Moss Ridge to Lower Goulter Turnoff
I have no problems waking up today when the alarm goes off at 4:40. If it will buy us any time out of the heat, I am in. We leave our secret little campsite just after 6:00, and emerge above treeline to sunrise colors.
The trail up over Ada Flat is easy tussock and moss, and the views in the morning light are unbelievable. The far ridge is a thin spine of broken rock- we chose well to stay where we were last night.
The tread to the top of Old Man Peak is the same easy tussock, and we are at the fabled water barrel in an hour. It has plenty of water in it! At least 15 gallons, which means we won’t have to take the side track down to the Old Man Hut after all. I’m curious what the hut is like, but not curious enough to tack on an hour’s steep hiking. We fill bottles, and drink our fill. One liter is all I can fit in my stomach, but at 7:00 it is already too warm. Most of today will be exposed to the sun above treeline. Is two liters enough for half the day? I don’t want to carry more, so it will have to be.
The descent down off of Old Man is fun scrambling, actually needing handholds for a few of the ups and downs. We can see the bare summits of Little and Mount Rintoul down the line from where we are, and it seems like quite a bit of scrambling may be in order today.
We plunge below tree line again, then reach the base of the gentle inverted arc; from here it appears a long, long way up. I try a new trick though: I try to walk at a speed no faster than I can breathe through my nose. Surprisingly, this works well- I am able to maintain a steady, If very slow, pace with no breaks taken out of desperation for oxygen, and it must be some kind of successful yogic breathing, because I get a little high off of it as well, each footstep becoming more meditative than usual. I feel like an ant, crawling from the tip of the tail of an elephant, up the rump and along the back. And how do you climb an elephant? One tiny bite at a time, with a pre-acceptance that it will take a finite eternity. We reach the edge of the trees, and then the top of Little Rintoul, in mind-bendingly short order. The space between Little and Mt Rintoul is a deep V-notch of crumbling rock, and a steep plunge down scrabbly scree. I try to time my slides above Prana to not send any rocks ricocheting down onto him.
The last bit of descent is nooked into a disintegrating chute featuring an ungraceful shoe-ski and requiring a few easy climbing moves to drop into. This is incredible. To lose so much elevation so quickly as I can see our objective towering higher and higher next to us is a bit dispiriting, but it feels like we are climbing on the skeleton of the mountains, and there is no where else to go, so I don’t mind. We reach the bottom and reverse the work, now heading straight up again. I embrace the nose-breathing snail pace, step, step, step, step. The heat seems to be increasing with each minute, the sunbeams bouncing off of the reflective shale and each other, slowly turning the air to a furnace. We gain the top of Mt Rintoul. Mountains march away into the distance in every direction; the Richmond Range is infinite up here, and I can’t imagine ever running out of things to explore in this magnificent country.
The top is larger and flatter than I guessed from the morning views, and despite the withering heat we eat lunch on the tiny plateau. There is some kind of strange cauliflower moss that decorates the highest rocky reaches.
We follow the arm of the western ridge down, detouring steeply below a blocky spine plate, then dropping over the edge of the summit flats. It’s a long long drop to Rintoul Hut, and the treat is in the fact that it is a perfectly angled shoe-ski in small gravel scree. We skid and ski and make huge bounds of progress down with such little effort and with so much fun! You just never know what’s coming next from this trail.
Once we hit the forest line, the angle doesn’t relent, so the remains of the way down to the hut is a knee-buster of a descent. We finally reach the base and the hut, which is plagued by bumblebees, but thankfully has water in the rain tank. We fill our bellies and our bottles, and depart for Tarn Lake. The sign suggests it will take 5 hours.
The grades are much gentler going over Purple Top Mountain than over the Rintouls, and I feel gratifyingly fast and efficient despite the crushing heat.
There are a few gentle ridges that are partially forested; it is so hot that any small puff of air from a gap in the trees, no matter how short, causes me to swoon with desire for the next one. This is how an addiction feels, I realize, barely making it through each moment in pursuit of the ephemeral pleasure of the future moment, which itself is never enough.
We move so well that we are set to reach the Tarn in less than three and a half hours. About 45 minutes before that, we drop into a thick congested beech forest. I start to overheat, desperate to feel cooler, so hot I’m not even thirsty or hungry anymore. The forest has no air moving through, and the hum of the ground wasps is loud and grating- they are everywhere, a malevolent cloud. The smell of rotting fruit is thick as well- does it come from the wasps? Or are they drawn to whatever creates it? I distract myself from the multi-sense awfulness by imagining what this Tarn will look like. It seems unlikely at this latitude and altitude to be flanked by a glacier, but what if it magically is? Will the water be iceberg blue? Will it be deep, and crystal clear? Will it be lined with a beautiful smooth granite bottom, and surrounded by huge inviting granite boulders? I construct the singular perfect, and impossible, tarn in my mind, and imagine plunging into it, fully clothed, as soon as I get to the hut. I imagine this over and over.
The lake comes into view below- definitely not iceberg blue, definitely no magical glacier. Not even any boulders. The hut appears as well, equally disappointing, as the air both inside and out is seething with bees and wasps. Dang. The fantasy dies hard though, and I hope that even if it doesn’t look like I hoped, it will still feel as refreshing. I strip and walk down to what is in fact a shallow, tannic, murky, tepid puddle. My new and novel identity as a hiker who swims in everything compels me to wade in anyway, feeling smugly adventurous as Prana declines to join me; the smugness and adventure both evaporate when I reach thigh deep and can no longer see my feet. Meh. I splash the water over myself and it helps a bit, then I accept the fact that my imagination is not good enough to transform this into fun, and I return to the hut to cook dinner.
We close the door and windows in the hut to cook inside, but they don’t seal tightly enough to shut out the threatening pests. While assembling our meal of dried peas and potato flakes, the fatigue of the day starts to creep over my brain, a comfortable, cottony hum. I’m stirring the pot, gazing absently out the window, when suddenly a face pops up on the other side out of nowhere. What the? Something in my brain sparks in recognition…”No fucking way!!!! Sergio?!!” I abandon the potatoes and tear out of the hut to hug him and Coyote!
We trade some stories with them while we eat dinner and all swat and dodge the apiform insects. They had to bail out of the Richmonds during the giant storm, and are hiking what they missed by going northbound, to intercept all the people behind them they haven’t see in awhile. They are planning to stay here, and again, I feel the division of desire between wanting to stay and chat with people I’m drawn to, or to go on and camp in our footloose plan. Prana feels strongly about going on, so that clinches the decision.
We hike on at 6:30, and it is still so damn hot, now exacerbated by a stomach stuffed full of hot dinner. We climb through the wasp-filled, heat-filled, fermented forest, and I am so physically miserable by input of every sense that I teeter on the brink of tears.
One hour brings us to the first of the two flat areas in the contours of the map that may have camping. It’s the closer one, but it is significantly larger, so we decide that ending a little early to ensure a decent camp is a just reward for the effort of the day. We clear a spot in the downed branches, joined by a few curious fantails, and lay down in our tent, no chores to do besides blowing up our mattresses. The sunlight is long, and the fatigue in my brain takes over completely once I am lying down- no coherent thoughts are able to form, only different pitches of humming and vague, opaque emotions in reaction to memories of the day. I type a few notes in my journal and fall asleep.