Thursday, November 06, 2008

This guide’s a cracker

As one of the true believers and a Tasmanian living in Sydney, I couldn’t part with my hard-earned cash fast enough when I heard that a definitive Ben Lomond guide was in the works.

In December last year Gerry Narkowicz announced that he and Bob McMahon intended to produce the definitive guide to what is arguably Australia’s finest crack-climbing destination, the Ben Lomond plateau, near Launceston, in Northern Tasmania.

Advance purchases were called for to help bankroll the project. A handful of people answered the call, including myself and the Sydney Rock Climbing Club, which contributed $2000 to the project from the guidebook fund.

Over a year later – on November 3 – MEMORY OF A JOURNEY: Rock Climbing on Ben Lomond (Climb Tasmania Incorporated) finally arrived in my mailbox.

It was well worth the wait.

Like past works by the McMahon/Narkowicz combination, this is a thorough guide to one of Tassie's great climbing areas. In this case it’s the soaring dolerite cliffs of the Ben.

The book is well illustrated with photo-topos and inspirational pics of climbing - yes, including of the guide book’s two authors.

This last point has been used in the past as a criticism of the duo’s guides, quite harshly I think. Unlike many “mainland” crags, Tassie crags are not usually swarming with climbers – save perhaps Coles Bay and sections of Mt Wellington. This is also true of Ben Lomond, which means that there is going to be a shortage of quality pics, unless they’re taken by and of the authors who’ve spent more time there than just about anyone.

Consider this: McMahon was on the first ascent team of 221 of Ben Lomond’s 350 routes and Narkowicz contributed 75 routes.

For the mainlander (such as I now am) there is a helpful list of "immortals" or the best climbs at each grade at every Ben Lomond crag.

There is also a handy precis of climbs and their grades at each individual crag and a three-star grading system.

The book also has a lot of non-guide book stuff and includes an evocative and highly entertaining section – chiefly by Bob McMahon - about the people behind the development of Ben Lomond’s individual climbing areas.

McMahon’s writing style is engaging and conversational. Even the deliberately stream-of-consciousness Who Did the First Climb on Ben Lomond? is a lot of fun, albeit an exhausting read, but then it is subtitled Stumbling on the Threshold of Memory.

Elsewhere McMahon paints with words:

“Full of delight, I want to say, this blue sky, these rocks, this mountainside, this stream, this dead twig, this white lichen, this yellow lichen, this black lichen – but there is no end to it, this naming of things in an effort to make the present graspable, complete, to exclude from one’s existence past and future, nostalgia or desire. And one may get stuck in the past by trying to hold onto the present. That’s the paradox. The present is continual, unfolding, despite the illusion of stasis one comes across on crystal mornings”.

And then there are the images of all those glorious soaring cracklines which are a sort of poetry in themselves...


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Tick, tick ...

IF you’re going to the Sydney Rockclimbing Club's Wolgan Valley Sheep Roast and Reunion on October 25 and 26 you’ll need something to climb. Here’s a Wolgan tick list for bumblies of modest abilities but with buckets of enthusiasm ... just like ROD SMITH .

This tick list is based on numerous visits to the mighty Wolgan. All visits have started in a similar fashion – lofty plans to climb the classic multi-pitch routes on the towering Upper Baldy Cliff.

However, for some reason, whether it’s a hangover, heat/cold/wind or the coward-reflex response from repeated viewings of Upper Baldy’s lofty scariness, the climbing has ended up on the lower heights.

This is not to be denigrated, however, the following grab bag of climbs have yielded immense amounts of fun. All should be read with reference to Wade Stevens’ Wolgan bible Wolgan Valley Selected Climbing Areas.

Coke Ovens Cliff Lower

The Wars of the Roses (16) (P1 only) 22m. An excellent trad outing. Corner crack to slab. Rap off. BYO tat.

Organ Grinder (14) (P1 only) 27m. A stunning line up a big offwidth, but with plenty of gear inside the crack.

Deathbed Confessions (13) 60m. Two-pitches. Gear and bolts. Well protected. Same rap as DTB.

Dan the Bulldog (17) 60m. Two excellent pitches. Some consider the first run out. Bolts and gear.

Grunter (16) 51m. Two excellent pitches of trad corner climbing.

Sap (15) (P1 only) 27m. A trad pleasure. Rap off tree.

Coal Mines Cliff

Absolutely Sweet Marie (14) 53 m. Some whinge about it because it has a jamBing start. It’s a classic.

Monitor Madness (18) 50m. One of the most beautiful arêtes anywhere. Plenty of bolts but it also needs some gear.

