Monday, November 30, 2009

Duelling with Dr C


Dr C and I had so much fun the first time that we climbed together in the Wolgan Valley – the highlight being the four-pitch jamfest of Cactus (18) – that we decided to do it again.

So on Saturday morning I lobbed into the Capertee campsite at 7.30am after six hours’ sleep at the Shady Acres Norman Bates Memorial Hotel in Lithgow. Dr Carl was already there, finishing off his breakfast, having lobbed in from Mittagong the night before.

After a quick gear sort we were off on our email pre-planned mission – climb Secret Swinger (16) on Lower Baldy to access the half-way ledge and then climb Scimitar (18) on Upper Baldy.

A straw poll of some climbing buds prior to the trip had put Scimitar marginally ahead in the preferred route stakes over Excalibur (17). But as it turned out Carl and I managed to do both Scimitar and Excalibur, presented as we were with perfect weather.

For those who aren’t familiar with Upper Baldy, Scimitar is the right-hand crackline up the soaring 100m face while Excalibur is the middle crack and crazy old Sword of Damocles (still 16M5) is the left-hand route.

It was my fourth trip up pitches 1 and 2 of Secret Swinger– a classic 50m right-facing corner – so Carl led the crux pitch. I led the second and then linked it with the little 10m third pitch that tops out on the half-way ledge. (The third pitch – a small crack – is actually a ripper, making Secret Swinger even more of a must-do Lower Baldy route).

On the half-way ledge we ambled up the base of Scimitar. Standing at the bottom the radical fore-shortening of perspective made the route look less daunting than it is when viewed from the campsite. The rock revealed itself as heavily featured sandstone with lots of ironstone edges.

We decided to make the four-pitch Scimitar into a two-pitch route. The first pitch wanders up a diagonal crack to small cave and a bit of an overhang. A well-protected, grunty move gets you over the bulge – on perfect jams and positive edges – followed by some steep climbing to a comfy belay in a sentry box.

Carl then followed up with two equally sterling grade 17 pitches which were sustained and well protected. We completed the route in under three hours and were back on the deck before 3pm, after rapping the face using the two ring-bolted Stiletto rap stations. (And despite being a stinking hot day we were in shade for the entire climb due to Old Baldy being a south-facing crag).

Mid-abseil down Old Baldy we were amazed to see another party on Scimitar. I talked to the bloke who'd just led the first two pitches. He "confessed" – unprompted – to being a sport climber and told me not to look at his gear placements. I suppose that Carl and I were quite baddie traddie-looking being hirsute and helmeted. His girlfriend - trailing a second rope – appeared to be complaining rather than climbing the face.

On Sunday the great weather continued but with the temperature feeling abut 10 degrees cooler. Dr C was so enthusiastic about doing another excursion up Old Baldy to do Excalibur that I immediately dumped the lazy monkey off my back and began to excitedly rack up.

To access the half-way ledge this time we decided to climb The Chain (8) to avoid the hot sun on the other routes and to avoid climbing Secret Swinger again.

All I can say about The Chain is it’s standard old-school, low-graded weirdness or "funky" as Carl described it. It's probably about grade 14 and contains more sand and leaves than rock on the first of its four pitches. Carl led the first three pitches and I thrutched up the final exit chimney pitch to the half-way ledge .

At the base of Excalibur things felt a bit more serious than the previous day. Even from the ground the rotten rock of the first pitch and the roof exit from the cave at the start of the second looked harder than Scimitar, despite Excalibur being graded 17 to Scimitar’s 18.

I decided to lead pitches 1 and 2 of Excalibur (17) as a single pitch to save time.

Wade Steven's Wolgan guide calls the second pitch 16 of Excalibur and pitches four and five as grade 17 equal cruxes. My response to that is bullsh*t! The second pitch roof move is as hard or harder than the other two crux pitches on Excalibur. The Penney/Taylor Wolgan guide lists Excalibur's pitches 2, 4, 5 as equal crux pitches which is correct.

In fact Excalibur as a complete route feels as hard as Scimitar and I reckon should be regarded as an 18. I think the roof move on Excalibur is harder than that on Scimitar - Carl agrees - but the whole route still has a grade 18 feel. Similar sentiments were expressed by half a dozen people I’ve spoken to before and after the climb.

After the combined first pitch Carl and I swung leads. I think my semi-hanging belay was a couple of metres lower than the "small stance" above the roof as per the guidebook. As a result Carl certainly had a long pitch on the grade 15 pitch 3 (as per guide) where the crack goes diagonally right to a small right-facing corner.

Pitch 4 (as per the guide) was a beauty. Once again with my arse was hanging out in the air - as it was on the first crux – I surmounted a cruxy bulge followed by some steep climbing to the stance.

