Guthega Power Station greets us early on in our snowy mountains midwinter trek. We’ve been lucky with snow bucketing down in the lead-up to this weekend extravaganza of snow, sweat and solitude.
It is still early on our first day and the uphill battle begins. It is a steep climb, made harder with heavy packs and of course fresh powder snow that could easily swallow you up to your waist, even with snow shoes. Still, we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
In the distance, we see signs of a climatic change. Thick clouds and fog stare us down and reach us with alarming speed. Enshrouded. The wind intensifies, visibility drops and so too does the mercury. We charge upwards and as some of the crew breaks away, they look like silhouetted stick figures in this vast white arena. We reach one of several peaks and thankfully just beyond one we find a place to establish camp; it is not where we had planned to be, but daylight is running out.
By now, we are knackered and desperately want to raise our tents and settle in for a steaming-hot cup of tea. But first, a whole lot of hard yakka – shovels out, lots of landscaping (i.e. create level ground and windbreaks) and finally pitch tents and secure to snow using dagger-length (+30cm) pegs. Everything takes so much longer when travelling in the snow!
At last, we are able to take refuge in our tiny tents, shielding ourselves from the elements while stretching out weary legs and strained backs on a cosy double base layer comprising a foam closed-cell mat and an inflatable mattress (Thermarests in our case). Bliss, for a period. But as time goes on, I realise the snow is further compacting underneath my bodyweight and soon enough my bed is uneven and sloping and as I sleep, I slowly slide toward Richie in what was already a very snug space. Though with the temperature plummeting overnight to 9 below zero, forced spooning with Richie has its practical benefits.
So, with the first night behind us, we further develop our ‘tent city’ and build a kitchen, a communal lounge area and reinforce our windbreaks, which took a shellacking overnight. We then take the opportunity to explore the surrounding mountains free of backpacks, feeling light on our feet, like snow leopards instead of the beasts of burden we had become yesterday. The natural splendour and solitude of this Martian landscape gives rise to a tremendous sense of inner calm and peace. In our hyperactive modern worlds with sleepless, supercharged cities it has never been harder to ‘switch off’, but doing so has the power to switch on one’s senses and awaken that innate connection to the natural world that resides in all of us. I am grateful to be here.
Later, the sun descends and a shadowy curtain creeps along the valley floor. There is a brief but brilliant display of purple hues while the sun sits behind the surrounding mountains, until inevitably it is swallowed by an invisible horizon and night, but not darkness, is upon us. Billions and billions of stars appear and illuminate the sky. It is spectacular and a sight we had been hoping to witness. We stare in awe at its beauty and immensity.
It is so cold inside the tent that by morning the water in my bottle is frozen solid. So, as one can imagine, the urge to pee at night is not a welcome sensation. It means braving the chill and sacrificing all that warmth in the sleeping bag! Though, some of the better prepared among us had devised a convenient way of dealing with this issue without ever having to leave the comfort of their sleeping bags…
In the morning, we are welcomed by perfect weather and we quickly strike camp and begin the arduous return journey. Step by step, in essential show shoes, we travel up and over small crests and into shallow depressions until eventually we start a long steep descent. Down, down, down we go, at pace and only checked by falling into an occasional snowy trapdoor and a wrestle to escape. Was Kosciuszko National Park trying to keep us here a little longer? We promised to return.