Monday 26 December 2016

Swansong Part 2: The Final Countdown

The transformation from van-bound climbing bum
to "respectable" Telstra-employee is almost complete...
On the previous episode of The Climbing Obscurist we cut to commercial right as I was nearing my final few days of freedom before I was due to commence a new job at Telstra... After 2 years and 1 month as a professional climbing bum(bly). The race was on to pack in as much climbing as possible before rejoining the workforce as a contributing member of society, and my time-intensive pursuit of the truly obscure had to take a backseat to training and convenience climbing.

Part of the reason why this felt like a "countdown to the apocalypse" was because my new job, a new Uni Course, and necessary downtime to heal from two problematic injuries I'd been enduring for a while (one of which was a damaged bone in my finger) were all coalescing to keep me from my passion for a fairly hefty chunk of time. I knew I'd come back weaker, with less time, and without the good headspace for runouts and dangerous climbing... I might never be as "good" a climber as I was at this time. The clock was ticking...

If any of you were following the Chockstone thread pertaining to my ascent of Alive in a Bitter Sea (covered in the last episode of The Climbing Obscurist), it created something of a furore over the fact that I had headpointed the route, and that in reality (unless you're a proper strong climber) the nature of the route lends itself solely to headpointing, thereby making it inaccessible to 99.9% of climbers. For me personally, it was also great to see the original First Ascensionist -Warwick Baird, one of my local heroes- make a rare appearance to congratulate me on the ascent, and to add his opinion to the "lively debate".

I bring this up because, fundamentally, the foundation of the argument was that going Ground-Up Onsight is stylistically the "highest ideal" in climbing, and routes that are designed to be headpointed very seldom lend themselves to that ideal (unless you're such a strong climber that it almost negates headpoint aspect of the route entirely)...

Well, in stark contrast to last weeks' efforts, this final update of The Climbing Obscurist (for now) is all about the ground-up epic, which -despite the fact that I DO enjoy headpointing- is still my preferred style. I like climbing boldly into uncertain territory, and have often forgone what would be straightforward "pre-inspected flash-ascents" for the sake of a pure ground-up Onsight (which I've subsequently failed).

So, strap yourself in to your manky, "should've been replaced years ago" seatbelt-webbing harness, and enjoy the ride!

SPOILER ALERT: The descriptions contained within this blog update are detailed enough that they might ruin your potential onsight... Read at your own risk!

Day 1 (Wednesday): Piddo Free-Soloing and Texas Tea (50m Sport 24)

With the clock ticking until my scheduled execution, and feelings of mortality descending upon me as I was drawn back into the "real world" from this phantasmagorical dream I've been spellbound by for over 2 years, naturally I needed something to bring me back down to earth... Hence I went out to Mount Piddington to do some free soloing.

In lieu of any photos of this, here's one of
me during my mighty dreadlock years.
Crack climbing is about the only time when I'm climbing where I truly know how I feel... That's not to say that I won't fall off, but I can assess with 99% accuracy how solid I am, how slippery things are feeling, or how confident I am with a jam at any given time. I find that there are less external/environmental factors which will determine whether or not I fall off (an unexpected slip off a crimp, or breaking a hold, or committing to a point where I can't reverse a sequence), and as such, cracks are usually the only thing I'm comfortable free-soloing.

First up was Hocus Pocus (8), which I'd never actually done before, but turned out to be a spectacular 45m sustained slab with varied and interesting moves, and great quality rock. It's a bit of a laugh to call this Grade 8, as it would probably be grade 16 at Shipley, but with no rope to keep me safe I stayed engaged the entire way, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Classic.

Next was an Alzheimer's Onsight Free Solo of The Cartheginian (15), which I'd done on my first trip to Piddo many years before, but never again since. Once again, it was a beautiful route to free solo, although the slightly wide middle-section gave me pause (due to the insecurity of the crack) before I found my fortitude and continued. Enjoyable.

With no photos of this either, here's another one of me during
my... ummm... leopard-print sport-shorts years.
The entry-level quintessential jam crack Psychopath (18) was the next objective. Very straightforward stylistically, and with solid jams throughout, only its slightly strenuous nature (relatively speaking) earns it the grade. I probably felt more secure on this than on The Cartheginian, and it was so nice that I free solo'd it twice. Beautiful.

At this point in time I really wanted to free solo Flake Crack (18), but as the summer sun had reached the cliff, I figured that I'd do a lap on Top Rope Solo first to decide how it felt in the heat. As it was, it felt fine, and I cruised my way up it... but I decided that it wasn't worth the risk of a spoogy slip free-soloing this in the sun, and decided to forgo another lap today. Varied and of consistently great quality climbing, Flake Crack is a true staple at the grade. Delightful.

Finally, I did a TRS inspection of Tombstone Wall (15), and decided that it didn't feel too bad despite the baking sun. The bouldery start, followed by an engagingly thin traverse and a juggy steep finale was made more captivating by deviating into the slightly harder adjacent slab middle-section of Rogue Cop (18). Feeling solid, I also free solo'd this one. Then decided to call it a day. Memorable.

For my next serving I detoured to Renitz Pass in the afternoon shade to have a crack at Texas Tea (50m 24), a proud arete on the Buttress west of I Was a Teenager for the CIA (2-pitch 50m 24), which I'd eyed eagerly from several other climbs, but never gotten around to having a crack at. Reportedly extremely hard to onsight, it starts in the middle of the buttress, traverses airily left below a small roof to gain the arete, then doggedly climbs the arete all the way to the top. Written up as a giant singlepitch (which is how I climbed it), it's worth noting that it actually has a half-height belay on a good stance, so it can very easily be broken up into 2 pitches.

