Thursday, October 19, 2006

Operation: Wolgan

By Rod Smith

Voices in the dark: Many garbled voices from over the UHF radio, and a single one coming from somewhere up on Lower Baldy.

The radio voices were the excited, massed gabblings of those back at the campsite where day two of the SRC Wolgan Valley sheep roast weekend was in full, boozy swing.

The lone voice belonged to Mike Patterson who with his second had decided to spend the night on the half-way ledge of Lower Baldy.

With four beers onboard myself, I had joined Hamish Kerr and Roger Austin in a search for the missing duo after they failed to return from a day on the hill.

Standing in the ruined tennis court of the Wolgan Valley mine manager’s house, we yelled Mike’s name. Minutes later a calm voice answered back. Mike told us that he was on The Chain and due to a certain shortness of abseil rope and lack of head torches would be spending the night on the half-way ledge.

A quick check of the Wolgan Valley guidebook revealed that the claimed 50-odd metre height of The Chain was probably more like 80m if they were on the ledge.

Aware that Mike, in the spirit of the ’70s-tinged feel of the sheep roast weekend, was wearing nothing but a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and a massive handlebar moustache, it was decided that a rescue would be effected, regardless of his shouted intentions.

The plan fell together. Hamish announced that he would walk up to the half-way ledge and locate the missing. Roger and I decided to go to the base of The Chain, near Secret Swinger, retrieve packs, head torches and the all important shoes and meet up with Hamish on the walkdown descent of Solo Gully.

With every walkie-talkie in the valley tuned to channel 1, the whole operation had the surreal feel of a reality TV show. But the reality was that it was more a retrieval than a rescue.

At the base of Secret Swinger Roger and I were joined by Hugh Ward and Nigel Donnelly. With both ready to climb The Chain in the dark it was only a radio call over Hamish’s walkie-talkie that scuttled their night-time ascent: Hamish had located the missing pair.

By 11pm everyone was back in camp. Most headed for their sleeping bags while others reached for another beer.

Beer seemed to be a key ingredient of the first SRC Wolgan sheep roast in several years.

For roast organisers Luke Merritt and Hugh Ward it had fortified them from 8am on the Saturday morning when they began to dig the fire pit and assemble the spit.

It kept fortifying them throughout the day as they watched the two dressed lambs slowly roast while the rest of the camp went off and climbed rocks.

They were still quaffing strongly when it came to carving up the roast at 9pm and on into 1am when your correspondent called it quits and hit the sack.

Among those attending was SRC Life Member and veteran of countless roasts Russell Taylor who is also the custodian of the spit.

Amid dozens of families who’d fled to the Wolgan for the October long weekend, SRC members claimed a chunk of the Little Capertee Campsite that is unremarkable but for the fact that it inexplicably contains a rock with a red Nazi swastika painted on it.

The roast itself was superb: beautifully cooked meat served with tabouli and flatbread and consumed with joy by the light of dozens of head torches.

For most, Monday heralded a return to the city. For myself and Jim Dickins it meant another three days of climbing in faultless spring weather.

After a nine-week absence from climbing due to an injured hand, six days of climbing in the Wolgan seemed to me the perfect way to make up for some lost time.

Highlights included the classic The Pulpit on Lower Baldy, the very fine Decline and Fall on Lower Coke Ovens, the hot, sunny May Day Mayday at Petrie’s and the imposing Khe Sanh at the Lower Coal Mines.

With the SRC gang gone and the town hordes significantly diminished the largely absent wildlife returned to the campsite.

On our last night Jim and I sat with our dwindling beers, amazed at the sight of six wombats grazing almost side by side like sheep while up in the sky a huge ring appeared around the almost-full moon.