'Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing'
- Helen Keller
“OMG this is so good” I squeal as I squeeze vegemite onto my cracker, place a piece of cheese on top and then a cracker on top, squeezing the vegemite and cheesy cracker sandwich together. It’s not real cheese, just that plastic stuff you get in the aisle of the supermarket. There is no fridge to carry the real stuff.
I savour every bite of my lunch as I look to the distance, admiring the view of Mt Buller so far away. We have walked all that way; carrying everything we need on our backs. Today that has included 6L of water which has made our packs over 20kgs. It has been tough but it’s the small things, such as vegemite and cheese on crackers for lunch that make the day. Whilst I savour the taste, Sam squeals; but not with delight. For two days now she has carried a can of gin and tonic to enjoy on our last night. It has somehow leaked into her whole pack, and everything is covered in gin, sticky and wet and gross. The look on her face makes me want to cry for her and I promise to share my can with her. It’s the small things that can make or break the day.
Only 10 days post my recent 100km adventure in the Mornington Peninsula I had packed up the hiking gear, driven 3hrs to Mansfield and picked up my friend Sam for our next adventure together. We were going to hike 100kms, the Oscars Hut to Hut course, over the course of 4 days. Instead of ‘just’ carrying our trail running gear, this time we would lug about 16kgs worth of gear with us. Tents, sleeping bags, food, water and the rest. Everything that we needed to survive (well maybe the Gin was a luxury item) for 4 days in the high country.
After a quick lunch at Sam’s place on day one, I drove us up to Mt Buller to start the adventure. We loaded up our packs and grunting and groaning we made our way to the summit. We started on a steep road incline, and it wasn’t long before we were both panting and groaning and regretting the extra weight of a gin and tonic can! At the base of the summit, we dropped our packs and felt like light mountain goats as we skipped up the summit, taking selfies and chatting about the big adventure ahead. It was already very warm, and our long sleeves were soon taken off leaving us just in our t-shirts and slathered in sun cream. Packs back on and it was off to one of my favourite parts of the course; Four Mile. The sun was shining and there was barely a cloud in the sky – perfect weather for hiking.
In the race briefing for Oscars Hut to Hut; an incredible race that raises awareness and funds for autism, they tell us that the race cannot be won on ‘four mile’ but it can be lost. Runners still talk about the year that saw someone airlifted out with a broken femur because of this section. It’s incredibly technical with rock scrambling and climbing over fallen trees and balancing on a ridgeline. You travel 8kms and 1300m down to the river. It’s steep, there is no track in sections, and you must climb down the rock. This is tough when you run the course with about 5kgs on your back – Add a full pack and you suddenly get stuck between trees and fall forward as you are trying to climb over rocks and stagger over logs. It was tight and there were lots of scratches, but we also giggled through most of it, enjoying the wildflowers and loving that we were both out in nature. After a few hours of bush bashing, the toes were hitting the front of the boot a little too much and we started to count down the turns to get to the river. We were both soaked in sweat by this stage and looking forward to getting our feet wet. “Do you remember how many kms it was to the river?” we constantly asked each other. Finally, the Howqua River appeared before us and we splashed into it, soaking our hats, our buffs and our feet. It was delightful!
A quick taping of some hot spots on the feet and a snack and we were loading the packs back on to travel along a single track along the river. These are some of the most incredible views of the river and I tried to concentrate on the view and not the fact that the last time I had run this section I had seen two tiger snakes. It was definitely snake weather, but I hoped that we were making enough noise with our stomping, and our chatting that we wouldn’t see one! Sam was up ahead of me, and I suddenly saw something come from the top pocket of her pack and land down the steep decline, her blister pack. Her top pocket wasn’t done up and we could not risk losing her blister kit. I tried to grab it with my poles and cried out when it only made it worse, and it fell further down. Sam stripped off her pack and hanging onto the trees carefully climbed down the steep ridge grabbing the kit. She was on her way up when she slipped and my heart went into my mouth – I started getting my pack off to help her, but she managed to grab a tree, right herself and pull herself up the ridge.
