The Italian Dollarmites

The Italian Dollarmites

The Italian Dolomites from jasonmacqueen on Vimeo.

We had been climbing all day. From valley floor to ridge-line. Up switchbacks finally stepping onto the sheltered alpine meadow the other side of the ridge. The cows momentarily looked up from their grazing… It was surely one of the  most picturesque paddocks anyone could imagine.   The gentle sound of cow bells will forever be linked to memories of mountains in Italy.

The Via Ferrata systems through the Italian Dollarmites are well known by European tourists.  A system of cables, ladders and anchors used during the first world war to move large groups of inexperienced troops.  Essentially mountaineering for idiots.  

We had arrived late at night in Italy with a small rental car and an unformed plan to head to the mountainy areas.  Driving out of the lowlands of Italy we were soon in a fairy-tale of small mountain towns, churches cobblestones and mills.   Italy is well setup for mountain travellers.  In addition to the via ferrata and cows, the mountains are littered with refugios, a series of large dorm style buildings offering budget accommodations.  Our Refugio even gave us a 50% discount for our Austrlaian ANU Mountaineering club cards. 

Using the Refugio as a base we were able to finally get into some of the more serous via ferratas surrounding the Three Chimneys.     Being peak tourist in Europe the mountains were crowded. Trails looking instead distant like distant ant paths.  Marching dots occasionally dissapearing into the mountains emerging hundreds of meters away via interconnect systems of caves. These extensive tunnels more relics of the first world war.  Together with foundations from barracks, barbed wire and artillery placements.  The tunnels and sniper positions must have been horrendous in winter.  While conditions for first world war soldiers were never the best.  It must have been a particularly punishing theater for soldiers. 

After three days of trekking in the area we had barley started scratching the surface.  Like Canada and unlike Australia, the European mountain range was immense.  We had completed a three day circuit finishing satisfyingly back at the car.  The bittersweet feeling of finishing the exploration of a new area with the knowledge that we really didnt see much at all. 

 

 

 

Three Capes Walk on the cheap.

Three Capes Walk on the cheap.

When it comes to recommending activities for visitors to Tasmania, the Three Capes walk has quickly risen to be in my top five list.  Well, for affluent hikers anyway.  At roughly $495 for a three night walkit is out of the price range of most of my friends. Not that the experience is bad value for $495, its just that $495 is a lot of money.

It is worth pointing out that the creation of the track has led to some areas of the Tasman Peninsula, while not completely blocked, harder to get to.  There is a possible argument that restrictions have been put in place to stop the spread of Phytophtora.  If that’s the case, they are it is not made clear.

If you are willing to put up with the restrictions, there are upsides.  Thanks to fee payers, the trail is now one of the most sculpted and well maintained tracks in Tasmania.  Possibly Australia.  The new huts also provide a reliable and conveniently spaced source of fresh water.  While I was there, the hut staff were more than happy for us to fill our water bottles.  Hopefully this stays true.

What budget campers can do:

One of the hardest parts of doing this hike was just finding information online.  I really get the feeling that Parks have not gone out of their way to provide information on self directed walks, just plenty of links to the paid experience.

So where can you stay? There is one campsite on the peninsula, Wughalee Falls.  You do not need to book, and can camp for the cost of a normal Parks Tasmania pass!  Wughalee Falls campsite is roughly dead centre of the Peninsula and provides a great base for exploring.  Sure, it could have done with a view, or a reliable water source, or not be 300m down a valley, but otherwise It’s pretty nice.  Hikers can also stay at Fortescue bay, which is a small extra cost.  But great if you need an extra night or have to camp for an early start in the morning.  
There are two main restrictions.  Hikers are not permitted to travel west to see the first hut, Surveyors.  Hikers are also asked not to travel
South down the coast from Cape Hauy.  These are not over-restrictive restrictive and basically dictate that walkers head south to Cape
Pillar and then North to Cape Hauy. 

The huts

I feel I should make special mention of the spectacular huts.  While I was pleasantly surprised by my first sighting, I quickly realised that I was looking at the toilet block.  The real hut was 50 meters away round a corner of the track. 

 

The complete Package.  Attempt at own risk!

It is also possible to do the complete walk while adhering to the one way traffic rule.  After you take the turnoff for Fortescue Bay take a right toward Stinking Bay.  The last hundred or so metres will be walking or 4WD only. From there you are free to continue to walk from the very start of the track as per paid walkers.  Please note I have not done this myself.  I’ve  and come by this knowledge second hand.  But let me know if it worked out for you!

 

Cocktails on the Castle

Cocktails on the Castle

 

Trips can often descend into arguments and petty finger pointing.  So it was refreshing that this years Cockails on the Castle started with the finger pointing.  After driving down a dirt road that seemed to go on forever we finally emerged at a disturbingly familiar T junction.  It was not the first time we had seen this intersection. We had driven in a complete circle.  The finger pointing started.

