Friday, April 29, 2005

Epics: A response


By Rod Smith

Dear Bigness,

Can I just say that your account of bad times on the slopes of South Africa’s Table Mountain sounds pretty much exactly what I experience every time that my merry band of 48 non-gear owning, non-leading friends accompany me simultaneously onto the soaring lines of the 10m-high, crenellated sandstone of Sydney’s Bangor West.

I mean, it's uncanny that what you describe is exactly what we encountered on one particularly trouser-filling trip. We had almost-mist, near-benighting, congenital stupidity, multiple multi-pitches of up to 30cm each, a cliff draped in so much rope it looked like a macramé lesson from god, loss of crack and one good head torch.

I can feel the cold sweat run down my sticht plate when I remember that fateful day-into-night when I was responsible for six screamingly gripped people scattered up and down this towering cliff, on intermediate stances, from 9am until midnight, simply because a key hand jam had been inadvertently filled in by the local council road-mending crew.

With lives at risk I was forced to make decisions of Yatesian and Simpsonesque and even Shakespearian proportions. With the fearful expression on my face hidden by the dimming of the day, I announced that I had to tie every one off so that I could lower off and answer nature's call.

What I really did was lower off, drive to the Como pub, drink 15 beers for courage, drive back, jumar back to my high point and finish the climb by the light of a birthday candle that one of the gang happened to have secreted in an area where candles aren't normally secreted.

My Boag’s-charged state had allowed me, as it always does, to see things that I normally would have missed. In this case it was a micro hold that had previously been hidden by the shadow of an ant's earlobe.

Needless to say (so why say it?) that this discovery allowed me to put away my souvenir Touching-The-Void-See-You-Later Knife and lead my mewling minions to the safety of a nearby Seven Eleven for celebratory half dried-up pies and sausage rolls.

I still look back in horror on that route which some call Andrew's Bulge (16) but which I call Andrew's 11-metres-of-sheer-terror Bulge.

The only time I have ever gone back there I was almost blinded by the sun that glints off the hundreds of fingernails still embedded in the rock after they were ripped from the tips of my crimping, crying, frightened friends.

Here's to epics.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Return of The Original

By Rod Smith

Calmness should have come easily. The ingredients for it were all there: The pleasant alpine flowers, the drowsy afternoon sun and the sweeping views into the heat-shimmer of the Grose Valley.

Instead, I felt edgy sitting atop the storey-high rock tower which marks the start of The Original Route up Mt Banks.

Chilled by drying sweat and with my back to the view, I stared wide-eyed upon the sandstone ripple that is the first pitch of this legendary Blue Mountains climb.

Scanning the pitch up to the crumbling overhang that marks the top, there did not appear to be a decent gear placement in its 25m length. I wondered how those pioneering Sydney Rockies members had felt more than 52 years earlier when they had looked upon the rock, as they prepared for the first ascent.

How did they feel standing there in their Dunlop Volleys, a hemp rope over the shoulders and only a vague idea and inspiration to guide them? I wished I could ask one of them how they had felt. Then I remembered I could do just that.

The rustle of bushes marked the approach of the fourth member of our party, 76-year-old Enn Truupold. Back in January of 1953 Enn had stood in this spot alongside Russ Kippax, Dave Roots and Owen Llewellyn as they readied to sculpt with sweat and inspiration a 350m+ route that defies and exceeds its modest Ewbankian label of 13.

While Enn had repeated parts of The Original Route a couple of times since the first ascent, it had only been up the three pitches to the first bivvy ledge. The reason: “It was our frightful belay system that absolutely discouraged me from repeating The Original Route beyond the first ledge,” Enn said.

Now, more than half a century on, Enn was confident enough for his second ascent of the line. But before I could ask about that moment when Enn had first led the first pitch of this behemoth of Blue Mountains routes, Hayden undercut the whimsy with a simple “You head up ”. Jolted back to the here and now, I anxiously racked up, tied on and placed hands on rock.

After the long slog in from Pierce’s Pass, it felt good to be on the simplicity of rock. That good feeling was only slightly dented when, more than 10m off the deck, I still hadn’t found a decent bit of gear. Still, as Hayden assured me, this pitch was only a grade 8. The trouble was that my overawed mind configured bigger numbers.

After a little while there was a place for a number two Friend. Further on, thanks to a bit of gardening, I placed in a shallow pocket the number four Friend that Hayden had advised me against bringing, but which I’d brought along any way. This was quickly followed by a rock-spike runner, then the top-out in a squat overhang.