“Ok that’s enough excitement for today” I told her. We took a breath, made sure all the pockets were closed and took off again.
It wasn’t much longer, and we hit 7 mile where we decided to camp up for the night. This is a beautiful flat section along the river and offered beautiful shade. We had expected it to be busy, being school holidays, but we were only joined by a handful of campers who had their dirt bikes set up and ready for the following day. The sun was starting to dip so we quickly set up camp and headed to the river for a quick wash. The water was too cold for me, so it was a quick wash with the buff, but Sam was brave enough to sit in the river and almost have a bath. Giggles ensued and we finally headed back to the tents to cook up our dinner. Dehydrated Radix meals for both of us which were so good that we were licking the sauce from the packets! We fell into bed happy with the day’s efforts but equally excited for the days ahead. We had a big day tomorrow and sleep was important.
Whilst sleep was important, we both didn’t sleep well. Perhaps the first night in the tent, perhaps the excitement, perhaps the humidity. Either way, we were both up and eating breakfast early, before any other camp had stirred. We knew that we had a big day, and we were both very worried about water. There was no guarantee that there was water up the mountain and we were only going up today. We both loaded up with about 6L and could barely lift our packs onto our shoulders, helping each other get our packs on. We travelled along the river for about 2kms before reaching Eight Mile. The next section was to include 5kms with 907m + of elevation. With the extra weight on our back, this would take us 3hrs to travel 5kms. This was incredibly tough. It was hot. It was humid and we were both slapping at march flies as we took a deep breath every time there was a high step, sucked in our breath every time we had to squeeze under fallen trees; sometimes stumbling down to our knees and crawling under and then having to put all our weight onto our poles on the other side to be able to stand back up. We cursed, we laughed, we stopped and tried to lay back on every fallen tree that suddenly looked as comfy as a recliner couch. I would giggle every time I heard Sam abusing march flies and then curse myself when one got hold of me!
We were lucky enough to come across a few fellow hikers and two guys told us that there was plenty of water at Bluff Hut and we breathed a sigh of relief knowing that we didn’t need to conserve water as much. As soon as we walked past them, I put my bladder hose in my mouth and sucked as much water as I could handle. I had been rationing my water and it felt so good to know that I could drink as much as I needed/wanted from here on in. As a hiker, I have two great fears: water shortage and fire. Thankfully I had yet to experience either in a serious situation; but the fear can eat away at you all day giving you doubts and anxiety that you push down and ignore, knowing that you are being as safe as you can possibly be. It’s not a fear to ignore, it’s a fear to acknowledge, accept that you have been safe by checking the weather and carrying extra water and then move on. You cannot spend all day worrying about what you can no longer control.
After much huffing and puffing and cursing march flies, we came across Rocky Ridge, which is a beautiful open space between the gum trees with views of Mt Buller to the distance and a view of the ‘The Bluff’ behind us. We had come from Mt Buller, and we were headed to the Bluff so we decided it was time for a well-earned break. Packs were dropped and the coffee was bought out! It was here I enjoyed my vegemite and crackers whilst Sam tried to dry her pack from the burst gin can. We enjoyed a lengthy break with coffee and food and admired the views whilst we talked about the plan to get to Gantner’s Hut tonight. We knew we would run out of light; the weight had slowed us down today much more than we expected. We decided to keep going until we were stuffed and camped up for the night. Knowing that we had water at Bluff Hut we both took the absolute luxury of using some of our water to splash on our faces and wet our buffs around our necks to try and cool us down slightly. It’s all about the small things!
