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I don’t know about you but I am seriously exhausted. I’ve been flat on my back for two solid weeks, watching more sports than I ever have seen before at any one time. It started some sixteen days ago with the opening ceremony and finally finished with that bizarre, hallucinatory finale, part of which looked like a Busby Berkley spectacle on drugs. I loved the mono cycles.

I never knew that watching arcane sports with athletes from obscure countries could be so seriously addicting. I went to the University of Michigan when they had one of the best football teams in the country and never attended one game. Same with Florida, which was close to treason in that state. I have yet to see a game of cricket, rugby or footy in the most sports mad country on Earth. For some reason, I made an exception for the Olympics. From the very beginning, I was hooked.

Ten years ago we went to Beijing. It looked absolutely nothing like what we saw on the big box. There were hardly any cars. There were millions of bicycles. When we went to see a second-tier tourist attraction there was no one around who spoke English. Like the Forbidden City, it seemed to be frozen in history, much too spacious and empty for its significance as the capital of China. Look at it now!

Regular readers will know that my association with sports has been spotty, at best. When I was ten we lived in India. I picked up a bamboo pole one day and tried my hand at pole vaulting. I couldn’t understand the rules of cricket so that was out. Shortly after clearing six feet (less than 2 meters), I learned that a high jumper had bettered my record without recourse to a pole. I was devastated. Over the years I took up ping pong, badminton and volleyball, never achieving much success beyond beating my brother-in-law.

Australians take their sports very, very seriously. That may be a bit of an understatement. There are huge numbers of Aussies who spend vast amounts of time in or on the water, rowers, swimmers, surfers, sailors, scuba divers, kite surfers, kayakers, divers. Then there are the walkers and runners and cyclists, motor cyclists. Not counting the team sports, which seem to be the backbone of the social structure here. The devastating drought always seems to generate at least one plaintive letter to the editor–“what will happen to the sporting fields if they don’t get enough water?” Farmers don’t get half the sympathy.

My sympathies are always with the underdog when I watch sporting events. That pretty much rules out rooting for my fellow Yanks, but I can always cheer on Canadians and now Australians, too. Even though the population of this place barely cracks 20 million, they manage to do amazingly well. They were upset this year to have been trounced by the Poms. That said, they raked in far more medals than any country this size should. Of course, they had a huge team and competed in almost everything. Canadians try hard, usually doing well at paddling. They get their own back in the winter Olympics.

All in all, I’m glad it’s over. The commercials were clever and some were quite funny but I’ve seen them all too many times. I know the names the Australian “heroes.” I’ve been touched by the poignant stories of the ones who didn’t come first, of those who collapsed before the finish line. It is not about the gold, really. That will just gather dust, but the effort, energy, camaraderie and emotions will resonate down the years.

The withdrawal symptoms will be hard to take, but I have four years before the temptation comes around again. In the meantime, maybe I can get some exercise. Olympic crack. It’s a hard habit to kick, but I’ll make it.

Twenty years ago when I was more fit and more foolish I managed to convince my “partner” that we should fly from New York City to Yellowstone National Park to go winter camping. I had been captivated by an article in “Outside” magazine. The author had managed to find a hot spring in the Park that had just the right amount of run off to turn a geothermal pool into a perfect, core-heated hot tub. It looked positively idyllic. I did not know that ignorant adventurers often turn themselves into lobsters in such pools.

I had a pair of wide, wooden Nordic skis. She had nothing comparable so we went shopping in New York City. Surprisingly, we managed to track down a pair of wide fiberglass skis. I crammed all our gear into backpacks and we headed off to Montana.

We had booked the snow cat to get us into the Old Faithful Lodge, which stays open for snowmobilers and the handful of winter visitors who come in the cat.  It was a long, slow ride in to the Lodge.  We were planning on staying one night and skiing to the campsite the next day. Then an arctic front came in like a hurricane. The temperature dropped 60 degrees Fahrenheit in one day (Celsius -1 to -34.) and the Governor declared a state of emergency. When we approached the Ranger for our permit he told us (politely) that we were out of our minds. He wouldn’t consider it.

