[SUBW-A] The Big J and other places

Arwen Sutton and Nicholas Murray arwenick at acay.com.au
Mon Oct 9 23:33:52 AEDT 2000

Arwen And Nicks' Big Adventure 19/9 - 23/9

Day 1
After intending to make an early start, we leave at 11:20. Damn. The
drive down is through stifling heat and, during the latter half, palls
of bushfire smoke. The air conditioner gets used several times. Yep,
it's gonna be a skiing trip. We make a stop in Cooma for a quick wax job
(pink, of course). Packs on backs at 4:30 at Munyang; skis too,
unfortunately. No officer, I wasn't speeding. We walk for at least a
kilometre up the aqueduct road before any snow is seen closer than mid
distance. About 500m before the "Revegetation" sign, the snow begins to
play with us, tempting us to put on our skis four times, each time
presenting us with a lovely long patch followed just around the bend by
a ditch of "Acko snow". Yes, we are suckers. After the revegetation
sign, we are allowed to keep our skis on and the Disappointment Spur hut
is reached shortly thereafter. Ominously, the hut door is flapping open
and soon our worst fears are confirmed: someone has stolen the stove!
Even without that otherwise ubiquitous source of hut entertainment (and,
nominally, heating), we manage to stay up until 9:30. The wind is
roaring through the trees, the trunks of which creak and groan against
one another; a cloud wrack obscures most of the stars, mostly. I sit and
stew about the weather; after all, it has been four years since my last
sunny day on snow.

Day 2
It's sunny and mostly cloudless, but the wind is still giving the trees
a good thrashing. The visible high points of the Main Range across the
valley are clagged in. After a major expedition to get water, we're off
through the dense snow gums lining the side of Disappointment Spur,
eschewing the road in favour of gaining the ridgeline towards the
Kerries and following in the tracks of John "Acko" A., who was at the
hut two days before. After a while we see Gungartan and are relieved to
see that he is standing clag-free. From the last wide saddle of the spur
we fail to take the better low route to the east of the ridge and
instead foolishly make our way above the cornice, which is mighty as
there has been a very strong westerly blowing for some time. And it's
still blowing, but most of the time we manage to tuck in under the jet
stream coming up over the ridge. The snow is very soft and boggy, so
edging is hard and often one sinks almost to the lip of the cornice
before the edges bite. As we near Gungartan a lone black rider glides
down the eastern low route below us. He will turn out to be the only
other human we see during the five days of the trip. Gungartan Trig is
wind-blasted, so the photo-stop is brief. From there the fun runs begin
down to Gungartan Pass, down the increasingly bare eastern side of the
Valentine River Valley, across to that nameless creek valley above Tin
Hut and down to the hut via the first Ss of the trip, and indeed, the
first wombat hole. Damn. Lunch in the hut; no John A. to be seen, so we
head along the Valentine River to Mawson Hut, foolishly following the
tracks of some silly twit who decided to stay in the thickest snow gum
thickets 50m above the river. (S)he was either very short or a fantastic
limboist; I am neither, so score a few facefulls of kindling. The river
below is beginning to look ominously wide and fast flowing. We spend an
evening with the "Ultimate" stove and make yellow snow under a
staggeringly brilliant sky before retiring.