We were expecting to head down to the road after our picturesque lunch spot, however, it just went up and up and up. I was soaked again in sweat and cursing the hills when we ran out of track. The trail was so overgrown that it was all just long grass and perfect snake conditions! We sang and clinked our poles to scare off the snakes as we tried to spot the trodden path that our fellow hikers had come down earlier. We eventually found the road and caught our breath before we started the climb up to Bluff Hut. This was a 1.5km / 400m vertical climb that included clambering up rocks that had the heart hammering in your chest. It’s amazing what the legs can do when you ask them of it – pushing both our bodies and the weight of our packs up the rock face with our arms to steady us. I was often reminded of my rock-climbing brother who tells me that rock climbing is about leg strength and not arm strength; push with the legs and don’t pull with the arms. I thought of him egging me on up the mountain and I smiled knowing how much he would love this adventure as well. It’s been too long since I have seen any of my family with Covid-19 closing borders and I miss my adventures with big brother.
We squealed in delight at the top and the magnificent views that surrounded us.
It was literally mountains for miles in every direction. I stood and looked at the world beyond us and marvelled at how much work we had done for the day. The march flies had left us, and were replaced with an endless array of blowflies instead; oh, it’s the little things! We had 4.5kms to Bluff Hut and we were both tiring fast. I could tell that my steps were heavier, I was stumbling more, and I was feeling the eyelids droop. I knew that we should stop for some food, but also knew the hut was close so wanted to push on. I watched Sam as she walked in front of me, then as she tripped on nothing and fell sideways, looking like a turtle struggling to stand back up. It was like slow motion and I cried tears of laughter as I checked she was ok and then attempted to help her up about 3 times which just had both of us crying with laughter. Eventually, we got her back up and pushed on to camp; deciding that we were both too tired and delirious to keep going tonight. We had been going for over 11hrs and it was time for a break. We would push out a bigger day tomorrow if we had to.
Bluff’s hut was beautiful and quiet. Only two other hikers were there, and we found a spot in the horse paddock to set up camp. The shoes came off first and the thongs went on; absolute luxury to cool the feet down. We sat for a bit, just relishing in the big day that we had just pushed out. We were both exhausted but also exhilarated with our big day. We agreed that we should not have let ourselves get that tired and hungry at the end and we would not let it happen tomorrow. Food is so important to keep the energy levels up and we would make sure that we didn’t get that delirious feeling again. We reflected on the beauty of the day and the incredible flowers that just ran forever on the mountain top, we reflected on the adrenalin of climbing up the rock face in our packs and the slug that was eight mile. We snuck behind the water tank and used a cup of water to completely wash our bodies, giggling at the freezing water and trying not to drop our ‘cleanish’ clothes into the dirt.
We made hot chocolates, watched the sun dip behind the mountains and eventually snuggled into bed happy and tired. It’s the little things.
Sometime during the night, I got up for a bathroom break and was so impressed with the brightness that came from the small slither of a moon above us. I didn’t even need my headtorch because the moon lit up the sky along with so many beautiful stars I couldn’t even begin to count. It felt like we were so close to the moon being so high in the mountains. I could almost reach out and touch it.
Despite not sleeping well again, and me having a nightmare that a park ranger was attacking me in my tent we were up early again and packed up quickly, knowing that we had a huge day. Our plan was to get to Speculation carpark because we knew there was a creek there and would need the water. If we could get there early enough, we would push on to Craig’s Hut. We sent up a prayer to Dad’s angel and asked him to keep the march flies away for us today, and keep us safe and off we went.
We headed out with minimal water, assuming that because Bluff Hut had a full rain tank, then Lovick’s hut would as well. Rookie mistake. We were into Lovick’s hut well ahead of schedule but soon realised that there is no rain tank. As we were rationing our water to get us to Gantner’s Hut, where we knew there was water, we spoke to some 4WD campers who saved the day by offering us some water. We topped up everything – our goal was to get to Speculation without having to do the out and back to Gantner’s Hut and thus save time to push onto Craig’s Hut. This meant that we loaded up each with 6L of water. Lovick’s Hut is incredibly beautiful, and you can smell that the horses have been there recently. It’s a reminder of how tough the drovers in the past had it and also how beautiful the scenery would have been for them. I was in awe of the beauty that surrounded me.
