A Day in the Life of the Eiger

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For rent: Private snow cave with Alpine views and running water.
I spent much of yesterday traversing the slopes of the mighty Eiger, walking its length along the base of the famed North Face. It was one of my mountain-groupie moments, where I got to touch a true rock star.
Even after a full summer, snow packs remained plastered against the Eiger’s cliffs, including this stunning bit of natural architecture. The snow had been eroded from within by the flow of a melt stream seeping down the walls of the North Face. Standing inside, the ‘window’ opened to a view across the Grindelwald valley to Schwarzhorn and Faulhorn.
The traverse was something of a side journey I made on my final day of a hike between Engelberg and Lauterbrunnen. Over four days I’ve walked about 80 kilometres and, with my pathological need to take the highest route, climbed and descended more than 5000 metres. My knees suddenly creak like rusty hinges.
The hike I’ve been doing is the self-guided Alpine Pass Route trip operated by UTracks (I get to walk alone, they get to cart my bag to the next hotel – win/win, as far as I’m concerned). It’s been a stunning walk in every regard – who couldn’t be happy with the Eiger, Wetterhorn and Jungfrau as hiking companions? Thoroughly recommend it.
Back in my snow pack on the Eiger, the melt continued. The stream rolled on through the cave, and water dripped from its ceiling, soaking me in minutes – this private bit of snow real estate even came with its own shower.

Friday Foto: Engstlensee, Switzerland

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As I write this, I’m in Switzerland, walking across a chunk of the country, beginning in Engelberg and ending several passes away in Lauterbrunnen.
So much of the walk is about mountains, and famed ones at that. Titlis is now behind me, the Wetterhorn has been my near-constant companion, and yesterday came my first view of the mighty Eiger and its north face. Monch and Jungfrau lie ahead.
As I savoured my first view of the Eiger yesterday afternoon I was also drawn to one of its adjacent mountains, Schwarzhorn. Only after a few minutes did I realise why my eyes and mind were so taken by this ramped summit – 16 years ago, on my last visit to Switzerland, I’d climbed this mountain. Memory isn’t always my strong suit.
But this hike hasn’t all been mountains. For a time out of Engelberg it was a walk connecting the dots – the high alpine lakes that offer such a gentle contrast to the glaciers and rocky summits. Trubsee led to Engstlensee, which led to Tannensee, each one as still as paintings.
This shot is of Engstlensee, just a few minutes’ walk from where I bedded down on the first night of the hike. Titlis rose high above its shores and a shaft of momentary light lit a small peninsula and its farmhouse.
Within minutes the mountains, the farmhouse and the lake were swallowed by cloud. I wandered back to my home for the night into a whiteout.

* Adventure before Avarice is hiking the self-guided option of the Alpine Pass Route with UTracks.

Friday Foto: Tiptoeing through the Speargrass

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The Northern Territory has been my second home this winter. I’ve just returned from my third visit to the Top End, including two walking trips into Kakadu, Australia’s largest terrestrial national park, covering an area just a tad smaller than Israel or Slovenia.

It’s a land that doesn’t run to typical timeframes. Here, the Aboriginal people recognise six seasons and you can’t tear a sheet from a calendar to find the changes of season. Instead, it’s nature that tells you when things are on the turn. Continue reading

Long Walk, Little Legs

Andrew Bain with daughter Kiri on the Overland Track

For all the dozens of hiking trails and thousands of kilometres I’ve hiked, one experience stands high above all others. It was the week I spent walking Tasmania’s Overland Track in the company of my then nine-year-old daughter. It was probably the heaviest pack I’ve ever carried, and the slowest I’ve ever walked, but there was something entirely refreshing and revealing about seeing the world through young eyes again. Over the course of 65 kilometres and one week, I watched a child absorb the wilderness and come to feel at one with it. Continue reading

Friday Foto: 17 Mile Falls

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Another recent moment from the Jatbula Trail in the Northern Territory’s Nitmiluk National Park, where once again a hot day of walking ended with the welcome relief of water.

This is 17 Mile Falls, base camp for our third night on the 65-kilometre-long trail along the edge of the Arnhem Land escarpment. In the heat, we’d pushed hard through the day and arrived into camp, which is at the head of this waterfall, by lunchtime. With an afternoon to play, I set out to find a way to the base of the falls, eventually following a couple of ledges down through the cliffs to the pool at the bottom. A quick and happily fruitless search for crocodile slides or other evidence of biting handbags told us we had the place to ourselves.

