Simon Bischoff recounts the glory and the glitz of film-making during the first winter ascent of Blade Ridge and the Northwest Face of Federation Peak, Australia’s longest route
WORDS: Simon Bischoff, IMAGES: As credited
I first met Andy Szollosi years ago at a party at my house. My kitchen looked like an Indian bus crash with 40 people too many in it. I can still picture him, standing in the throng, wearing a leather jacket and a bonafide explorer’s beard, he looked like the cat that ate the canary. Around 4am I found an unopened bottle of champaign amongst the debris. My mate Squib, well versed in the order in which one should consume alcoholic beverages, advised me against necking it. Obviously I didn’t listen and with my face buried in the corner of a jazzy old couch, I vomited my guts out and quickly forgot about Andy.
Some years later that man from Hungary floated back into my life. He was looking for people to go on a trip: a 120-day, north-to-south ridgeline traverse of Tasmania. Crossing all the toughest terrain on the western side of the island. insisting it should be done in winter like he was Ernest Shackleton or something.
Andy’s call to arms went mostly unanswered with only me and Dan Haley turning up to his meeting. I was curious and looking for a film project. Dan fell gracefully under Andy’s spell and I went home thinking they were both mad.
Andy’s traverse was sure to be a captivating film. Rescuers would find the footage amongst our frozen bodies somewhere in the middle of nowhere huddled amongst a red-velvet lounge of bloody and frozen scoparia with our feet buried in a wallabies’ stomachs, Leonardo DiCaprio–style.
I lay awake at night trying to talk myself into it. It fertilised my darkest insecurities. As I huddled in my comfortable bed, I knew that I was softer than the feathers that cradled me. I tried to let the idea fade from memory.
A telltale sign of a visionary is waxy ears. Andy spends so much time in the bush that it took a while for the gentle voice of reason to penetrate his filthy, waxy ears and for him to drop the idea of the full traverse. Rebuffed but not beaten, he came up with a more palatable adventure and when he proposed climbing Blade Ridge and the Northwest Face of Federation Peak in winter I thought it sounded like the correct level of masochism. I was romanced by the thought of Federation Peak sheathed in fresh snow.
Quite a lot of preparation went into the project, so much so that by the time we were ready to go I could write Andy’s surname correctly from memory. Unlike the mud in Tasmania’s Southwest, something about his Hungarian surname doesn’t want to stick. Dan and myself were planning on filming the climb and we quickly concluded we would need a third videographer for the actual climbing day, if it ever came to pass. Unable to find someone with the time and qualifications for the task I desperately called my friend and professional photographer, Olivia Page.
‘I really don’t think I’m the right person for this trip, eh. Like, I’ve never even really done an overnight bushwalk.’
‘Yeah, but you’re a good photographer.’
‘It’s a lot different from video.’
‘You will be fine.’
I called Andy.
‘Andy, I think I’ve found someone.’
‘What’s she like?’
‘Yeah, yeah… yup good, she can video, she’s got plenty of rope experience and mountains and all that, she will be good.’ I lied.
Late one night shortly thereafter Olivia called me.
‘So, I’ve been doing a bit of research on Federation Peak. It seems to have quite the tough reputation’
‘Yeah–nah, it’s really not that bad, just hype.’
‘Bushwalkers have died trying to summit the mountain… quite recently.’
‘Yeeeaaaaah-naaaah, don’t worry about it.’ I secretly wished we could find someone else.
With the documentary team cobbled together, the search turned to the ascent party. Dan called up one of his old outdoor education teachers, Mark Savage, and asked him if he was interested in being a climber on our trip. As it turned out, Dan had unwittingly called possibly the only guy to ever try to climb Blade Ridge in winter. What a strange coincidence. Some 20 year earlier, after spending nearly three weeks mired in abysmal conditions, Mark and his team had failed to summit the mountain by any route, let alone the Blade. Mark was, of course, keen.
The inadequacies I perceived in our growing team began to slowly eat away at me. Somewhere amidst the worrying we figured we might need a third-climber in case one of the other two came a croper, we found some redundancy in the shape of Mickolas Wright. Micko was a vegan who had the physical composition of an Athenian warrior and was twice as poetic, apart from that, I hardly knew him. On top of personnel dramas we were also having trouble finding the money to pay for the the expedition and the subsequent film we would make to document it.