Tied into one of the few bolts on this route, I brought Jim and then Hayden up, followed by our packs. I was around the corner searching for the next pitch when Enn apparently danced his way up the rock as he had done as a 24-year-old in 1953.

If Enn sashayed I struggled. Unused to climbing while carrying a pack, I attempted the “fine climbing up the nose” of pitch two described in Warwick Williams’ essential guide Rockclimbs In The Grose Valley. Deciding that an out-of-sight thrutch up a wet corner would be easier, I downclimbed and headed up the alternative only to be filled with disgust at my early-onset cowardice. Downclimbing a second time I headed back to the nose.

The weighty pack felt weird as I adjusted my centre of gravity to its backward pull and climbed the delicate dinnerplate holds of the second pitch. With a good first piece of gear down low and a suspect second piece at my feet, I leaned backwards to tackle a bulge when my left handhold snapped off and I began falling backwards.

Inspired by the manky gear placement not to fall, I somehow held on to a marginal crimp and regained my balance. I bellowed and for the next few seconds I doubt that the Blue Mountains have sounded bluer.

Shaken, I continued on, but only managed one more move when a foothold shattered under my left foot. After a few more seconds’ contemplation and with hysteria mounting I moved on. As I weighted my right foothold, it too chose to obey gravity.

Paranoid and with jitterbugging legs I gingerly gained the top, screaming for slack before lashing myself to a handy gum tree. Oblivious to my dramas, Jim joined me at the top.

I felt a little relieved when he mentioned that the pitch had seemed particularly difficult with a pack on. Then Hayden arrived and mentioned, in his typically casual manner, that he was going to pack-haul on that pitch.

Determined to climb out of stupidity and into some luck, I headed around to a wet, muddy corner which I decided was pitch three. In many ways the twin brother of the pitch I had abandoned earlier, this dirt-choked crack with its glistening surface actually appeared inviting.

Starting on the drier left wall, traversing right onto the wet but more positive holds of the right wall, before burying some gear in the crack, I zig-zagged my way up to the mini-chimney at the top. Pushing off a solid-looking chockstone, I accidentally kicked it and several other fist-sized boulders down onto Jim, who dodged them. At the top and once again lashed to a tree, I brought Jim up.

Hayden followed quickly and announced that he and Enn had decided to bivvy for the night on the first ledge just above us. With the clock nudging 5pm, I calculated that our current rate of three pitches in three hours would mean a very dark finish if we attempted to continue up the next five pitches to the second bivvy ledge.

Happy for a reprieve from the “obvious fearsome looking route” of pitch four, I was also overjoyed to find water trickling down in a mini waterfall onto the ledge. Forsaking the purification tablet-treated Grose River swill in my water bottle, I sucked at the cold run-off and felt revived.

After some half-hearted scrub-bashing along the right side, as we looked for the original first ledge bivvy – with its walls of “paddled mud and rock” – we headed left past the base of the fourth pitch to a wide, sandy ledge that Hayden had discovered. With plenty of wood collected from around the area and as the long rays of the dying day turned the sandstone golden, we settled down in our bivvy bags for a night of food and tales of the short day’s derring-do.

Morning and the four of us rose with the sun, refreshed by sleep but sore from our rubble mattresses. By 8am we were at the bottom of the dramatic orange face and sloping corner that is unmistakably pitch four.

I was relieved when Hayden – on his fourth trip up The Original Route, including one solo journey – took the rope and led the pitch. Using the crack for protection he traversed right at the top and belayed using two bolts that he, Jim Croft and Bryden Allen had placed when they had made the first ascent of the corner crack. I climbed a direct route to the stance on our second rope while Jim seconded the pitch.

After a bit of sack-hauling Enn climbed the face on a similar direct line to the one I had followed. For the first time, I witnessed the economy of his climbing technique and mentally compared it to the vertical thuggery of my own.

With Jim and Enn belayed to a marginal chickenhead and suspect bolt Hayden offered me the rope for the overhanging, exposed pitch five. Enn commented that Russ Kippax had nicknamed it “a double arsehole belay”.

“On the first ascent we invented a very dodgy ‘double-jammed arsehole belay’,” Enn recalled.

“Russ Kippax describes it in the SRC 50th Anniversary issue of Thrutch – ‘one thread belay, two jammed bums and some hope that (Russ) did not fall off’.”