Conspiracy (16) 45m. A brilliant line. Do the first pitch only for a 35m fest of well-protected offwidth. It’s like a grown-up’s Cave Climb at Narrow Neck.

Hellzapoppin (17) 45m. Brilliant. One long pitch. Bolts and gear.

Old Baldy Lower

The Pulpit (8) 39m. Old school. Safe enough despite climbs around this grade usually being horror shows.

Secret Swinger (16) (P1 and P2 only) 45m. Pure trad. I’ve done it three times ... BYO rap slings.

Room to Move (16) (P1 only) 45m. Tough start then pure jam crack. Heathens layback it. BYO rap slings.

Zoro’s Toaster (17) 70m. Sport climb.

Zarathustra (15) (P1 only) 40m. Lovely trad corner.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

At the Barber shop

By Rod Smith

In 1973 Henry Barber amazed the climbing world when he free-soloed the 1000ft Steck-Salathe route on the towering granite of El Capitan.

Late last year, 34 years later, Henry Barber placed three pieces of gear while leading the 15m-high sandstone route Crack of Dawn at Sydney’s modest suburban Barrenjoey crag.

For a star-struck bumbly like myself, it was a jarring contrast between the “Hot” Henry whose legendary first visit to Australian in 1975 revolutionised free climbing and the now 54-year-old legend who was gleefully leading such an unimportant route.

As he carefully made his way up the modest crack and slab I wondered if Barber remained relevant in a climbing world now splintered into distinct disciplines and obsessed by number grades he could never aspire to.

Here in Australia to deliver a “greatest hits” slideshow of his climbing life, as much as to visit the life-long friends he’d made in 1975 and his last visit in 2000, Henry showed – during that all-too short day together – that he is the spirit of climbing and when we he speaks we should all listen.

Q: Why did you come to Australia in 1975?

A; “I came here really to hook up with Rick White and Keith Bell. I did the Nose (of El Capitan) with Keith Bell in 1973 but I climbed more with Rick White.
“When I came here I knew four things:
I knew about the Blue Mountains;
I knew about Frog (Buttress);
I knew about Frenchman’s Cap;
I knew about Ball’s Pyramid.”

Q: Just how frenetic was that visit?

A: “In 1975 I climbed 41 of the 42 days that I was here. I climbed in six of the eight (sic) States, in 27 areas on 100 routes. Of those routes 67 to 72 were first ascents or first free ascents.”

Q: So when did the local climbers start to take notice?

A: “After climbing Integral Crack (20) at Booroomba we went off and we did (the FFA) of Soolaimon 22. When I did Soolaimon I wasn’t sure that anyone would be able to follow me. I only put in two or three pieces of gear in all the way to the roof.
“That was kind of the start of the big blow-up attention to my style.
“I was climbing on a very small 9mm rope and I had a very light rack. My rack today is the same as it was 30 years ago.
“That’s kind of what started the chatter.”

Q: Of all the climbs that you did in Australia in 1975, which was the most memorable?

A: “Manic Depressive (24) (Grampians), even though I failed to climb it, that was my proudest moment.
“I had to put the little wires on the bolt studs. After a time I fell. I pulled the rope. I was climbing with Matt Taylor and he was jumaring with me and I thought this is not right.
“There’s a thing called the brotherhood of the rope. I thought, is this about having a day out with your mates or is this about me knocking off two harder grades?
“I thought I’d already done a 24 (Insomnia) at Frog Buttress although that’s since been downgraded.”

Q: What is it about climbing that has kept you motivated and doing it for 40 years?

A: “I’ve always been enthused. The short answer is that I’m a sick puppy.
“When I sink my teeth into something nothing can stop me. I have a few other passions but nothing has ever held me like climbing.
“I’ve never really drifted away from climbing. To me drifting away means climbing only 70 or 80 days a year. Now I’m climbing about 120 days a year.
“Climbing is really about struggle. If you don’t really embrace the struggle what the hell are you doing it for? It’s soul destroying. It’s soulless.
“Why I love climbing so much: you’re not entitled, it’s not a sure thing.
“That’s why I came to Australia, that’s why I climbed on grit in Britain, that’s why I climbed without shoes in Dresden (Germany).
“If you don’t focus on why you climb you’ll be seen more, if you do focus on (what you want to get out of climbing) you’ll be seen less.
“I was looking more and more to applying the mental side to climbing.”

Q: What was your work-rate like at the height of your climbing powers?

