though these looked pretty big to me, they could have been wallabies.

The jeep trail took us past some signs warning of poison put out for wild dogs (so be aware that your domestic animal is at risk) and into a light drizzle which didn't deter us.  As John pointed out at least a couple of times in the following days:  "We've come too far to turn around now...."

The trees are pretty spectacular - without knowing how to identify them we were content to marvel at how they shed their bark and how much of the area showed evidence of fire.  I remember from South Africa how the acacia trees set the environment for fire and embrace fire as part of their propagation.

As far as I know wildfire is a real problem in parts of Australia but we saw at least one sign that suggested that controlled burns are part of the conservation plan for the forests areas.

We missed the turn off the jeep trail by about a mile and had to retrace our steps before getting onto the path to the summit.

Unfortunately the mountain was socked in but it didn't take long before we were treated to some spectactular views of the near distance - evidence that the ridge of this mountain must be amazing on a clear day.

As we got into the alpine zone of the mountain the rime glinted on the grass and trees and the temperature dropped.  We had started hiking at -2C (28F) and my hands were pretty cold to the point of some numbness for much of the time we were near the summit.

As we approached the rocky ledges that mark the last push to the summit is started to snow quite hard.  The snow (more like little balls of ice) was stinging our faces in the wind.  At the time I didn't worry too much about it - taking care as we climbed up short steep sections that on any day would have given me pause.

Once we had climbed onto the the West ridge the path became less distinct.

As we reached the top we noticed signs with dire warnings (conveniently placed for people walking in the other direction). By this time the snow was pelting down and there was no trail to be seen.

I found myself wondering about the accuracy of the GPS as we were following the track.  I remembered Jeff's account of our trip up Mt Katahdin when his parents followed the GPS reports of our location and saw us go over a precipice a few times in the night because the GPS was 20-50ft off in places.  With no clear marked trail heading down how easily could we be misled towards a precipice ourselves?

Good fortune or a consistently good reading on the GPS led us safely down the other side with the temperature quickly rising to a point where we were walking in a fine drizzle and then in overcast cool conditions.

We soon reached the road at the entrance to Mt Buller and Mt Stirling and walked the mile and a half back to parking lot (always a long slog at the end of the day) with a 23km distance (14mi) on the GPS-track log for the day.

We stopped in Mansfield for a really good dinner and well-earned beer.  Day two loomed ahead - a 20km (12mi) hike up Mt Feathertop.

More photographs here.