It turned out that our saviours with water included Sam’s children’s old primary school teacher – small world! Thanking them profusely we pushed on across the mountains. With views, all the way back to Mt Buller and views ahead of us to CrossCut Saw it was incredible. We soon joined the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) and started our climb over the various peaks; it was either up or it was down, and we didn’t get a lot of flat walking. The flowers surrounded us everywhere we went, and it was some of the most beautiful walking I have ever done. You could not see anything but mountains in every direction and I could not help feeling like I was so small in this big world of ours. We are so insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I meditated as I walked, I breathed in the clean mountain air and I loved the challenge that the mountains put in front of us, step after step. 'Every mountain has a summit' I whispered to myself as we climbed Mt Magdala (1725m), crossed Hell’s Window and up Big Hill (1668m). This is my mantra for when I am struggling on a tough run and the uphill's are never-ending. If I wasn't whispering it to myself I was shouting it to Sam to remind us that the uphill slog would be worth it at the top!
We found a perfect shady spot to set up for some lunch and decided to cook up a meal for lunch, knowing that we would need the energy for the afternoon. We rationed out the water for the afternoon and enjoyed a coffee before we had to say goodbye to the beautiful shade and keep pressing on. Walking across the top of these beautiful mountains is very exposing to the sun and it was very hot; we were grateful for every whiff of a breeze, and every tiny speck of shade we could get. We climbed up Mt Howitt (1742m) and just before we reached the turn-off to Gantner’s Hut we saw a small sign – ‘Water 200m’ – pointing off the track. I dropped my pack and almost ran looking for a small creek that would appear from anywhere. Sam followed but she was smart enough to bring the bladders to fill up. I just wanted to put my head into a creek and splash water on my face to try and cool off. We searched for a while and had to give up when we couldn’t find it; both us feeling the despair and annoyed we wasted energy on it. We were comfortable that we had 3L each to get to Speculation and we would be ok.
We wanted a short break before we tackled the Viking Wilderness Area and the CrossCut Saw. We stopped and sat in the only shade we could find. I was relishing sitting under a bush when Sam started dancing and hopping in front of me. Turns out she was sitting on an ant’s nest, as was her pack. Part of me wanted to stay under my bush in the shade but I knew we both couldn’t fit under there, so I reluctantly got up and helped her scare off ants and we pressed on. I could have had a nap under that bush!
Sam had told me about CrossCut Saw. She told me that I would love it. I had big expectations. It was almost 6 pm and we had about 8kms along the ridgeline to do. We were confident that we should be done by night. 3hrs most.
This section was incredible. I still struggle to find the words to explain how much I loved it. You are literally walking across the top of the mountains and a wrong step will have you falling either side down the mountain range. It’s dangerous, it's technical and it’s jaw-dropping. The views are amazing, the feeling of being literally on top of the world and the adrenalin of what you are doing. I just kept stopping to look around me and try and take it all in. “Breathe” I told myself, “just breathe”.
We eventually came off the ridge and were pushing through bushes that were taller than us. We had arrived at Mt Buggery (1608m). It’s hard when you cannot see your feet for the overgrown trees, and we just had to trust our feet and push through. It was a very technical track, and we were slow going with the weight on our back, having to climb under fallen tree logs and navigate around rock faces. It was starting to get dark when Sam spoke up from a few metres behind me ‘Oh there is it” she said. I looked up and saw what she was talking about. There was a rock face with a rope hanging down. We literally had to climb up the rope. She had mentioned this to me a few days earlier, but somehow, she thought we had missed it; here it was.
We took all our gear off. I put my weight on the rope and tested the strength and it was ok. Sam made me stop, take a breath, have a drink and think about it first. I am grateful that she did.
