Thursday, November 17, 2005

Two classics in one day

By Rod Smith

This is about three blokes who climbed two classics in one day.

There’s a little bit about the lure of coffee and the death of the day, but mostly it's about Sweet Dreams and Tom Thumb.

One is an old-school classic, the other is a new classic. Both can be found in the Blue Mountains, near Leura.

Sweet Dreams (14) is 40-plus years old, about 177m in length and was created by that most determined of rock masters, Bryden Allen.

In comparison Tom Thumb (13) is just over 12 months old, about 150m in length and is named after the baby son of its creator, Hayden Brotchie.

On this day Hayden joined Gus Davidson and I for a trip up Sweet Dreams, with a possible look at its variant 17 finish, but not necessarily.

Others have written of mini-epics on Sweet Dreams, of fear and vertical dancing by torchlight. We had none of that.

We left Sydney at 6am, began climbing Sweet Dreams at 8am and by noon we were back in Leura brunching among the polo-shirt crowd.

In between we joked our way up the well-worn sandstone of one of the Blue Mountains’ justifiably most popular routes. The 25m traverse of the third pitch is alone worth the trip with its exposure, ease and perfect photo opportunities. (See pic above).

Even the variant final pitch – which bristles with bolts for most of the way before a few bomber cam-placements at the end – seemed to glide by well below its 17 grading.

(Left pic: Sweet Dreams. Rod on the airy fourth pitch).

It was back in Leura, as I nursed my second coffee and contemplated a third, that Hayden casually asked, “Do you guys want to do another climb?”. Caffeinated and enthusiastic there was only one answer.

By 1pm we’d driven across to the Grose Valley, walked to Fortress Ridge and completed three double-rope abseils to the base of Tom Thumb.

(Right pic: Hayden mid-traverse on Sweet Dreams).

Shoes at the top anchor bolts alerted us to the presence of others on the climb. We assumed they were well up the route and possibly close to topping out. But when we reached the base of the climb we found that the party’s leader had only just begun the second pitch.

Our trio was quickly up the short and easy pitch one. At the base of the second pitch we found Dan and Phil. Dan explained that John was leading pitch two and that Phil was new to the outdoor climbing game.

Dan also described how he and the other two guys had recently been benighted on a canyoning trip. He also mentioned that he and John had been caught out after dark on a couple of occasions. Then Dan asked if we wanted to race ahead of their party. In good spirits we declined.

After Dan disappeared upwards we began the second pitch, with its grunty step-up start.

(Right pic: Rod leading Tom Thumb pitch two.)

Playing cat-and-mouse with the other party, we climbed in blazing sunshine. First up the short, sharp and gear-protected third pitch and then onto the well-bolted fourth, which ascends an elegant arĂȘte before heading up a funky buttress.

At the start of this story I mentioned the death of the day, well that happened at the end of the fourth pitch. When the sun dipped behind the mountains John was yet to begin leading his party up the fifth pitch. It was then that the word benighted briefly flickered in my head.

Hayden was confident that we’d be off well before the twilight had given away to a moonless night. I was not. As we waited and talked and monitored the others’ progress, it became clear that the darkness would win.

In the gloom it was decided that I should pinkpoint the fifth and crux pitch, following closely in the wake of Dan. After leading the previous four pitches I admit to feeling a little cheated about not getting to onsight the crux pitch, but Hayden’s logic was sound.

At the top of the fifth pitch I brought Gus up and then Hayden. With the other party heading slowly up the last pitch our trio decided that I should stay at the fifth pitch belay and Hayden should lead through.

Five hours after we began, as I simul-climbed in the dark with John up the last pitch of Tom Thumb, I briefly questioned our decision not to forge ahead of the other trio. But only briefly.

After topping out on the precarious summit ridge, we retreated to a nearby cave and by torchlight sorted out the two parties’ pile of mixed up gear. As we talked and prepared for the 45-minute walk back to the cars, I could see in the others’ faces and hear in their voices why Tom Thumb, like Sweet Dreams, deserved classic status: It encapsulates all the reasons why climbers love to climb.

Full details of Tom Thumb – including detailed access and route topos – can be found on