Tuesday, 12 January 2016

NOW we're talking OBSCURE!

So, it's been a while since I updated this, but fortunately I have a great excuse: I've been on a climbing rampage in Tasmania! I'll get to the details of this aforementioned rampage in my next blog update... As for now I want to cover the obscure adventures that went down after I returned from the USA, and before I headed back down to this isolated little island that I now occupy.

3 weeks is a surprisingly short amount of time to return from a long-ish trip, get your affairs in order, book into a TAFE course and climb some obscurity before departing for an indefinite amount of time in Tassie (yes, my life is downright unlivable, pity me!)... But I managed it...

Pierces Pass Obscurity

First up, Neil Monteith -who shall henceforth be known as Daddy Neil- managed to skive away from cleaning up baby vomit and working on mass-market television, and actually do some climbing. Thus, team Choss'N'BadGear reunited for some of our usual masochism. The world was our oyster, we could have gone anywhere... but for no particular reason we decided to go to Pierces Pass to climb some "obscure trad classics".

Neil "loving" the first pitch of By Hook or
By Crook (23)
Our first target was a route that I'd been talking about since the first time I climbed The Colours of Spring (4-Pitch Trad 21) at Pierces Pass East Side. On abseiling off that route I cast my appraising eye on the stunning 2nd pitch of By Hook or By Crook (2-pitch Trad 23), put up by Mark Wilson et al. in the dark ages, and I knew that I'd have to come back to climb it. Situated opposite the remarkable (and remarkably chossy) Fungus Face (4-Pitch Trad 18), the first pitch climbs a pumpy steep face via pocket-clusters, horizontal breaks, and a desperate sequence of micro-crimps, before boldly heading out to a rounded arete and climbing that past a carrot bolt to the belay. This pitch was Neil's, and he made it look every bit of old-school trad 21 as he fiddled in an interesting arrangement of gear, contemplated the meaning of life while deciding whether or not to commit to the arete, and inevitably cruised up the tenuous, balancy arete once he decided to commit. Despite the ordeal, he still managed the Onsight. The pitch was a bit wandery in a beard-stroking kind of way, but it followed the best climbing (even if it wasn't perhaps the most obvious line) and was quite sustained with a sting-in-the-tail final sequence to get established on the top slab.

An immaculate open-book corner on
perfect rock in the Blueys!
The 2nd pitch at gr23 is one of the best-looking fused corner-systems that I've ever seen in the Blue Mountains, on immaculate blank rock (for the Blueys) and in a great position. I'd coveted this pitch since I climbed The Colours of Spring, and Neil was kind enough to relinquish it to me without too much of a fight. In short: the climbing was every bit as good as it looks, featuring 3 separate (and varied) technical cruxes - the sort of involved, convoluted puzzles that are infinitely rewarding to solve and pull-off clean. It also harbours very spaced and fiddly gear (but just enough of it to keep the climbing heady without being dangerous), and it stays on the right side of bold with the help of 3 carrot bolts. Despite what the guide said, I had no trouble whatsoever putting on the bolt plates, and thoroughly enjoyed 95% of this pitch... until I mantled onto the mega-choss (dislodging a television-sized block in the process, and managing to hold it in place just long enough for Neil to get under cover... at which point it bounced down the cliff and demolished an outcropping of trees and -predictably- our packs), and arrived at the "rap anchors" (two carrot  bolts... and nothing else).

"Oh my God, Neil... it's SO GOOD!"
Technically this wasn't the rap anchors for our climb, but was actually the belay below the start of pitch 4 of The Colours of Spring. The problem is that where-as once upon a time you could rap off a tree at the top of Pitch 4, the tree has since burned down and getting off from the top involves either a million chossy exit pitches, or a mini-epic (I found this out the hard way when I climbed The Colours of Spring... we went for the mini-epic option... and it was epic). Despite knowing this, I still thought that we might have been able to down-climb to an actual set of rap-anchors 10 vertical metres (and a sketchy traverse) below, but in the end this just wasn't happening, and so it was that a Mark Wilson route at Pierces Pass claimed some more gear (fortunately for me, this time it was Neil's gear) -does Mark build his rack from all the gear left behind on his climbs?- and down we went.

