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  • Writer's pictureValentine Smith APM

We might as well be on the moon


Our Trip to Craigs Hut. By Pastor Christopher and Yolanda Eckels[i]

Edited by Valentine Smith.[ii]

As I scroll through the pictures on my phone, my mind goes back to that almost fateful day in October 2017. It was just supposed to be a 6-hour round trip from what I was reading on the website. I had always wanted to do some hiking with my wife so I thought what would be a good first trip. I came across an easy hike, so it seemed, a trip to Craig's hut. We had watched the man from Snowy River and my wife loved the movie. I thought this would be a romantic hike and I would be her man from the Snowy River.

As I investigated the hike, it went from Mt. Buller over Mt. Stirling to Craig's hut, not bad 3 hours. Looking back, I am not sure how I came up with that time frame, but it was what I gathered from reading the government parks website. I thought we could walk there, have lunch, and walk back. We loaded up our backpacks and jackets and headed off from our home in the western suburbs of Melbourne, heading to Mt. Buller. Also, I had thought that winter was way over, and the snow season was gone.

We got to Mt. Buller parked in an empty parking lot and looked around. I noticed it was very empty except for a few cars in the parking lot. The ski season was over, and most had left for the season. I had a few questions before we took off down the trail. I spotted two things, one of which would later cause us to be rescued from Craig's hut. The first was a sign that said police station and the second was an information booth. My wife and I headed over to the information booth all geared up for the hike and it had a sign on the window which read, ‘closed’. Well, I figured we would just start walking and we headed down the trail leading from Mt Buller following the trail signs. The first sign that something was not what I had thought was all the snow that I saw as we were leaving for our hike. I had thought winter was over and all the snow gone, a mistake that later would find us heading up Mt. Stirling in over knee-deep snow at times.

I believed we were more than prepared, but not overconfident. We had a map of the area and compass; our mobile phones and an extra charger, all three were fully charged. We had what I thought was plenty of food and water. I had also been working out for about 6 months and running, so I was not out of shape. I had watched a few Man vs. Wild with my family, but I will confess I knew little about hiking in the Alpine mountains. It is one thing to read a book or a website and quite another to have experience in these conditions. And the map I had seemed to make it all look simple enough, just follow the line (trail) on the map up and back down what could go wrong. After our trip, I remember reading somewhere that someone had said that you should "prepare as if anything could go wrong" a lesson I would later understand very well.

So off we went down the trail. We were half excited, and the other half I had my doubts if we should have even started this trip, but we just kept walking. I remember telling my wife after about an hour, who was just following me wherever I would go, that "I wonder why we have not come across other hikers". After we were rescued, I found out that the entire mountain was closed for the season and all those in the know were off the mountain and not hiking.

We came to the first hut and went inside and looked around. I noticed a fireplace, firewood, and a notebook. You can sign the book so people will know you were there and where you are headed, but I thought nothing about it. Again, inexperience was showing, and I did not see the importance of this critical step. Well, we rested and ate some snacks and took some pictures. We set off heading toward Mt. Stirling and just up over the hill following the signs expecting to see Craig's hut on the back side of Mt. Stirling just a few hours or so later.

The climb up the Mt. Stirling 4x4 track was hard and very steep at times. I remember looking back at my wife and she looked like she was getting exhausted, so I took her backpack and carried both our packs, little did I realise it would take another 6 hours to get to the hut. We kept climbing and came to the big sign that warned all who came up the mountain of the weather conditions beyond this point and how badly they could get. As we walked past the sign, we encountered the first snow. I sunk into the snow up past my knees and we pushed through it and kept climbing higher and higher. We traveled another few hours toward the top of Mt Stirling just off in the distance. It seemed to elude us as a carrot on a stick. We should have just turned back, but then Craig’s Hut was just ahead on the other side of Mt. Stirling.