A: “Well I was working a sales rep for Chouinard but my climbing lifestyle was like that of a professional climber: I was climbing 320-350 days a year, the other 15 days were breaks or Christmas holidays.”

Q: What is your climbing philosophy?

A: “Do what you want, want what you do.
“By that I mean there are certain kinds of people who want to be on a really scary climb in a really scary storm and a scary situation. Then there are certain people who don’t: they get there and they don’t want to be there.
“I think a lot of people do stuff (like climb) because it’s a trend or it’s in vogue or they want to get to the top of the climb or if it’s business they want to be the CEO
“They’re all the wrong reasons.
“Between 1953 and 2006 there were 500 people who climbed Everest. (In 2007) 500 people climbed it in one year alone. It is special anymore just because it’s the highest mountain?”

Q: You have always been known for you clean-climbing, ground-up, trad ethics. What was it like for you during the 1980s sport-climbing boom?

A: “I was really depressed. The climbs looked spectacular and everything … so and so flashed 5.12 or 24 yet I was doing 5.12b barefoot years earlier.
“I didn’t think (US sport climbers) were making any headway - compared with gritstone or the climbing in Dresden- until the grades got to around 27.
“I thought it was bullshit and climbers were being expedient with their routes and not leaving things for future generations.
“So from 1980-87 I worked my ass off (with my business) and got my shoulders fixed. They were both dislocating badly.
“Since the mid-90s I’ve been able to climb pretty much as I want.”
“When I turned 50 I climbed in 11 countries.’’

As we headed back to Sydney, I asked Barber if he’d ever met one of Australia’s legendary hard men, Bryden Allen.

Despite having climbed Allen’s Lieben (17) in the Warrumbungles – “That’s a big-feel climb. I wouldn’t say that was one of the easiest routes I did in Australia” – he’d never met the man.

I told Barber that an accident in recent years had left Bryden wheelchair-bound but that he was still a member of the Sydney Rockclimbing Club and regularly belayed climbers at the climbing gym.

“That’s the coolest thing that I’ve heard in years,’’ Barber said.
“That’s what I want to know. That gives me energy to go for another 40 years of climbing.”

Friday, April 04, 2008

Multi-pitch madness ... or Knocking on Stephen's door

By Rod Smith

It was near midnight when we knocked on the door of Stephen Brown's house at the foot of Mt Roland, in North-West Tasmania.

As buggered as we were from the long day, Rick Fielding and I were keen to share a celebratory drink with the bloke who'd put up the route we'd just been climbing for nine hours.

Shaking off sleep as he answered the door, Stephen ushered us inside, proffering beer and soft seats to collapse into.

As the beer, to quote Henry Lawson, made us feel the way you ought to feel without beer, we talked about the 350m route that Stephen and some mates had established just over 30 years before on Rysavy Ridge.

We’d introduced ourselves to him that morning on the way up the hill. Discussing the weather, which was cold and windy, Brown had concluded “You’re set like jelly,”. A comment that ensured that conditions that we considered possibly too cold, suddenly became ideal.

Brown said he’d been monitoring our progress through his binoculars.
"You didn't go the easy way, I'll tell you that,'' he said.
“I’ve been that way myself and it isn’t 11 or 12 or whatever grade they’ve given Rysavy.”

We knew that much. As Rick had grunted his way up the steep pitch 4 and I’d tip-toed my way up the delicate, cracked face of the 60m pitch 5, we were fully aware that we were technically off route.

The Rysavy Ridge route description is spare and simply says: “the climb is fairly straight forward, generally following the line of least resistance up the ridge … ”.

For the first three pitches we found that the line of least resistance meant keeping to the left.


Our decision to not keep left happened after we had a near-synchronised need to take a crap half-way through pitch 4. After we returned to the hastily discarded gear, from opposite ends of the big ledge, we examined where the next pitch went, and felt uninspired. Then we examined the wall to the right.

That pitch and the next, arguably, pumped the grade of the route to up around the grade 17+ mark but in doing so provided the best climbing of the day. At the time we even thought we might be onsighting some new variant pitches. It was not to be.

After “line of least resistance up the ridge” the rest of the Rysavy route description says: “ … unless you want to make your own, harder variation (which many have, sometimes inadvertently)”. Then Stephen confirmed he’d been there before.

We'd begun the route at 8.30am. Despite being early February and technically summer, it was cold and windy enough for us to climb in thermals and windshells. As I led up into the unknown, buffeted by the strong winds, I had a knot in my stomach: situation normal for me on multi-pitch routes.

