"To climb Mont Blanc by the Grepon route is one thing; to climb Rum Doodle is, as Totter once said, quite another."
– W.E. Bowman, The Ascent of Rum Doodle
Our aim is to stand on the summit of Mt Feathertop, Victoria's second-highest peak and a natural citadel against the conquering spirit of man. We will forego the use of porters and carry our own gear. We will also make our attempt in the depths of winter.
Our leader, Thompson, contracts motion lassitude during the drive up from Melbourne and is forced to retreat.
With Totter's inspiring words ringing in our ears, the remainder of our team – Dykstra, Vallianos, Azzopardi and myself – agree to push on. The mountain, he'd said, is difficult – severe, even – but it will go.
It is decided that our attack on the mountain will be made by two units, each numbering two men. Dykstra and Vallianos will cut our trail at the front. Azzopardi and myself will follow a short distance behind.
The two lead team members are quick to demonstrate their suitability for this expedition by bounding on ahead. They are soon out of sight. Azzopardi, who speaks fluent Welsh, Maltese and Arabic, shouts messages of support after them, though his choice of words might have sound offensive to some had they not come from the mouth of such a noted linguist.
He begins to fall back, and it falls upon me to fall back with him. I sense that all is not well and urge him to confide in me, pointing out that a trouble shared is a trouble halved.
He says he's stricken by a rare strain of incline lassitude, towards which tobacco smoke inhalation is the only known antidote. I can only surmise that our altitude is playing tricks on him.
We trudge uphill to Picture Point then Tobias Gap and on to Wombat Gap, passing between towering mountain ash trees and, higher up, twisted snow gums scarred by fires. The temperature dips noticeably and we are loath to allow the cold to embrace us by stopping. Even Azzopardi limits his break time to one cigarette and a swig of water – in that order.
Ice crunches beneath our feet and a dusting of snow begins to fall. We chase the sun, without success.
Azzopardi's breathing is laboured in the rarefied atmosphere, which he diagnoses as altitude lassitude. He assures me his conditioning will improve as we get higher.
We reach Base Camp, at the abandoned site of the original Feathertop Bungalow Hut. Dykstra and Vallianos busy themselves by pitching their tents.
Azzopardi disdainfully throws his pack to the ground. I assume another cigarette is in order but he instead extracts a brand new tent that is to be erected for the first time. We are to sleep inside it together after summitting the mountain and the two of us lay it out on the grass while fierce winds rip through the forest canopy.
"There are no pegs," Azzopardi cries, to our shared astonishment.
"Oh, no. Here they are, in my pocket." His quick thinking has averted a crisis.
After a hasty supper, it's time to make our summit bid. Dykstra and Vallianos sprint on ahead and even Azzopardi feels re-energised without his heavy backpack. The altitude lassitude that has restricted his progress is clearly wearing off.
Our trail intersects with two others on a saddle beneath Little Feathertop, where a memorial has been erected to honour the brave climbers who preceded us. Azzopardi's health once again deteriorates and he suspects he's being followed by a lurking suspicion. Dykstra, with commendable frankness, suggests it's more likely a rude awakening.
For the first time, we set eyes on the summit of Mt Feathertop – the silver lining to our cloud of toil. The saddle is the upper limit of the tree line and gale-force winds – cold enough to freeze our moustaches – sweep up and over the mountain's eastern face without hindrance.
The four of us continue upwards with shoulders hunched. We discover that we can escape the winds by bunkering down beneath the summit ridge on its western flank. There, the sun shines brightly and the whistling wind can be heard but not felt.
I follow on the tail of Vallianos, focusing on his seat as we tread uphill. We crest several rises and all are agog to realise we have a way to go before the 1922-metre summit is attainable.
The most agog is Azzopardi, who hunches over his trekking poles, gasping for breath. He pines for cigarettes and for porters to carry him to the top. Signs of altitude lassitude clearly linger and he wisely seizes the opportunity to recuperate his strength by taking a short nap.
Like a wildebeest nuzzling its newborn calf, Dykstra and Vallianos valiantly prod him with their trekking poles in an effort to revitalise him. The sooner he can stand, the safer he'll be from the predatory cold.
Azzopardi cusses loudly – something that would never happen at sea level – discharging phrases with carnal intent and in a language decipherable only to a man of his own linguistic talents. I can only assume it's Welsh. These, no doubt, are temporary effects that will disappear with acclimatisation.
At last we reach the summit, where mountain peaks and ridges rise and dip all around us. In such moments, a man reflects upon his own achievements and we stand there, lost in our thoughts and obscured by tobacco smoke. It was just as Totter promised; the mountain did go.
Bungalow Spur Track is the most accessible route up Mt Feathertop. Another favourite – though more exposed – route is via the Razorback Ridge from Mt Loch, near Mt Hotham. The Bungalow Spur Track up Mt Feathertop starts just outside Harrietville, a 350km – or four-hour drive – northeast of Melbourne. W.E. Bowman's classic parody of colonial mountaineering expeditions, The Ascent of Rum Doodle, is a brilliant read and thoroughly recommended. It is published by Vintage and includes an introduction by Bill Bryson.
The author drove up from Melbourne and camped overnight near the Old Federation Hut ruins on Mt Feathertop before descending then driving back the next day. Most hikers camp around the newer Federation Hut higher up the mountain. Alternatively, Harrietville makes an ideal base for those who want to relax before or after the hike. Go to harrietville.com for an extensive list of accommodation options.
The author travelled at his own expense.