Day 3
Surprisingly, the low point of the trip is reached and I'm not talking
about altitude but rather the crossing of the Valentine River. After
blithely skiing down the Mawson's creek to the river,  we head north
looking for a snowbridge as our frowns deepen. It soon becomes clear
that one ain't going to appear; the fast flowing, deep, turbulent stream
flows between one metre high vertical snow walls which drop straight
into the water. The cold westerly takes no pity as we strip bare from
the undies down, straps skis to packs and boots around necks and lower
ourselves down the snow wall to perch on a small clump of Richea before
dropping into the melt water. It seems colder than I had imagined and my
legs are screaming as I pick my way across the smooth round stones under
the water raging past my thighs and making my stocks thrum. After
hurling my pack up over the wall at the far side, I'm back in and now I
can't really feel my feet anymore, except after returning, when I stand
on a patch of snow to pick up Arwen's pack and it's like hot coals. On
the third leg I'm in agony, it is really, really hurting, yes really
broken bones and sprains and dislocations I've had them all and they
don't hurt this much and I must get out yes I've got to get out please
help me...Much more feebly, I'm thrusting Arwen's pack towards the top
of the snow wall and it's not going over and all I can think about is
just getting out. Then Arwen hauls and it's out and I follow, beaching
myself like a whale over the edge and wriggling on my belly until I can
stand up and drop in a heap on my pack. In the sun, the wind now seems a
balmy breeze as we slump exhaustedly slapping at our legs with our
socks. Damn. From here we climb up the flanks of the Cup and Saucer to
gain the Bluff Tarn Plateau and then pass Tarn Bluff to drop down to the
Geehi Cross-roads below. A big green slushy expanse of marsh allows us
passage over the riverbed without  water over bindings and we head north
along the high Geehi Valley towards looming Jagungal, sticking to the
western side to keep out of the westerly that is giving us misgivings
about the climb ahead. At least there's no clag over the Big J basking
leonine in the sun. Finally we reach the saddle at the head of the Geehi
and on the flank of Jagungal, where packs are dropped and we start the
big zeds up the steep side of the mountain. This is the only time of the
trip where I really become aware of the steepness of the slope and I
start to lose a sense of horizon. Yet we reach the rocky edge of the
gentler higher slopes surprisingly quickly (the absent packs having
something to do with it, I suspect...) and the summit cone and then the
summit are soon gained. My first winter ascent of Jagungal! and my first
ascent in eight years. Views, as always when it's clear, of the entire
universe (forget spot 994, or 914, or whatever it is, the Big J is the
Centre!): Main Range, Grey Mares, Kerries, Brassies and those vast
expanses to the north, and east with rural country stretching to the
unimaginably distant horizon.
Forty minutes from the saddle to the top, but it's only nine back down
(I'm sure this is far from the record). Of course, the best esses of the
trip, and again a wombat hole. Damn. Reloading our burdens, we slide off
along the Strumbo Range to pass over the big cornice north of Strawberry
Hill and drop down to pitch camp on the headwaters of Straight Creek, on
the flank of Strumbo Hill about 100m below the saddle. Huddled in a snow
dug-out, we count satellites in a blinding star-crazed sky.