The line of Texas Tea (50m 24)
As it was, I approached it by deliberately not investigating the route at all (not pre-placing, chalking or cleaning any of the bolt plates/quickdraws), and trying to make it as "ground-up" as possible (all things considered). The traverse under the roof looks intimidating, but it's not actually very hard, merely airy. After gaining the arete you have a brief 6m section of very intense and very pure insecure arete climbing, which is gripping and totally rad. After that, however, it's about 25m of fairly predictable (though not unpleasant) grade 22 arete and face-climbing on inferior rock, making it a very cruxy route.

As it was, I kind of cruised the whole route, and -despite the brief intense section- didn't find it too hard for an old-school gr24 arete. I'd definitely call I Was a Teenager for the CIA harder, though Texas Tea is probably more cruxy, and more intimidating (in part due to the quality of the bolts, no two of which are facing the same direction in the rock, and most of which are in varying states of decomposition... however I will attest that all of the bolt are positioned so that the plates are fairly easy to place on lead).

Perhaps not as good a route as I'd hoped, and certainly not as good as it looks (being an obvious and proud arete), but still fairly enjoyable.

An arvo doing some Sporty Sport climbing at Boronia with Jenga, Dave Hoyle, Ro Latimer and others, and Day 1 was done and dusted... But already a plan was forming for day 2:

Day 2 (Thursday): Blue Ruin (200m 6-pitch Sport 25) - feat. Ro-Boat!

Ro was after something "long, rather than hard" (keep your filthy, filthy mind out of the gutter, people!), and I was more psyched for a multi than more sporty sport redpointing, so we agreed upon Blue Ruin (200m 6-pitch Sport 25) at Pierces Pass. This was one of the few sport multis I hadn't climbed at The Pass, and I was looking forward to it. Another Mikl special, the lower half of Blue Ruin's 200m length tackles an obvious crack-cum-seam weakness (which makes it an obvious line from the ground) before breaking free and launching up the imposing face above for the top 3 pitches.

Being Masters of The Pass, Ro and I were at the base of the route before we could blink (though thoroughly saturated from the overnight rain still lurking on the plentiful vegetation), and Young Ro set about Pitch 1 (gr22).

After an inauspicious start (the rock isn't particularly great), you gain the corner crack, which gets progressively steeper as you journey up it for 40m. Negotiated via laybacking, stemming, jamming, and the odd bit of face climbing, the crux comes at the steepest part of the crack, where all the footers mysteriously vanish and you have to get physical for a few moves. Sure, it's a bit sandy, but generally it's an enjoyable pitch. After briefly stalling out on one of the easier moves, he ended up cruising it and I managed it clean on Second.

Low down on P5 of Blue Ruin, with
terrific exposure below.
The real money of Blue Ruin is P2, which follows the now-fused seam for 45m of sustained technicality (and much thinness), with a particularly nails crux through (and past) a roof at about 8m height. Originally graded 24, this pitch is every bit a 25, and is bloody great climbing, which would readily stand on its own as a single-pitch route off the ground at pretty much any major crag in the Blueys. I blew the Onsight on the moves past the roof (trying to figure out the holds/sequence), and then proceeded to fall off the last move of this sequence about a million more times as I struggled to get the draw on the next bolt. When the draw was on it was fine to clip and the sequence was totally doable (though still challenging), but I got rather pissed off trying to get it on in the first place, and the Grose Valley was graced by all manner of politically incorrect vitriol. Truth be told, this particular bolt position proved to be my only criticism of this spectacular pitch, and it was disappointing not to get it clean. Well, that is to say, that I didn't get it clean, Ro, however, channeled his inner Joe Frasier to bear and attacked this pitch like a brawler, managing to score it clean on second!

The third pitch is short and punchy at 22, but thoroughly enjoyable as you continue to meander up the fused seam, cranking on some strange vertical shale-features. Amidst the funky climbing were some of the funkiest sculptured-rock formations I've encountered in the Blueys, and after an appropriate amount of time pondering the artistic value of our discovery, Ro-Boat took control of the pitch, and I followed in style.

By this point we'd reached the halfway ledge, where it's possible to traverse back to Lunch Ledge (via the Traverse of Shame) if you need to. In typical Choss-Seeker style, I ended up with the rather loose and manky P4, which involves wandering around atop teetering blocks of sand and avoiding the most undercut section of the roof. With only 6 bolts to protect 25m (18), the first of which was about 5m up, I felt a bit undergunned in the protection department. Sure, the climbing was easy, but the disintegrating cheese that I was gingerly pulling on meant that a fall was both possible, and likely going to end on one of the many ledges on this pitch.

Nearing the top of P5 (23/24) right as the sun nears us.
In typical climbing connoisseur style, Ro ended up with the last of the crux pitches, and the next best pitch on the route after the 2nd Pitch. Officially graded 24, it's probably more in the "sustained, but not particularly cruxy" grade 23 range. It consists of 45m of impossibly blank-looking face-climbing on ironstone micro-edges, with derivatives of the same moves coming again and again as you meander your way upwards. It's intense because you rarely get a decent handhold to "chill out on", and pumpy only because you're basically holding the same tiny holds again and again for the duration of the pitch. Ro did a spectacular job working the tic-tacs as he sought to find congealed air molecules masquerading as holds in order to progress, successfully onsighting the pitch and leaving enough chalk on the holds to make my own route-finding on second a bit easier...

...or so I thought. I still managed the pitch clean, but totally stalled out for about 20min on a single sequence that seemed grade 1 million. Fighting to piece it together, I only just managing to sort it out before I got too pumped. Regardless, it was an enjoyable -if repetitive- pitch, with some of the little holds feeling potentially friable, but in reality neither of us broke anything of consequence off.