I'd recommend this climb to any solid trad climber (even one who isn't an Obscurist, because in reality the high quality of this line belies its obscurity), provided that they don't mind a bit of moderate boldness.

Neil forging his way up the megapitch (Pitches 1 & 2) of Church of the
Seven Samurai.
So, with one winning line under our collective belts, Neil and I decided to enjoy a leisurely afternoon (har har) making our way up Church of the Seven Samurai (4-Pitch Trad 24). This climb starts just left of Bladderhozen (3-pitch 23 -another great climb, though solely for the stunning 3rd pitch, and not for the unmemorable 2 access-pitches) at Pierces Pass West Side, and like it's multi-starred neighbour, involves two face-y access pitches to get to the real climbing. That is to say, that if you climbed them as two separate pitches, they might be mistaken for pleasant but conventional "access pitches", but Neil opted to join the two pitches into a 60m megapitch which -as far as I'm concerned- changed the dynamic of these "access pitches" into something special. A 60m marathon of climbing means strategic gear-placement, running out of gear, rope management issues, rope drag, prolonged pump and the mental weariness of staying focused for such a long period of time. Provided none of these challenging elements becomes catastrophically bad, they have the capacity to add value to what might be a value-less pitch, and so it was that both Neil and I found ourselves really enjoying this giant pitch of climbing as one of the finer adventurous offerings at Pierces Pass. The prolific spattering of funky pockets throughout probably helped to win our support as well.

Me entering the crux section of the gr23 3rd pitch.
The 3rd pitch is a 30m gr23 up a steep stemming corner, and I launched up it with gusto, battling sandy and muddy holds as I came to grips with the unconventional line. This pitch starts up the corner with some rad stemming moves, pulls a few moves on the right face, traverses across the corner via some hard moves, climbs the crux on the left face via a powerful sequence (off a slopey pocket and into an open-handed undercling high above), and finishes up the steep corner to the belay. I managed to Onsight to the crux, but the crucial slopey pocket was muddy and I eventually fell off with my hand on the undercling. The rest of the pitch after the crux was quite sustained, as Neil found out when he linked past the crux on second, then found himself battling tooth and nail to the top as the pump set in. Regardless, he managed the feat, and we both agreed that -despite the irritating muddy pocket- it was a pearler of a pitch, especially considering the seemingly bizarre path it follows (which makes total sense when you climb it).

Neil starting up the amazingly steep and bouldery
4th pitch.
I was fortunate enough to also score the 4th pitch, which encompasses a short but intense 15m section of very steep corner climbing at grade 24. The climbing turns bouldery as soon as you set off, and I'll admit that it was a desperate battle as I fought to read the route and push through the pump-factor for the Onsight. Though short, it featured a really involved balance of stemming, steep arete-slapping, and strenuous sloper-hauling, finishing at a really strange hanging belay at the steepest point of the corner. Both Neil and I got it clean, and -again- were pretty chuffed with both the pitch, and the route in general. Though not as consistently good as By Hook or By Crook, there could be no doubt that the climb had a lot to offer keen hard-trad enthusiasts, especially as the usual over-abundance of horizontal breaks, choss bands and vegetation were conspicuously absent. Yet again, I find that I would readily recommend this route to others.

It's worth pointing out at this point, that after so much time climbing on immaculate American rock, my tolerance for choss and ironstone dinner-plates was at an all-time low, so the fact that we'd managed to launch up two esoteric routes and come away singing their praises speaks volumes for just how good they are (on the scale of Blueys trad climbing).

