Saturday 31 October 2020

Rumble in the Jagungal - Mt Jagungal, Kosciuszko National Park, NSW

“A lot happened today” is the opening, understated sentence in my journal on Day 3 of an eight day walk in the Jagungal Wilderness of Kosciuszko National Park. 

“Up at 5:30am,” it continues. “The sky east was clear, the sky west dark with clouds. The frontal edge of the approaching storm is drawn in a straight line directly above us. Re-checked the weather and not much change but, hints that the bad weather should be gone by the afternoon.”

So, of course who wouldn’t set off walking into that uncertain sky. We started walking that day at 7:30am, leaving the safety and shelter of O'Keefe's Hut with plans to stick to our Plan A, which was to climb the epic 2,061m high Mt Jagungal and spend a night on its impressive summit; despite the menacing pall, despite the storm warning and with us using the untracked, steep, thick-scrubbed direct approach from the weather station on Grey Mare Fire Trail.

At first the frontal cloud, although grey, was high and looked innocent enough. We enjoyed glorious patches of sunshine. I do remember thinking 'perhaps the weather warning is a ruse, the predicted wind gusts an over-estimation'. Perhaps not.

As we headed off-track, leaving the wide open fire trail, hail began to fall. We donned all our wet weather gear and headed into the scrub. The approaching clouds had changed from grey to an intense, sluggish, bruised blue. My journal is again, in hindsight, understated and appallingly optimistic:

“The weather really came in. We had another quite heavy downpour of rain and hail, strong winds. Kept climbing, clouds still high.”

As we climbed slowly, pushing through thick bossiaea scrub and prying our way between small snow gums, we were largely protected from the south-westerly winds. The line of our ascent, weaving spontaneously up the north-east slope also helped. But, as we got higher, and the scrub thinner, and the rocks more exposed, a lot of thunder and lightning joined us. It was close and unnerving. Bright flashes in the corner of my eyes; my head tucked and sunken in the hood of my rain jacket. Then a heavier downpour rain; more hail. The terrain got slippery. My old wet weather gear became soaked through. Finally, halfway up, the cloud came down and we lost our good visibility. Navigation came down to terrain alone.  

We kept climbing at a steady pace; to keep moving, to keep warm. We reached more open ground, which, at a guess, meant we were getting closer to the summit. It also exposed us to stronger winds and the air temperature became much, much colder. My hands slowly clawed. I wondered if they were just frozen or if the anxiety of the sudden challenges on an exposed alpine mountain in a wild storm were making me hyperventilate. Caz kept turning around to make conversation as a way to check I was okay.  I had gone so quiet, but sometimes that is what it takes - head down, strong focus. We pushed on.

When we finally broke out onto snow grass we knew the summit was close and so we immediately began searching for any kind of protected campsite. Something flat; something sheltered. It had always been our intention to camp high on Mt Jagungal. It is such a grand peak, towering out of the Jagungal Wilderness zone; immediately recognisable and visible from so many other points in the Snowy mountains. But on the peak we could see nothing of its familiar pointed summit or its rounded grassy shoulders. All was shrouded and howling. We could tell up from down but, visibility was less than 50m; the wind gusted powerfully. I was wet through and hypothermia became more than just a hunch. My clawed hands were useless. Finding a campsite was difficult enough, putting up the tent another challenge. My frozen fingers were non-responsive. The tent bag whipped away in the strong breeze. I chased it, cursing, but it disappeared in the white-out as Caz called me back to help with the frantically flapping inner and poles. The tent poles never been the same since; one remains permanently bent from the strength of the winds they were forced to protect us from. 

“Such a relief to throw our gear in the tent and dive in. Untying my shoelaces was painful. I put on my warm dry clothes and crawled into my sleeping bag desperate for a hot cup of tea but it was too windy for the cooker. The sound of the wind hitting the west face of the mountain was like huge waves in a monstrous sea crashing against a headland. Good 45 minutes before I felt my body warming up.”

Can you believe it was just 10:30am in the morning. Did I mention it was December, summer. The tent copped some hefty gusts. About 1:30pm we finally poked our heads out.

The clouds had lifted. What was revealed was a stunning, fabulous view - and the tent bag, snagged in bushes just 60m away. And, we jagged an amazing campsite. As the afternoon progressed, the weather got better and better. The forecast had been right - about both the violence of the frontal system and the stunning clarity afterwards.

From about 5:30pm to 6pm, it is nearly clear blue skies and sunny vistas everywhere. The wind is still ferocious; it lulls and swoops and smashes the tent. We are on the east side, the supposed lee of the mountain but, the winds swirl around the small peak and punch us from all sides. The summit is only about 50m above us. There is a good sized drift of snow still tucked against the rocks nearby. I’ve checked the forecast and they recorded a wind gust of 111km/hr at Thredbo top station. Some meteorologist is having fun, describing the wind as ‘vigorous’. Caz is up on the summit taking pictures and we have every layer and nearly every stitch of clothing on. Jagungal, I think, is a mighty mountain.”

There are just a couple of photos that show the approaching weather and the wildness we walked in. Then nothing. It was too intense, too 'vigourous' for photography. But, once the storm abated the light was gentle and lovely and the photographer got to work. 

As an aside, Caz is currently reading an old book (1938) called 'Kamet Conquered' by F. S. Smyth who writes about mountains with an appropriate and wonderfully diverse vocabulary of adjectives and adverbs: “The wind rushed at us spitefully as we stood on the crest of the ice wall. Wind is always unpleasant on any mountain, but at high altitudes it is imbued with a quality of devilishness, which must be experienced to be appreciated. It does not blow constantly, nor even from the same direction, but thrusts venomously at the mountaineer just when he is congratulating himself on having escaped its attentions.”

When I did finally step outside the tent in the afternoon sun, the crows were there. They were playing; in mad flights and swoops on the wild wind. The next day we continued on our 8-day hike. We had nearly 24 hours on Mt Jagungal; most of it in the tent.  The forecast ahead was for ‘mostly sunny' so my fingers were crossed. And yet, my first journal for that next day, Day 4, said this:

“A lot happened today as well...”

All images and words on this site are copyright of Craig Fardell and Christina Armstrong. It is illegal to sell, copy, or distribute images and text without permission. We thank you for your help in respecting the copyright of our work.

We would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands we walk through and pay our respects to Aboriginal Elders past and present. Thank you, for enduring our presence in these special places.

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