Then I climbed up.
Man, this was so awesome; the heart was pumping, and the adrenalin was firing. Sam passed up the packs and I made sure that I didn’t drop them down the side of the mountain. She then climbed up behind me. We were losing light, and we needed to get our head torches out. We also grabbed a jacket because with the sun dipping and the breeze getting stronger, we were at risk of getting cold. I stormed on ahead, then remembered that I wasn’t alone, and we were a team that had to stick together. I looked back and felt rising panic when I couldn’t see Sam. She popped around the bend and stuck her head through the overgrown trees, “I’m still here” she said with a smile, and I knew that we were going to be fine. We were both very strong women who had done hard stuff before, and we were not silly. It might take us a while in the dark, but we would be smart, and we would be safe, and we would get down the mountain.
Just before we climbed up Mt Speculation, I could feel the worry start to return. I was thirsty and I had just over 1L left. I decided we needed to keep the 1L for an emergency; if we could not get down the mountain, we could survive on 1L overnight. We also did not know 100% that the creek down the mountain was flowing and until I knew that we 100% had water I didn’t want to risk us not having anything on us. I looked back just as Sam was pushing through overgrown bushes that were taller than her. I heard her fall because I couldn’t see her. She cried out and my first thought was to run to her, but I also knew that we were both running on pure adrenalin right now and we were both tired, hungry and thirsty. We needed to be strong for each other; so I waited and called out if she was ok.
She called back that she was fine and pulled herself up. If I had gone to her, I knew that I would have looked into her eyes and probably cried with frustration. I cracked a joke to cheer us up, my token go-to in any stressful situation and we pushed on. We got to another cliff face and this time climbed up in the dark with our packs on. You couldn’t see the top of the rock face until you stepped up and the weight of the pack pushed me forward, almost down the side of the mountain. I called out a warning to Sam as she followed me. We looked at each other and grinned. “This is definitely outside my comfort zone” she laughed. “This is turning into type 3 fun” I laughed back.
We pushed on, taking it easy in the dark and being careful to only have small sips of water to save it. I was grateful for the bright sliver of a moon that I had looked up at last night. It lit the track ahead of me so that navigation was easier than I expected in the dark. I would occasionally pull out my Avenza maps to check we were on track, more to reassure myself than because I thought we were off track. I told Sam I still had 1L and we would keep it until I knew that we were safe for the night. I reminded myself that we had warmth, we had shelter, we had food. We were both experienced trail runners, used to running at night. If something happened and we needed to camp up the mountain we would be warm, dry and have food and water.
We would be fine.
We were both silent for the last 3kms, which took us 2hours. Navigating through technical terrain, with weight on your back, and being very fatigued, we made sure that each step was the right one. We came into an empty Speculation Carpark and found the creek. We dropped our packs and hugged each other, a few tears springing to my eyes. That was tough. But we were tough. We never complained, we never panicked, we never gave up. We knew we could do it and we did it. It had taken us 15hrs for the day and we were shattered. We gathered water, put in our tablets to treat it, and then guzzled the remaining water we had been saving. Tents were erected and we splashed in the creek to wash off the adrenalin of the day. We were both still shaking as we made dinner, tucking into our dehydrated meals at 11 pm.
Despite the exhaustion, we took time to get to sleep. Our feet were throbbing, and I laid mine up on my pack lying in my tent to try and drain some of the blood down. My tent did not smell very good at all, with my bra and undies hanging from the roof to air out and my socks draped over my pack. I was grateful that Sam and I had our own little hiking tents, and she didn’t have to cop the smell that I had! I meditated whilst lying there trying to calm my mind from the excitement of the day. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep. So much respect for this incredible body of mine and what it had done today.