The final pitch, also mine (why do I keep ending up with these junk pitches?), was a fairly predictable (and quite rubbish) Blueys exit pitch, which was so uninspiring that I can't even remember what grade it is, only that it is 15m long, extremely easy, hosts terrible rock, and is protected by only 2 bolts. The exit from the top of the climb involves some shrub-bashing across the top of the Mirrorball Face, and down a series of rocky gullies to regain the usual Lunch Ledge access track.

With the route done, we were back at the car by 1430hrs, for a 6.5 hour round-trip (car to car). Time for some drinking!

As to the route: I'd give it 2 stars and call it "one of the better hard-ish Blueys Sport Multis", but not as good as Regular Route, Weaselburger or Smegadeth. It essentially consists of 2 Great pitches, 2 Good pitches, and 2 utterly hideous pitches... a pretty standard breakdown for a Blueys multi, really.

Day 3 (Friday): Change Planets (40m 25) - feat. Ro-Boat, Macca, Kamil & Kerrin!

I'd previously been asked by the indomitable Macciza if I'd be willing to climb Change Planets (40m 25) on Dogface for a part of a film he was making with Kamil Sustiak about the history of Dogface, and -in particular- his and Zac Vertrees' own goal to free-climb Colossus. I'd said yes at the time, and upon realising that my days were numbered, I arranged with Macca to head out on Friday afternoon to have a crack at it, and get the filming done.

The Mighty Dogface. Change Planets (40m 25) climbs
approximately where the red line is.
There probably aren't many serious Australian climbers who don't know about The Dogface at Katoomba. Formed by a series of major landslides throughout 1931, and several smaller collapses throughout the decades, the stunningly sheer face that remains has more in common with a day at the beach than with conventional rock climbing, yet harbours a peculiar charm (especially for the choss connoisseur). Most detest the "climbing" (and I use that term very "loosely"... Pun also intended) up teetering prehistoric sand, but a select few rave ad naueseum about it and hold the place as the spiritual centre of Australian climbing, if not the entire universe. Regardless of where you stand, you'd have to be blind not to be inspired by it, and foolhardy not to respect its looming, malevolent, cyclopean prominence.

Yet another Mikl "classic", Change Planets tackles an upper 40m section of the terrifying Dogface, on ancient carrot-bolts in varying stages of returning to their natural elements. Held in by wadding (because the rock is so sandy, the normal hand-drill bash-in method leaves holes that are too "loose" to hold the bash-in bolts in, meaning that every bolt looks like it has a cloth "ruff" around it), this is a far cry from a sport climb. The location, protection and nature of the route is anything but a "consumer sport route", though its obscurity, outrageous position, and a pretty funky write-up in the guidebook have always made it a route I've been "meaning to have a crack at". In fact, it's so obscure, that I'd previously made 2 unsuccessful trips to try and find the top of the route (so I could have a look at it for a prospective lead in the future), but never managed to work out exactly where the route went.

Ro cops a sandblasting.
Photo By: Kamil Sustiak
( )
Aiming for a late afternoon start (in the hideous summer sun) to "get the best light for the filming" (and apparently maximise suffering for all participants), Ro (seemingly a chronic masochist on the basis that he was up for another consecutive day of climbing for me (!), and on another adventurous route to boot(!!)) and I rapped in at about 4:30pm, after Kamil, Macca and Kerrin got their cameras and sound apparatus into position. The belay was almost fully-hanging, off an assortment of dubious bolts, pins, some random brackets, and faith in a higher deity to keep you safe. From this stance, there is a good 100m of empty air below you (including the the fall-away of the steep scree/rubble slope below Dogface).

A part of the purpose of filming Change Planets was to capture the "epic" of a "ground-up" attempt on a route like this one, so the fact that I was "willing to have a go" and hadn't tried the route before made me an ideal candidate... But I figured that if I was going to go for a ground-up effort, I'd go for the Pure Onsight attempt, by not pre-placing draws or bolt plates (meaning I would be lugging 17 plates with me!), not even looking at the route on the rap in, nor scrubbing or ticking anything. As it would turn out, this made it particularly exciting due to the nature of the bolts: 2 were missing entirely, 1 was a corroded lump of unusable tetanus, and 2 were rocking a classic "hourglass" shape, whereby the section the bolt plates would be resting on were 1/4 the width that they should be (due to corrosion)... fortunately, I wouldn't discover this until I arrived at the bolts in question (ignorance is bliss), and my knowledge of metallurgical tensile strengths is non-existent.

Before I forget, here's a top tip for young players: when climbing with this many bolt plates on a route where being able to actually get to the chalk in your chalk bag is crucial, bring a second smaller "dipper" chalk bag solely for the plates! You won't regret it.

Will this tic-tac explode?
Photo By: Kamil Sustiak ( )
With Ro watching carefully (though not actually looking at me, since I'd forgotten to arrange safety goggles for him, and sandblasting-induced blindness was a very real concern) I threw myself headfirst at the route, which -in typical Blueys fashion- is hard right off the belay. Tough, thin and sandy, I was sketched my way past the first two bolts. Struggling to put the bolt plates on, my feet pasted insecurely on scarily small and fragile nubbins, the intensity was high as I made it a grand total of 4-bolts up before flash-pump (it wasn't such a good warmup), terrified overgripping, and poor technique (due to not trusting my feet) got the better of me, and I was "off". Taking my first lob onto a hideously corroded bash-in carrot bolt held-in by wadding was a decidedly spiritual experience. Remarkably it held, and with my faith in these bolts restored, I was back in the fight.