The following day we opted to tackle another big trad route, though one that is somewhat less obscure and features a million stars in the guidebook: Contented Cows (7-Pitch Trad 22). I knew a few people who had climbed the route, and -if I'm honest- I hadn't really heard anything good about it, with stories of huge runouts, bad rocks, and epics a-plenty. The consensus seemed to be that it definitely didn't deserve the stars ascribed to it.

Pitch 3 (19) of Contented Cows (22)... there's a Neil somewhere
in the vegetation at the top of that slab.
Arriving at the base of the route at about 8:30am, our first surprise was to see a line of bolts stretching as far as the eye could see. It seems that the insatiable Mikl -knowing that the first 3 pitches are often used as an easier alternative start to Hotel California (10-pitch 23) to produce a more consistent long climb, had chosen to retrobolt the lower half of Contented Cows. Thus, despite lugging a thousand kilograms of steel with us, it all remained on my harness as I sport-climbed my way up the first two pitches of grade 17 dirty grey-rock (linked to create a 62m pitch), and Neil thin-slabbed his way up the 3rd pitch (which features an utterly diabolical move past an undercut roof near the top... grade 19 my arse!) to arrive at the first of the gardening pitches.

Neil questing into the traddy unknown on
Pitch 6 (22). Hotel California continues
the traverse right out to the arete.
Shared with Hotel California, for the most part these doddly pitches have more in common with alpine climbing over steep scree than conventional rock climbing (though at the end of Pitch 5 it reverts to actual climbing). Choosing to forgo the usual bolted finale to Pitch 5 (which climbs a thin face to the right of an obvious corner-system) I decided to tackle the corner instead, and was about 6m up it before I realised that I had left most of the gear with Neil. Almost unprotected, and battling horrendous rope-drag (my habit of linking pitches came back to bite me in the arse once again!) and fragile rock, the actual moves I was pulling on this steep corner-system suddenly seemed quite challenging indeed, and I was more than a little relieved to arrive at the belay below Pitch 6 in one piece.

Pitch 6 (grade 22) is where the real climbing on Contented Cows begins, and it was up to Neil to take the sharp end on this one. Beginning on the infamous Grade 19 traverse of Hotel California, the line then leaves the bolts behind to launch up an incipient seam that breaches a small rooflet and continues up a headwall above, with all the void stretched out below you.  Though technically soft at the grade, there can be no denying that the questing up into the unknown (as the rock above appears rather blank, and the climbing looks utterly nails) is intimidating. Nevertheless, Monty cruised it in fine style, and I have to say that it was a stellar pitch of old school trad face/crack climbing.

"Hooray, I'm gonna die!" Just about to
start up the final gr22 Pitch.
The final pitch, also gr22, was mine, and I remembered JengA telling me horror stories about monster runouts, difficult route finding and dubious rock. As it turns out, all of the above are true, but lie within acceptable standards for Blue Mountains adventure climbing. It starts with a carrot-bolt-protected bit of steep thuggery through a roof, a hand traverse right onto some thinness, and -what is probably the crux of the pitch- some more thin moves to get established on the face. From here on up the climbing gets progressively easier, as you meander back and forth in a generally upward direction, linking together sections of face-climbing to gain horizontals or chicken-heads for gear. As far as route finding goes, there really wasn't an "obvious line", merely a path determined by treading the balance between finding gear, avoiding the choss, and trying not to end up stranded in sections of blank space. The gear is there, but it is generally a bit old school and somewhat spaced, (and considering that the pitch is 50m long requires a bit of gear management to avoid running out before the top). Soon enough I had Onsighted the Pitch, and Neil and I  were making our way back along the well worn trail to Bells Line of Road.