We finally made it to the top of Mt. Stirling where the sharp cool air caught us, just for an instant, as our struggles and time were momentarily distracted by our privileged witness to a magnificent vista of wonderful endlessness above the world. Reality, on point again, and not far now, I thought. We headed over the top following the markers on the poles because the trail had disappeared under the snow. Soon the markers would disappear also, leaving us wandering down an unmarked trail. We came to a sign that pointed to another hut, which we were relieved to rest and get warm and eat something. We spent about 45 minutes in the hut eating and resting. It is strange how time stands still and yet moves quickly in this world of hiking. As we left the Cabin, there was a map on the outside. We were a little confused because there was no way to orient ourselves to this map. Which trail should we take? I used our compass (for the first time). My dear wife, being much smarter than I, pointed me in the right direction and off we went down the back side of Mt. Stirling on the 4x4 trail. One thing I noticed was it is very easy to get confused and turned around when the trail disappears. It is also very easy to get disorientated in a place like this.

The mind knows nothing of where a person is in situations like this, especially without a guide to help us. We might as well be on the moon. There was nothing to reference ourselves to. I should have turned around right here and went back to Mt. Buller but started instead down the back side of Mt. Stirling. The trail was shocking to say the least. There were boulders in the way and a steep descent. I had never climbed down anything like this before. I thought to myself we will have to go back up this steep path full of boulders of which some we had to climb over. I knew my dear wife would never make it back up this step hill. It was then I knew we were in trouble.

Our hike was going from bad to worse. I had the GPS turned on my mobile phone and because of the cloud cover I could not get a signal. Having the GPS on killed my phone battery. No worries, my wife still had half a charge on her phone and a full battery pack. That would soon change in about a half an hour. Her phone was dead and plugged into her battery charger, which showed she only had half of her charge left.

But I figured another hour at the most. It would be about 3 hours later when we arrived at Craig's hut. We got to the bottom of Mt. Stirling and no hut. It was getting dark, and I knew we could not go back up the trail. We would never make it. I looked at my wife who was so exhausted and now soaking wet from sweat and I said, "we have to keep going" mind you I was in doubt now if we were even going to find Craig's hut. I must have taken a wrong turn but forward we must go.

We kept following the trail and finally came across a signpost that pointed to Craigs hut. ‘Finally’, I exclaimed. Hope came back for a moment as I said, “look it's just up the road”. I told her “we will just catch a ride back with someone when we get there”. It would be 45 minutes later that the parking lot to Craigs hut came into view, and you can imagine my dismay when we got there it was empty. The place literally looked like a ghost town. No one had been up there for months. We noticed another road heading away from the hut and I thought about walking down the other road back to Mt. Buller but then decided to call for help. My wife’s phone plugged into her external charger now said just 1 bar of power. We got into Craigs hut and saw the firewood and the notebook there to sign your names and let people know where you were heading. I was starving and we sat down on the bench and lit our stove to boil water and eat the last of the noodles. I also wanted to try and get some heat to my wife who had become soaked with sweat from the hike. She started to immediately get very cold and started to shiver in the cold.

My immediate attention was to get help. I said give me your phone as she handed it to me as her battery charger died, and her phone was almost dead. I called triple 000 thinking I was getting the police station that I had seen at Mt. Buller as we left. I remember a lady answered the phone that again I thought had rung at the Mt. Buller police station. The voice on the other end asked, "How can I help you", I said I was at Craigs Hut and needed someone to come get me and my wife who were stranded there I remember her reply to this day, she said "Do you want me to send you a taxicab"? My heart sank and I said I am on Mt/ Stirling and needed rescued. I knew my phone would die at any moment. I said I am in the Victorian High country where are you, she exclaimed this is the call center in Canberra. I was not happy, but she said let me transfer you to the nearest police station, do you know which one, and I said yes Mt. Buller. The phone began to ring and a voice on the other end of the phone said Mansfield police, I said my wife and I are at Craigs hut and need someone to get us. I think he was shocked that someone would be calling from Craig's hut. He said something else to me and then the phone died, and it seems that so did I.

