My Mountain (Mis)-Adventure
Cooked to well-done on Mt Barney
Fuck. Grab something! Fuck! I’m not ready to die?! FUCK!!! I’m scared.
I am almost 6 hours into a training “run” on Mt Barney.
The Journey to Impasse
The plan was for me to make twin summits – an out and back of the South Ridge, followed by an out and back of the South-East Ridge.
Given the weather forecast of oppressive heat, I decided pack a little extra fluid. 1L is ordinarily more than enough for a 6hr run, but I packed another bottle into my vest.
I also decided to head out a little earlier than originally planned, to beat some of the heat. Unfortunately, co-sleeping with a restless toddler in a two-person tent, put paid to that. The night was almost devoid of sleep for any of us.
Instead of heading out early, our alarm failed to go off, and I left somewhat after I had originally intended. At a little after 05:00, I was suited up and on the move, with Claire’s parting words echoing in my mind:
“Just go on your fucking run!”
It had been a rough night.
Lap #1 – South Ridge
With the twin ridges in sight, I headed out along Upper Logan Road for the South-Ridge turnoff. “6hrs of hilly” was the instruction for the day, and Mt Barney was destined to deliver.
The journey out to “Peasant’s” (AKA South) Ridge – named thus, according to its status as the “easy” route 1 – was relatively flat (undulating) and uneventful. Although along the way, in my bleary sleep-deprived lethargy, I did manage to go up and down Yellow Pinch lookout, without really intending to.
Minor deviation behind me, I continued to the South-Ridge turnoff and made the ascent, cruising up to the saddle, then back down to the trailhead, at an easy comfortable pace.
In pretty good time, and good shape. So far, so good.
Vive la Différence
In researching the routes up Mt Barney, there seemed to be somewhat of a consensus that Peasants is less interesting than other routes. But I found it quite lovely – fabulously varietal terrain, spectacular views and vegetation.
Lap #2 – South-East Ridge
After returning to the trailhead on Upper Logan Road, I made my way back to the start of the South-East ridge – generally considered the next step up from South. While it certainly is more consistently steep, it is the navigational difficulties that better differentiate it. The South Ridge is pretty well marked, with a well-defined path and triangular trail direction markers to light the way. South-East ridge, in comparison, has a fairly well-worn path most of the way up, but with many sections routing directly over large slabs of rock, the lack of markers makes descending an order of magnitude more difficult, than ascending.
We’re Having a Heat Wave ♫
The Greater Brisbane area had been experiencing extreme heat-wave conditions. For a few days it looked like we may realise some relief for the weekend, but as Friday loomed closer, the temperature predictions inexorably rose. As of Friday evening, the expectation was for maximum temperatures in the high 30s – Saturday’s reality brought us a maximum of 42°C.
Despite the pretty extreme heat, and the magnitude of the mountain before, I had made good time up and down South. Slowing considerably as I began the ascent of South-East; my progress, albeit curbed to keep my heart rate down, was reasonably consistent. What I failed to notice – or at least to sufficiently acknowledge – is that as the heat rose, I was drinking an ever-increasing amount of fluid. By the time I reached the East Peak – the top of the South-East Ridge – my body was exhausted, dehydrated and overheated. I could feel the heat radiating from my legs. Much worse; I was out of fluids.
Nevertheless, I began my descent, as delay was only going to increase my exposure to the heat. Admittedly, I was also still on a mission – two ascents/descents in “near enough to 6 hours”.
I will preface the ensuing narrative by explaining that as my body temperature rose, my decision making and navigational skills were exponentially degrading. I suspect this will also have adversely affected my recollection of events, but what follows is as best I can remember.
As I descended it became quickly apparent that the trail is much easier to distinguish going up, than going down. Particularly when broken into sections by large slabs of rock, it is necessary to reconnect with the trail, as it changes direction along the vast precipitous ridge.
My heat and dehydration-induced deteriorating mental state made it more and more difficult to spot the trail, and to notice the switchbacks. But it also caused poor decision making – continuing on downhill when it was clear 2 that I was no longer on course – and not looking frequently behind me for the same signs of trail that I saw on the ascent.