Andy, always looking for allies, had lined up a meeting with Bob Brown, the former leader of the Australian Greens party, bonafide environmental warrior and general lovely guy. Andy and I met outside the Bob Brown Foundation office at 9am, went up to a meeting room and waited until Bob showed up. He introduced himself and offered us cups of tea or coffee. I very nearly politely refused before I realised that it wasn’t every day Bob Brown offered you a cup of tea. Yeah, tea me up Bobby. We told Bob what we were doing and Bob listened attentively. Bob, a longtime activist for Tasmania’s Southwest wilderness, loved the idea.
‘Great I’m in.’ He said, ’love the idea.’
Andy and I looked at each other. Looks like we had ourselves a major backer, every good trip needs a patron.
My face was twitching in all sorts of weird ways trying contain my excitement and relief, looking over the table I could see Andy was having similar conniptions.
We left the meeting feeling giddy, high on success, and went to have a beer to celebrate. I didn’t realise until days after that we left the bar without paying for our pints. Free money all round.
That winter, Tasmania was in the middle receiving the highest amount of rainfall it had in all of recorded history. We delayed the trip by a few days to let the river levels subside but we were committed to our dates. I remember sitting in my living room, whilst the rain threatened to break the windows, surrounded by piles of camera gear, bone tired with a list of things still to be done and feeling very underwhelmed at the prospect of spending three weeks in the saturated Southwest. But for the film’s sake I prayed for suffering and blizzards – a good recipe for a film, if in such a tempest you can actually film any of it that is.
After the drudgery of the approach, there is nothing so sweet as the final hundred metres of flat duckboard leading into the base camp perched beneath the East Face of the mountain. As if you had been at sea for months, the flatness of the path makes you stagger like a drunken sailor.
As the rain became heavier and darkness set in we pitched our camp on the plateau. Sodden and shaking with cold, I was buoyed by a deeply felt euphoria. Across hours of staggering and crawling through the primordial, clutching jungle we had passed through a portal from the ordinary into the extraordinary. There would be no more walking.
The days passed relatively peacefully and for a while I relished the terrible weather. It felt great to do nothing except sleep, eat and hangout. It’s very rare that I let days pass like this. Free from modern guilt it was a welcome contrast to the pace of life I had been living in Hobart. (Editor’s note: Slowbart is, of course, an ironic appelation.)
For a moment the mist thinned and diffused golden light shone across the plateau. We decided to make a dash to the summit to set up and scout the Northwest Face, ready for filming. Micko and I opted for the more convenient climber’s route rather than the bushwalkers route that ascended the southern side of the mountain. It was a grade 12 with a very inconvenient waterfall running down it. It was the first time I’d climbed a waterfall whilst it was snowing.
The camera gear was copping a beating from the moisture. It was a constant battle to keep 15 grand worth of camera gear functioning. We had 100kg of food stashed from an earlier reconnaissance trip and the film crew commandeered the risotto rice from our dinner supplies and carefully cleaned and stored our cameras, lenses and batteries in it. Olivia would then put these bags in her sleeping bag, spooning them and praying they would dry out a little so that the lenses would stop fogging up.
I naively thought we were going to be living in a winter wonderland so to save weight I bought a single skin winter tent. Biggest mistake of my life. With temperatures rarely going below zero my tent became a bathtub. Every day I mopped up and squeezed out litres of water. One night my mattress burst and I woke up on the tent floor lying in a centimetre of water with my down sleeping bag totally saturated. I shivered the rest of the night away nibbling on jalapeño jerky. I remembered a story my dad once told me about when he tried climb Blade Ridge in the ‘80s. Whilst waiting out a five-day storm he unknowingly knocked over a lidless honey jar in his tent and before he knew what had happened, everything was covered in honey. Some 30 years later I lay in a similar spot waiting for the night to end. I had the underwhelming realisation that I’d rather be sticky and covered in honey than saturated without any honey.
