“Disabled but not Unable in the Eastern Arthurs”, an adventure that appeared in Outdoor Australia in 2001.
Awaking from my fevered dream I pushed my attackers away. It took me a moment to recognise this place and to understand why I was lying in the dirt.
Looking about me the climbing gear reminded me of by what convoluted route I came to this place… The world climbing tour… Australia… Tasmania… The accident on the Totem Pole… The rock crushing my skull… The Royal Hobart Hospital… The year in Rehab … Making a home in this place that had scarred me so deeply.
This trip was the first roped climbing I’d done since the accident and although I was enjoying every minute of it I wasn’t finding it easy, dragging a useless arm and leg up with me. But that was precisely why I was doing it. I had been to many of the world’s mountains in my career as a climber, the Karakorum, the Himalaya, Baffin Island, Khirgizistan, and I had never gone for the easy option on a mountain.
In my hands I cradled my swollen knee. After a week spent towing my leg across the Eastern Arthur range I needed a rest day.
It seemed an age ago that Wak, Jane and I had set off along the Yo-yo track full of optimism. Then the Southwest National Park, an area of wilderness which covers almost half a million hectares, was all new to me.
There were big fallen trees lying across the path every hundred meters or so. Scrabbling onto one, with Jane hauling me by the scruff of the jacket, was like trying to climb onto the roof of a VW combi that had been smeared in Vaseline. At times I would have to crawl under a series of fallen trees with Jane pushing my sack, and hers, before her.
Whilst dredging one thigh deep pool with my right boot I stumbled in the cold gravy. Even with my light rucsac I couldn’t extricate myself so I just sat there with water lapping at my nipples. All Jane could think of was taking a photograph of me in my sodden predicament.
At first all the filth upset my sensibilities. It just didn’t seem right to get this dirty. I had spent all my life being told, “One has to be clean.” But as the days went by the muck began to have an emancipating effect on me.
The Huon River was kept well hidden from us by a dense hedge of Myrtle, sassafras and Huon Pine. The following two days we averaged ten kilometres a day. We were striking camp just after dawn and walking until dusk, about eleven hours.
Late on the third day we arrived at Cracroft Crossing, a place I felt deeply anxious about. The Cracroft river was infamous for its propensity to flood and I knew the bridge had been washed away sometime earlier. I needn’t have worried though as the level was low and, with my two companions aiding me, I had few problems.
The alarm woke me with a jolt half an hour before dawn and we shovelled soup-like porridge into our mouths whilst putting on cold, wet socks and boots. To an English person this is very strange behaviour. The reasoning is pre-emptive; you are going to get your feet soaked anyway so you might as well get it over with from the outset. Jane then packed the tent away and stuffed items in our respective rucsacs while I struggled, single handed, with my laces.
The day was dawning as we broke out of the woods and onto the button grass plain, with its heavenly duckboard. We made good time on our ascent of the Razorbacks and stopped to feed and water on the brow. Hearing voices on the plain below we soon enough encountered several women and men led by two older, bearded men.
“Well hello,” one of the older men shouted.
“Good morning,” said Jane.
“Which way did you come?” asked the man.
“Oh, the Yo-yo Track,” answered Wak with a smile.
“Oh yeah? Us too. Bloody horrendous wasn’t it? How long did it take you guys.”
There was a brief silence before Jane blurted out, “Three days.”
“We took eleven hours and thought that was slow,” piped up a young guy.
I should point out that when I am sat down I appear able bodied. It is only when I am up and walking that one sees just how disabled I am. I didn’t mention my disability. The last thing on my mind was the need to prove myself to anyone else, anyway since when did going into the mountains become a race.
Wak and I helped Jane to shoulder her monster pack, then Jane and I aided Wak in putting hers on and then Wak helped me with my little bag. To anyone spying on us this would have seemed an exceedingly farcical affair but it took place perhaps ten times a day.
After a few hundred metres of stumbling across a plateau I halted, “Could that be?” I was stuck for words. Filtered by cloud was the unmistakable point of Federation Peak that I had been studying in photographs and books for almost a year. Yet again I had developed an unhealthy obsession with a mountain that now, to me, appeared distant and aloof.
The Arthur Plains Track was definitely the most punishing so far. Often there was only swamp, where the only way to tell if you were on route was to feel with your boot for the deepest mud and stick to it. When the water was only shin deep bauera, a dense thicket with small razorblades for leaves, ripped the thighs until they bled, a little like fighting through a tangle of barbed wire with shorts on. This is possibly the weirdest of all Tassie bushwalking behaviour. They insist on wearing the very shortest of shorts for all bush walks and after a day or two of this kind of attack the thighs are red raw.
