A few days out, Sydney was basking in an unseasonal heat wave, with temperatures cruising into the mid-20s. While I fretted that this bizarre weather would ruin things by taking the “freeze” out of FreezeFest, it did inspire a sudden flurry of people to say they were keen to take part.
Given it had been four years since the last Aussie FreezeFest, and I’d left my packing to Friday afternoon, I struggled to remember exactly what I should be bringing. Somehow, among the forgotten items were my wetsuit and drybags. I’d made it as far as Katoomba before I realised, forcing a return home for supplies. Despite this second pack, I still managed to forget my neoprene gloves, which I later came to regret.
The mercury began falling in the mid-afternoon as a sudden wintry blast hit the mountains. A last minute check of the weather forecast now warned of snow down to 1000m — pretty much the exact height of our campsite — while the wind was already blowing at 50 km/h with gusts approaching 80km/h. The sun hadn’t even set, yet the icy wind meant the apparent temperature was already well below zero.
I reached the campsite not long after John and together we got a fire going. It provided a handy beacon over the next couple hours as a band of hardy souls trickled in, some from as far afield as Newcastle.
The swirling winds sprayed smoke and embers in all directions, forcing a regular shuffling of positions by the huddled mass. The engineer in the group began speculating that our changing positions — opening and closing gaps in the circle — was shifting how the wind travelled through, explaining the fire’s refusal to stop chasing us.
The conditions began taking their toll on numbers, as some decided to stay in their own warm beds before driving up in the morning, while others pulled out entirely.
As we emerged from our tents in the morning, the temperature was hovering at about 1 degree, with a relative temperature of -9.2. The sun’s first rays peeking over the trees were no match for the icy blasts as we huddled around eating breakfast.
As more people trickled in, the discussion finally turned to canyon options. My planned run through Whungee Wheengee, which a couple days earlier looked like it would have too many participants, was now down to just me. Five group members hadn’t made it up the mountains at all, while three others couldn’t bring themselves to commit to so much swimming on such a cold day.
Peggy, Stephen and Sam’s trip through Better Offer suddenly grew in size, with Mon and Clinton deciding the name of the canyon was particularly apt given the conditions. Likewise, Laura and Damon’s Waterfall of Moss trip tripled in size, with Kosta, John, Mark and Joel all deciding to join them.
The one spark of encouragement was when the other John turned up, had a quick chat with us all, then slung his pack onto his back and fearlessly surged off towards a solo run through Why Don’t We Do It In The Road (Serendipity) Canyon. If he could press on with a wet canyoning adventure, surely I could cling to my own crazy FreezeFest plans.
Thankfully, a suitably-mad Tom also arrived, after having driven up from Wollongong that morning. His refusal to bow to the conditions meant I suddenly had a viable trip.
Setting off down the fire trail we were quickly out of the worst of the wind, making our chosen canyon suddenly seem less intimidating, and before long we were pausing to remove thermal layers, which an hour earlier would have been completely out of the question.
When we reached the Wollangambe we were amazed to see just how low the water level was. The impact of a hot summer followed by a dry winter was stark. The water was not only beautifully clear, but it only required us getting wet feet.
The cracking pace we’d managed so far ended abruptly, with Tom and I huffing and puffing upwards, sweat now pouring off us. The air temperature wasn’t even 5 degrees, but it was still no match for the heat generated by a pair of chubby middle-aged bodies climbing a ridge.
Once on top we enjoyed the views and marvelled at the remarkable recovery of the area following the massive fire that tore through here less than five years earlier. The Australian bush really is incredibly resilient!
Barely an hour and a half after setting off we were above the first abseil. This one is dry and is followed by a little creek walking before the first swim, but neither of us felt like taking our harness on and off multiple times, so we decided to put our full thermal protection on here.
Thankfully, there were no cameras for this part. Both Tom and I needed assistance to get zippers closed as the neoprene struggled to contain our curvy frames. By the time we were decked out in wetsuits and thermals we were baking, and the next part of the walk had us joking that we’d underestimated the very real risk of heatstroke!
The canyon was the driest either of us had seen it, with barely a trickle of water and ample clearance through the various duck-unders. Far from being chased through by the cold, we enjoyed the swims and took time to enjoy the swirling rock above us.
Whungee Wheengee was stunning as ever and we both felt privileged to have this spectacular slot all to ourselves. We kept the ropes packed away as much as possible, utilising some teamwork to get through the awkward downclimbs. At one point, I tried to be a little too creative and took a tumble, which thankfully had me land in a deep pool, fully submerging my head for the first and only time.