My fear wasn’t the overhang or the exposure; it was simply the fear that the huge holds that promised safe passage would behave like their cousins and head south at my touch.

Packless, I stepped out and up and suddenly the bulge was below me. A small Friend, a slung chickenhead, another half-forgotten cam and a small runout, and then the pitch ended. Calmly Enn appeared above the bulge as he seconded. A bit of pack-hauling and Jim and then Hayden joined us.

Selecting a couple of cams to augment his minimalist rack, Hayden raced up the gentle and attractive-looking corner crack of pitch six. Jim cleaned, Enn followed and I brought up the rear. The fastest pitch we would do all day, it gave an insight into how people climbing with light packs could theoretically cover the route in a day.

A small wander around the corner to the right brought us to a small ledge in a gully and the grassy and weeping start of pitch seven. It’s here that Hayden’s confidence and experience began to show as he solo climbed the pitch and brought the rest of us up via a wet corner.

From there a short walk upwards brought us to the historical place, the second bivvy ledge. I can put it no better than the description in Warwick Williams’ guide of going “up to the bivouac bed” where a small, rusted cigar tin “contains the names of the great ones”.

Enn is a naturally quiet man but as he gazed at that precious piece of paper that bears his name and those of the other three members of the first ascent party, it was if he were momentarily gone. Perhaps he was back in 1953, when, as the piece of paper says, in a cheeky mock advertisement, Dunlop Supervolleys were the climbing boot of choice because they “stick like shit to a blanket”.

Beset by duelling cameras capturing the latest historical moment, Enn again signed the scraps of paper that comprise the logbook, as did we all. Now we were a part of history, at least in some small way, our names in a tiny tin that after 52 years is still big enough to carry the identities, poetry and banal commentary of just about everyone who has climbed this line.

After snacks and the last of our water, we set off in search of the last official pitch of the route. Hayden suggested we climb Warwick Williams’ alternative finish – a more pleasant end to the outing although comparatively new at a mere 30 years old.

At this point we donned our boots and scrub-bashed our way along a serpentine path up a ridge and then left until we came to a small, sodden overhang. Hayden once again led the way solo, belaying the rest of us up before we gained a tricky slab where he once again sprinted onwards before belaying the rest of us up to the base of pitch nine.

Hayden suggested that I should give it a go and once again I found myself racked up, tied in and heading off, this time following a hollow, detached flake.

The protection was good but I wasn’t convinced that the reverberating flake was solid. Spying a promised bolt on the headwall out to the left, I decided that it was too rusted and I was too off route to use it. Continuing upwards, I came to a small crack in the middle of the face. Looking closely I saw that it had a snakeskin draped on it. Momentarily captured by the incongruity of the shucked skin, the detaching of yet another hold beneath me brought me back to the job at hand.

A dodgy sling on the corner of the flake and another cam brought me to the top of the crumbling ledge that marked the end of the pitch.

By the time I had dismantled the belay, Hayden, Jim and Enn were already performing a roped scramble up the last bluffs barring our way to the top. We gingerly stepped around weird pipe-like formations and gritted our way up friable sandstone slabs before reaching the pinnacle that marks the Mount Banks cliff.

Handshakes, snacks and camera flashes followed before we grunted up the final hill for a photograph on the Mount Banks trig point, just as four young men had done on January 18, 1953. We, like them, had shared a most excellent adventure.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Wolgan Valley daze

By Rod Smith

From below the block looked loose, really loose. The type of loose where you’re convinced that your soft head and a hard chunk of Wolgan Valley cliff are about to collide.

Now that I’m hugging it doesn’t mean that I’m convinced that this block is any more secure. It’s simply the fact that once above it I’ll be in the sheltered cave that marks the end of the first pitch of Secret Swinger (16). The place where I plan to hand over the reins to Paul Turner.

As I pull up and over the block and into the cave I’m feeling good. Strong. Confident even. My first real trad lead in eight years is almost over. It’s been terrifying and exhilarating. Now I have this sheltered mid-climb haven to rest in and prepare for the second pitch. Then I look around.