I was woken at 5 am to a distant sound of thunder. I heard it, knew it was in the distance and so went back to snoring. A few hours later I woke to the sound of thunder literally over our heads. We were both camped under some tall trees because it was the only flat ground, and I immediately worried about the trees falling on us. I counted from the thunder and lightning and didn’t have to count much. Thankfully Sam and I had set up the tents right next to each other and we called out to each other through the tents checking that we were ok and talking about what to do. We were at about 1500m and it was not safe to be so high in a lightning storm. Whilst we were heading down to the river today, we also had to climb back up Mt Buller and this was dangerous in a storm, especially carrying poles. If I lay flat on my back and held my phone to the roof, I got some 4G so I looked up the weather which told me that another storm front was coming through at 3 pm today. Right when we were due to climb Mt Buller. We talked about walking to Craig’s Hut and camping and finishing tomorrow. The issues with that option were we didn’t really have enough food to camp an extra night, and I needed to be home by Thursday for my Husband's 40th birthday. I would never hear the end of it if I missed his birthday because we had to camp another night.
What to do?
We talked it out whilst the thunder and lightning crackled overhead and decided we needed to put in a call to Sam’s Husband in Mansfield to come and get us from King Hut. Thanks to messenger we got off a message to him. We both had our maps out in our tent, using our head torches because the storm had taken all the light, and we mapped out a safe route, for us and for him. We sent him a message telling him our route and if all else failed we would camp at King Hut. Sam Hubby had not been on the roads to King Hut for a while and he was expecting some tough driving, with winching and fallen trees.
We packed up the in rain, no coffee and only a handful of dried food for breakfast. Wet weather gear was put on and the tent was thrown into the top of our packs we headed off, still smiling. The wet tent in the top of the pack soon gave us sore shoulders and as the rain eased, we started to feel very hot. We stopped to strip off the wet weather clothing and move around the wet gear in our packs to balance the weight. I was incredibly tired; every step felt like such effort and my eyes were drooping with fatigue. The adrenalin of the day before had worn off, the dehydration was lingering, and I was walking on a 4WD track where I didn’t need to concentrate as much so I could half plod and half-sleep. We had 16kms on the road before we would hit the hut and we were walking stronger than expected, despite the fatigue. I kept waiting for the road to get worse as Sam had told me, but it was easy walking. “They have obviously graded it” she told me, admitting it had been a few years since they had bought the 4WD down here.
2kms out from King Hut and a car came over the hill. Sam squealed with joy as she recognised it. Hubby and daughter hanging out the front windows and the dogs hanging out the back windows Sam’s face lit up and I knew we were done! It was such relief when the body has pushed so much, the mind has worked so hard to keep us upright and we can relax knowing that we are done.
We later learned that Sam’s hubby had been very excited about the rescue adventure, packing the chainsaw, winch kit and food and beer. He was most disappointed the road had been graded and all he had to do was drive up the road to ‘rescue us.’ We were still very grateful for the lunch and the cold beer, served by the river at King Hut before a drive home. It wasn’t long before we were both fast asleep in the back seat.
We didn’t finish the 100kms. We ended up with only about 75kms, elevation was over 3500m and our actual moving time was over 29hours in 3 days. It didn’t matter that we fell short of the whole course. This wasn’t a race, this wasn’t an ‘event’, this was our adventure. We made it an epic adventure. We laughed, cried, grunted and groaned. We pushed our bodies, and our minds, to the extreme.
A week later, I am bed-ridden, having caught Covid19 when I returned to ‘real life’ away from the mountains. My body is now fighting a different battle. My mind is fighting an isolation battle. I know that both are strong however, I know that no matter how tough I think my mind and body can be; they always surprise me with that extra strength I didn’t know I had. Whilst in isolation I am often thinking back to our recent adventure and reminding myself of what we can be capable of. I remind myself that every mountain has a summit.
We don’t give our bodies enough credit for what they do for us every day, and what they can do when we push them beyond our comfort zones. That’s where the true magic lies.
It’s now time for the body to rest up so that we are ready to tackle the next adventure and see what it brings.