I won't describe the whole route, because -to be honest- I don't really remember it all. In the heat of the moment -the fear, the desperation-, much of it kind of became a blur of movement, pump, despair (at my imprudence), and a veritable waterfall of sand. The missing bolts meant that there were a few exciting runouts between some of the tougher moves (including above one of the cruxes), and the seriously dubious nature of other bolts (and the generally dubious nature of all of the bolts) made any and every fall one of hideous anticipation. Having said that, though, not a single one of the bolts came out (and I had probably 6 falls on my ground-up attempt of the route)... That fact alone didn't stop me from shrieking on some of the falls, and images of taking a monster whip manifested before my eyes.

"Aaaaand pounce!"
Photo By: Kamil Sustiak ( )
The route is rather sandy (would you believe?), and a constant cascade of granules rained down upon Ro as I climbed. Yet once I resigned myself to the fact that every hold would be sandy, suddenly it didn't feel so intolerable. A lot of the footers you have to trust are tiny and not really attached by much, yet once I resigned myself to the fact that I had to use them, they were fine to use (and I never actually broke any of them). In fact, I only broke off one proper big block, which bounced off the wall and exploded into a meteor shower of debris (fortunately missing Ro, who was lashed into the belay and unable to avoid any accidental missiles lobbed in his direction). Weirdly, as the journey progressed, all of these factors seemed only to add to the epic of it, and I found a strange kind of enjoyment.

The climbing itself is extremely thin, slightly steep face climbing, with sustained bad feet. Often I would end up extremely strung-out, with high feet and a big pounce being necessary to progress. There are perhaps 8 drilled pockets on the route, which are extremely hard to see from below. Several times I would be questing around desperately for a hold, about to pump off, when I would suddenly spot the crucial chipped pocket and lunge for it... sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I felt like I threw myself at the climb boldly, and never shouted "take" or just gave up. I climbed until I fell (usually because I was terminally pumped), often launching for some "okay" looking hold in the distance in the faint hope that it was an improbable jug. But despite my efforts, I still had 6 falls. I think that I could probably tick the route in another shot or two, but by the time Ro and I had topped out it was getting late, and we were out of time.

Wild gesticulations and mosquitos by moonlight.
Ro Latimer, Macca, and myself.
Photo By: Kamil Sustiak ( )
Ro followed me up, having a similar experience as myself: some epic flash pump, some tricky route finding, a few exciting falls, and a weird sort of masochistic enjoyment. It's one of those things that's hard to describe in writing, yet it happened nevertheless: we had fun! As Ro topped out, the sun vanished for the day, and amidst an onslaught of mosquitos and wild gesticulations of excitement, we packed up our extensive gear and made a bee-line for the Leura pub for some "hooray, we survived!" drinks. Funny how many of my climbing days seem to end up like that.

So, what of the route? I have no idea. I enjoyed it, but found it quite intense. The rock is rubbish, but not as terrible as I was expecting; the bolts are atrocious, yet none of them fell out on me; everything is sandy and scary, but I learned to live with it and eventually stopped noticing these attributes; the climbing is tricky, intimidating and hard to read (especially with the chipped holds), but harboured some really engaging moves and was genuinely good. It's got bolts, but it sure as hell isn't a sport climb, and the position is mind-blowing. Is the route any good? I have no bloody idea... but I had a laugh, and I believe that Ro did too.

Day 4 (Saturday): New World Order Crag - feat. Monty!

The Neil Monteith and Frothy Thomson combo teamed up again, for one last RADventure, at our favourite haunt: Sublime Point.

Abseiling in to the New World Order crag.
We warmed up by smashing out Saccharine Nightmare (4-pitch 110m 22) car-to-car in under 2 hours, which I climbed as two giant pitches (a great way to do this climb provided it's not at your limit). Taking a super-direct line up the face starting on the beautiful orange rock 20m right of Sweet Dreams, it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience with lots of funky and varied moves, easy access and well bolted... I'd readily recommend it to anyone.

The afternoon, however, was about facilitating the FA of Neil's new multipitches at his SuperSecret™ new Sublime Point East crag, named "New World Order" to commemorate certain... umm... momentous world events occurring as he initially developed the crag. Like the Main East Face (wow, that naming convention is getting confusing) the access is a short walk, followed by a long abseil in, and a multipitch climb-out. The rock quality is generally very good (superior to most of the popular Blueys destinations) though not quite as good as the Classic East Face. At any rate, Neil was psyched about the new routes, and had ambitiously decided to finish equipping one of routes on the same day as we were going to climb them. Good thing Ramset 101 sets in an hour!

On the final tricky arete moves of the
exposed and powerful Wrath of
Froth (25m 24)

After the gluing session was done, I rapped the full 60m rope-length to the fairly cosy belay right on the lip of the face, scarcely a metre above the undercut void, equitably shared by us with a batallion of mosquitos and sauna of humidity.

Monty's first route commences with a hard boulder problem (a deadpoint to a disappointingly bad hold, to another deadpoint), after which it’s intense face-and-arete climbing up a slightly overhanging wall, followed by a much easier upper third. The rock is great, and the position on the beautiful clean-cut arete is stunning. Neil managed the First Ascent of Wrath of Froth (25m 24) on his 2nd attempt of the day, and I was lucky enough to score the "lots of beta" flash of the route, despite Neil sliming it up with sweat. This route actually continues to the top of the cliff (via 2 more pitches) but since we were already on the belay stance for the neighbouring route, we figured that we'd tackle that first, before climbing out via the upper pitches.