While we had set out relatively early, our day was quickly evaporating in faff.  We were in no particular hurry as surely-we thought-we would reach the top of the Castle by Sunset.  We had all day, how could we not?  I was particularly keen to get everyone to the top with plenty of time try a photo I had in the back of my mind.  It did require that I bring excessive and heavy camera equipment.

The hike to the top of the Castle is not particularly hard, but the temperature, humidity and lack of wind took a toll.  Sweat flowed, water supplies dwindled and progress slowed.  We held hope for a waterfall halfway up but found it to be more of a frustrating joke.  Water fell in drips that were cooling but not nearly enough to fill a water bottle.

 

Fortune was with us half an hour later when we found a stream with water cool enough to leave condensation on the outside of our water bottles.  A glorious find!

All this was still costing us time, however.  Not being up the top when the sunset happened was starting to be a possibility.  Emerging at the scrambling section, we started along the ridge-line and finally spotted our final destination.  The sun was entering the golden hour.  Down the direction we came, the slower group who had split apart hours ago could be seen.  And heard as it turns out.  Mel’s voice carried with crystal clarity across the still humid air “CAN YOU SEND SOMEONE DOWN TO HELP WITH BAGS?”

No one in my group said anything.  

Mel, concluding that we must not be able to hear them repeated.”CAN… YOU… SEND… SOMEONE… DOWN…TO… HELP… WITH… BAGS?”

It turned out that some were having a hard time with the humidity.  In the end Ivan and I hustled down to help while the others shuttled our backpacks to the top.  It was now getting to be a serious race against time to get this damn sunset shot.  While there was talk about the slower group camping down on the track, everyone in the end made it up.  And it would have been a shame to miss out anyone in the group shot. 

Something to remember for those going on future Castle trips, however:  Once you get to the top of the castle, you’re not finished.  There was still some of the most serious bush bashing to go.  There are few things harder to bear for a photographer than watching the light disappear.  But it was happening.  

There is goes.

The yellow light gave way to pink that lit the cliff-lines around the castle.  But as this was happening, everyone seemed to stall.  Exhaustion from the days hike, the need for a stiff drink, getting dressed in party cloths or just confusion combined to created the ultimate faff party.  A faff party right on the finish line!  By the time everyone was in front of the camera the sky had faded to a dirty blue.  Failure!…

 So why does the final photo have an orange sky?  Do you really want to know?  Sometimes its better not to know, so if you don’t then don’t scroll down!  

Look away now, there is no going back!

Castle top shenanigans.

 

The great think about camping out is that you are able to get two bites of the apple.  Camping next to the cliff I was able to set up for a dawn time-lapse.  The final results were less than professional but I guess I am a little out of practice.

 Thanks to Ivan for taking my favorite photo of the trip of my camping site.

 

In at the deep end, again.

In at the deep end, again.

Kayaking big water had not gone well for me three years ago.  Loosing my kayak and paddle and barley managing to climb along the wall of the canyon to safety was still fresh in my mind.  There was very little to consider around weather I should join a two week rafting trip.  What was giving me serious pause was whether to raft or put my big boy trousers on and again, kayak big water.  The trip already had two kayakers and three rafters.  If I rafted i would be a passenger.  A hard thing for a former raft guide to do.  We tend to want to steer.  So I decided to kayak but promised myself that I could walk around the big stuff.

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Hells canyon is the deepest gorge in North America.  Deeper than the grand canyon.  Deeper at 2,436m than the Mt Kosioskio, Australia’s highest point.  In fact it felt very much as if the river wound its way between two imposing mountain ranges.  We rigged our rafts in the shadow its  hydro dam and swapped stories with the commercial rafters preparing for their launch.  It always pays to ask a local.  Learning about the poison ivy, a common and nasty little plant was particularly useful.  Still managed to walk through plenty, but it could have been worse.

We could see the first rapids from the put in.  The longer you stare at a water feature the more you start to question yourself.  So it was with some small relief that we set off.  The three kayaks heading out ahead of the bulky rafts.  Paddling out to the middle of the wide river so far beneath the canyon peaks we all felt quite small indeed.  The trick we soon found was to stay in the middle of the main current and away from the edges where strong boils and eddy lines could cause smaller craft serious trouble.  The rapids and whirlpools on the side looked intimidatingly large but The first few kilometers passed quickly and we became more comfortable in the larger water.

It was not long before we spotted the first of the larger rapids.  Pulling the boats to the river side we walked up the banks to scout.  Sure that I would be walking around.  Looking down however I was struck by how easy it looked.  To be sure there were plenty of places where you would just not want to be.  But a clear line of untroubled current stretched through large standing waves.  It was a matter of putting yourself in the right place and hanging on.    Jeff and I were soon pulling away from the shore, me following Jeff into the large water rapid.  I felt very small.  The safety of the shore might as well have been light years away .  The canyon walls towered over us.  Everything looks bigger from your boat and the large rapids we scouted were monstrous now they were up close.  Not that we got that much time to look, the current sped us through at a blurring pace. We held on enjoying the rush.  The rafters described watching us like watching corks from a bottle. Afterwards I was told that that was the largest of the rapids.  For the first time I was actually confident that I would be able to paddle the whole river without walking a single rapid.

