My eyesight is failing me in the night sky. I blink, re-blink and blink again trying to focus on the uneven rocky surface under my feet. There’s a faint trail of trekker’s headlights snaking up the rugged track, a smattering of stars and a slither of a moon.
What’s hindering my vision and making me decidedly unsteady and anxious is my own shadow which is being cast from the light of a walker behind. In my head I hear Ben, our hiking guide repeat: ‘Keep close together and leave your headtorch on so I can do a headcount to make sure no-one is missing,’ and I decide against telling the guy behind to back-off.
It’s 3.00am and we’ve started our 8km uphill trek to see the sun rise on Mt Sonder, a highpoint of section 12 of the Larapinta trail that traverses the West McDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. It’s the pinnacle of our six day Classic Larapinta Trek* and adrenalin is running high. Not many of us have slept well and we’re all focused on getting there.
In mid-step Neil quickly checks my light and offers various solutions. Nothing works and the walkers ahead get further away. I scramble to keep up and try to maximise the few rays of light I see coming from his headlamp in front. I feel like the weakest link in the chain but dare not stop as I don’t want to hold anyone back.
At the briefing the previous night, Ben paints a bleak picture of the walk warning us of the near freezing temperatures and possible high winds that may mean we have to abort our trek. Unsure as to their physical or mental toughness, four of our group pull out after the briefing.
I’d felt strong and fit as we’d already hiked for four glorious, but sometimes challenging days over some similar terrain, but, that was in daylight. Now my confidence was slowly unravelling. I was in a place as dark as the night sky and a kaleidoscope of negative images flashed through my head. I knew my body was strong, but my mind was playing havoc.
I pick my way onward for another kilometre grateful that I am using two walking poles. At our first stop Neil rummages through his pack and finds a new set of batteries for my headlamp and immediately I’m restored. I can see!
With about one kilometre to go Ben stops our group and declares ‘At this pace we’ll be at the summit too early, does anyone want to wait here where it’s slightly warmer?’ Not a peep comes from the group as we sense the first light of dawn. Like horses heading home, there’s no stopping us now.
At the summit, set amongst craggy rocks and mallee scrub a lonely cairn and chill winds greet us. Beanies, scarves and gloves are dragged out of our backpacks and shared around. In three and a half hours we have reached the peak at 2953m to see the nightscape change from midnight blue to a medley of vivid vermillion, amber and ochre caressing the ridgelines of the vast West MacDonnell ranges below.
As I inhale hot filtered coffee and cake, a surprise treat carried by our guides, I marvel at Mt Sonder’s shadow reflecting perhaps five to ten kilometres onto the plains below and imagine that I can see twelve happy hikers sitting on its peak.
On the way down several of us burst into spontaneous song. My legs sing too, so happy that they’d made it!
*Our six day Classic Larapinta Trek was run by World Expeditions