Mid-afternoon, with our wet bodies curled up in a small log hut halfway down Mount Bogong, Sam and I listened to another teeth-chattering hiker who had similarly sought refuge.
“Goodness knows why we do this to ourselves,” he chuckled over smacks of heavy rain and a nearby rumble of thunder.
We had just made a downward dash from the summit. The high plain had been, firstly, so thick with cloud we couldn’t see five metres ahead of ourselves. And just as we’d stumbled upon the cairn marking the top, those clouds had begun to unleash a violent downpour.
Alas, soggy socks didn’t deter us from returning to the Victorian alps, our summer hiking haven, on another weekend. This time to conquer Mount Stirling.
After a leisurely three and a half hour drive from Melbourne, we pulled up at Telegraph Box Junction, where we would begin our 16km trek. The afternoon ahead would see us walking five kilometres to reach the summit. The following morning, we would complete the final 11km of the loop.
Our boots crunched on the rocky path as we keenly hiked the steady uphill, impelled by our anticipation of the sweeping vista that would lie ahead. On either side of us was a never-ending spread of alpine ash trees and snow gums, each stalk detailed with its own unique pattern.
Prior to the summit, we passed the Bluff Spur Hut, basic and well-kept, maintained in case of emergency. From here, the foliage faded and the surrounds opened up, to let onto the 1749m summit. Aside from the trig point, a few tumbles of rock, and a solitary snow gum, there was nothing tall on the peak, allowing for an unimpeded view of the stupendous waves of mountains in the more distant panorama.
The evening’s golden sunset bled a warm tint over everything and we blithely allowed the burning sunlight to sting our eyes. I watched as Sam’s silhouette meandered through the hare’s tail grass, exploring different vantage points. I hoped the world would stop spinning and we could revel in our private paradise forever; but inevitably, the amber glow dissolved into a black sheet. As the first white speckles of the starry night appeared, we sunk cosily into our sleeping bags and let our pupils rest.
A TURN TOWARDS CHAOS
Rest for a couple of hours, that is. We were both awoken by our tent caving in on us as it lifted, twisted and contorted in an intensifying gale.
Leaning our rucksacks and weighty items against the edges of the tent wasn’t enough to keep it upright. The strength of the wind thrust the bags straight back into our laps. Even hyperextending my limbs to all corners of the tent in an acrobatic feat didn’t suffice.
By this point it was about 2am. Luckily, we had reception, so we Googled the forecast: storms predicted for the morning, around 11am. The winds, by this point, were peaking at about 60km/h. Perhaps, with the storm forecast, it would just keep on building.
To stay or to leave? Neither option was flawless. Our beloved tent, which has travelled to the other side of the world with us, was sure to break in such conditions. And there was no chance of any shut-eye. But then, did we really want to pack up in this? The fly might just disappear off down an impossible slope. And setting up again, in a more sheltered spot, wasn’t particularly tempting; nor was guiltily using the hut for a worthless few hours of sleep – meaning what, we’d walk the five kilometres back down to the car?
Our indecision was chewing up time; the wind grew stronger, peaking at over 70km/h. Ultimately, prompted by a particularly strong gust, we started to pack up – deflating the matts, rolling the sleeping bags and loading up the hiking packs. Outside, in the maelstrom, we dismantled the tent, using our bodies to restrain the fly from getting a one-way ticket into the abyss.
With head torches guiding us and arms intertwined so as not to lose one another, we began our hustle down the mountain. The path dipped into a trench, placing us lower than the flat, exposed saddle. Momentarily, we were protected from the powerful blows. It was a split second of calm in a very panicked situation.
It allowed us to notice the dramatic show that was in full swing above us. A glamorous display of stars dancing in space. Amidst the chaos, we allowed ourselves to be completely dazed and dumbfounded by the bright night, before persevering onward.
Hours ago, we had walked the same track, warm from the sunlight streaming through trees, relishing in the plentiful greenery. Now, the forest was black and groaning.
Goodness knows why we do this to ourselves!
Trees that once stood tall and strong seemed flimsy against the vigorous gales. An incessant chorus of creaking surrounded us. Now and then the ear-splitting crack of wood wrenched the night, compelling us into a sprint.
Five kilometres has never felt so long.
After finally reaching our car, it took a while for my breathing and heartbeat to settle. Too exhausted to re-set the tent, we slept in the front seats.
GOODNESS KNOWS WHY
Upon rising the next day, we found ourselves talking over one another, eager to debrief the mayhem. It was still fresh, the fright of it not yet fully gone, but – whatever doubt we’d suffered during our downhill evacuation – I knew why we did this to ourselves. Just as our friend in the hut on Mount Bogong had known, when after a moment of pregnant silence he added: “Of course, there’s always the story.”