Monty seconding Pitch 7 (22). Those slung ironstone plates
are bomber I tells ya!
The whole round trip had taken Neil and I about 6 hours car to car, which wasn't too bad considering that we weren't really hurrying (nor were we dragging our feet). As to the quality of the route... well, it certainly couldn't compare to quality of the routes from the previous day, mostly because Contented Cows really is just 5 rather rubbish access pitches to gain the top two really good pitches of trad climbing. I think that the ideal way to climb this would actually be to do all the bottom pitches of Hotel California, and then finish up Contented Cows, though that would mean that you'd have to lug a double rack of trad gear through all the ring-bolted pitches of Hotel C... Still, if you wanted to make this route a Classic, that would be the way to do it.

Sublime New Routing

The rough path of my new Project at Sublime
Point East Face (The Acedia Antithesis) marked
in red.

In the interim between climbing obscure trad and more conventional days of sporty-sport cragging with friends, I investigated a new route on Sublime Point East Face that I'd spied when I first climbed Subliminal (3-pitch 23) at night with by old buddy Gene Gill several years ago. Though mostly an unknown climbing destination (and requiring different access to the normal Sublime Point climbing areas), Sublime Point East Face already offers one classic multipitch in the form of Subliminal, and another gem in Castaway (4-pitch 21). The area has also been added to Simon Carter's most recent (2015) edition of Blue Mountains Climbing, so that is sure to do something for its popularity.

When I climbed Subliminal in the dark, I ended up off-route by remaining on the face too long (Subliminal heads out left to join an immaculate arete about halfway up... I didn't see the bolts on the arete in the dark) and -despite the terror of the monster runout and the inevitable ball-shrinking fall I took when I realised I was off-route and couldn't reverse what I'd climbed- I found the climbing on the relatively untouched central face to enjoyable and awash with possibilities. For years I toyed with the idea of returning to try and establish a route up the guts of the wall, and so it was that I finally spent a few days doing exactly that.

The entire first day was spent swinging around above the void, placing the odd expansion bolt or cam to pin the route, doing some rope-soloing to see if sections of blankness went free, and trundling sections of mega-choss. By the end of the day I'd pieced together a plum line right up the centre of the wall on some of the best (water-polished and bullet-hard) rock in the Blueys. It took 2 more trips out there to finish equipping the route (during which I also re-slashed the access trail from the carpark down to the East Face rap-in), but at last the Acedia Antithesis project is ready to rock, and I am very excited about it.

Weighing in at 26/27, the route starts from a reasonable footledge in the middle of the wall (only a few inches above the lowest point of the undercut face and the sucking void below) and heads up, up and more up. It crosses the Subliminal P1 traverse and -at 15m- enters a V4/V5 crux followed by a core-intensive no-hands rest, a very awkward V3+ middle-crux, and a final V4 crux right near the end of 40m of climbing. Aside from the (active) no-hands rest after the first crux, the route itself is never easier than gr22, and considering the intimidating steepness, it could prove quite the intense toughie to tick.

The main pitch ends at a cosy belay in a huge cave, after which you traverse left (past an additional bolt) to rejoin Subliminal near the end of its 2nd Pitch, and link this to the top for a 35m exit pitch.

Now I just have to get back from Tassie to Send it!

The Road to Samarkand

Of all the hard trad must-do classic routes of the Blue Mountains, the most overt gap in my résumé was the fact that I still had never gotten around to climbing Samarkand (5-pitch Trad 25) at Pierces Pass, a route that I'd been led to believe (from others I know who had climbed it) might very well be the best hard trad route in the Blue Mountains. A part of Samarkand's fame is in its uncharacteristic unrelenting steepness, purportedly overhanging 30m in the first 100m of climbing, and with every pitch from start to finish involving some form of steep climbing.
Somehow, finding himself with a day off from work (conveniently on the very day before I left for Tasmania), Ben (Jenga) Lane -my old partner in crime- and I decided to stop procrastinating and just go and climb it. We were joined by Simon Carter who -as an aside during discussions of his newly released guidebook- had expressed a decided amount of psyche to accompany and document the adventure. Also, Simon had a 200m static rope, which was a pretty crucial part to negating the hideously dodgy set of abseils to gain the base. And so it was that on Friday 11th December we made our way back to the always memorable Pierces Pass for yet another adventure. After re-flaking and coiling 200m of static route (no small feat in itself), and having a lively debate about the best way to equalise 3 terrible carrot bolt rap-anchors without wasting carabiners (Simon won with his solution utilising nested Alpine Butterflies), we made the exciting 180m abseil to the base of Samarkand.

