Day 217 to Day 222 – Mountaineering and Snow Camping

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Day 217 – the road to Jindabyne

I leave the house in my base layer thermals, knowing that the further I drive, the colder I will get. I have an equal mix of fear, excitement and curiosity. Leaving the south coast, the road winds and turns up into the mountains. Deep green trees hang over the road, embracing the road and minimal sunlight creeps down. Eventually the road flattens out and fields stretch out to the horizon. I see a wind farm far to the left. I realise I have never seen one before and the windmills have an eerie silence to the moving blades. Their presence is just a stark reminder of how sick our planet is and whilst they also symbolise progress, there is something alien about them in that beautiful landscape.

When I finally get to the Austrlian School of Mountaineering campsite, a considerable amount of layers have been stacked on and I go about stuffing small chocolate bars in all my pockets. I meet my tent buddy, Marina, who is closest to my age in the group. We go up to an Italian restaurant and I order an enormous bowl of pasta which stares at me like a challenge. Somehow my boy brain kicks in and I feel like I have to finish this whole plate of food in front of these ladies just to prove something. I get about three forkfuls away from succeeding when my stomach starts kicking me from the inside, yelling “You did not eat that with mindful conscious awareness!!! If you had, you would have realised you were full twenty minutes ago!!!” I still take a glance at the dessert menu… Well I know I will need the carbs. In the morning we pack up the camp and trek into the national park. We barely sleep in the tent as 100km/hr winds whip at our tents. It isn’t even snowing here. Apparently a weather warning has been issued and we may not get to go. I lie down and look inside, to the self that knows what the hell I am doing here. There is just a silent acknowledgement. Anywhere you are is exactly where you are supposed to be. And apparently that is a Women’s Mountaineering course, Liz? Yes, Liz. It is.

 

Day 218 – the long trek in

We leave the comfortable resort area with sleds connected to our harnesses and our packs full of gear and sleeping bags. The wind and snow whacks us fiercely and at least one lady in our group has said she can’t wait for this week to be over. I have a full balaclava over my face but my breath just fogs up my goggles and I can barely see anyway. We come to the snow river and a guy in front breaks straight through the ice, his snowshoe stuck. One of the guides drops straight down and with no gloves is trying to dig through the hard snow. We all move quickly in the more successful footprints to get to the other side. As soon as we are moving downhill again, I finally have the chance to look around me and just gasp in wonder. I have never been surrounded by so much white. It’s just breathtaking. It feels magical, like Narnia. Just as quickly the path turns uphill and I am sending hate mail to myself again. I have changed sleds and the one I haul now is a little bit lighter, but my snow shoes just scramble about in the soft snow up this steep slope. I finally figure out that if I just kick aggressively with the toe of my shoe, I can compact the snow and climb up. We hit camp and it is mid afternoon. We only have about an hour and a half of daylight to set up our tents in the howling wind and build a snow wall. I am shovelling snow with Marina, thinking how beautiful and fluffy it seems. When I touch it, I realise how cold and sharp it feels. About an hour later, still shovelling out a snow wall, my thought process has changed. I hate the snow, I think, as I finally sit down in my tent and try to shake the white off my boots. My toes and fingers feel warm from all the movement but they are stiff and numb within minutes. Why the hell am I here, I think? I need a hot drink. I need to pee. There are some anorexic looking tree trunks behind which some of the ladies have already done the same. I groan and pull myself back up. I grab a cup and head for the meal tent. Our guides, Gemma and Tash, have managed to throw up their own tent and the meal tent and have already started boiling water for dinner. They do have a lot more experience and efficiency in these situations. Both of them have just recently done a trip to Greenland for the sole purpose of climbing mountains and paragliding off the summits. I am in awe of these women as we sit around and laugh ourselves into warmth. At the end of the day, when I turn inwards and ask myself why I am here, the answer is simply, “you are here.” The plain and simple fact is that I am here and I can’t leave. I can either embrace this experience or struggle against it. I will see women doing both and, as ever, I choose the light. I choose to embrace.

 

Day 219 – Blue Lake

When I emerge from the tent in the morning and stare out at the perfect whiteness surrounding me, I am completely breathless. I have never seen such amazing beauty. I can’t even begin to describe the touch of sunshine dancing through the leaves and this is only the view from the toilet! And by toilet, I mean the section of snow that is slightly downhill and out of sight of camp.

We have one day of good weather so we head out to Blue Lake. The trek to Blue Lake is probably double the trek we did yesterday and mostly uphill but this time we have no sleds and our packs carry only climbing equipment. Gemma stops to wait for some of the others and while we take a sip of water she asks me, “So this is your first trip to the snow?”

“Yes.”

“And you decide to come snow camping and mountaineering?”

“Yes.”

“Cutting it sick, living extreme.”