The trick kneebar at the end of the hard climbing
on Trumpeter (25m 24). "Almost, but not
quite, 25".
Next up was the much tougher Trumpeter (25m 24), which Monty made look about grade 1000 on his first attempt of the day (it was actually quite entertaining to watch), but somehow pieced it together on the second lap to score the FA of this one as well. My favourite of the two new routes, and described by the intrepid First Ascensionist as: "almost, but not quite 25", it commences with a mantle which looks easy, turns out to be quite hard, and can be done hideously (as I did on my lap) or gracefully. From there it's slick, bullet-hard technical thin-face climbing with holds and feet that face all the wrong directions, and aren't where you want them. Featuring several cruxes on water-polished rock, this pitch just keeps coming at you until you clip the anchor, with countless slippery slimpers to spit you off if you relax for a moment. Once again, I was lucky enough to score the flash (this time with minimal Beta, since Monty's "improvise as you go" approach hadn't left me with much confidence in his technique).

Looking down at me on Pitch 2 (19) of Wrath
of Froth.
With the money pitches of the day done, we climbed out via the upper 2 pitches of Wrath of Froth (grades 19 and 23 respectively). P2 wasn't terrible, but wasn't anything special. P3, however, had some amazing steep climbing with an improbable (and gripping) roof-turn part way up the pitch, and a pretty gnarly boulder-problem finale to the top out, marred only by some dubious rock. Fortunately, both pitches went down first-go for Monty, though the day very nearly concluded with what might've been one of the most hilariously unexpected falls of all time:

Neil looking down at me (about to go into
the final gr23 crux) from the top of the cliff.

The top-out to the cliff is -unfortunately- vegetated, so the plan was to use a length of rope -tied off to a tree at the top- to pull past the final moves back to terra firma. Neil had asked me to set up the rope while he finished his bolting, and left the rope wrapped around a shrub (so it wouldn't slide off the cliff edge). When I rapped in to join him, I'd seen the rope "tied off" (though not really looked too closely at what it was tied off on) and assumed that Neil had ended up doing the work for me. As it was, Neil was on his way into the final (crux) boulder problem, which culminates with a grab for the rope in question, when I revealed to him that I hadn't done anything to the rope, and it was only "tied off" on a shrub. In hindsight, it could've been pretty funny to see Neil lunge for the rope, have it pull free, and go tumbling off into the void... but as it was, with my "11th Hour" warning, he traversed left to the rap rope and climbed out via that. Entry for Rock & Ice Whipper of the Week averted, I joined Monty on the summit above the New World Order wall, with 4 pitches of new climbing done and dusted below us.

Oodles of bolting and First-Ascent
related junk being hauled out of the crag.
Neil has since added 1 upper pitch to Trumpeter (which joins Wrath of Froth for its final pitch) and another Project on the face to the left side of the arete (left of Wrath of Froth P1), with more climbing likely coming soon (knowing Monty).

While this little slice of rock has nothing on the Main East Face (and none of these pitches compare to Subliminal or Sabbatical, though I'm obviously biased), the routes at New World Order stand out in the Blueys for their quality and moderate grade accessibility. They are totally worth a day of psuedo-cragging in a multipitch environment.










Day 5 (Sunday): It Came from Outer Space (70m 3-pitch Mixed 25) - feat. Hugh Sutherland!

Looking up at the line of It Came from
Outer Space (25)
... It doesn't look that hard...
Wow... my final day of climbing freedom before I was to adorn my business shirt and pants once again, and step off the barely-navigable footpad (meandering irrationally through overgrown scrub) of the past 2 years (and one month) of my life and back onto the road most-travelled. Needless to say, I was pretty anxious about starting my new job the following day, but I sure as hell wasn't going to forfeit this one last day of climbing. This time I was joined by Hugh Sutherland (with whom I climbed The Candlestick in Tassie), and we headed out to the Corroboree Walls at Mount Victoria for a bit more old-school ground-up epic.

The only name on our list this time was It Came from Outer Space (70m 3-pitch Mixed 25), which resides on the right-hand side of the buttress shared with Big Red (60m Sport 27). While climbing Big Red I'd observed ICfOS from the ground, but I'd never rapped the route, and had very little idea about what exactly it consisted of. I did, however, have a distant memory of Zac Vertrees telling me once that it was a brilliant route, and (quote) "not too bad", with a sly look on his face. In hindsight, I really should've asked him to elaborate on what exactly about it was "not too bad", cause it sure as hell wasn't the grade!

The hideous, hideous, mantle from hell!!!
Deciding to go light for the onsight attempt, I brought a single light rack of cams and medium wires, and about 10 bolt plates, along with the usual suspects. Inevitably, this meant that I basically used all the wrong gear in all the wrong places, and spent 90% of the first gr25 pitch climbing above sub-optimally-sized cams in less than ideal placements. Still, it made an already exciting climb more exciting, and undeniably more memorable.

ICfOS starts up a fairly unassuming finger crack, past some bad gear and a mantle to a bolt. From there it gets all "classic gritstone" as you pull some thin face moves, stitch up a fused seam with dubious wires, and quest boldly leftwards across the slab to gain the arete (and a bolt) 5m to the left. I can only describe what follows as a "hellish mantle"... Indeed, the sort of mantle to end all mantles, in a vein (and of a particularly disgusting old-school desperate) that only our climbing fore-bearers can actually do. My onsight ended here. I probably didn't need to tell you that, though, I'm pretty sure you guessed it from the previous sentence. Indeed, I can't actually count high enough to convey the number of attempts it took to piece this mantle sequence together, but it was a lot. Thin, slopey, steep, with bad feet and no real way to get purchase on the face in front of you. It was hard... yet also deliciously masochistic. Weird, huh?

