"Sometimes success is getting your ass out alive" - A runner in the Barkley Marathons.
It was a bad omen, when, at about 10pm, I forgot to tell Mike to take the turnoff at Beaudessert. After driving along a one-lane country road for about 20km, I knew that we were no longer on the Mount Lindesay Highway. Still, it was a beautiful night, heavily dusted with stars, and because of this I didn't really care. We then trusted the GPS to direct us Westwards, across country, to Mount Barney. After many blind corners on narrow roads, and a few near misses with farmers, we got to familiar territory, and the tarmac ended. We ground along the dirt road in Mike's Proton, until our arrival at a crossing of the Logan River forced us to park up.
Well, looks like it's time to start walking.
at 11:10pm, we forded the river, illuminating the path ahead and walking at a good clip. In very little time, we had crossed the river again, and were making our way up the ever-narrowing trail into thicker rainforest and higher elevation. At one point, we came to what looked like a set of switchbacks. There may have been a trail that continued around instead of up the steep hill in front of us, but I was confident (and stupid) enough not to check. We climbed up a pitch of rubble with at a gradient of about 60%, manoeuvring our way around what Mike believed was a Brown tree snake. After a while, I realised that we were climbing up a cut created by a landslide, but in my optimism (and cockiness) I believed that we were on where the trail should have been. I was a little less sure when we started going downhill, but I checked the compass, and we were heading in the right direction: North. Mike sort of suggested that we turn around, but I shuddered at the prospect of descending that landslide. So we pushed on, and our decision was seemingly vindicated, as the trail began to climb again. It became steeper and more rocky, until I realised that I was on familiar ground; the South-East Ridge.
I had intended to go up the tame South Ridge, ruling the South-East out due to its precariousness and our lack of experience with night-climbing. I had made a serious navigational error - we should have gone past the landslide. All it would have taken was walking ten extra metres and climbing over some fallen logs. But we didn't, and now we were on the South-East ridge. Take what the mountain gives you.
In hindsight, we should have just gone down the ridge and connected back up with the trail to the South, and would have only lost an hour. Suprisingly, it didn't cross my mind at all. We were climbing upwards, towards the peak, and that's all that mattered.
Route-finding proved especially difficult in the dark, and we climbed many spires that we probably needn't have. Mike was going pretty well, but expressed a certain unhappiness with being on an exposed ridge with a sheer and invisible drop of 20-50 metres on either side. At one point, the platform narrowed down to about two metres in width; and then I looked up.
This was what was referred to as a chimney. It's basically a near-vertical section of rock as wide and precarious as the previous part of the ridge, and there seemed to be no way around it.
"Shit," I said. "Ah well, up we go."
I told Mike that I was the one who was supposed to be scared of heights, not him. He replied that he was afraid of them aswell; I had not known at all. Great.
We managed to skirt around a few of these chimneys, but due to the lack of wider-perspective provided by the headlamps, the safest way seemed to be to go right up the middle rather than try to navigate around them and get lost or fall off a cliff.
I was trying to keep it together mentally, as I could see that Mike had expected there to be less danger, and I didn't want either of us getting into a panic.
At one point, I stepped out on to what I thought was a gently sloping grade of grass and gum trees, and the ground fell away from under me. I slid down a steep drop for most of my body-length, arresting my fall over the cliff in front by grabbing a couple of trees. If I was a cat, I'd now only have eight lives.
A few times, we arrived at the top of a chimney, and our stomachs dropping as we realised that there was no way forward, and we were actually on top of a pinnacle. I usually hate back-tracking, but after a few times, I realised that it was a necessary evil in our current circumstances. Eventually, the ridge widened, and we found ourselves crashing through thick scrub, avoiding huge boulders and cliffs. We were relying entirely on a compass and our sense of direction, unable to see the peak or the best-route ahead in the dark.