I guess this whole Bliss project has pushed me to do some pretty amazing and life changing things this year…

Blue Lake usually has an array of ice walls on which to practice crampon and ice axe techniques but when we arrive, the ice walls are small and a cornice peaks over the main section. It was this same spot where a guide unfortunately lost his life when the cornice collapsed and avalanched on him. We buckle up the crampons, which are basically just spikes that fit to the outside of the climbing boots. They have two front teeth that can be used to climb vertical ice walls. My socks have bundled up and I can feel the top of my right mountain boot bruising my shin. It is already painful but I just ignore the pain and carry on. Adjusting the socks would be a mission at this stage. It would mean undoing the crampons, then the gaiters, undoing two sets of laces and then having to do it all up again. Still, I manage a quick shuffle of socks and it makes no difference. Once the bruise is there, the pain is just going to keep thudding away with every step. Aren’t I so glad this happened on the second day and not the first!

There are seven women in our group. Marina, the two guides and myself make up the younger generation. The rest of the women have huge climbs planned in the Himalayas and are on this mountaineering course to prepare. One lady, Sue, has been training and despite her age, confidently scales up the small ice sections in her crampons. One of the other ladies is more tentative and doesn’t seem to have faith in the equipment. Gemma tells us to be aggressive, to really kick the crampons into the ice. Aggressive? I can do that. I attack the ice like it deserves it and scale up way higher than I should, but confidently climb back down, trying not to let anyone see that I may have just freaked myself out. Balaclavas are good for the poker face. I try to strut away and Tash points out that my crampon loop has come undone. Dammit.

We get to another slope and learn self-arrest, which is basically just using the ice axe to stop yourself when you start sliding. We learn from four different slides: feet first, head first, on back, on stomach. It only takes five seconds before my inner child takes over. Sliding down a hill and then digging an axe into ice to flip over and stop is supposed to be a survival technique but it doesn’t mean it has to be morbid! We whoop and slide down the slope until it gets to the point where we need to leave. As we walk away, the wind whips around misty flows of snow down the mountains toward us. The whirling eddies dance in silence and we stop to watch these snowy spirals. I remember seeing sand moving this way in Mexico. It felt like the wind was whispering to me, guiding me and pointing me in the right direction.

A white cloud descends upon Blue Lake and envelopes us completely. We need to get back to camp and build our ice walls higher. Apparently those 100km/hr winds are coming back tonight. Whilst we are protected on the slope, we need to secure our guy ropes with ice axes and hammers and ice stakes. I have to admit, after a day of playing with axes, crampons and other sharp objects I am feeling like a bit of a warrior. I finally remember the bruise on my shin, which caused me to limp all the way back from Blue Lake. I sit down to take off my boot and see what I can do about it. The great thing is that making an ice pack to get the swelling down is easy! Unfortunately, no bandage or band-aid will help. I just need to deal with this pain. I wonder at pain and what purpose it serves. It is there to tell us when our bodies have been damaged. And once that damage has been healed, we are usually stronger when we come out on the other side. I have just spent the day trekking through snow, climbing ice and tumbling down a slope. This bruise is nothing. It is simply a part of the temporary discomfort. And I am even grateful for it, for reminding me that my body is temporary and that I can try as hard as I can to protect it, but sometimes it will still suffer and I forgive it for that too.

 

Day 220 – Lizard in a Blizzard

All night the wind howls around our tents and we have to get up twice to shovel the snow away from the tent. This means sitting up, putting on the inner boots, the outer boots, tying up two sets of frozen laces with ten frozen fingers, wrapping my ankles in gaiters which are frozen and covered in snow and then putting on my outer shell. Ten minutes later, we emerge from the tent and start shovelling. If we don’t do this, there is a chance the snow will suffocate us. There is a point in tying my laces where I am tempted to think that this is not a great experience but then I look at myself. Here you are, Liz, camping in the snow, getting up in a blizzard to shovel snow and using a plastic freezer bag for a toilet. If ever you have had the chance to face your own resilience, your own strength, this is it. The smile could not be wiped from my face, no matter how hard the snow tries.

We spend the day pitching and climbing up the slope near camp. The weather won’t let us climb Kozsiousko. We learn how to make the anchors with the snow stakes and belay each other up. It is hard work, digging, belaying, remembering the appropriate calls. I am about to start climbing when my partner calls out from the top of the hill. Her words are lost to the winds but Tash and I turn to each other, “Did she just say ‘hold on’?” That is not something you want to hear. We spend the whole afternoon climbing and when I finally get to the top of the hill and bury my snow stake, I take a moment to hang off my anchor and turn around. Wow. I spent the whole time looking straight ahead at the snow or up to the top or intently at my knots or down at my partner, but when I finally turn around to see what is around and below me, I finally understand what all that hard work was for. To see the expanse of snow covered peaks, the frozen river below, distant trees and the dramatic silence of this view… this is what climbing is all about. This is where I find the divine. When I can stare out into a place so completely untouched by humans, the earth in all its naked glory, and really see into its soul. That is where I see my own divine self. That is where I find my own soul.