Pitch 5 (as per the guide) gave Carl something to think about as he worked out how to get past the crux bulge. He succeeded after a couple of downclimbs (no weighting of the rope). Being on second I decided to launch up it head-on: a bouldery deadpoint dispensed with it easily enough.

We celebrated on top and gabbled excitedly about how brilliant both routes were.
Then we again rapped down Stiletto and were eating a late lunch on the halfway ledge at 4pm.

To summarise: Scimitar at 18 feels much less intense - with one crux and comfy belays - than Excalibur at 17 which we think is actually an 18 with possibly three grade 18 crux pitches and small belay stances, including a hanging belay.

Gear on both climbs is impeccable. With a fall rack of Friends and three extra Camalots plus four hexes and big nuts there was not one section of either route that felt runout or unprotected.

Four routes, no falls and perfect weather and two cold bottles of beer in the river waiting for us before the drive home! All in all a brilliant weekend.


PICS: A few here with the routes marked and one of a bloke rapping down the face:

Bunny Bucket Buttress: Rebolted


Following Claw’s decision to entirely re-bolt Bunny Bucket Buttress and replace all the carrots with U-bolts, Jimbo and I decided it was time to climb this consumer classic.

Despite reports of horror runouts and recommendations that we carry a trad rack to supplement the bolts, we decided that we were too old and lazy to carry so much gear.

Mike’s post re-bolting recommendation was 16 draws, a cordelette and long slings. So we took 16 draws, three of which were extendables: In Law We Trust.

After a liquid breakfast of Get Up and Go we got up and went, leaving the lower campsite at Pierce’s Pass at 7am. After some leisurely mucking around at the Mirrorball rap – shiny new rings replacing maltreated tree – we were at the base of BBB (270m, 18) for a 9am kick-off.

The U-bolts were readily apparent as were the carrots that were still in place beside them. And that’s how the rest of the route was to be. Claw’s effectively created a DBB belay for most clips with a carrot beside or close to a U-bolt. He also seems to have added a few U-bolts.

The net result is an incredibly safe and fun route that is only marred by the combined 70m grade 8 pitches 4 and 5. But in saying that, both of these low-grade pitches are on rock rather than the bushwalks that most Blueys linking pitches seem to be.

Anyhow, at the risk of giving away beta, here is how the trip went.

Pitch 1: (18, 20m) The bouldery start gives way to easier climbing and a nice top out ledge.

Pitch 2: (18, 20m) Slabby start to a fused cornered followed by a rock over to an arĂȘte. Jimbo led this one and missed the belay on a comfy ledge and ended up creating a semi-hanging belay on the third u-bolt/carrot combination placement of the slabby start of pitch 3.

Pitch 3: (18, 40m) (Or 34m thanks to the off-route Jimbo) Up slab, across well-protected by quite delicate traverse then up well-bolted arĂȘte to top-out on big ledge and new DBB (rings) closer to the top-out than the original carrots which are more to the left (if you're facing out from the cliff).

Pitch 4: (8, 30m) Jimbo wander off up the slabs and then kept going until he ran out of rope. So this pitch was effectively 60m which includes a small overhang.

Pitch 5: (8, 40m) I only led the remaining 10m of this pitch which went up a rubbly wall to the foot of a big orange overhand and the TBB for the start of pitch 6.

Pitch 6: (17, 20m) Up wall out short overhang up headwall to big belay ledge. Jimbo led this bit. I seconded it but left the ‘draws in place so that two speedsters – CitationX and mate – could scream past us, using our draws, and get ahead of us. (I was amazed at their speed. They were still rapping down the Weaselburger rap – the three-pitch alternative to the two pitch Mirrorball rap – when we had just begun pitch 4! Shows you what two blokes on a single rope – hence the Weaselburger rap – and knowledge of the route – Steve had climbed it before – can do.)

Pitch 7 and 8: (18, 40m) Claw reckons that if you string pitch 7 and 8 together the single 2 x 17 pitches go at 18. Maybe. Each pitch up this towering, slightly overhung, headwall has a technical start for the grade but after that wherever you place a hand is a jug. Unless you get too gripped and start overgripping then the actual climbing feels like 16! However it is a long pitch and I can see how it would be good to retain the two pitches.

Pitch 9: (13, 40m) After gorging myself on the jug-fest before it, I felt a bit guilty when Jimbo had to lead the uninspiring final pitch – 20m rising traverse ending in juggy, chossy wall. Ah well, next time Jimbo.

Pics here:

Monday, April 13, 2009

Like chalk and choss



The British revel in eccentricity and nowhere has this been allowed full rein than in the sport that to outsiders appears completely dotty, namely climbing.