The mighty line of Samarkand (25) is the
steep thin corner system (leading to the
grey slab) right of the waterfall.
The traditional flip of a rock meant that I'd scored the crux pitch (I was pretty stoked with that, as I'd always wanted a chance to test myself against it), so Jenga got the ball rolling with the first pitch, a 25m gr23 with 1 carrot bolt and gear to protect it. It starts up a chossy small-corner feature leading to a rooflet, which is turned to reveal a really rad trad-protected water-polished slab, with engagingly thin and slippery moves to the anchors. After a shaky start (Jenga hates stemming corners) he cruised to the anchors, and I soon joined him there for the 2nd (crux) pitch.

The 2nd pitch is 40m long and intimidating steep. 2 carrot bolts protect the boulder-problem start to gain the crack proper, after which it's all gear to the finish line, with the climbing getting progressively harder until the very last moves. After a false start on the initial boulder problem (I slipped off a wet footer at the 1st bolt), I started again and this time stuck the moves without any difficulty. The line then traverses right on a fist crack to gain the main crack system, which consists of gear-protected extremely steep face climbing on good holds (and the odd obligatory jam) to gain a body-squeeze chimney. The chimney provided me with a pleasant no-hands rest, but exiting it proved to be a thrutchy challenge as you burst from the top of the constriction and into a steep thin-hand crack, culminating in a ludicrous dead-point to a good incut jug out right, quite some distance above the gear. After this, it's crux-time, and like the eternal bumbly I am, I accidentally wacked a #1 cam in the crucial knuckle-lock slot as I moved into the crux. Realising my mistake almost immediately but deciding just to wing it, I forged upwards with powerful, insecure thin-hands and ring-locks on awkwardly placed feet through much steepness. Feeling my momentum slipping away as I struggled to work around the cam, I launched for what I hoped was a jug... and promptly fell off as it revealed itself to be a sloper... one move from victory! After the fall, I swapped the bad cam-placement with a better one and made it to the belay. Jenga soon joined me, getting hilariously stuck at the top of the chimney (he's a much bigger bloke than I am), but getting the entire pitch clean on second. I take solace in the fact that he was working on those awkward top moves (Jenga has a tendency to cruise everything and make it look easy), but full credit to him for the clean lap.

Jenga on the crux of the first pitch (23)
Simon Carter's breathtaking photo of me
on the crux of the 2nd Pitch (25)...
about 3 moves before I fell of.


Jenga negotiating the moves to gain the
squeeze chimney on Pitch 2. If you
look carefully you can see our
chalk on the waterwashed-slab
far below.

Jenga begins the crux sequence right at the end of Pitch 2.

Simon Carter capturing Jenga in all his glory
on Pitch 3 (23), immediately after the crux
tips-layback section.

A tips-layback forms the crux of the 3rd pitch, which can be either extremely tenuous (if you have big fingers) or rather cruisy at the grade (with small fingers). Jenga was lumped in the first category, and made it look seriously hard as he stuffed a half-centimetre of finger-tip in the fused crack, and committed wholeheartedly to steep, water-polished smeared-foot laybacking to gain the better holds. Of course, he got it clean (and Simon got some really rad photos of the crux moves in action), and was belaying me up a few minutes later. Unlike Jenga, I could get my fingers into the crack to the first joint and didn't find it too hard, but regardless it was an outstanding pitch with some amazing exposure as the corner you're laybacking joins a hanging arete to remind you just how far above the void you really are.

And here is how that shot turned out. Jenga on the crux.
"Hi Simon, fancy meeting you here, mate!"