Looking down the line of Pitch 1... Purdy.
After complaining my way through that sequence, the route turns all "psuedo-sport", with really powerful moves between crimps and pockets above pretty gnarly gear (at one point I whipped sideways onto a #2 C3 Microcam). It then trucks left to gain the arete, and promptly combo-punches you with insecure, tenuous pure-arete climbing (with 2 bolts inbetween the various gear placements), none of which goes easily. The final kick in the pants comes in the form of an incredibly awkward hanging belay on carrots. About 1.5 hours after I set off on this pitch, I finished building the belay and collapsed exhaustedly onto it. If it weren't for the grade 2-million mantle, I'd call this an old school tough 25, but I have no idea how to grade a mantle of that level of intensity. It's the sort of pitch I could do 2nd shot (and the quality of the climbing and the rock certainly inspire another lap) if it weren't for the mantle, which is a totally unknown variable for me.

After Hugh joined me on the belay (vindicating the difficulty of the pitch, as -despite a valiant effort- he too got rather schooled by the old-skool on this pitch), I set about P2 and P3, which I decided to link into a 35m pitch. Officially grade 23, it's pretty full-on at the grade (the theme of this climb), with some steep, pouncy (but fairly juggy) moves up the arete, to another hellish mantle on the arete itself.  As you might've guessed, I fell off here as well (did I mention that I suck at mantling?), but pulled back on and went to the top without any further falls. The rest of the pitch is thin, slabby face-and-arete climbing on rock quality which deteriorates into humdrum grey-rock and a few more mantles (what IS it with this route and mantles?). Continuing past the belay, I climbed the third pitch up the grey slab above (gr18) past 1 bolt and 2 cam placements, for an excitingly runout (but extremely easy) finale, topping out atop a big detached block perched on the summit of the buttress.

Looking down the line of P1 & P2 from the belay below
Once again Hugh had a similar experience to myself (with respect to difficulty and falls), and joined me at the top just as the torturous summer sun arrived to set the wall ablaze. Needless to say, we beat a tactical retreat to the pub, to debate the quality of the route.

It's always hard to judge an old-school route with a new-school eye. I like to think that I'm somewhat capable of bridging that gap, due to a certain penchant for the old-school routes, but a similar passion for new routing and new-school routes. Mixed climbing is my all-time favourite style of climbing, and this route epitomises the best of Mixed climbing in the Blueys, being bold yet never dangerous. The climbing is tough, the rock is (generally) good, and the experience is great... But that mantle is just a bit too old-school even for me, and probably a large chunk of you guys as well. That's not to say that you shouldn't do this route - you totally should, it's awesome!-, but rather that I think you should approach this route knowing that the mantle is something special, even my mantle standards, and not let one shut-down old-school sequence catch you unprepared and influence your experience of the route.

With my Delica still out of action (you might recall that the gearbox exploded on the day I sent Alive in a Bitter Sea), I caught the train home on my own.

And as inauspiciously as that, the sabbatical was over, and this chapter of my life came to a close.


CUE SOUND: People coughing on overcrowded trains, relaxing elevator music, and various quotes from The IT Crowd.

Working hard, or hardly working?
So here I am, back at work at Telstra. Currently I'm mostly based in Parramatta, but in the future 2/3rds of my time will be working in the underground tunnel network in Sydney. The job is engaging, the team is good, and the future prospects are intriguing, so I'm not really in a position to complain (and it is awesome to actually have money again, and be able to buy stuff... like a beanie that ISN'T more holes than material!), but it's definitely been a challenge. Getting used to sitting down again for much of the day, staring at a computer screen ad infanitum, reconfiguring my vocabulary to "office speak" and my mannerisms to "normal human-being" are all hurdles in themselves, but the lack of climbing -due to my injuries- has the biggest psychological hurdle to surmount.

As I write this, it's been 6 weeks since that last day of climbing, and despite sticking doggedly to my "no-climbing" agenda, and attending physio and applying the correct recovery techniques, both my busted finger bone and my mangled elbow don't really feel any better. It's hard to think of the possibility that I'm taking this time off and rapidly becoming a weakling, if it's not actually making any beneficial difference. I still go out and belay my friends on their climbs, and spend as much time outdoors as possible (I did a 58.4km trail-ride on my mountain bike the other day), but it just doesn't satisfy that addictive demand for climbing-induced endorphins that I crave!

But I do feel that, to some extent, I can rest on my laurels: to have concluded my climbing journey with a particularly radical onsight of a soaring line feels like the appropriate bookend to this stage of my life. Oh, I'm not talking about It Came from Outer Space, though that was a pretty rad climbing (but I sure as hell didn't Onsight it), I'm talking about:

The Swansong: Echo Crack (190m 4-Pitch Trad 25) - feat. The 'Stair


Alastair: he's achieved some recognition
 for his abilities... bloody sell out!
Alright, so I didn't quit climbing immediately after I started work. Having spent so much time looking across from Alive in a Bitter Sea (90m 4-pitch Mixed 25 R/X) at this beauty, and knowing that it was drier than normal from our recent spate of rain-free weather, coupled with my fitness (at the time), I felt like I could afford to digress just once. And so it was that at the end of my first week of full-time employment, I joined forces with the kiwi Alastair McDowell (the 'Stair!) to launch up Echo Crack (190m 4-Pitch Trad 25), on an extremely tourist-ridden Saturday. Alastair is an experienced adventure climber, particularly skilled in alpine and ice monstrosities, and at least as frothing mad as I am, so there was never any doubt that we'd make a good team.