For evidence of this think of everyone from George Mallory and Andrew Irvine plodding up Mount Everest in their tweeds, to Don Whillans smoking cigars at high altitude, to stubbornly refusing to allow gritstone and bolts to co-exist, thus creating the sport of roped soloing.

Nowhere has the spirit of British climbing been better captured on films than on the new film Hard XS (Slackjaw Films).

From the team that created the legendary Hard Grit comes this crop of 10 short climbing films, each featuring on a different aspect of the game.

There includes the more familiar aspects of climbing including the understated and talented Steve McClure working and red-pointing his lengthy project Overshadow 9a (approximately grade 35) at Malham Cove.

It also includes youngster James Pearson describing his ascents of run-out gritstone routes like Knocking on Heaven’s Door and The Zone, both E9 6c or roughly 32/33 and Gaz Parry hanging off the ceiling of some dreary cave in Llandudno to create a series of 8a/8a+ routes (roughly grade 30).

But the real fun lies in watching the weirdness.

The first of these is the sheer terror on the second’s face as an ice axe-wielding Dave Thomas leads a quaking Martin Perry up a crumbling North Devon seacliff route called Breakaway HXS 5c/5b/5c/5a (about 18-21).

Perry: “It’s wrong”.

Thomas: “It’s a tottering pile of shale. You can’t get any decent protection in, the belays are shot to pieces. It’s how you cope with the journey which is the really interesting part”.

Perry: “I’m speechless to be honest. It’s rubbish, we shouldn’t be climbing on it”.

Four pitches later and the irrepressible Thomas is on top smiling as the blood slowly returns to Perry’s wan face.

Perry: “I’ve never been so stressed seconding”.

No less terrifying to the viewer, and at least one of the climbers, is Ian Parnell
and Chris Cubitt’s ascent of Great White Fright HXS (19/20) on the white cliffs of Dover.

Using ice axes and crampons the pair ascend the multi-pitch route in contrasting states of anxiety.

Parnell comments that “there are going to be moments when you’re going to have to
give yourself a talking to” and “who’s sane any way, who’s normal”.

Cubitt, who seemingly unwisely chose to do the route while on the road to mental recovery after a climbing accident, admits “I’m quite frightened now”.

When he tops out he’s more emphatic: “I did it on top-rope and I was fucking scared”.
Later Parnell returns in another short when he decides to again push his luck, this time tackling a long-standing unclimbed line in the Cairngorms when it is covered in two foot of ice.

Elsewhere there’s more dry-tooling madness when another pair launch themselves up another crumbling seacliff. We later hear that the route “fell down”.

There’s also the trickiness of climbing on slate in abandoned Welsh quarries, Neil Gresham indulging in the relatively sane sport of DWS and a funny and scary insight into one of Britain’s most successful mountaineers Andy Kirkpatrick in the tellingly entitled documentary Suffering Andy.

On being scared

By Rod Smith

The scariest lead that I can remember was about five years ago and it was my first trad lead after eight years away from climbing.

The pair of us rocked up to Secret Swinger (16) at the Wolgan and I was given the first pitch which, after an awkward start, is cruisy and well protected. I wobbled my way up and with great relief downed the rack in the sandy apocalyptic cave that is the belay.

After finding some attached sandstone amid the sand and blocks, I built an anchor and brought the other bloke up. When he got there he announced that he wasn’t interested in doing the second pitch and I’d have to.

Despite my protests I found myself climbing out under a roof, over a small rooflet and into a flaring corner. Nervous as hell I dropped three of the guy’s larger Camalots – he racked them in threes on one ‘biner which I hate – and watched as they hit the deck.

After stitching the first few metres with my remaining gear, I found myself horribly lacking in gear for the rest of the flaring corner crack and simply had to run it out for the last four or so metres to the top.

Feeling frightened and alone and buffeted by a stiff breeze that increased my feeling of isolation, I tentatively made my way upwards. I remember screaming gibberish, my mouth feeling like sandpaper as I wished I was somewhere else.

I also remember random, ridiculous thoughts like reassuring myself that my handjams would not involuntarily spring open like a boiled clam, that my harness buckle was still doubled back and that the knot wasn't untying of its own accord.

I also remember glimpsing my tent back at the Capertee campsite and wishing I was down there with a beer watching someone else doing this...

Then I mentally slapped myself and returned to the situation at hand which demanded that I shut the hell up and continue climbing...

After I eventually topped out and tied myself into a bomber nut I sat for a little while. I felt exhausted, and then the endorphins kicked in and I was exhilarated.