 

Day 221 – the silence of the ice cave

The weather means we have a day of vaguely practicing knots and plodding around camp. The spindrift has nearly buried my door through the night, but it is much easier to shovel than the thicker snow from last night. One of the tents at the other camp has not fared well in the blizzard so the other group has had to build an ice cave. When Tash says we need water, I am frozen stiff, so I volunteer to go with her down to the creek and get some. I know the movement is the only thing that will warm me up and after Marina and I made a failed attempt this morning at our own snow cave, I am curious to see this one. We crawl in and up into the sleeping platform which is elevated from the entrance to allow the cool air to fall down and out. The roof is dome shaped so that as the ice melts, it drips down to the sides. It is bright blue inside and deathly silent. It is also incredibly warm. I finally understand the concept of an igloo. Tash and I sit and wonder at this creation that took the other group all afternoon to build. I take the precious few moments of stillness and meditation. Silent. Just so silent. We peer out the door and see the sun setting. We need to get to the creek before it gets dark. We carry on and trudge down the hill, each footprint falling knee deep into the soft snow. The creek has frozen over so Tash starts to dig. I am about to pass her a water bladder when she pushes her foot deeper into the hole and collapses a pile of snow into it. I offer to switch places and getting down into this small crevasse, start digging away. Some of the grassy creek bed gets dislodged into the water but eventually I can hear the trickle of water. We have a small plastic cup to scoop the water out and into the water bladders that Tash holds open. I chat away as I work, one cupful at a time, trying not to include too many bits of plant matter into our drinking water. I can see how this could be seen as doing it rough, but I am loving every moment of this. I feel so connected to the earth. Having lived on a farm in a drought when I was little, I know the value of water. I can’t stand to see people waste water, leaving taps on while they chat or wash their hands, or people who have 15 minute showers because they just “don’t care”. Once you have had to shower out of a bucket, you can see how little water it takes to actually get clean. I know that some countries have more water than others but when I know that there are places in this world where children have to walk kilometres, carrying buckets of water, risk getting raped or killed and end up dying of thirst anyway, the value of water is simply priceless. You can live without food for a few weeks, but water? Water is life. And here I am, half buried in a hole, getting water out from under a frozen creek and I have never been happier. This is what it feels like to live, to deserve to live. This is what it is like to push past the discomfort and just do it anyway and realise that when you turn around and see what it was all for, that you can see deep into yourself. And when I look inwards, I like what I see.

 

Day 222 – the long trek home

I knew it. I just knew it. I knew I would be the one carting the shit out. Kozsiousko is a national park so we have to take out everything. I mean everything! Including a dry bag full of the waste of nine women from the past five days. It is strapped to a sled along with the rubbish and attached by rope to the harness around my waist. I put my pack on. I think it weighs about 20kg. I think the sled is about 30kg. There is no movement for a few scrambling steps as I try to pull away. I have to give a few pelvic thrusts just to get the thing moving. Eventually I build some momentum as we go downhill, but a sudden uphill incline seems almost impossible as I flounder and fall over backwards, like a flailing turtle in the snow. We traverse a slope with a second person holding the back of the sled so that it doesn’t slide down into the frozen river, dragging us with it. The sled in front of me keeps toppling over and I can feel everyone’s frustration building. The walk back over the river is a little bit easier now that snow has been falling for the past few days. The final kilometre is a steep uphill climb with the packs and we have to stop every few steps. I have transferred the sled to Marina’s harness but I still pull it along beside her. I keep pushing on, knowing this is the final hard slog before rest. The sun has shone for us all day and the snow sparkles. The whispering winds swirl around us and up the hill, guiding us back up to Charlotte’s Pass. Our first glimpse of civilisation; skiers and snowboarders fly past as we shuffle along in snowshoes. The final awkward shuffle downhill is excruciatingly long but when we finally get there, I stand still for a moment with my pack on my shoulders, just feeling its weight, knowing that I did that. I dragged that sled, I carried this pack and I did all of that hard work. I did it all and I did it for me. That sense of achievement bubbles over into laughter as we pack up and gather in the snow cats, driving us back down to Perisher. I am overflowing with giddy excitement and take a longing look at the snow as we change to a bus that will take us back down to Jindabyne. I was worried I would be too tired to drive all the way back to Sydney tonight but this excitement is like a natural high I have never felt before. I feel invigorated and alive; my eyes are wide open and I can already tell I won’t be sleeping for a while. We unpack back at Jindabyne and then say our final goodbyes. In such a short time it was possible for 9 women to bond, to share, to help, to surprise, entertain and possibly infuriate each other. I will miss the snow but I can’t wait to get back into the comfort of my own car, to get home and have a long, hot shower, to wear fresh clothes that aren’t waterproof and to just lay down on my soft bed. I have met my own strength and resilience and I have lived in utter discomfort, loving every second of it. Now, when I get home and go to bed, I am seriously looking forward to deserving it.

 

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