So we caught a ride with the cat and went out for a day ski. The snow was so cold that the crystals stayed sharp as shards of glass. The glide part of cross country skiing works because the friction of the ski melts a layer of snow beneath the ski. This was like slogging through sand on long boards. My wooden skis moved, at least. The brand new fiberglass skis were useless.

When I suggested to my partner, (tactfully, I thought) that she might want to put in a little more effort so that we would get back before dark, she took off her skis and through them at me. I may be an idiot but I can take a hint. I strapped them on and tried to glide. It was like being on fly paper.  She glided away and left me to stew about faulty assumptions.

I finally gave up trying to wax my way out of the problem and and simply walked on the snow, using the skis as cumbersome snowshoes. Halfway back we came across a herd of buffalo. They stopped and lowered their massive heads, steam coming out of their nostrils. We stared. They stared. Nobody moved. Then we made a wide detour out into the untracked snow. This land was their land, after all.

Snowcars by David Robertson

Quebecers have a famous anthem that goes this way– Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver. My country is not a country; it is winter. In places where it snows, the world is transformed. Every hill and stream becomes a sculpture, a new form. Out in the winter, you become new as well. Here in Australia, you have to get into the mountains to experience it, and it is magical.

We marveled with Jason as he caught a snowflake in his mitten and watched it melt, surprisingly slowly. We soaked up stories about Erich’s “Evel Knievel” adventures. We enjoyed the silent company of snow gums. We took simple pleasure in the elemental processes that winter camping requires: staying warm, cutting firewood, fetching water, cooking food, sleeping in tents, exploring a thousand avenues of conversation, drinking schnapps and brandy, and eating, well, everything.

There was the soft snow. There were a million stars in the southern sky. There were warm sleeping bags at the end of the day. What more could you ask for?

Erich in action by Alan Ball

You might think that a seven-hour drive and three hour ski in gale-force winds would go a long way toward ensuring that our home away from home was less than crowded. That we would, in effect, have the place pretty much to ourselves. Such was not the case. We weren’t even the first to arrive for the long weekend. Three other snow campers caught up with us at the dam and made it to the hut before we arrived.

Then there was Basil, a dusky antechinus. He/She seemed to be a regular at Edmondson’s hut and was entirely blase about human intruders. We heard the next morning that that Basil had curled up inside the hearth of the fireplace with a fire going. It sounded almost suicidal, but none of us was an expert.

According to Wikepedia, the Dusky Antechinus is active at many times of the day. It mostly eats invertebrates, although it will occasionally devour small lizards and skinks. It has a short and vigorous mating season (which occurs during winter), after which all of the males die. If Basil was male, then his days were numbered and he should definitely be out enjoying himself.

We were six when we started out, but Frank was already crook (sick) with a bad cold. He and his son spent much of Saturday in the tent. Unfortunately, the cold went from bad to worse. They finally packed it on on Sunday morning and skied out.

It never seemed hectic during our winter sojourn, but we were inundated with visitors. Forty people or more came through there in the five days of our getaway. It was an easy ski from Falls Creek; it had a hut with a fireplace, a drop toilet and water from a creek. By winter camping standards, it was positively luxurious.

Nearly half the visitors were Army officers on special training. We didn’t see them in the hut, but they were out there, sleeping in snow caves. Their lead instructor was also suffering from a cold so he hung out at the hut. I peppered him with the kind of questions only a foreigner can get away with. “Are you expecting an airborne invasion of Al Qaeda operatives up here in the Victorian Alps?”

He humored me. The training was not specifically about waging war in the snow, he said. It was about testing oneself in a challenging situation.These were all officers, volunteers who would take this training back to their day jobs. They would gain confidence and train others. He let us in one deep, dark secret. Their final night was going to be spent in snow caves without sleeping bags. I didn’t want to be around in the morning. Especially if they had guns.

Alan had offered me a place in his tent. He had no idea how generous that was. I didn’t sleep a wink the first night because of the incredible wind. While he had a steel bladder, I had to get up in the middle of the night, not once, but twice. I had to turn on my torch (flash light) and crawl over him to emerge on the leeward side of the tent. We swapped places the next day and I got much better at my midnight exits, which were mercifully brief. When I did manage to get to sleep, I have no doubt that I snored. Loudly.

Someday, it will all be forgiven. And perhaps we’ll do it again. We’re such slow learners, humans. But then, we have much more time than Basil and we have the long days of summer to forget.