Echo crack is an eye-catching line up a soaring corner directly below Echo Point, visible from Honeymoon Point (the Three Sisters). It's one of the more well-known "hard trad” routes in the Blueys, and features as the end cap on many a trad aspirants long list of goals. It has a tendency to be quite wet, and is infamous for some unpleasant "access pitches" to gain the major corner. But as a feature it looms like an imposing monolith, being almost always in the shade and featuring dark grey rock surrounded by a contrasting sea of vibrant orange. Like the North Face of the Eiger, its bleakness gives it majesty, and all crack connoisseurs who gaze upon it are both intimidated and motivated by it.

"Thar she blows!"
Having previous climbed Genghis Khan, I knew the route we would need to take to get to the climb (which is handy, as there is no defined track to the base). However, unlike with Genghis Khan, rather than having to bush bash below the cliff for another 1000 kilometres to get to the start of the route, Echo Crack P1 emerges as a sandy, chossy, low-angled corner at a convenient point in the bush-bashing approach. Since I was to be climbing the crux pitch, I also scored the "awesome" first pitch, and thus, flanked by all manner of historical garbage lobbed from lookout above (washing machine? Check! Street sign? Check! Beer keg? Check! Guardrails? Check!), I set about it.

The top of Pitch 1... "How did this get here? Also, are we
As far as "access pitches" go, it wasn't too terrible. Only moderately so. Actually, to be honest, considering the scathing criticism levelled at the first 2 pitches of Echo Crack, I was surprised to find that it really wasn't particularly bad at all on the scale of "Blueys Access Pitches". It consisted of moderately chossy/sandy juggy corner-crack climbing, in which I opted to use a grand total of 3 pieces of pro in 30m. It wasn't offensively bad, nor even vaguely hard, and -most importantly- climbing it didn't give me Syphilis (which, considering the criticism levelled at it, I could only deduce that other ascensionists can't have had the same fortune when tackling this pitch), so that's always a bonus. In reality, I was far more likely to contract Syphilis from the amount of rubbish at the base of the cliff, than from a slightly loose opening pitch (pun intended).

The 'Stair stemming and laybacking his
way up Pitch 2 (18)... About to
embrace The Choss!
Alastair launched up the next pitch, graded 18 by the guidebooks' reckoning, commencing with a shallow corner split by a fingercrack, which soon expands into a fully-fledged stemming corner. It's also worth pointing out that there are several ways you could choose to do the start of this pitch, but The 'Stair -naturally- decided to tackle The Line™ up the incipient fingercrack, and in doing so created the crux of the pitch. After some initial sketchiness (a broken footer as he approached groundfall territory), he gained the corner proper and cruised his way to the top. The upper section of this pitch crosses some scarily loose shale-territory, with no supplemental gear after you leave the corner and embrace the choss, but as far as loose-climbing in the Blueys goes, it wasn't too bad, and Alastair made it to the belay fairly quickly... which was good, because I was being eaten alive by mosquitos, and was mere moments away from becoming anaemic by this point. Following him clean on second, I was reminded that -as with the first pitch- this pitch wasn't really all that bad for a moderate pitch of Blueys trad, and if it weren't for the 5m of shale at the top it would probably be regarded as a reasonably good pitch. Don't let the naysayers influence your opinion, friends, the access pitches for Echo Crack really aren't all that bad. And best of all, no Syphilis (yet)!

Mantling out some shale at the end of P2.
Now we were at the start of the corner-proper, and the infamous crux pitch. The start of Alive in a Bitter Sea resided 5m to our right, so there was a distinct feeling of homeliness as I racked up for the 40m gr25 pitch in front of me. I was carrying a fair bit of gear (a single rack of 0.4 - 4, with double #1 and #2, and 7 x #3 Cams), but most of it was geared towards the marathon crack after the initial crux, meaning that if I wanted the Onsight, a runout was on the cards.

Reaching a good jam at the end of the crux,
and breathing a sigh of relief. You can
see my last cam hanging out of the crack
near the lower-left side of the picture.
With no protection off the belay (by choice, I didn't want to waste any of my smaller cams on the easier pre-crux moves) I bouldered out the initial steep, juggy, sandy and damp face moves to gain the main part of the crux, and wacked in a small cam and wire about 3m off the ledge. A mixture of extremely tight (overcammed #1) jams and face climbing (heels are very useful!) and I scored an okay #1 cam in wet and sandy rock, and a dubious big wire just above. The hardest moves of the crux followed, utilising wet, tight jams and small face holds to get established in the crack proper. From there, a spot of laybacking off the incipient crack, and some funky gymnastics to gain a stemming stance, and the climbing eases off. Ideally, you would place another cam (probably another #1) to protect this sequence (and back up the other placements with more adjacent gear), but as I was Onsighting (and rapidly burning energy due to the steepness and the wet nature of the crack) I knew that I didn't have time to place any more pro. I just had to gun for it! I committed fully to the sequence, burling my way up it and stemming like a madman, and right as I was at the point where I was back into ledgefall territory (or past it, if any of the gear in the wet/sandy rock blew) the crux was over. In my opinion, it's not too hard a sequence for gr25, and if you pre-placed the gear it would be very doable at reasonable 24. Furthermore, despite my decision to rely on minimal gear, there are lots of gear options (if you can hang around to place them).

The rest of the pitch was enjoyable stemming and wide-hands crack climbing (with a little bit of off-width thrown in for good measure) on pleasant rock and with spectacular exposure. At about grade 21, the moves were classic trad, and due to its very stance-friendly nature, it wasn't particularly intense. As it was I only used 5 of the 7 #3 cams, and ran it out quite a bit, but I felt totally solid. The belay was on carrots in a reasonably comfortable alcove at a logical point to break up the marathon corner. And thus, with a victory cheer, the crux pitch was done and dusted, and another big goal was achieved.

