Monday, November 20, 2006

Emu parade

By Rod Smith

Our first attempt to climb The Emu ended at a red backpack at the top of the cliff.

After frustrating hours spent getting lost and scrub-bashing along the indistinct trail to Kedumba Walls, the presence of another party on the 10-pitch adventure route spelled the end of our quest.

Annoyed, scratched and sleep-deprived we bowed to good judgement and decided that the four of us would end up climbing in the dark if we pushed on.

On that occasion we turned around and scrub-bashed back, in 30-degree temperatures, to the car and thence to the pub at Leura.

Savage with disappointment, we downed enough beers to unanimously vow never to go near The Emu again.

Yet here it was, just one month later and we – me, John Shaw, Rick Fielding and Gus Davidson – were once again standing at the top of this infamous adventure climb in the Blue Mountains near Sydney.

Our earlier trip had not been a waste. From the intelligence gained we reached the top of The Emu in just 45 minutes, compared with the two hours it had taken us the first time around.

There are two ways of accessing the climb. After reconnoitring the walkdown last time, we elected for the three-abseil option using our two sets of 60m double ropes to speed up the transitions.

After 90 minutes of abseiling and walking we reached the base of the climb. An old water bottle and various cairns mark the start.

There’s been a lot of stuff written about The Emu. Most significantly the uncomplimentary article in Rock magazine which makes the route sound like a death-trip.

There are also two route descriptions that vary significantly: Roger Bourne’s classy topo on the Boycetown website, with its detailed pitch descriptions and drawings, gives the route’s crux at 17.

The description in our own publication Rockclimbs in the Upper Blue Mountains calls the climb 15, with a 17 variant pitch.

From our point of view Roger’s information was on the money although Rockclimbs in the Upper Blue Mountains provides vital route-finding information.

The time was a bit after 11am as I led up the pleasant grade 14 slab corner/crack that is the first pitch. Gus quickly followed which allowed John and Rick to begin.

The second pitch was Gus’s and it required a short walk through a narrow chimney to the base of the cliff. This was followed by bridging up the tightish squeeze, using cams and nuts in the right-hand wall. After a slabby section, the pitch exits up an easy, unprotected, juggy orange wall near a cave.

Pitch 3, mine, was a bit scrappy with most of the protection being in the form of slings around a few small trees, followed by an unprotected haul onto a juggy slab behind a grasstree (blackboy).

The top out was on a small triangular stance with a dwarf apple gum, which Roger describes correctly as a “weak tree”.

I volunteered to also lead pitch 4 which is a slab corner that goes at either 14 or 16. For me this pitch felt like 16. The gear was also suspect: Gus was belayed into the weak tree and a 0 Friend while I tottered upwards, protected for the first half of the slab by a 00 Friend, a No. 2 RP and a No.1 Rock. After that there is no gear for the last 3m. A fall would have been nasty.

I believe pitch 4 is the same pitch on which first ascentionist Greg Mortimer (who put up the route with Lucas Trihey and John Ewbank in 1993) is pictured in Rock magazine.

The run-out to the top of the slab was followed by some nice climbing up a well-protected flake section before the top-out onto the treed ledge. Here we stopped for a 15-minute lunch break.

Gus scored pitch 5 which begins with a short climb up some blocks and then a traverse around a corner to an exposed position, looking onto massive walls of choss. We broke this pitch into two, with Gus leading both. The second part went up a shattered arĂȘte with good cams, into a sandy ledge which Gus gingerly traversed to the next tree belay. Roger notes that this part contains a “sickening void”.

I found pitch 6 quite enjoyable. It flows easily up a small orange wall then into a well-protected corner before exiting onto a gravelly ledge.

At grade 12, it felt easier than pitch 5 which is grade 11. After topping out on pitch 6 I wandered to the left and tied into some trees and welcome shade.

Pitch 7 starts directly above the tree belay. A steep bouldery start, it’s tough for a grade 14 which is why the small, dead tree at its base shows signs of being used as a de facto step ladder. Gus led this pitch which includes a tricky grovel through a backpack-grabbing tree onto a slab and up to a small ledge with a tree belay.

Pitch 8, the crux, was short and sharp. After setting off up the ferny left-wards groove I quickly found a nice cam on the left wall followed by a bomber hex in the corner. Some tricky stemming – which felt closer to grade 17 than 15 – was followed by another cam and a nut and a leftwards exit onto a ledge.

Wanting more crux I wandered leftwards along the ledge only to discover that that was the end of the pitch.

Gus followed up and quickly took off above my comfy two-cam belay to begin the grade 12 pitch 9. A well-protected chimney, it abruptly exits onto a scrubby she-oak (casuarina) ledge.

Rather than belay on the slippery slope scrub Gus bushwalked upwards, occasionally slinging trees, until he was close to the start of the final pitch.

Pitch 10 is a grade 5 or 8, depending on whose instructions you read. Really it was just an easy scramble upwards for 10m before the welcome sight of our backpacks.

Gus and I topped out at 5.55pm. John and Rick surfaced a bit over an hour later.

In the twilight we packed up. Half way out it was dark. With head torches on and John’s GME GPS providing vital route-finding corrections we found the car and from there we fled to the pub.

Over beers we vowed never to go near The Emu again…