It quickly becomes apparent that this cave is no more than a wind and water-blasted scoop. The fragile, honey-combed walls are only marginally less disturbing than the hundreds of fist-sized rocks and dozens of chunks of cliff that make that loose block below look as if it’s welded to the cliff. In between blasts of word-snatching wind I call down in a small voice to Paul, “The place is falling apart. I can’t find an anchor. It may take me some time…”

Time. It’s something that the Wolgan demands of you and soaks up like a sponge.
It took plenty of time to drive there from Sydney. Three hours in Paul’s big, comfortable Commodore station wagon, cruising with enough gear, food, water and home brew to last the best part of three days.

The plan was to leave Friday night and descend into the valley of the mobile phone coverage shadow ready for an early morning start on the crags on Saturday. Then it bucketed down, forcing us to delay our departure.

By late Saturday morning we were surveying the ford across the Wolgan River, about the same time as the run-off from Friday’s downpour arrived. Paul assured me it would be OK. We watched as Niall Doherty and Anna Beardmore in Anna’s near-new all-wheel drive easily made it through the brown waters. We followed quickly and easily. Then along came Ron Garner.

On the roof racks of Ron’s Volvo there appeared to be a dangerous amount of home-brewed beer. I’m convinced that it was the weight of the pallets of home brew that caused Ron’s car to stall mid-stream in the suitably beer-coloured waters of the river.

With his passengers ankle-deep in rising waters in the backseat, Ron was forced to use the driver’s window as an exit. On the far bank a rescue mission was swinging into action. Borrowed karabiners and Ron’s climbing rope were used to connect the Swedish Valiant to Anna’s shiny, Subaru.

With crowds looking on Paul dragged Ron to safety causing Anna’s Subaru gearbox to erupt into a spontaneous celebration of billowing, black smoke. While Anna and Niall inspected the damage Ron was nonchalantly using a beer stein to bale the water out of the Volvo’s backseat.

With the riverside dramas behind us, and Anna’s car seemingly intact, we quickly set up camp at Southside. With the shadows lengthening into mid-afternoon someone finally made a decision to try some routes above the Coke Ovens. It was such a good idea that when we puffed our way up the hill just about everyone else was also there.

Nigel Donnelly and Mike Patterson were already mopping up on the rarely attempted Grunter Direct Finish (16). Like most of the valley’s relatively under-utilised routes, it’s an area with its share of small, lose rock. This was underlined by shouted warnings from Mike and Nigel followed by sandstone shrapnel raining down on those at the bottom. It also emphasised why helmets are essential kit in the Wolgan.

Nearby a few other helmeted heads, including “Big” Mike O’Reilly and “Diamond” Dave Hemmings, were mulling over the guidebook and spying out routes. It’s during this discussion that Big Mike managed to provoke a verbal stoush with a Scottish female photographer friend of Nigel’s. The big fella was quoting a line from the movie Trainspotting, something about “It’s shite being Scottish”, of which the wee lassie had apparently not heard before and took instant umbrage.

Our attention returned to the cliff as Dave Goldie and Ron tackled the classic Mike Law jamming problem Sizzler (19). It was Ron’s lead and when he cracked the puzzle it was to wild applause, in recognition of his determination to tick a route from which he had previously fallen and buggered an ankle.

Before this triumph Ron and Sandra Parker had ticked Organ Grinder (14) while Dave and Julie Hatfield had done the classic Mirrorman (18). Sandra also led Death Bed Confessions (13) with Hugh Ward and the pair also completed Grunter (16).

After Ron’s effort on Sizzler it was Paul and Niall’s turns. Anna accompanied Niall on Death Bed Confessions, perhaps the day’s most popular climb, while Paul decided to lead something that he assured me was called Sod (13).

At the top of the first pitch Paul offered me the sharp end but I declined, content to coast behind and take it all in – the airiness, the views and the warm sun of the golden afternoon. As I seconded the final pitch of Sod all that I was concerned about was my form – for a 13 it seemed a bit tricky for the grade. Puzzled by what we were supposed to have climbed, Paul checked the guidebook to discover his warm-up 13 was in fact the two-star classic Dan the Bulldog (17).

About the time we rapped down Nigel and Mike were completing the first pitch of DBC. Over on Sizzler Wall the queues were also forming. But it was from the direction of DBC that a shout of “rock” sent us scurrying for cover. And it was much more than shrapnel. One of the loose blocks that Niall had warned Anna about on DBC had broken off in Nigel’s hand.

“Nigel ripped a brick-sized chunk of rock from DBC,’’ Mike recalled.