An increasing sense of urgency, in the absence of critical reasoning, saw me head down what looked like the ridgeline. A couple of butt-slides down a grassy V-shaped gully, and a looming drop into nothing should have confirmed that I was headed in the wrong direction. I hadn’t remembered climbing up anything like that, but I seemed unable to convince myself to retrace my steps.
Continuing to make my way down the ridge, I came across a smooth rock slab, angled down the mountain… and that, is where I lost traction.
Fuck. Grab something! Skating down the rocky makeshift slide, my hands scrambled around for something to halt my progress. Fuck! I’m not ready to die?! As I felt something – I can’t tell you what it was, or even which hand(s) found purchase – but my body held fast, as I stared down into an open abyss.
FUCK!!! I’m scared.
I have no idea how far down the drop plunged. I didn’t look for longer than was required to realise that I was seconds, and a handful of something, from death.
I wonder if others experience the same, when faced with a near-death experience? While I did have my life flash before me – it wasn’t my past, but my future – the life not yet lived. With lofty aspirations of lengthy longevity, I envisioned decades of unrealised experiences as a father, lover, son, friend, adventurer, musician, student.
While John Muir’s quote resonates with me, I am keen for at least a few more decade’s adventures before meeting my end:
“This time it is real — all must die, and where could mountaineer find a more glorious death!”
― John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
Continuing to climb across the slab, and down alongside the ridge, I came upon a small flattish spot, wedged myself against a tree, and caught my breath. Exhausted, broken, and scared to (the brink of) death.
There I sat, for the better part of an hour, trying to regain some energy and bring my body temperature back down enough to climb back out. As time ticked by, I began to give up. I was completely exhausted; almost certainly suffering heat-stroke; and becoming rapidly more dehydrated.
I have no recollection of ambient noise. It seems odd now, in the luxury of an air-conditioned room, where every sound is amplified. I wonder, in retrospect, how much of the silence that I perceived is attributable to obliviousness, amnesia or some form of temporary psychosis?
With nothing but the thump of my palpitating heart for company, I called the SES. Explaining my predicament, the operator conferenced in a police officer. I relayed that I had ascended the South-East Ridge to East Peak, and was on the descent when I deviated East of the trail.
“Did I have sufficient water?” No, none. “Phone battery?” 1%. Shortly after answering which, my phone died.
In the aftermath of the weekend, I learned that my momentary lapse of reason had become nationwide, headlining news. This brought on a deluge of inevitable public shaming, as all and sundry piled on the grubby hippie with no sense of responsibility – personal, social or otherwise.
I have relatively thick skin. So all of that bothers me very little. Having been about 2 months into a social media hiatus also meant that I was hearing of it, only 2nd-hand.
But the phenomena of “instantly and globally connected” public shaming did affect my decision making processes. I sat on that ledge for far longer than I would have without the spectre of “trial by Internet”, before making the call for help.
Ultimately; I am OK. I am relatively young. Quite fit. Ridiculously stubborn. But in more dire circumstances, for a person less capable, such a delay could have been fatal.
Have a think about that, the next time you feel the need to don your superhero cape to verbally assault the victim of an emergency situation. Mistakes happen. Hopefully, lessons are learned.
No-one ever wants to make that call. To be “that person”. But let’s not shame someone into seeing death as the easy option.
While talking to emergency services, I was also typing a txt message to Claire with my current GPS coordinates, copied from my watch. The phone died just before I was able to hit ‘Send’.
Alone again, I sat. Waiting again for the better part of another hour, I tried to convince myself to move. I didn’t have any idea how much I had successfully relayed to emergency services. I didn’t know what they planned.
Would I be stuck there for hours? Days? What will Claire be thinking? Does she know? Is she OK? Is she still pissed off? I want to see her. The kids. Our monster-toddler, that ensured I’d had next to no sleep. I want an ice-bucket for my feet. Yoghurt and berries.
Strange that I could be fantasising about food, given that I’d long lost interest in any of what I’d brought with me. Another symptom of dehydration, is a lack of saliva. Reduced saliva production makes it harder to chew, swallow and digest food. But I also noticed that things didn’t taste as good – didn’t even have as much taste – as usual. My chicken and avocado wrap – usually the star attraction of my long run nutrition – barely tasted like anything at all.
