In a matter of minutes, we're out of the forest and carefully picking our way uphill across tussocks. Not everyone has a torch so we've subconciously organized into an "every-other" line of lights. As usual, I'm bringing up the rear so I try to keep my head torch focused on Louise's feet in front of me since she hasn't got a light of her own. This is tricky ground to navigate in broad daylight, with long grasses, random plants or roots, rocks, occasional tiny streams or deep cracks, but fortunately, the sky is lightening incrementally so visibility is improving. As we stop for a few minutes to strip off layers of clothing, I can almost distinguish landscape features around me. Oops, sorry for blinding you. I forgot about the light on my forehead when I heard my name.
A new day is dawning and we're somewhere between 1000-1500m above sea level, traversing the side of a ridge in a valley of the Ohau Range, on our way to bag the Unnamed Peak for our snack break. I couldn't have picked this scenario out of a hat if I'd tried. It actually seems quite unreal to write it down. We stop for a bit to watch the sun creep up over the horizon, way off in the distance. Lake Ohau below us is becoming more clear, the peaks around us are gaining more definition, the lights of the towns so far away are becoming dimmer, and the sky is all kinds of epic colours. Dark blue, nearly black, softening into a lighter blue, purple too, here comes some pink and orange; such delicate blends of colours just aren't justified with words alone. They really need to be seen in person and I treasure that morning in my memory banks. For these few moments alone, it was definitely worth getting up at the cold, dark hour of 4am.
But, with the daylight comes the sun, and since it's summer here in the rainshadow, with the sun comes some impressive heat so we get moving again. Toiling steadily upward, the group is getting ahead of me again, my feet hurt but at least I can see where I'm going now without my head torch, don't focus on the physical parts, part of my mind drifts off to other places, and eventually I catch up to the group again. We're at the bottom of a huge rock slide section with thousands of red and grey rocks of all different sizes scattered about. I've drunk nearly 1L of water already and I no longer really notice the sweat streaming down my face or how my shirt clings to me. Survival is more important at this point. Once we enter the rock slide section, we won't have any more water access until we return to this point so Sophie and the fast hikers take empty water bottles to fill downhill at the creek while the rest of the group starts through the rocks. There's almost no vegetation from here on up, just rocks and dirt, mostly reddish in colour, and I start to wonder if this is what Mars looks like.
Scramble up onto big rock, steady self with pole, step down onto rock that suddenly shifts position, lean precariously to one side and stab frantically for firm surface with pole while hopping to the next rock to avoid catastrophic fall. Slip a bit, steady she goes, which one is more stable? just go, says my brain. Where's the group? Are they following any kind of path? Can there be a path across a rock fall?? That one's huge, I'll go around it, my thighs are screaming and I'm sure my calves are 3" shorter than they used to be. I'm panting and sweating and looking and hopping and skidding and just a scrape then, nothing bad. Are we there yet? Focus on the end, keep the top of the rock fall in sight, ok Gerald is already there so head toward him. Heave sigh of relief upon reaching group, carefully lower self to big rock for rest while Sophie and the fast hikers head toward us with our water. Damn, they ARE fast!
Gulp some water, give thanks for hat keeping beating hot sun out of my face, soaking up the sweat on my forehead, and preventing a scalp sunburn, rise on shaky legs and pay attention to Sophie's instructions on how to best ascend the scree wall behind and above us. Scree is best described in this case as many, many, many teeny, tiny rocks with precious little holding them in place, in a vertical setting. There's the odd bigger rock to use but it's going to be slow and tricky. We're kicking steps in scree to anchor our feet just like you see people doing in a wall of snow. Unreal. There are a number of Chomolungma parallels here, including getting up in the middle of the night, and I can't help but feel that this is one of my personal Everests. Sophie suggests zig-zagging across in a switchback pattern as opposed to going straight up the wall. I'm constantly worried that my feet are going to lose their tenuous purchase, but short of sitting down and refusing to continue, there's not much I can do that I'm not already doing, so I try not to think about it. The rest of the group save for Julie is already up on the ridge. My legs are burning beyond belief and I'm panting like crazy. Stop for a breath or two to lean on hiking pole, slam boot into ground for next step, and the next step, and the next. Sophie is helping Julie find the best way up the last section; keep going, says my brain. Call back to Sophie that I'm ok and can carry my pack by myself, she points out a path that my addled brain finally sees. Head down, keep shuffling forward, be sure of my footing, repeat, hey, I'm finally on the ridge!!