Part way along it began to sprinkle, with tiny droplets looking like the melted remains of snowflakes rather than proper rain.
Then, all-too-soon, we were through the spectacular final section of the canyon. I was a little sad to reach the ‘Gambe, not only because we were about to spend a lot more time swimming.
We debated which way to exit, deciding on upstream as it is slightly shorter and the low flow meant it would be easy to fight the current. It also meant we’d run into anyone who was still determined to press ahead with a night trip through Why Don’t We Do It In The Road Canyon.
It was here we both realised our big mistake, as our hands felt the sting of the cold water. I’d left my lovely pair of neoprene paddling gloves at home. Tom, who’d remembered to bring a pair, discovered they were in fact his wife’s and were far too small to fit his hands. In the canyon, we’d been able to keep our hands out of the water most of the time, but long swims against the current meant they now needed to be constantly used. This was particularly tough given the usual summer experience, where the river feels like a warm bath after coming out of a side canyon, had clearly been reversed.
It took awhile for the cold to really set it, but as we went on I noticed my coordination deteriorating as we scrambled over slippery rocks. At one point I decided to take a detour from the water, skirting up the vegetated bank of the river, but it ended up delivering little more than a bonus scrub bash.
I grabbed the opportunity to regale Tom with my heroism in this section of canyon a decade earlier, when I came across a very fatigued wallaby who’d fallen in. After initially being fairly scared of me, he eventually realised I was there to help, allowing me to lift him free of the water where the vertical walls opened up.
It felt great when we finally saw the end of Why Don’t We Do It In The Road Canyon cutting through the cliffs on our left, meaning we were just 100 metres or so from the exit.
Finally out of the water, our hands were a bright pink as blood rushed back to them. We stripped off the cold layers, thankful we had some dry clothes stashed in our drybags. After enjoying a snack and a tipple of bourbon that Tom had thoughtfully packed, we set off on the journey back to camp.
I had decided by this point that I wouldn’t be doing a night canyon — the body was tired and I had my fill of being cold with those long swims — so I wanted to get back to camp quickly to tell the others. I’d originally said to people that they could meet me at the junction of this track and the canyon entry, but I didn’t want anyone walking a couple kilometres to join me for a canyon I had no intention of going through.
I left Tom to plod along and pressed ahead, pausing only to enjoy the songs of several boisterous lyrebirds.
The walk out felt much longer than the walk in, despite being identical in length and elevation, and my pace started to slow.
Finally, just a few hundred metres from camp, I spotted Kosta striding towards me. He was the only keen night canyoner left, and he looked quite deflated when I told him I wouldn’t be joining him. After a brief attempt to talk me around, he gave in, walking back to camp.
I grabbed some warm clothes and hid beside the picnic shelter to change, which was the one place free of wind. Peggy handed me some warm soup and Bron got the billy going for a cup of tea. My body struggled to warm back up from the long swim, but the eventual feeling of warm hands and dry feet was euphoric.
We later found out that not only had snow flurries been falling in various parts of the mountains, including nearby Blackheath and the Newnes Plateau, but heavier falls had settled around the Oberon Plateau. It was across these snowy plains that the winds now whipped, explaining why it already felt colder than the previous night.
It was clear the area of the campground where we were was too exposed, so some energetic volunteers lugged our pile of firewood to a more sheltered spot where trees provided a degree of protection before getting the fire going.
Even here, the gusts of wind regularly caught us off guard, sending snacks flying and flipping unattended chairs into the fire. Looking at the weather observations the next day, we were unsurprised to see gusts of 90 km/h had been recorded.
When the time came to go to bed, I found my cheap car camping tent had been no match for the weather. Despite the ample bedding inside it had been torn from the ground, flipped, had its poles snapped, and was only saved from blowing across the campground by one remaining guyline.
A reshuffle of gear had us sleeping in the back of the cars. The benefit of this wind buffer was clear as the night wore on and we were woken at several points by blasts that shook the vehicles.
The next morning was a repeat of the first day, with howling winds and icy temperatures. My intended trip through Lower Bowens Creek North was quickly cancelled. The only brave souls still keen to canyon were Andrew, Ev, and John. They set off for Jungaburra Canyon, hoping it would have some protection from the wind. A few others opted for a bushwalk.
The largest party settled on a mid-morning run through “Synonymous Canyon” at Medlow Bath. It seemed the best option, given we knew it to be dry and sheltered. The existence of coffee and nice food were an added bonus.
While this was far from the most hardcore of FreezeFests, it was great to have the tradition restarted, and I greatly enjoyed the chance to hang around a campfire with friends, old and new.