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Archie, Ewen & other Lunatics Mount Donna Buang – Winter Ascent

There’s slow business like snow business.

It only takes an hour or so of lurking around on Facebook to bend ones mind into doing less than sane things. Playing games without purpose or passion, reposting stupid comments, downloading another trojan, or deciding to climb a local berg in the middle of one of the coldest weeks in recent history.

In this instance, I was following the lead of a certain Ewen Gellie. Talented bike rider and excellent frame builder he is, but it’d be fair to say that – like me – he is not above failing to think through the consequences of what appear to be dubious recreational pursuits. In a moment of peer inspired sub-brilliance, we’d publicly committed to climbing Mt Donna Buang up the gravel roads from Healesville, in the middle of winter.

And so on the morning of the ascent, twelve intrepid riders turned up at the designated meeting point in Healesville ready to begin a relatively novel cycling adventure. Almost everyone, with the exception of myself and a bloke called Brian John on our 29ers had chosen CX bikes for the journey – the principle being that skinny, grippy tyres would cut through the snow to the gravel underneath.

We didn’t have to wait long to test that theory. Garmins were reporting 650 meters or so of elevation, and already, we were in a couple of inches of white stuff. It was very pretty, pretty crunchy, in parts pretty slippery and for the most part, pretty good fun. And as we regrouped we were all pretty excited about getting amongst it. However, that was about to become pretty different – pretty quickly. The snow got deep quicker than a breakup conversation and our expectations of rolling to the top in happy harmony through 3 inches of talcum like snow were beginning to melt away.

Within the hour we were spending efforts like they were post war deutsch marks and finding our speed dropping south of walking pace. The snow depth climbed with each kilometer. Our group had splintered. Off the 12 that started one had dropped off below the snowline, another four had already realised that this snow climb fantasy was a unicorn and the remaining seven of us were pushing on in the vain hope that at some point, this Christmas in July would let us open our presents.
There were Christmas trees, but no presents. We pressed on, reaching a saddle in the climb were the gradient fell away, but it seemed that the snow had chosen the same place to rest as us. It was so deep that even on a downhill, in granny, we were still returning only single digit speeds. At this glacial pace we passed a sign reading 9 kilometers to go – indicating the halfway point. Another three from our party pulled up stumps right there. We were down to four.

As the road began to regain climbing status we were beginning to walk a lot more than ride. Those on CX bikes were without the wide bars and deep cassettes that we on 29ers had and struggled to not only get over the gear but to get control of their rides. Having walked the last hour, out of food and water and getting pretty sick of wet, freezing feet, the last two CX bikes decided that the glory on offer was not worth the investment –  and turned back.

Twelve was now two, with only Brian John and I remaining. He’s a tough old bastard Mr John. He too has done every Odyssey, he’s an expert in distance racing and took a win off me at the Beechworth 6 hour almost a year ago (way earlier blog post). What this meant is that nobody was going downhill until we’d got to the top.

We’d noticed that a couple of intrepid riders had attempted to get to the top the day before.Their tyre tracks and accompanying footprints indicating that like us, they had found the term ‘push bikes’ to be particularly apt. We struggled on, our speed now reduced to no more than three kilometers an hour. Feet, backs, hands, legs were all hurting – a pain sometimes numbed and sometimes amplified by the freezing conditions. This slow-snow march seemed to last for hours, our halting conversation based largely on trying to figure out what caused these strange tracks in the snow and where the other previous days riders had gone. Their tracks had disappeared some distance down the mountain.

Suddenly, appearing on the trail was a bloke on skis, his wife in ugg boots and their labrador. It was a strange encounter. A quick chat, a pat of the happy lab and a snack (thanks to Brian for sharing his Cliff bars) and we were fired up for the final assault. Our off piste pals had informed us that we were only a couple of kilometers from the summit, something that made us very happy indeed.

Before we knew it we had punched out of snow and were on the tarmac, cautiously spinning our way to the summit across the black ice. It’d be fair to say we, as a couple of soggy mountain bikers stood out a little amongst a swathe of wobbly snow tourists, trying to stay upright as they shoved their children into short bursts of toboggan-run terror. We took a couple of celebratory photos and began preparing for the descent. This included four buckets of hot chips and a couple of hot chocolates – all the fuel a slightly twisted bike rider needs.

We decided to take on another extended period of exertion in the deep snow rather than accept the almost certain broken collarbone that the icy blacktop offered.

And while we still walked a lot, the trip down was altogether more rewarding. The snow had softened and gravity was helping a little too and despite still being hammered like galley oarsmen we were making reasonable progress – and even having some fun.

We got over the saddle and down under the snow line and wound our way back to the carpark – still freezing cold and using whatever energy we had left to keep up our average speed, and hopefully, our core temperature.
When we got back to Healesville it was a circus. It was a total contrast to when we started and moreover, so totally different to where we’d just been. We’d just returned from something so quiet and so exceptionally beautiful that all the bustle around us seemed a little surreal.

Helmetcam Video from the day
Some would say arthouse, others would say crap

A great day out. Thanks to Ewen Gellie and Jason Johnson for getting us involved. A huge shout out to all those dudes who came along and mad ups to Brian John for getting to the top with me…because I probably wouldn’t have done it without him.

Great bikes too. 29ers, take the win in the snow!

A late edit – Tough guy Gags, up for the ascent on the day, matching his bike skills with supreme video editing. He’s what the day looked like from the perspective of a good camera-handler.

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