I’ve since been back twice since and led what it now a demystified climb. It's a familiar and friendly route but the chemical hit after I climb it never as good as that first time around.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Lost in a sea of bolts

By Rod Smith

It seems a funny thing to go all the way to Tassie – home of the brutal crack and bastion of trad climbing – to clip bolts.

Rick Fielding and I hadn’t intended it to be that way. But after a day at Ben Lomond, and on the way to more trad climbing at Freycinet, en route to the East Coast via the Lake Leake Highway the sign to Lost Falls beckoned us.

After three summer trips to Tassie in as many years we both knew that Lost Falls contained two 96m slab routes. Sport climbs, they sit side by side on the pleasant dolerite slabs that become the Lost Falls in winter and after heavy rain.

At 8am on a perfect summer morning we geared up in the car park before making the literally 5-minute walk to the triple rings at the top of the falls.

Well-bolted, the climbs are broken into three pitches, with each having independent first and second pitches before sharing the final easy pitch. Both climbs share three triple-ring belays/rap points.

After some arduous and unsuccessful attempts to prevent our double ropes falling into the remnant pools created by the trickle of water that is Lost Falls in summer, I set off with damp ropes up the first pitch of the first route, Ride the Dragon (15).

Despite looking slippery, the rock provided good friction, even the bits that were covered in dried, black slime. I was quickly at the top of the first pitch.

Rick led the champagne second pitch, the crux. At 50m in length and on the grade, it was a pleasant excursion even on second. Although slabby, the rock holds enough small fissures to render it easier to climb than say the granite slabs at Tarana, near Lithgow.

The third pitch was more of a formality than anything before we were once again tossing our ropes in every pool we could find, abseiling down to climb the next route, Black Dawg.

Black Dawg’s crux is its second pitch which is graded at 19. This time the champagne pitch went my way as we climbed the harder liner closest to where the waterfall develops after rain.

Delicate rockover moves and plenty of toeing and palming nuances in the slab made for absorbing and technical climbing. Seventeen draws were needed to complete the 50m second pitch.

Rick and I both agreed that the grade of the crux pitch was probably more in the hard 17/easy 18 range – or it may have been the euphoria of spending a few hours climbing a couple of four-star routes in the calming surroundings of the Tasmanian bush that made it seem easier.

Tragic history of climbing’s lost boys

Book Review

By Rod Smith

In the 1970s and ‘80s Britain lost some of its best mountaineers at an alarming rate.

This was no mass death caused by the sky collapsing, or too many people getting caught out in bad weather on overcrowded routes.

To the contrary these men – and they were all men – were climbers who were pushing the boundaries of alpinism, using techniques developed in the European Alps to climb the monster peaks of the Himalayan and the Karakoram.

Rouse, Clough, Haston, Estcourt, Boardman, Tasker are the familiar names among the dead whose lives are charted by Clint Willis in his book The Boys of Everest (Portico, London).

Subtitled Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing’s Greatest Generation, the book is a thick volume that attempts to draw together the disparate characters who climbed with Bonington on his many expeditions.

All of these stories have been told before, many by Sir Chris himself. Indeed much of the source material that Willis draws on is from well-known expedition books by the likes of Haston, Boardman, Tasker and Haston.

However, the strength of this volume is that it is a potted history of British climbing triumph and tragedy from Bonington and Hamish MacInnes on the Bonatti Pillar in 1958 to the deaths of Tasker and Boardman on Everest in 1982 and Bonington finally climbing Everest in 1985 at age 50.

Over 536 pages – complete with an index – the story unfolds as a type of combined formal history and adventure novel.

Willis’s ability to condense the factual side of the story and at the same time combine it with a novelist’s sense of storytelling highlights what a fine writer he is.

Like a novelist, he ascribes motivations and emotions to each of the key characters. For instance as the all-seeing narrator Willis tells us what Bonington thinks about a certain team member or why Douglal Haston and Don Whillans worked as a team despite Haston not caring much for Whillans as a human being.

Such information has been gleaned from interviews Willis conducted researching the book and it is woven into the characters of these real-life dramas, making the climbers human rather than one-dimensional heroic and tragic figures.

But if this style is Willis’ strength it could also be seen as his weakness: At times his writing moves from living history to pure fiction such as when the unknowable thoughts of dying climbers’ are described in purplish prose.

Thus when Willis tells us what Peter Boardman was thinking as he and Joe Tasker died on the Northeast Ridge of Everest the thrilling history is replaced by wild invention.

This would seem to be the domain of the pure fiction writer, not the practitioner of new journalism.

What we do know is that Boardman’s body was found 10 years after he died and that, to date, Tasker’s has never been found. The knowledge of that is poignant enough.