Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Might of the Phoenix


The last time that I stood at the base of Bluff Mountain in the Warrumbungles, my feet were frozen and wooden, the wind was howling and I was packing up after climbing just half of the first pitch of Flight of the Phoenix.

It was a very different story last month as Dr Carl Schulze and I gazed up at the route, trying to pick out the belays amid the reptile skin-like texture of the volcanic rock.

A successful pairing on classic multi-pitch trad routes such as Excalibur and Scimitar in the Wolgan Valley, and Goldstar and Firebug at Mt Boyce, Dr C and I had decided that Flight of the Phoenix (18) would be a fitting coda to our partnership before he returned to the US to work.

Already down to a thermal top and a t-shirt at 8am, we would be down to just t-shirts by the end of the second pitch as we tackled the gargantuan 300m route, amid blue skies and a blazing autumn sun.

Our plan was straight forward: stay at a pub in Coonabarabran, drive to the car park the next morning, walk the two hours to the cliff, climb the route in eight hours and walk out again that night, before heading straight back to the pub to re-live the previous 12 hours.

As it turned out we didn’t quite fulfil the plan: the day took 13 hours, not 12.

Sharing this cunning plan was Team Pom – John Shaw and Rick Fielding – who were determined to climb the classic arĂȘte route Cornerstone Rib Direct (14) on Crater Bluff.

It was their third attempt after two previous heartbreaking, weather-destroyed ‘Bungles experiences.

I must admit that I felt envious of Team Pom after we passed their crag and we still had a good 40 minutes’ walk to reach our route. But once at the base of Bluff Mountain, gazing up at the huge, orange rock scar of the “wing” traverse on pitch three, it all came into focus: I wanted to get up there and get lost in the immensity of this sea of ancient stone.

Torn between John “Mr ‘Bungles” Croker’s urging for us to do an alternate second pitch that he’s done five (!) times previously and the standard-route second pitch – that requires a time-consuming abseil to begin the traverse - we decided to make no decision until after the first pitch.

In contrast to my last visit the first pitch flew by. In 30 minutes I was lashed to a tiny shrub, an ancient piton and a few well-placed nuts as I brought Dr C up to the belay. It was here that we decided to forgo JC’s alternate second pitch so that Dr C could enjoy what we’d read was a classic piece of climbing.

As I seconded that second pitch I momentarily felt regret: regret that Dr C hadgot to lead such a brilliant and sustained section which is the climb’s true crux despite grade 18 being also attached to the first pitch. However, after I reached the big ledge that regret disappeared as the next pitch, the immense orange traverse, came into view.

The only bit of downtime on the route occurred on the big comfy ledge as we went through the dangerous transition from climbing to abseiling to the start of the third pitch.

Double ropes – almost essential in the ‘Bungles – allowed us to remain tied in on one rope while we abseiled on the other. We added our own tat to the motley collection that adorns the rap anchor – a stunted tree and rock spike combo – then Dr C abseiled down to the base of the wing and set up a semi-hanging belay off a nest of nuts.

Once he was comfortable I followed him down the tense abseil – let go of the ropes at the end of the rap and it’s “bye-bye” one rope and “hello” leading on a single 8.5mm strand.

I re-racked in an awkward stemming position before starting the traverse where I confirmed what the guidebook had suggested - there isn’t a lot of gear for the first 6m.

The immense exposure of the traverse after the comfy ledge added atmosphere to the relatively straight-forward, sideways grade 14 climbing. While the pitch was meant to be 45m Dr C and I somehow managed to make it a rope-stretching 60m – a combination perhaps of an extra low start and an extra high end to the pitch.

By the time that I brought Dr C up to the end of the traverse I was relaxed and warm. The semi-hanging stance was actually quite comfortable.

It was while waiting for Carl that I noticed two Wedge-tailed Eagles above us, surfing the thermals. In a matter of pitches the eagles would still be there but we would be well above them as we continued to gain altitude on the massive route.

After an awkward start through a bulge – where the thought of a factor two fall onto the belay almost made my eyes water – the fourth pitch flowed nicely for Carl who ended it in comfortable niche.

The fifth pitch had a bit of a stutter start as I managed to head off right into steep, overhanging and unprotectable ground. It was at this point that I remembered John Croker’s sage advice: “Big Bungles Rule: Remember the grades. If you are on stuff that is fairly obviously 20 or harder you are OFF ROUTE. Get back on route or it will get worse!”.

After a sketchy downclimb, another glance at the route description and I was off in the right direction, up a pitch that felt in the right grade range of 14/15.

Running the rope out, I made a belay in a small stance and brought Carl up for the sixth pitch. For a gully/corner combo the sixth climbed well. The rock is generally good, the terrain mostly vertical and the protection plentiful.

Along with the second pitch and the traversing third I think that the sixth pitch is a classic bit of climbing: Which is something the final pitch could never be accused. Described as a grade eight “pisseasy slab” in some guides, it was more a roped wander, racing up it allowed me to make up some of the time I’d lost on the wing traverse which, for some reason, took over an hour to lead, despite its relatively easy grade.

While we needed to do a bit of scrub-bashing to stand on the mountain’s true summit, before we did that we took some time out just to sit on the cliff edge and stare. It was a beautiful moment as we sat on the edge of Bluff Mountain, the climb and soaring Wedge-tailed Eagles below us and the sun low in the sky.

We had spent exactly eight hours on the route and now faced almost three more hours’ walking to get back to the car. But it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t such a big deal. In fact, for days afterwards nothing seemed to be a big deal.