Towards sunset we returned again to the base of the falls in an effort to get this photograph with the sun gone from the cliffs. What appeared to be a thin stream of water at the top fell like a storm at the bottom. Water sprayed through the valley and slowly the last light of the day drained from the world.

I was reminded of more celebrated waterfalls in nearby Kakadu National Park, except that we shared this one with nobody and it took three days to walk here. It was worth every step.

* Adventure before Avarice travelled courtesy of Tourism NT and World Expeditions, which operates a six-day Jatbula Trail guided hike ($1895).

Friday Foto: Crystal Falls

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After hours of walking through 36-degree heat, you can probably imagine the feeling when you get to drop backpacks at a spot like this.

I spent most of last week hiking on the Jatbula Trail, a 65-kilometre route along the Arnhem Land escarpment in the Northern Territory’s Nitmiluk National Park. Each day boiled with heat, but every one of them ended beside water. This particular stop was at a run of cascades just above the point where Crystal Falls tumble off the escarpment. It was the end of our second day of walking – a long stretch of open savannah woodland suddenly split by a rush of water.

We strung our mosquito nets – our homes for the week – a metre or two from the water and then cooled the afternoon away, swimming upstream, clambering through cascades just to see what lay beyond. The night air was colder than the water, and a near-full moon hovered in the sky like a reading lamp. By morning, when this photo was taken, the river was steaming through the chill like some sort of natural soup. The lilies that carpeted the water’s edge were still to yawn open and the citrusy light of dawn was slowly seeping through the valley.

The heat was coming fast behind, and we were setting off again along the escarpment in search of another waterfall and more cooling water.

* Adventure before Avarice travelled courtesy of Tourism NT and World Expeditions, which operates a six-day Jatbula Trail guided hike ($1895).

Friday Foto: Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park

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There are places that sit larger in the mind than they do in reality. For me, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park is one such spot.

When I cycled around Australia, seemingly several lifetimes ago, I always had the intention of detouring into this remote north Queensland national park – it was only 280 kilometres off the road, after all – but after the toughest stretch of the journey – 10 days and 1000 kilometres of gale-force headwinds across the Barkly Tableland – I could barely muster the energy to turn the corner. Instead, I holed up in a Mt Isa motel for three days, barely stepping out the door.

A few weeks ago, I finally made it to Boodjamulla and the gorge I’ve so long admired from afar. So much time had passed that, in my mind, it had come to be the size of the Grand Canyon. But it’s really quite a small gorge, its cliffs suddenly rising like an overbite above the river and then gone again a few kilometres later. And yet there’s great beauty in this compact, scale-model version of the place I imagined: calm mornings where you have to blow on the water to ruffle it, freshwater crocodiles sailing about, archerfish shooting down insects with gobs of water, and one of the outback’s best swimming holes at Indarri Falls.

To kayak to Indarri, I imagined spending a day on the water. Instead I was at the base of the falls within about 40 minutes. Portage through and the navigable river pretty much peters out after another kilometre. So I kept portaging, towing the kayak through blockages, over pebble beds and through calf-high rapids, until finally I realised I could probably do with that swim at Indarri, after all.

Turning back, I made the same portages until I spied a small run of rapids running off to one side. I climbed onto the kayak and bobbled through. What I hadn’t counted on was that nobody had been through here before me and an army of golden orb spiders had strung their webs low across the narrow channel. I popped out the other end covered in spiders. Perhaps I should have just contented myself with the swim.

* Adventure before Avarice travelled courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland.

A Not-so-Happy Anniversary

Children complicate adventure. Not so much because they might be inherently weaker or whinier, but because of their blind trust. Even at times of potential danger, they look at you with the surety that they’re safe inside some parental bubble, that nothing can harm them while dad or mum is in hand-holding reach. Take risks and you do so for two or three people but with the knowledge of only one. Such trust frightens me, especially since I know how fragile and misplaced it can be. Random chance doesn’t respect a child’s naivety.

Six years ago I took my family to Europe with the plan to cycle across the continent, beginning in Biarritz and meandering for five months towards Venice, towing our two young children in trailers behind the bikes. Two weeks into the trip – six years ago tomorrow – my then three-year-old son fractured his skull. Playing on a rotunda, following his older sister as she crept around its edge, he fell six feet onto a concrete path, landing on his head.

Continue reading

Friday Foto: Storming the Drought

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Australia and New Zealand are today commemorating Anzac Day. In Australia, at least, it’s our unofficial national day and an ideal that’s come to be embodied by the concepts of mateship and hardship.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been travelling in outback Queensland, a part of the country that might easily be described as the most Australian part of Australia. It’s a place also where, right now, mateship and hardship are on full display. Continue reading