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I would not call the river busy but it was certainly more populated than our group was used to.  Not just other rafters and families but with motor boats travelling up and down the rapids both private and tourist. The atmosphere was almost like a beach party.  There were plenty of beach camp sites each day to choose from.  Our rest day camp was particularly picturesque.

To my delight the rest of the rapids were much the same as the first.  Imposing but with large channels through them.  As long as you put yourself in the right place it was like being on a watery roller coaster. By the end of the trip I had kayaked all rapids and satisfyingly rolled once.

 

Going Down in Tasmania

Going Down in Tasmania

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The whole Going Down Crew after Dove Canyon.

“He’s been down there a long time…” Gab was staring at the rope stretched taut over the cliff. I have to admit I had been snoozing in the afternoon sun. I opened my eyes, the canyons shadow was now at my feet. Nick had been down there a long time.
We had been exploratory canyoning in Tasmania since boxing day and were well into our third week. We started with modest expectations. How many good things could there still be left to explore? Even in Tasmania. Haven’t humans gone everywhere? We all canyoned for different reason and for me, the attraction lay in this exploration.  Mountains are obvious, rivers are easy to find. But canyons are the last to get explored.  Normally skirted by walkers and explorers, there are so many still to be explored.

 

Our first stop was Dove canyon, the only commercially operated canyoning operation in Tasmania. The folks at Dove had provided us with whitewater canyon training. Dove was originally scouted via Helicopter as a potential kayak route and later taken up as a commercial canyoning route. It was fantastic, with features so like a water park it is hard to believe they were naturally occurring. Such A good omen for what we could expect from the area our collective expectatins lifted.

Unlike the folks at Dove, we didn’t have a helicopter. Nick hadn’t put it in the proposal. So what we had to find our canyons were maps. Of the thousands of creeks in the North West of Tasmania, we started focusing on those with marked waterfalls, decent gradient loss, steep canyon walls and easy access.

 

The three L’s of Exploratory canyoning.

 

Exploration, it seems, is like opening Christmas presents. You can pick one up, shake it a little, look at the shape. But until you open it, you just don’t know. To open a canyon you need to get in and make your way down all of it. Only then do you find if it is a picturesque adventure or log choked bush bash. During our time in Tasmania, we got both.
As the first group to enter a place there is no book to tell you what equipment you need, how much water there will be nor even whether you can walk to the top of the canyon. Exploration required training, equipment and a lot of sweat for what was sometimes a very small return.
We were heading into the unknown. When Nick started his abseil on a 60 meter rope, he didn’t expect the cliff to be over 90 metres. He only found that out when he was, well,  literally at the end of his rope. Due to the slope of the cliff wall and the water, he was out of sight and unable to signal to us. The first person to be where he was, dangling over an abyss, this was true exploration.
Whether Nick appreciated his fleeting moment of pure exploration or just sunk into hysteria (It should be mentioned that Nick is scared of heights), we will never know. Prusiking back up and penduluming over to a ledge, he was finally able to use the drill he had dutifully carried for weeks. Now all we needed to do was to make sure we could pull down the 60 meter rope he had used to get to the ledge so we could continue. Continue and not spend the night on a cramped, cold ledge.
The canyon, which we later dubbed “My special place”  was the pick of Canyons for the trip. Its high flow through unusual rock in a dry area made it totally unique. It was an open canyon down a cliff-face overlooking tableland, presenting stunning views all the way down the canyon.

“My Special Place” Canyon

There were many beautiful moments and exciting abseils among the three weeks of exploration. In my opinion, there were three new canyons which I would deem to have been “discovered” and that I would be proud to suggest to people. While many others while sharing their beauty were not enough to justify the work to get to them. But our standards were pretty high.
On our final day, we geared up to explore one last canyon that Nick’s father had spotted from Google maps. We nicknamed it leviathan.   A waterfall so large it could be seen from space. Packing all the things and leaving early, it seemed to be a perfect way to round off our Tasmanian Exploration adventure.

Leviathan from Google Maps

Unfortunately that was when the Tasmanian forest fires started. The fires almost surrounded us that day after 40 flared up overnight. They would eventually burn down as much as 11 000 Hectares of World Heritage Area., the majority of which will not grow back. One fire scoured through an area where we had explored two of our three new canyons, and the fate of their rainforests remains unknown. While we’d been excited to be the first to see some areas, we had never thought for a second that we might be the last.

Just another reason to get out there and explore.

 

The Sentinal

The Sentinal

A 3:00 am alpine start is hard.  I really didn’t think anything would make that right.  But sitting on top of The Sentinel for lunch did.  While I didn’t ask, I’m pretty sure that it made all the work Alex put into organizing the trip alright as well.

What made skiing the Sentinel memorable was being able to ski such a well-defined stand alone peak literally top to bottom.  From our lunch spot on the pinnacle we skied down past the tree level through increasingly thick shrubs finally stopping in the valley at a fast flowing creek.

A week of preparation and more than a day of touring used in two minutes of downhill exhilaration.