I ran the first pitch out the full 60m of our double ropes – as we’d decided we would do where possible – before bringing Rick up.

Pitch 2 added a bit of spice as it wandered upwards to a head wall cracked by an off-width. I shivered as Rick made his way up through a fairly mixed pitch before tackling the short off-width. Settled on a big ledge, he quickly brought me to the top.

It was at this time that our friends John and Marian Shaw decided to call off their climb of the ridge. Starting behind us, Marian had led the first pitch only to slip on the damp lichen. Scraped and cold, the pair set up a windbreak and tried to warm up before deciding that retreat was the better part of valour.

Rick and I felt bad for the Shaws who were very keen to do the route. John, however, decided that there was still plenty to be done and for the next 10 hours acted as a sort of base camp, calling us up on our walkie-talkies and checking our progress. On the walk back to camp, he guided us down the twisting, ankle-breaking track which he’d re-marked, on the way up to meet us, with reflective tape.

But before we could be guided down we had to climb the thing...

Pitch 3 was broken into two: the first a short pitch to a corner in which I found a fixed wire (which I left). We then moved the belay around the corner on the left side of the ridge to an off-width corner.

After moving up the corner 10m I decided to strike out right onto a overhanging, juggy headwall. Why? I dunno. I blame it on reading three different accounts of the climb which included the words "juggy wall".

Freaked out by a hex that had someone levitated and followed me up the overhang – leaving me gear-free for a considerable way – I decided to head back to the crack. This decision included hanging off a precarious-looking flake with a pebble embedded in the top and ensured that I created one of my best ever Z-drag scenarios, despite the double ropes.

With some difficulty I topped out on a pinnacle in a comfy bower and brought up Rick. As it happened it was also the same place where the overhanging headwall would have topped out, had I stuck to the line.

Rick struck off on the fourth pitch, for about five minutes: that’s how long it took for him to gain the big, shrub-lined, aforementioned ledge where we downed tools for a synchronised bowel movement.

On the ledge were two, small wrist-sized or smaller shrubs with white slings around the bases. It appeared that someone had bailed from the ledge down into the ridge's descent gully. It's the same gully - after three hours of tangled-rope abseils off tiny trees and muddy bum-sliding in the darkness - that I would come to think of a small slice of hell lodged in the Tasmanian wilderness.

Back in character on the ledge – pants on, harnesses cinched – we examined the left-hand side of the ridge for the next part of pitch 4, only to be repelled by the sight of the scrubby corner.

Then the blunt, juggy looking arête on the right caught our eyes. I instantly thought: "It’s Rick’s lead, sucker". Then I thought: "A variant, a variant, ring the bells, let’s steal some history". Rick agreed with the second thought.

It seemed to take ages for him to climb the arête. When it was finally time for me to follow I soon discovered why. Sloping, vertical and not as hold-riddled as it looked, it was a tough pitch.


A rightwards traverse was all that was left between Rick and I, but it was on slopey ground with stuff-all gear and plenty of falling-into-the-abyss potential.

From a distance Rick looked to be seated in a comfy, corner belay. When I got there I found he was belayed in a bottomless corner with no room for me. I momentarily wished we’d taken the less-exciting option above poo ledge.

To begin pitch 5 required a tenuous tip-toe around Rick to gain the wall. That somehow achieved, I eyed the delicate flakes of rock that I were between me and a factor 2 fall. Possibly whimpering, I gingerly scaled the flake before slamming a skin-tearing fist-jam into the lovely crack above. Feeling more secure I looked up and up and up. The pitch appeared to be at least 60m. With our stripped down rack – for luggage weight reasons – I noted that I’d have to be a bit careful with gear.

Another guidebook phrase “delicate cracks” screamed at me as I negotiated the pitch which involved swapping from one crack to the next, ruthlessly ripping out with one hand a small bush, while barely holding on with the other, and banshee-like screaming of the word “below” after accidentally dropping a football-sized brain-bomb Rick’s way.

By the time I topped out there was little rope left and only three pieces with which to make a belay. I was exhilarated, or knackered, I can’t remember which.

Rick wandered up oblivious to the drama I’d undergone for the past hour, in much the same way as I suspect pitch 4 had been for him.


With gear swapped, Rick led off on pitch 6, stretching the rope out the full 60m amid a varied pitch of small buttresses, unprotected mini-overhangs, culminating on a three-point belay on a tiny tea-tree that was clinging miserably to the rock.