There are a number of reasons why I was not looking forward to the outbound trek. My cycling and exercise routine had fallen by the wayside during our recent sojourn in North America. I had not shouldered a backpack in years or been on cross-country skis in a decade. My gear consisted of rented boots and borrowed skis, downhill skis that had been modified for back country touring.

I regarded my companions as mountain men. They had all done this before. The group had come together over the years through work connections. I was the only one who was not working or going to school. We were a demographic oddity, covering a considerable age–span sixties, fifties, forties, thirties, and fifteen.

We were heading into the great white unknown in gale-force winds. All I knew was that it was roughly 8 kilometers (5 miles) distant and that the climb was not significant. What Alan neglected to tell me was that the 8 kms were “as the crow flies.” That afternoon a crow would have had a hard time going anywhere.

The Great Dividing Range was the first major, physical obstacle that the early English settlers had to surmount to open up the interior. The name describes a complex of mountain ranges, plateaus, upland areas and escarpments with an ancient geological history. stretching 3500 kms (2200 miles) from Queensland down to Victoria. It is called the East Australian Cordillera. I read somewhere that the first domesticated creatures to find their way through were a herd of cows that wandered away from Sydney.

Our first major obstacle was the “damn” dam, a long concrete barrier called Rocky Valley Storage. Its location and shape generate fierce winds. It was on the other side of the dam, at the junction of two different routes to our destination. that I put my foot wrong.

We had re-assembled on the far side of the dam.  Alan suggested that I lead off on the more protected route, not realizing that I couldn’t see where I was going.  I had equipped myself with old, downhill ski goggles, glacier glasses, and prescription glasses that were self-tinting.  Absolutely nothing worked. I was, in effect, snow blind. So, I followed my instincts and floundered into the creek.

The Alpine area of Victoria has been explored and exploited over the years by a number of diverse users, from gold prospectors to cattle men, loggers to engineers in search of “white gold,” hydroelectric power. The cattlemen built the huts and pioneered many of the routes used by bushwalkers today. Grazing rights were still in existence until 2005. Hydroelectric power created the possibility of downhill skiing. The first chair-lift in Oz was built here in 1957. The village now has accommodation for 4500, restaurants and bars.

As I awkwardly extricated myself from the creek, it dawned on me that one of those rooms in Falls Creek might have my name on it. We had not come far. I could bow out with a good excuse, head back down the trail to the village, have a good meal, spend four nights in comfort instead of the cold snow.

But my socks were not soaked. When would I get another chance to do this? I made up my mind to carry on. It was only a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, after all, for as long as it took to get there. The rest of my companions went ahead of me and I followed. Sometimes I had to stop and recover my energy, but no one was moving at light speed.

When we bent into the wind and I felt the blasts of sharp snow stinging my face, the only consolation was that were were closing in on Edmonsons Hut, our destination.There was a large stand of snowgums, the hardy eucalypts that shed snow by bending their branches almost to the ground. There was shelter. We were home.

Our destination for the winter camping trip was a place called Falls Creek, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) to the northeast, on the way to Sydney. A good part of the travel there is on the Hume Highway, one of the most heavily trafficked stretches of bitumen (asphalt) in all of Australia. That part is fast. The last section, when you head toward the Alpine region, makes up for it. It is a slow, two-lane road, threading its way through farm country, gradually climbing into the Alpine National Park.

Our foray into the snow began long before we set out. For me it started on June 24 with a casual email from Alan, my cycling friend, alerting me to the fact that a winter adventure was in the works. It would likely happen the second week of August. Would I like to come?

Like a small snowball accumulating size and speed on its way downhill, a flurry of emails followed over the next five weeks, some were about dates and details, others were simply banter among the various members of the group. When it all shook out, there were six people going for five days the first week of August. It was all still weather dependent, of course. Rain can ruin the best-laid plans of ski trips, and winter weather here. like all Victorian weather, is anything but consistent.

The last weather prediction we received before heading out had good news and bad. The good news was that new snow was predicted. The not-so-good news was that it would probably be accompanied by gale-force winds. It didn’t occur to me that gale-force winds driving pellets of snow can feel like a shotgun blast.