A quick stop for some water and photos, then Sophie points out the rest of the route up the ridge to our goal which is still a bit hidden. I admire the sheer vertical I just climbed and feel a bit pained at what still lies ahead. My legs each feel like a painful, knotted, 2-ton pile of jelly and I don't know if they'll continue to carry me. Must. Have. Faith. In. Self. Plod along ridge, barely able to lift each foot off the ground. Lift, plant, shift weight, that sun is really bright, thank goodness there's some wind because it's like a furnace otherwise, repeat. Check periodically to keep group in sight, let mind wander to another place to keep from thinking about physical discomfort. Another rock slide section, massive boulders I have to climb over, hop to the smaller ones, go around the biggest ones, and finally......... I find the group sitting in the shelter of more rocks!! I made it!! I'm on top of the Unnamed Peak, about 2000m above sea level, in the bright sunshine. I stagger over to an empty spot and heave my pack to the ground before collapsing beside it. I admit it: there were times (plural) when I really doubted I could get here. I just didn't know if I could physically do it, and I didn't know if I could mentally push through the physical pain. But the proof is in the photos and I did it!!! I feel as though I just conquered Chomolungma herself.
I'm so tired I can barely find the energy to open my pack and drink some water. Someone passes the group snacks to me and I eat some trail mix and take a few pieces of chocolate. I dig a muesli bar out of my pocket and slowly begin to devour it. I'm not necessarily starving but I need the energy from it if I'm going to get up again and go back down. Dig two more bars out of my pack, pull on my wool sweater and raincoat plus gloves for protection from the wind. When your shirt and bra are as soaked as mine are, the wind chills you very quickly. Another reason to be wearing the gaiters too as they help to keep my legs warm which are only clad in shorts and boots otherwise. Feeling a little like Lazarus, I rise at last and convince someone to take a few photos of me on top of the world. More water, more snacks, stash a muesli bar in my pocket, doff the raincoat and stuff it back in my pack because we're about to spend the next 3 hours hiking downhill, and it's a steep downhill too. We'll also be out of the wind again soon with no shelter from the blazing sun and I'll be working up a sweat.
If you thought going up the scree wall with barely anything to set your feet on that didn't move underfoot sounded challenging, try going down it! What you should do is go to a ski resort in the summer, say Whistler (because I'm feeling patriotic from missing most of the Olympics) in BC, find their steepest run (without any trees or bushes on it), and cover it with loose gravel. Now hike down it, I dare you. Your feet just might move faster than the rest of you. In fact, figure that will probably happen, and you might accidently slide partway down. Your pack will protect your back luckily. I plant my hiking pole firmly the whole way down and only slip a few times. No one careens uncontrollably which is a good thing. Sophie is pretty much running down the wall but it's a studied, practiced approach. My toes are smashed into the front of my hiking boots, my knees are starting to hurt a bit, my thighs are burning and shaking, my hand is scraped from saving a fall, but I'm finally at the giant rock fall at the bottom of the scree wall.
We're back in the big boulders. I've got company for once as Kirsten and Sean are both favouring their knees behind me. Hop, hop, stretch, steady self, trip, stagger, wobble, save, hop, agh! THUD. I just fell off a giant rock onto a pile of rocks below it in the blink of an eye. Ow, that really hurt. Sean and Kirsten stop to check on me and I assess myself for damage: multiple scrapes, scratches and bruises on both arms, my elbow is bleeding a bit. Both legs are banged up too between my gaiters and my shorts. My posterior is smarting where it took the impact, there's a big gash in the back of my right thigh which is bleeding a bit, but overall, no head injury, nothing broken or permanently damaged so I'm good to go. My pack probably saved my back from numerous bruises and scrapes for which I am thankful as the rest of them start to sting fiercely. I pick myself up, thank the other two for checking on me, and off we go.