The following morning we wound our way up Luckmans Lead, a ridge that led to the plateau of the range. I put on my body harness and Jane roped me up a section of almost vertical path. We were expecting two extra members of our team and, sure enough, we spotted the tiny dots on the plain below. It wasn’t long before Emma and Damon had climbed up to us, emphasising just how painfully slow we were travelling.
On seeing me struggling up a sheer cliff Damon kindly offered to take my sack. This was a portentous moment for me. I believed that I was going to carry my own sack all the way but it was getting late in the day now. I realised that I was less jeopardising a worthy conclusion to the day, but risking a night out wandering on the mountain.
Slipping the bag off my shoulders I passed it to him saying meekly, “Thanks a lot.”
On one cliff a smooth wall, almost three metres high, lay directly in front of my nose. I could just reach a ledge on the top but pulling up was too much for my one arm to manage without anything for my feet. I fell repeatedly onto the rope and a wave of dejection flooded over me.
“Oh, what the bloody hell!” I lamented.
“I’ve got you good,” came a distant shout from above.
“Can you heave when I ho?”
And so we overcame this one of many obstacles.
On cliffs of this nature I have a fear of projections pointing down that might spear the ten centimetres by three-centimetre hole in my head. It is precisely for this reason that I wear a helmet most of the time. In the accident I had failed to wear a helmet, preferring to follow fashion rather than safety.
“There’s a boy under that boulder,” Jane pointed up to our left, “He’s called Stuart. Died in the 50’s. Do you want to meet him?”
“No, not really,” I remarked wearily.
“So that’s why this place is called Stuart Saddle,” Damon giggled nervously.
My mind rested firmly on finding the platforms, which we did just as night was falling, fifteen hours after we had set out.
When I found myself standing on the duckboard of Thwaites Plateau it was all I could do to take a photograph of my feet; the most important photograph of the trip. Now that I was directly below ‘Feder’ I allowed the first seed of doubt to creep into my mind. I didn’t realise it was going to be this imposing.
On the final few metres to Thwaites campsite I studied the now familiar yabbie holes. To a Pommie these creatures must seem a figment of the Aussie imagination, like the Yowie or Drop Bears. I mean, little blue Lobsters that live in burrows and come out at night to roam around the moors in search of food. Really. “Wait ’til I tell the guys back home about these.”
Which brings us to the place I am in now, sat on the forest floor in the dirt nursing my swollen knee. Growing ever more tense about the following days climb. But when Liz’s flaming red hair and Ant’s smiling face come bursting through the trees any nervousness soon dissipates. They had come in the opposite direction with food and chocolate.
Liz said wearily, “I’m glad that I’ve done bloody Moss Ridge but never again.”
Moss Ridge I had been warned against as being near impossible for me because of the steepness and sliminess. But it could be as short as four days to the road compared with the original plan of retracing our steps, the whole long ridge, the Arthur Plains and the Yo-yo Track. And not comprehending your fate is always preferable to knowing what is going to be around each painful corner.
The new day brings a light wind and an ominous mackerel sky. I begin limping towards the rock that, I now realise, has guided my life for these last months. I limp with a fear that I have never known before, but I hide it well.
On the top of a knife edge ridge I clip the rope into my body harness and we walk along a narrow track with a drop of several hundred metres by my side.
When we arrive at the base of the climb I crane my head up to see a series of leaning, vegetated ledges zigzaging up to a summit chimney. I am terrified.
With twenty-five metres of rope, three slings and three carabiners we are woefully ill equipped for such a climb and my knee was flicking painfully back into hyperextension with every step. It also began to rain for the first time in ten days.
“Frankly I don’t think I can do this,” I say to Jane.
So, after watching Wak, Emma and Liz climb for a while I wander off on my way with relief and regret all rolled into one.
On the southeast side of the peak there is a chute with a giant chockstone wedged in it - Chockstone gully, down which I am lowered. Jane climbs down to me and sets off climbing up Geeves’ gully. She takes a stance at the end of a long leftwards traverse. After climbing up a way I then have to make the traverse from the right side to the left of the gully. Studying the rope looping down to my left and then peering into the void below, I am thinking, “If you fall now you’ll break your legs.”
But by the end of this infamous gully I am quite enjoying myself, popping from hold to hold and experimenting with the moves that my new body can perform.
On reaching the tent platforms Ant reaches into his jacket and produces a plastic water bottle full of whiskey. We pass the evening in a relaxed haze.
The following morning, after choking down lukewarm porridge, the track falls of into the abyss, down into the tangle of roots, branches and, of course, mud.
Jane slings trees and lowers me through the ooze. Eleven hours to descend two kilometres makes Moss Ridge our hardest day.
When we get into Cutting Camp I fall in the river and there, scratched in the sandy beach, are the words, “YOU’VE MADE IT.”
It is all I can do to shed a few tears.