The plan was to rise very, very early on Friday morning, meet at a designated carpool spot, then head out for the long drive in order to be at the campsite by early afternoon. I suspect I was not the only one who spent a restless night waiting for the alarm clock to bounce me out of bed at 3:30 am. We were on the road by 5:15, rolling into a McDonald’s just before our exit off the Hume Highway by 8:30. It was packed.

With the exception of some of the automobiles, an industrial-strength, Italian espresso machine and odd items on the menu, it could have been snow country, USA. There were skis and snowboards, parkas and boots. Heavy sweaters and hardy looking folks wolfing down bacon and egg sandwiches with a curious breakfast condiment, barbecue sauce.

From there, we headed east on the country road, through Myrtleford, Bright and Mt. Beauty. Then the climb began. Cars came toward us with patches of snow stuck to the roof, but we were driving through rain as well. We were almost at Falls Creek before it became apparent that there was going to be plenty of snow on the ground. The base of the ski resort is at an elevation of 1500 meters (nearly 5000 feet.)

On the last Saturday in August, Falls Creek hosts the Kangaroo Hoppet, a 42 km cross country race that counts as a main race with the Worldloppet ski Federation. Over the years, the event has been dominated by Australian racers, but last year’s male winner came from Germany.

We nosed our way to a likely spot in the huge parking lot, unloaded the Subaru, and headed off. The wind was whipping up. One of our members was already nursing a cold that would end up ruining the trip for him and his son. There were at least ten kilometers to go with 20 kilo (44 pound) packs on our backs and it was not going to get any warmer. Little did I know I would soon be plunging into an icy stream.

Stay tuned for the misery.

It was all going wrong. I had deviated off the white path just far enough to plunge my boots into icy water. The gale force wind I had battled to get here now seemed the least of my worries. Floundering in the soft snow, I wriggled out of my pack to get a grip on myself. The whole world had suddenly turned threatening.  What had seemed a bit of a lark in the planning stage now conjured up dark clouds in my brain. If my socks were soaked I would never make it.

If I could have had Dorothy’s wish at that moment, I would have abandoned my companions. I would have clicked my boots together and disappeared back to Kansas, my real birthplace. Back to someplace warm and dry. friendly and safe. After a summer in North America, winter down under was proving much too real.

In the Alpine region of Australia, in the Great Dividing Range, the first week of August is mid winter.  There can be some serious snow. And it gets cold. Not frostbite cold, but cold enough to kick you out of your comfort zone and make you think twice about thermals.

I had gone winter camping exactly once before. It was in Spring in the Sierra Mountains of California. The weather was above freezing and I don’t remember feeling even mildly uncomfortable. It was part of a Sierra Club course.  To get us in the mood, a sardonic physician showed us slide after slide of bodies he had helped recover from the mountains,  narrating the grisly show with the facts leading to each disaster. It was a litany of despair.

A number of the victims had made simple mistakes in preparation or judgment which cascaded into errors that cost them their lives. These were not candidates for Darwin Awards; simply ordinary young people. His mission was to jar us out of our feelings of invincibility and especially out of blue jeans.  Wet cotton is worse than death.  It can leach warmth out of a body quicker than melting icicles.

It was the rapelling (abseilling in Australian) that terrified me. The girl who fed me rope as I lowered myself off the face of a cliff told me later she had never seen such sheer fear outside of a horror movie. I was older than most of the others, old enough to realize that I could actually die. Walking backwards off the edge of a precipice seemed like the height of folly.

What was I doing now floundering waist deep in snow, hapless as a newborn seal.  Hadn’t I learned over the  years? I remember being captivated by Alan’s snow camping Polaroids.  He had passed them across the table like dirty pictures, his secret life.  We knew one another from cycling.

He was getting me hooked.  Winter is not something you get a good sense of here in Australian cities.  It gets chilly and it rains but it never snows.  The days grow shorter and the nights longer.  People hunker down as if it were something to be endured.

But I have lived in cold climes.  I love cross country skiing and the prospect of seeing winter in Oz had irresistible appeal. And Alan was very experienced. He’d been doing it for thirty years. He wouldn’t let me die. Would he?

This is the first part of a few posts on my recent adventure in the Alps. Stay tuned.

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