Pitch 7 was a long, easy and scrappy affair. It began nicely enough, with another near vertical wall whose cracks provided secure gear placements. After a short portage to the next belay, I brought Rick up to defeat the rope drag. Then I continued the route up a short chimney, before again bringing up Rick. Still calling it pitch 7, I led on up a scrubby ridge just shy of the climb’s highpoint: once again rope drag had dictated the pitch length.

It was Rick’s good fortune to reach the highpoint before leading across the knife-blade ridge that connected our route to the rest of the mountain. With massive drops either side it was a spectacular pitch.

Pitch 9 was mine. After a wider section, the ridge once again returned to a cheval. As I traversed, I noticed just how late it was getting: 7pm by my scratched and nicked watch. This realisation suddenly made me cold and hungry. I stopped and made a belay. Just beyond the ridge narrowed even further: two maddeningly exposed rock steps with massive exposure either side before the ground widened and became the head of the descent gully. It was an easy decision. I radioed Rick: “Mate, I don’t want to do this bit, it’s your pitch”.

Youth came skipping along the ledge, barely stopping to rerack, before nonchalantly negotiating the narrow step and finishing the climb: a nice, even 10th pitch.

I quickly followed Rick and we wandered down to the descent gully. A microwave oven-sized chockstone, festooned with a motley rainbow collection of slings and cord, ominously marked the first abseil.

With darkness now falling I threw our doubles off the chockstone anchor into the even darker gully. Then I rapped off, all the while hoping that the chockstone wouldn’t beat me to the bottom. It held.

For the next three hours we battled darkness, tangled ropes and rap points that were mostly no more than collections of tiny trees lassoed together by tat, to abseil and slide by torchlight back to the base of the climb. From there our most excellent mate John guided us back to Stephen’s hearth.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Suburban cragging: Mt Alexandra.

In this first in an occasional series on suburban cragging around Sydney, ROD SMITH looks at a crag that is technically not even suburban…

If you’re tired of dodging the Saturday morning sport-mums convoy of people-movers and Toorak tractors (flash 4WDs), on your stop-light-ridden way to Barrenjoey or Narrabeen Slabs, then the Southern Highlands crag of Mt Alexandra is for you.

Instead of schlepping at a snail’s pace up the Wakehurst Parkway, or over Spit Bridge, you could be barrelling at 110 km/h down the M5, headed for the Southern Highlands town of Mittagong.

It’s here, just a little over 70 minutes’ drive from Sydney that you’ll find Mt Alexandra. Despite being about 100km from the CBD, or twice the distance as Barrenjoey, Narrabeen or Berowra, the travelling time to Mt Alex is as fast and often faster.

A largish north-facing crag, it is mostly comprised of sport climbs, with a few mixed and trad lines thrown in. lists more than 80 climbs while Peter Monks’ Sun, Surf and Sandstone online guide ( has descriptions for more than 70 routes.

The rock is sandstone, generally slabby in nature, with excellent friction. It’s a great crag to practice your footwork on as many of the moderate-grade climbs require some degree of smearing.

The grades range from 8 to 27 but it should be noted that some routes in the easiest grades are solo-only, non-protectable outings, which means death-route status for most of us.

Regardless of this, there are plenty of moderate grades and shiny bolts to satisfy the most demanding of climbers for quite a few visits.

Top of the tick list in the easy grades would be the traditional warm-up routes B (15), Open to Public Scrutiny (14) and In the Inn of the Sixth Happiness (13). Each of these climbs is located in the Central Area.

The nearby adjacent Vox Populi area has some good moderate-grade sport climbs including Dorothy the Dinosaur (17) Red Room (18), Vox Populi (18) and Mousetrap (19).

On a recent visited it was noted that this popular wall has also sprouted three more bolted routes, according to Hugh Town (19), Vox Fox (16) and Silver Fox (20).

But the pick of this wall would have to be Dorothy the Dinosaur followed by the omninous-looking roofed Vox Populi ,which is really a jug-fest with the crux lower down and needing wires to protect it.

The attractive curving corner crack Michael in Shorts (16) also provides some sweaty good times, but would appear to be slightly undergraded, due to the hard move needed to gain the climb's sole bolt - after you’ve negotiated the crux.

For those climbers interested in some serious cranking, it should be noted that one of the developers of this crag has been Garth Miller. His routes include Ultine Demence (27) and The Big Day Out (24). But he also contributed the aforementioned Open to Public Scrutiny.

Other important features of the crag include its close proximity to two pubs and a bakery that serves good coffee. In case of rain it’s also close to the bookshops of Bowral.

Of course if you got to Bowral you’ll have plenty of Toorak tractors to avoid.