Alastair followed me up, managing to make it to the final section of the crux (transitioning into the crack proper) before struggling with the tight hands and wet rock, and slipping off amidst a valiant struggle. After that, as with me, the rest of the pitch suited him, and he dispatched it with relative ease. This was good, because the last of the hard pitches was his, and it was a doozy.

This is the true "marathon crack" pitch of the route, and due to its sustained, burly nature, is something of an enigma in the Blueys. At 40m of gr22, it really is 40m of gr22, and you're earning that tick all the way to the anchors. Stylistically, the pitch is slightly steep tight fist-jams (too wide even for the most tipped-out wide-hands for me, but terribly uncomfortable as fists), in an awkward open V-groove, and with surprisingly few features outside of the crack proper. After about 35m of climbing, you leave the crack and follow a line of weirdly positioned carrots in a rising traverse to the left (to avoid the muck and vegetation above), and through some tough face-moves to gain the belay ledge and the safety of terra firma.

The final face moves of P4 (22).
"These moves are kinda... hard dude!"
The 'Stair, with his tape gloves, could definitely make better use of the wide-hands approach than me (in my untaped-state), but with less experience at steep brute-strength jamming he went for the crafty approach: using tic-tac micro-footers for the odd stemming stance, and -at one point- ending up with both hands on one wall and both feet on the other. All in all, it was a technically beautiful Quarryman-esque effort, and amidst much grunting, puffing, and cam-shuffling, he managed to Onsight the Pitch (mere moments after following me up the crux pitch!) for not only his first ever gr22 Trad Onsight, but his first Gr22 Trad tick (and I will readily attest that this is a proper tough pitch at the grade). Nice one Alastair!

For me, despite the jams being about the worst size jams there are, I knew that my brute strength at steep jamming would hold me in good stead, so I ingloriously burled my way up the pitch in classic "Swimming technique", working up quite the pump in the process. The final moves were a bit of a surprise (being very much in a crack-climbing headspace by this point in time), but they were the appropriate icing on the cake for this stellar pitch, as you work some very thin and balancy body positions to rock over a high heel and reach the top-out mantle. Managing this pitch clean as well, and thus the Send of Echo Crack, Alastair and I beat the retreat back up to Echo Point lookout where we emerged from Wall of Tree to confront Wall of Tourist.

Victory pose in front of the hordes at Echo Point!
Unlike myself, Alastair had actually achieved some degree of recognition within the greater climbing community, and was more than happy to embrace the dumbfounded admiration that the tourists rabidly poured upon him, whereas I simply used Alastair as a distraction to slowly back away from the ravenous horde, being careful not to make eye contact. The tourists took photos of themselves posing in front of the three sisters, and I -feeling all meta- snapped a victory photo of Alastair posing in front of the tourists taking photos of themselves posing in front of the three sisters. Some beers to cap a bloody great day, and it was all over. Thanks for the day, Alastair!

It's hard to compare Echo Crack to the other "hard trad” routes I've done in the Blueys, as most of them aren't really very pure crack climbing at the grade. I guess that I would compare it to Samarkand (200m Trad 25), by saying that it's almost as good as Samarkand (which is my favourite trad multi in the Blueys) but not quite. The access pitches to gain the money pitches aren't all that bad (despite their reputation), and the main corner of Echo Crack is spectacular. It's easy to aid past the crux moves at the start of P3, or to pre-place adequate gear to make it safe and climb it pink-point style at about grade 24. If you're a fairly solid trad 22 climber but perhaps not up for the full gr25 experience, I'd definitely recommend the effort of aiding the initial crux and freeing the rest. Outside of the cruxy start to P3, the 80m above is stunning sustained crack climbing in a breathtaking location. At any rate, despite some feedback from other sources to the contrary, I genuinely believe Echo Crack earns its 3 out of 3 stars, and its reputation as an iconic mega classic.


As you might expect of a Frothmaster like me, I'd barely made it back home from Echo Crack before my obsession got the better of me and I started looking for a climbing partner for a ground-up attempt at Iron Lady (4-pitch Mixed 22 R). Iron Lady starts about 5m further right from Alive in a Bitter Sea at Katoomba Cliffs below Echo Point, and is a very similar route, though 2 grades easier (so it’s probably hard 23, in reality).  Having headpointed the shit out of Alive in a Bitter Sea, I really wanted to go for the ground-up Onsight of Iron Lady, being in physically good shape, and in a great headspace for pushing through bold runouts. But try as I might, I couldn't arrange a partner who was both psyched and in whose hands I would feel confident enough to wholeheartedly commit to the attempt, and so it never manifested. Perhaps I'll never be fit enough to undertake such an audacious goal. Who knows?

But perhaps it was for the best. My one digression to launch up Echo Crack was -at some level- justified, but if I lower my boundaries to add Iron Lady into the equation, where does it stop? I've been wanting to get back on Pit Fighter (trad 28) for a while, so why not have a go at that as well? What about Orange Jam (trad 27), Self Portrait (28)? No, I needed the appropriate bookend to stop my obsessed, frothy self from tumbling into self-destruction, and like a meaty roadblock at the end of a washed-out bridge, the Onsight of Echo Crack had done just that. It was time to let it go.

And so I did.

1 comment:

  1. man.... after keeping this page book-marked for weeks; finally got around to finishing the read. thanks so much for the write-up, and inspiration to do moderate / hard / mixed trad . some awesome adventures on routes that deserve more attention. can't wait to get back there sometime.