Day 4
We set off  along the Grey Mare road with the intention of heading
through past Valentine Hut and over the Kerries to Schlink; as we drop
down past Smith's Lookout, Grey Mare Hut appears perched atop its little
ski run on the far side of the valley. Back Flat Creek lies between us
and it, swollen and without obvious snow bridges, and the road ahead
appears to descend into a wide Acko Snowfield around the creek ford. So
we pike the hut and cross over the spur below Smith's Lookout to make a
barefoot crossing of Straight Creek, this time without gross
unpleasantness as we're out of the wind in this narrow valley. Up on the
Strumbo Range again, we are treated to a rare, spectacular and very
unwelcome site in the middle distance- a huge, roaring sheet of white
water coming down over the Valentine Falls. Um- aren't we about to cross
that one? Well, actually, no, we don't even get near Valentine River
because a thirty-foot wide torrent bars the Valentine Fire Trail at the
Geehi River ford. I can see and Arwen can see, instantly, that there is
no possible passage for us here, but we play a little game with one
another. "Do you think we can cross it?" "Yeah, maybe, it's a little
shallower just there..." "Yes, it doesn't look toooo deep..." "Let's
give it a go..." We don't want to face reality, after all we are
theoretically only two kilometres away from lunch in Valentine Hut. So
off with skis, gaiters, boots, socks and tights, and I step into the
water willing so strongly that it won't be quite as deep and powerful as
it looks. One step knees, two steeps mid-thigh, three steps waist and
I'm still in the slack water at the edge. Four steps and whooaah, I'm
into the main current and lifted off my feet and heading downstream so I
throw myself at the edge and a little eddy current places me on my feet
again. "No go!". Route planning time- the Geehi is placing an enormous
barrier across our Route back to Munyang. Damn. There's nothing for it
but to head back up the Strumbo Range, where we meet and briefly follow
our own tracks north of Strawberry Hill before schussing down into the
broad rolling Geehi Plain, a beautiful sparkling white basin studded
with and surrounded by granite boulders and outcrops. There are no other
tracks here, and we stop regretting the change of route, completely. The
river is still a roiling wide green ribbon so we head east towards the
marshy crossing spot below Tarn Bluff. Now there's a bonus: I spot a bit
of the river where it seems to disappear; we slide up to find the
twenty-foot wide and invisibly deep stream going under a similarly wide
expanse of snow, and reappearing fifty metres downstream. Trouble is,
the expanse is slumping and parallel cracks have opened up to reveal the
exact lines of the river banks. As I gingerly pole myself into the
middle I think of how long I would stay under the snowbridge before
reappearing if I dropped through and floated downstream. "We'd better
take this one at a time" I think as Arwen gaily strides alongside with a
shriek; Arwen looks about and says "Ulp!" We exit, and fast; fortunately
forward rather than down. Looking back, the bridge hasn't shifted an
inch. We pitch camp under Tarn Bluff; the wind eases as once more that
impossible, soul-shearing, dazzling star banner flows out over the sky
from the east and starts to suck the warmth of the day in to fuel its
brightness. The aches and strains of the trip are starting to add up;
Arwen's heel is looking a little grim and puts my three centimetre
blister to shame.

Day 5
We are a little excited about the prospect of baths, beds and civilised
meals, as it's home day today! We make our earliest start of the trip
and climb up around Tarn Bluff to gain the Bluff Tarn plateau, which we
cross to pass between The Cup and the Saucer. Now we follow the
Brassies, which are really a sequence of glorious high bowls, now
blemished by spreading Acko Snowfields under the strong sun and the
scouring westerly, which is picking up again to send a new caravan of
big fluffy clouds overhead. Careful route-finding allows us to stay on
real snow as we pass to the west of the Brassy Peak and then take a long
swishing effortless fifteen hundred metre run below the Big Brassy down
to the headwaters of the Valentine River, where we are suddenly seized
by elevenses. The final few kilometres up the river to Gungartan Pass
take it out of us; my heels are hurting, so I can only imagine what
Arwen's feel like. She is uncomplaining, mostly, although flagging a
bit.The cornice above us gets a little scary at times, particularly when
we see the huge chunks that have been dropping off it to land all around
the tracks we are following. The ridge between the pass and the mountain
is very bare of snow, so we make the mistake of trying to pass around
the eastern side and find almost no snow at all. There is one knife-edge
drift that one only realises is so as one perches balanced and wobbling
atop it, skis contacting the snow only below one's boots, before
careering wildly down the far side. Arwen fails to appreciate the wild
adventure of this latest manoeuvre and my route-finding skills come in
for a deal of criticism as she slides down on her bum.An avalanche site,
scattered with the biggest snow boulders I have ever seen, greets us
below Gungartan; the camera leaps out for that one, quickly followed by
the lunch bags. A thoroughly sensible lunch site, that one - not!
Following our three-day-old tracks back down Disappointment Spur, we get
a grandstand view of the anvil clouds being blown up from the south by
an incipient cold front. The snow-gums get thicker and thicker and
Arwen's temper shorter and shorter until finally we break out onto the
aqueduct road exactly at the hut! I'd like to say that it wasn't pure
luck...Arwen collapses in the hut and actually goes to sleep while I'm
scribbling excitedly in the log book. The skiing is soon over. A final
"stroll"  down the steepening road takes us past a grazing wombat at the
wooden road bridge, and we're back in the world of concrete things and
bitumen ready for a drive through Sydney to Byron for a week's diving...

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