The weather was persistently shit house. Our allocated food was going to run out and we needed to stretch out the trip to give us a chance of getting a weather window. Andy and Micko sat down and rationed the food. I watched and filmed forlornly. The only positive being that our empty bellies would make for a better film, a subtle consolation prize. I began adding used coffee grounds to my muesli.
I became fascinated with a story Mark told me about the first trip he made into Federation Peak in ‘92 to attempt the Blade in winter. Each night he would fall asleep with the storm raging outside and in that slumber he’d have these amazingly vivid dreams of flying above the Southwest of Tassie. Every night going to sleep with nervous excitement looking forward to flying above these glorious, hostile mountains. Finally, when they ran out of food and the weather never abated, their team retreated from the mountain back to civilisation. And that first night at home when Mark lay between his comfortable sheets he fell asleep and returned to his dream. Before him was a wild green forest and as he had done the nights before he prepared to fly only this time to find that his feet would not leave the ground.
Our weather window came at the 11th hour. With just enough food to get us and all our gear out, Micko and Mark geared up for an attempt. We got up before sunrise to see them off on their approach to the bottom of the route. It was a beautiful, clear night and for the first time this trip it was properly cold. My socks were stiff as boards. I defrosted them over the choofer.
Olivia and I were perched on a ridge adjacent to the Blade so we could film the climb. Dan Haley, camera in hand, had rappelled 150m down the Northwest Face. The tension was real. We had a drone all set up and ready to go and I went to load it up with one of the small, fiddly microSD cards which I had in my hip pocket. I put my hand in to grab one and found nothing. Frantically scraping deeper only to come upon a small hole. All the cards had fallen out. My heart fell out of my chest. We’d carried this massive drone and its kilograms of batteries all the way out here to film what we hoped would be the footage that made the film. So much preparation out the door. Life is so cruel.
I looked down.
Sweet mother of god. Hang on! For the first time in my life, in a moment of divine intervention or divine fashion, I’d tucked my socks into my pants. The microSD cards that had slipped out of my pocket were stuck between my pants and socks. I nearly fainted.
Four hours after we expected them, the climbers emerged from the forest below and crested the first step of the Blade. Sweet relief. The sun had risen and its strained rays almost warmed me. I’ve never seen anything so majestic as the ephemeral winter sun glistening across the quartzite of the Arthurs range. Down here in the middle of winter the sun sets before it has quite risen. It would be dark soon and they were only a third of the way up the route. Still there was no doubt in my mind they would go to the top. Truly we had passed the crux of this adventure.
When it was finally time to pack it all and go home, I was reluctant to walk back through the portal, back to the ordinary. I’d grown accustomed to the simple ways of survival. It didn’t help that we had so much gear up there that we had to back haul the whole way out, meaning we would be walking most of the track at least three times under heavy loads. We all struggled to keep up with Micko and Mark, they had the strength of great beasts of burden, always a haul ahead of the rest of us.
When we staggered into the car park I was surprised that our cars were still there. It felt strange to sit inside one, finally impervious to the rain. I didn’t feel the need to celebrate though. The thought of creating a film out of the total junk show of smudgy, foggy footage we came back with hung over me like a pall. It was a daunting prospect.
I’m good at living hand-to-mouth but in making this film I scraped the barrel until it had a hole in the bottom. One time when I was out hunting for wild mushrooms with the grumbling in my belly mocking me, I stumbled across an old money safe in the middle of a forest. It had clearly been broken into some years before and scattered around it were bags of ten, twenty and fifty cent coins. This serendipitous ill-gotten bounty kept me going for weeks. It always gave the checkout guy at Woolies a moment of humorous respite from his monotonous day watching us feed $20 worth of ten cent coins into the auto checkout. My mum was getting worried about me.
In the wake of the Federation Peak trip a seeming inexhaustible number of tasks stacked up into hours and days and weeks and then somehow, 12 months later, it all added up to a 45 minute film. So quick to watch and to many just another brief distraction. I felt unsatisfied when I looked at the film as the product of so much hard work. I spent nearly 40 days in the Southwest National Park across three separate trips into Federation Peak and it’s been an incredibly valuable process, at times traumatic but always rewarding. I’ve realised that the true value of the film does not lie in the film itself but in the creation of it. The film is not really important. The product lies within the people involved in the project and the way it changed them.