When I snowboard, I usually gauge my fatigue level by how shaky my legs are which translates to how often I fall. When I start to fall too often, or in situations when I wouldn't normally fall, I call it a day to prevent any fatigue-related injuries. Well, I just reached that point, but I can't call it a day. I need to pick myself off some more rocks, ignore the new scratches, and keep going. Not only are my muscles taxed, but all the sleep deprivation of the last few weeks isn't helping. We stop briefly at the bottom of the rock slide to regroup, reapply suncream, and rehydrate. Press on because we're sheltered from the wind and it's at least 30C with no shade for a while yet. We still have to get back to camp, pack everything back up, and get back to the truck which is a 2 hour hike from camp. This sun has no mercy.
We're staggering and stumbling across tussocks now. I'm not the only one who looks drunk or whose body is hurting. Louise is skidding ahead of me, whoops - she's down in a pile of grass, back up again. My foot is in a hole that I don't remember seeing this morning. I catch my foot in some grass and topple ungracefully into another pile of grass after rolling for a few seconds. Pretty soft landing. I can barely lift my feet out of fatigue so I'm tripping a lot. Face-first this time, no harm done. Getting up is slightly awkward with the pack and sometimes I feel like a turtle. Downhill again, I don't remember stepping in that creek by accident this morning, slide halfway down hill when my foot takes a step that isn't there, pick self up and continue. I can see the forest ahead of me just before I fall down again.
Back to camp, time to pack everything up so we can get the heck out of here. Daren't take my boots off because I'd never put them back on again. Camp is repacked, we've had a bit more snacks and water, descending through forest now. Everyone's knees hurt and I'm sure more toes are jammed like mine. I'm moving faster now for a change. We pause at the edge of the forest for another break and photos. Only about another hour to the truck although it's all open terrain again. Savouring our last moments in the shade, we struggle back into our packs and continue. I'm motoring now. My head is someplace else and I'm basically on autopilot. I can make conversation when required, but no one's got a lot of extra energy. It's like hiking in an oven. My feet are so sore that every step hurts.
We retrieve Louise who took a wrong turn, I'm churning up the wall of this ditch, somewhere in my brain it registers that this is an improvement for me, keep going and keep pace with Sophie because she has the keys to the van. One last stretch, I'm ahead of everyone else, I can see the ski hut!!! We did it!!!! We take turns at a toilet break where I realize that I've drunk 2L of water today and haven't needed to pee since 4am. It's about noon now, an 8-hour interval, which is a new personal record for me.
I don't even remember lunch this day. I know we ate it but I don't remember where or any details about it. I know that we drove to Buscot Sheep Station to camp in the yard for the night and somehow we got our tents up in the baking heat and scorching sun of the afternoon. We scrounge for shade in the yard, unload the food needed for dinner and breakfast, and vie to be first to use the showers. My stuff's a mess so I wait. I collapse in the tent for a rest where eventually I am joined for chatting by Kirsten and Jane. I dimly realize that we've managed to fit 3 people into our 1.5 (technically 2) person tent. I don't even care if bugs are getting in the open doors. I'm wearing the same clothes as yesterday, I'm scratched and bruised and stinky and filthy, but I'm too tired to give it much priority. We're all in the same boat. After a while, I gather my wits and rise to limp for my turn in the shower. The bottom of my feet feel bruised, as if I'd jumped flat-footed off a 2-storey something and landed barefoot on concrete. I shuffle around in my unlaced shoes and I hate when people shuffle their feet. My knees feel like someone is driving a stake through them if they get bent past 45 degrees so crouching to get in and out of the tent or sit in a chair is lots of fun.
After a nice hot shower and some clean clothes, I feel a little more human and head to see if the dinner prep gang needs help. Venison burgers on the menu tonight. I skip the burger part, but take one of Gerald's mangled fried eggs off the BBQ. Kirsten and I take turns putting on a show outside the kitchen window for our group mates who are washing the dishes, shouting put away instructions through the window, much to our own amusement. Take some photos of the fantastic sunset happening, limp to the bathroom one more time, shuffle into the tent and set alarm for "early" again...... it's been a VERY long day.