Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Pledge of allegiance

By Rod Smith

It’s an eons-old jagged scar in the Earth’s exposed bones.
It’s a compact and beautiful, in a mathematical way.

Its reptilian rock skin contrasts sharply with the postcard surrounds of the hammerhead peninsula on which it stands, just a few traffic-jam terse words north of Sydney city’s madness.

Like many climbing routes it bears a name that is dripping with machismo, but like them its primeval sternness will persist long after the fleeting human bravado that labelled it has turned to dust.

There is no doubt that in the world of climbing Pledge A Legend is an insignificant sandstone jam crack on the Barrenjoey headland, on the Northern Beaches.

It is a mere 16m high and carries the modest Ewbank grade 14. But it is magnificent in its insignificance.

It starts, fittingly, on a stone altar. Solid hand jams allow you to leave the too-flat earth as you stem with your feet on either side of the line. For non-jammers there are plenty of tiny finger ledges that offer enough security for an upward haul, although this seems like a small heresy to the crack aficionado.

It’s at this point that a bit of gear is a good idea. Dust off the passive protection because hexes and stoppers are a possibility here. For others a camming device offers a quick clip from a position where the bulge of the line tends to push you backwards.

Slide the hands in, flex and feel the sandstone’s gentle bite as fists take you upwards to the next increment. The shallow indent, like a belt around a fat man’s waist, provides good feet positions while some generous holds either side provide a good position from which to place the next piece of gear.

For those still stubbornly refusing to jam, getting to this point will lack poetry as fingers roam the edges of the fissure for holds like those below. They’re there, but much smaller. Later on you will hurl some helpful advice at your flailing second: “Just jam, damn you”.

More backwards leaning as you stem you way upwards and suddenly the crack takes a sharp left-hand turn. No longer vertical and jammable, the crack becomes horizontal and off-width. Now we all, jammers and non, are equal.

For the leader the bend in the crack is the point to place some bomb-proof protection, so that the palm-friction traverse leftwards can be negotiated more safely. A large cam, a small cam, a hex and even a medium-sized stopper are all possible placements in this most accommodating break.

Some will simultaneously use several of these options, others will use just one. Regardless of the number of placements, feel assured that the drama of a potential traversing fall will not diminish.

If at this point your belayer is excitedly looking at an exquisite pale-green grass snake sunning itself on a rock, or is ogling a visiting European rock babe, suggest to him that the journey in which you’re involved is equally worthy of attention, especially because he will soon have to follow you.

As you make the traverse breath in the Barrenjoey air and, like the snake, feel the sun on you skin. This will help.

There are many ways to do the next move but for most the key is the small undercling in the top of the horizontal break, near to where the crack returns to the vertical. With fingers on this and your right foot jacked up on some positive holds, it’s a straight forward semi-mantleshelf upwards move.

There may be minutes or tens of minutes before you achieve this, but once done you’ll wonder at the beauty of that one move. With your feet where you hands were on the break, the crux is now behind you, but don’t relax.

As you rise up the crack abruptly ceases and, if you’re a regular to the Barrenjoey, the familiar slab moves commence. A cam in a horizontal break will protect you as you gingerly rise on sloping footholds and tenuous crimps and pressure holds to the final moves of the route.

Feeling exposed after the enveloping crack you’ll be comforted by the appearance of a silver metal head protruding from the rock, just waiting for your hanger, quickdraw and the rest of the chain of protection that ends in you.

The first bit of non-traditional gear and the last bit of protection on the climb, it safeguards that last slow rise on slopers as your fingers search for and find those minute undulations that at the top of Barrenjoey routes feel like jugs.

On top, tied into a couple of new carrot bolts you finally relax.

As you sit three, with your second slowly approaching, you marvel at the simplicity and complexity of it all. Of how this flyspeck of a climb kept you enthralled and entertained, of how parts of it frightened you and exhilarated you, of how you solved the puzzle.

Finally, your second makes the top. He’s managed to remove all the gear. In contrast to you he thinks the climb was horrible. Give him bolts and crimps any day. Your inner curmudgeon feels betrayed: there are as many gaps between climbers as there are in the rocks we climb.

Back at the bottom, as you coil the rope, you ponder how many others will, like you, gaze on that route and want to make it theirs, if only for a few minutes.

And how, at the end, they too will have left no trace, except for a few smears of chalk and a lone, unencumbered bolt that stares unblinking like a reptilian eye.

And another thing ...

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The Winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves." John Muir.

"The Law Of Gravity Is Strictly Enforced." Mt Keira Guide Book introduction. (Mt Keira, Wollongong, Australia)