At about 1am we must have left the ridge...and wandered on to the thick, steep scrub and cliffs of the South face. The route had become hard to follow due to the wideness of it at that point, and the nature of our light. Additionally, I had been told by an experienced Barney climber that it had happened to him before, so it wasn't JUST down to our (my) stupidity.
At about 2am, we both turned our headlamps off, to see the silhouettes of the mountains above. The East peak was demoralisingly far away, but we figured that we were doing all that we could, still heading upwards despite having lost the ridge.
Relentless forward progress.
Well, up to a certain point; which came at about 2:30. We looked straight up; there was vertical flat rock as far as we could see. We looked down; there was nothing, suggesting the same as above; and because of the gradient and lack of cover, we could no longer skirt along the side of the mountan in the direction that we had been. Sleep time.
We dropped our packs and lay on the grass, Mike with his I-pod and me with my thoughts. I wavered between "holy shit, we're going to die" and "keep it together man, it isn't that bad. Don't do anything stupid, and you'll be ok. Don't take any risks, you have an EPIRB just in case". At this point, I basically decided that we were not going to push for the summit. We were only 200-300 metres of vertical below it, in line with the saddle, but we might as well have been 2,000, considering the cliff that we were faced with.
After a restless half-hour, we were up again, and back-tracking. For the next hour and a bit, we basically went downwards through scrub as far as possible, until we found a cliff, then backtracked, and found another route that got us a bit further down. Mentally, I was starting to deal with it, but Mike was using expletives to question his motives for joining me at the mountain on this clear night. At this point he really grasped it; it was no longer about getting to the top. It was about survival.
We eventually dropped into a ravine, with a creek flowing through it. Due to its cover from sunlight, this section was all rainforest, and it was spectacular. The day began to dawn, and the birds to sing, and looking down that steep canyon from its interior, we agreed that this was an amazing and special place, that few others would be so fortunate to see.
We hopped down stones and boulders, following the creek, navigating a few steep sections. The further we descended, the more sheer the gully became, until there were unclimbable cliffs on either side, and the only way down was the creek. That's when it dawned on me; "dude, what happens if we come accross a waterfall?"
My statement was proven prophetic when, a few minutes later, we encountered exactly that. Luckily, at this point the walls became a bit less steep, so we climbed Westards, into the thickest jungle that I have seen in my life. It took about ten minutes to cover less than 200 metres; we had to push through, under, and over vines, shrub and trees.
During this time, Mike asked me "at what point do we call the SES?"
Wishing to remain calm and under control, I replied: "as long as there is SOME way forward, we'll keep going". However, I was pretty confident that soon there would be none.
We came to a gully almost identical to the previous one, fearing waterfalls, but not finding unnegotioable ones. We took a few slides and falls, but were aided by the strong vines draped accross the boulders.
Step, step, step, step. With half an hour more gone, we had both accepted our circumstances. All conscious thought was subdued, eliminated at its root, and we just walked, optimising efficiency, speed and safety. These are the primal moments that I live for.
I was totally prepared to walk for another 8-10 hours, as long as we got out. And, as it always happens, that's when I saw the faint makings of a trail cutting accross the now flatter gully.
I told Mike, but he was understandably skeptical; I had misled him before...
In any case, we followed it to the East, as it became wider and more clear-cut, until we came to a slope of rubble and trees that cut it off completely. The landslide. The first big hill. The one mistake that had cost us time and security, but had provided us with an incredible experience.
We climbed over to its other side, and were back on the South Ridge trail. 90 minutes to the first creek crossing, a wash of the feet, and soon we were back in the car, bouncing our way back to the Mount Lindesay Highway, to Brisbane, to safety, home.
The thought of heading back up the mountain when we got to the trail didn't once cross my mind. This is very odd, as my ego would usually be severely bruised by such an experience, and rectifying my mistake would provide a remedy. But this time, there were no petty feelings of pride and dignity involved; we had come across potentially fatal terrain, and had escaped with our lives and bodies intact.
That's all that really mattered, and from this perspective we were successful.
Nevertheless, I am definitely going back there at night again, for a second shot.