Me on the crux of Pitch 4 (22). Still no response from
magazine yet... I don't think that Simon's to
blame, though.
I think of the 4th pitch as the beginning of my career as a male model, as I up-climbed and down-climbed the grade 22 crux about 5 times (while Onsighting) so Simon could get the perfect shot. I even climbed it without clipping all the bolts to make it look just that little bit more inspiring. Despite being gr22, I thought it felt quite easy at the grade, consisting of extremely steep corner-crack climbing, separated by some funky face moves up a scarily detached flake, and finishing with some awkward steep squeeze-chimney moves to gain the belay. Yet, despite perhaps being soft-ish, the climbing was heaps of fun, and I eagerly await a response to my male-model application submissions to PlayGirl magazine.
The last pitch of the day, climbed right as the sun hit the rock, was up a funky leftward leaning crack which is very obvious when observed from Walls Lookdown, and proved to be no giveaway at grade 21. Blinded by the light, Jenga oozed his way up the crack methodically (but solidly), with an interesting variety of crack moves (of all sizes) and slightly-steep thin-face moves protected by solid but fiddly gear placements. He managed to Onsight this pitch (and thus the entire climb), and I cruised it on second, and we joined Simon back on Lunch Ledge about 6 hours after we started the abseil, and right as the crag went into the full scorching summer sun.

Jenga tackles the surprisingly tough Pitch 5 (21).
Equal parts crack-and-face climbing.
Suffice it to say, the day produced some great photos from Simon (the ones that look good) and myself (the ones that look half-arsed and were taken with my little point-and-shoot clipped to my harness). I've reproduced a few low-quality versions of Simon's photos (thanks, Simon!), but if you want the full glory you'll need to check out the December edition of Simon's ONSIGHT newsletter, which features the photo-essay of our Pierces Pass antics.

So, what of the route? Well, straight-up, it's a 5-star classic, featuring possibly the best hard-trad climbing I've done in the Blueys (and is perhaps the best trad multi I've ever done in the Blueys, regardless of difficulty), with every pitch having something to offer and generally great rock throughout. At the grade, it's a middle-tier gr25 (not even the usual trad-esque sandbag we've come to expect over the years) and is so well protected that I don't think that the grade should dissuade anyone who can dog a trad 25 from having a crack at it. In fact, it's so good, that when I get back from Tassie I'm super-psyched to have another crack at it so that I can clean up my 1-fall ascent of the crux pitch and score the true tick. Unlike some trad multis in the Blueys, there's nothing about Samarkand that would ever discourage me from launching up it again... well, except for perhaps the rubbish abseil in. Seriously, borrow yourself a 200m rope (or join 3 x 60m statics and do it as a giant rap moving past the knots on the way down).

Well, it's time to end this blog update and get back to climbing in Tassie. I'll endeavour to update some of the more recent Tassie adventures in the next week or so, and I've got a few good stories to tell that you guys might enjoy. The interesting epiphany to come from this brief stop-over back home on my way to Tassie, is that despite climbing 4 seldom repeated trad multipitches in Pierces Pass, all of them were enjoyable in their own way, with perhaps the least obscure of them (Contented Cows) being of the lowest quality.

Don't ever say that obscure correlates to esoteric when it comes to Trad climbing in the Blue Mountains...


  1. Great work, I tried Church of 7 Sams back on a very wet day and got well chossed about 10m off the deck, I see that I'll have to go back.

    By Hook or By Crook sounds like something else to work up to, and take a drill on also.

    We tried Samarkand first ground up (without drills) and got to where the 2nd bolt on P2 is now, came back a week later and added those 3 bolts and completed it. The bolts on the big V corner were placed on the original aid ascent. You didn't do the top scary face pitch with micro-thread runner; though it wasn't really part of the line and a new sport pitch now runs very close to it.

  2. Frothing, Paul... Really good read, and fantastic climbing.