“Fortunately Nigel was belayed from above but the less fortunate rock took the full 50m dive, narrowly avoiding killing the innocent bystanders but still ricocheting into Niall’s chest.’’

Luckily for Niall the rock hit squarely on the straps of his padded Black Diamond double bandolier, reducing the force of the blow from skin-ripping to simply agonising.

At this point we decided to call it a day.

Elsewhere in the valley others were also making the most of their Saturday. While Jonas Kuginis was, in his words “too chicken to drive” his car through the ford and camped elsewhere, it had no bearing on his climbing. He and Moto headed for the Coal Mines and completed Absolutely Sweet Marie (14), TDM (20), “an 18 I cannot remember” and Dien Bien Phu (22).

Saturday night saw the whole campsite join in the celebration of Garth Rickert’s 40th birthday. As well as a huge cream cake, Ron’s home brew made an appearence as did the birthday boy’s own 60-plus bottles of homemade ale and sundry smaller contributions from other hop enthusiasts – of both DIY and store-bought varieties.

The result was large numbers of significantly impaired people waking up to a perfect climbing day on Sunday morning.

As had happened on Saturday the collective mind took over on Sunday resulting in a long line of people heading for the delights of Old Baldy. Mike Patterson confessed that he was “virtually incapacitated” by the previous night’s festivities and only just managed the walk up to the cliff.

A minor revival allowed him to second What’s In A Name? (14) followed by a relapse that saw him agree to lead the “interesting” second and crux pitch. Mike’s colleagues Jim Croft and Chris Thomas completed Anthrax Ripple (14), Homesick (12) and Go Cat (16).

It was at Lower Baldy that Paul and I found ourselves gazing up at Secret Swinger, which had been heartily recommended to us by Niall who’d climbed it two years previously. As we roped up Niall and the rest of the gang headed off in a westerly direction.

Niall and Anna eventually settled on pitch one of Time Lord (17) and Niall completed half of Anthrax Ripple (13), before somewhat enigmatically stating he “didn't like the lichen”.

Back at Secret Swinger Paul was fending off Dave Goldie who wanted to give the route a go as I was freaking out looking at the crack. In retrospect I should probably deferred to Dave. It’s already been stated how I went on the first pitch. That’s why by the time Paul made it to the sandy, chossy cave at the end of the first pitch I was keen for him to lead the second. Unfortunately he remained equally keen for me to do it.

Whimpering about exposure and cursing Niall for failing to mention what a fragile chunk of rock this was, I pulled out of the cave and over the easy roof. The next 20m of climbing are a blur except for key points like when two of Paul’s Camalots plummeted to the deck, quickly followed by a poorly placed hex that was supposed to be bomber.

Four marathon hours after I’d begun bumbling my way up the climb Paul arrived at the second pitch belay. It was almost telepathic how Paul and I decided that we’d skip the short third pitch, rap off a tree and flee back to camp.

By the time we got back “Bomber” Nigel and his gang – who’d had a look at the Pulpit (8) among other Lower Baldy classics - were stretched out on the grass watching some hardy souls on Excalibur (17) on Upper Baldy.

Not long after those two tiny dots, one of which was apparently Andrew Penney, finally made it to the top the heavens opened up. Sodden climbers began returning to the camp in dribs and drabs all with tales of mini epics on a day that had flipped through all four seasons.

Among the groups caught in the wet was Ron, Dan Redfern and Lachie. After climbing The Square (13) on Lower Baldy, Ron and Dan had continued up the Amphitheatre (10) on Upper Baldy while Lachlan walked off the halfway ledge to wait for them at Solo Gully. It was after they rejoined Lachlan that darkness and rain descended. With their gear still at the base of The Square the trio decided to abandon it until the next day and as a result were forced to navigate back to camp by the light of one head torch.

After a night of sporadic rain those of us who stayed on Sunday night were greeted by a hot and fine holiday Monday. After lots of debate Niall and I headed back up to the Coke Ovens to have a look at Grunter while Anna and Paul decided to take in the sights. Halfway up the first pitch of Grunter, bombarded by March flies and wishing I’d gone sightseeing too I announced to Niall that I’d had enough.

Not needing much convincing he agreed and we headed back to camp to begin the big pack up.

A few hours later we were on the road. As Paul and I drove out of the valley on the return to Sydney, and our mute mobile phones once more chattered back to life, I promised myself that I would return very soon to this magical place where the climbs demand respect and the beer flows like Wolgan Valley river water.