My wife was shivering cold, and we had no food and I remember the road leading in a different direction wondering if we should just start walking down the road. My mind went back and forth. Stay, walk down the road, stay, walk down the road. I made the decision to stay at least we were in the hut even though you could see through the walls. Contemplating on what to do, it began to snow outside. Something in me said "Start a fire". So, I opened the stove and chopped some kindling wood of the bigger logs. In my safety kit I had matches and tried to light the pile of kindling wood. Every time I lit a match the wind would come down the chimney and blow out the match. I lit another and then another. I was down to my last match and my wife said to try to light the little candle in the kit. I did and it worked. The candle began to light the wood and soon it started getting warm and with that warm heat hope began to return. I thought we would just stay by the fire and in the morning just head back. I remember walking over to the book and putting our names in the book. I made a note that we were stranded here someone help us. (Someday I would like to return to see if I could find our names). We began to slowly doze off as it had been almost 2 hours since I talked to the police at the station. My wife had already dozed off, and I was trying to stay awake. I was so tired and had no energy left.

I remember dozing off and then what seemed like forever being awakened by police lights and a voice speaking through the intercom. For the moment I thought it was all a dream. I did not move as I was so tired and could hardly think at this time. Something within me said those are police lights. I remember jumping up to see the most beautiful thing to my eyes. The police officer who took my call made his way up to rescue us. I walked out toward the police car, and I remembered he said is there someone with you and I said, yes, my wife is in there.

I remember the look on his face as he said, “what are you doing up here”. He said he was not sure if he could get to us as all the gates were locked and there were trees down everywhere. He said he found the gate keys and started over an hour ago to get to us. We spent the next hour driving back to Mansfield with the officer. He took our names and addresses and called ahead to get us a room in the Hotel. I said I was so sorry for all of this. I remember him saying to us, “no we do this all the time”. I remember the plate of food they had waiting for us. We were so tired we could not eat but I was so hungry we did. I remember lying down in the bed in the hotel room and a second later waking up and it was morning. I remember kind of pinching myself to make sure this was real. It was I was now slowly coming to and remember our night and a little upset at how stupid I was for bringing my wife on this baffling hike, thinking I was an experienced hiker.

We paid the hotel bill and were told to meet a lady at the café across the street after breakfast. We put on our rain gear and big backpacks and headed to the café for a wonderful breakfast. We were picked up and taken to our car on Mt. Buller by a wonderful, kind lady. I offered to pay her $50.00 for the ride but she would not take it. On the way up, I told her what happened, and she asked why I did not go ask someone first before we went off. I said I went to the information booth, but it just said closed. She said, oh no, they just moved it to the other building over there. She left and we put everything into the car and headed back home. On the way out, we needed petrol and stopped at the petrol station. As I walked in, I saw a stand with maps in it and noticed a map for the high country. I grabbed it and put it on the counter for a possible later trip back and the man looked at the map, looked at me, and said, "You can't go up their now, it's closed". I said, I know we were just rescued from Craigs hut last night. I turned around and got into my car and drove the somber 3-hour drive back to Melbourne. We got in our house and threw everything on the floor in the hallway. We left it there for a few days untouched as a reminder of what had just happened to us. Still not able to process everything, knowing it would take weeks for the full effect to hit us.

I would say the human spirit is an amazing thing. For some, they are happy with a book on the couch exploring other worlds through words. For others it's an adventure in the real world, but at what cost?

It has been over 5 years now since our rescue from that fateful night in October. I would love to go back as I have now found out it’s easier to drive in when everything is open. I would like to see if the book is still there and find our names and pause in reflection over what happened that night in October in that hut.

Christopher and Yolanda Eckels.

[i] This article is from the original article as provided to Valentine Smith in August of 2023 by Pastor Christopher Eckels and relates to the same story told to Valentine Smith in mid-2022. [ii] Some minor rephrasing and grammatical changes have been made by the editor, otherwise the article is as per the original article supplied by Pastor Eckels.

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