Speaking of taste: have you ever drunk your own urine? Well, I have. Now. At least, I tried. You see; as you dehydrate, your urine becomes darker, indicating higher concentrations of waste products – urea, bilirubin, ammonia, ketones et al. As it darkens, your urine becomes commensurately less palatable. At this stage, mine had turned a toasty brown, and it was foul. It was, in fact, by far the worst thing I have ever tasted – by a long, long way; and I’ve tried pineapple on pizza. Trust me when I say, that severe dehydration is not when you want to get in touch with your inner Bear Grylls.
Severe dehydration also makes it more difficult for your body to sweat. Which in turn, makes it more difficult for your body to cool down. Stuck on a mountainside, trapped in my body’s endless struggle between heat and (lack of) hydration.
I’m not exactly sure how or why I got moving again. My body temperature hadn’t come back down at all. My energy levels were as low as when I first perched myself on that ledge. But some happy mix of longing for everything that awaited me back at camp; and uncertainty over what, if anything, the outside world was planning to do to help me; had me back on my feet.
Having been stuck for almost a couple hours, I put my vest back on (the highly recommended UD AK 3.0 that I barely felt all day) and psyched myself up, to climb back out.
I have only very vague recollections of the remainder of my adventure. I do know that I did quite a bit of climbing – to which, the DOMS in my lats for the next couple of days, would testify – and that after climbing back up and rejoining the trail, I lost my way twice more, drifting off-course on the way down.
But after numerous interleaved periods of descending, pausing, regathering, climbing, and bush bashing, I made my way back down the ridge to the South-East trailhead.
From there, it was a pretty sad jog/hike to the Cronan 10 campsite, where I came upon some campers. They had me sit down, and gave me an ice-cold bottle of Gatorade, for which I was exceptionally grateful.
As I prepared to continue on, somewhat buoyed by the rest and fluids, two bushwalkers came down the trail towards my benefactors’ campsite. After a short exchange, they happily chaperoned me back to the Yellow Pinch carpark.
A short drive back to Mt Barney lodge – thank you, mysterious strangers whose names I have forgotten – and I was back at our campsite.
Claire and the kids were up at the camp dining area, preparing to eat dinner. Their surprise, and relief at seeing me amble towards them, starkly written on their faces. A few quick cuddles later, Claire went to let the police know that I’d walked myself back out, and I trudged up to the amenities block for a cold shower. Covered in cuts, grazes, and bruises, every drop hurt, but a shower never felt so good.
Without having to say a word, Claire had already bought two bags of ice, and filled a large storage container with ice water. Legs submerged, I started guzzling bottles of ice water, as Claire draped an ice-water soaked towel over my shoulders.
By the time the paramedics arrived to check me over, my core temperature had returned to normal and all my vital signs were good to go. No hospital for me! YAY!
Adventuring is Not the Same as Training
I regularly train for up to 4 hours or more, with NO hydration at all. At comfortable pace or lesser, I simply don’t require fuelling or fluid.
Given that this was a “race practise” long training run, I took food and fluid. For an anticipated 6 hours, I packed a total of 1.35L – two 500mL bottles up front, and one 350mL bottle in the back of the vest.
- It was hot as fuck
- I didn’t have an accurate idea of how long the twin ascents/descents were going to take me
- I’d never been up Mt Barney before
I really should have packed WAY more fluid and have had a plan to refill as necessary. To mitigate potential mishap, cater for the heat, and acknowledge the adventurous nature of the outing.
Mandatory Gear vs Safety Gear
On such “race practise” runs, I carry all of the mandatory gear for the target race. But despite having done this numerous times, and carried much the same in races, I have never given any real thought to its purpose.
I could have used several pieces of that mandatory race gear when things started to go wrong. But because my brain had melted to mush, I never once gave thought to it being there, much less tried to use it.
- Space blanket – mirrored surface could be used to attract attention of rescue chopper
- Space blanket + poles – erect sun shelter
- Rain hi-vis jacket – attract attention of rescue chopper
Future “adventure” training sessions will see me carrying a bare minimum of safety gear – not just mandatory race gear.
We will also be utilising “play” sessions where-in we will contrive emergency scenarios, and devise potential solutions using the aforementioned safety gear. The intention will be to make this process second-nature, so that if one’s mental state degrades, the muscle memory can take over.
- There is no “easy” way to ascend a 1,300+m mountain.
- To be fair, not much was clear at this point.