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The Nose of El Capitan

The Nose of El Capitan

For climbers who want info and beta on the route skip to Part 4 – it’s at the end.

Part 4 – Route Beta and Info for interested Nose climbers

  • Party of 3 system
  • Equipment tips
  • Pitch by pitch useful info
  • Hauling with a 2:1
  • Crowds, queues and traffic
  • Sources of info, super high res photo link, topo sources

Featured image above – Heading up to the Great Roof. Photo by Wolf Friedmann

The Climb – Part 1

The Days After – Part 2

Greg’s Poem – Part 3

Greg cleaning the Great Roof

The Climb – Part 1

It was dark. 8.00 pm ish. Three sets of feet on the 2 inch wide sliver of a ledge. Three good bolts on a sheerness of vertical granite that disappeared 2000 feet below into the gloom. Shifting from foot to foot, trying to relieve the pressure of harnesses and sore toes. “So we either hang the portaledge right here and the 3 of us sit up through the night … look plenty of people before us have done much worse in the past … or we push on to Camp V?”. This was a critical point. Together we had decided to keep going late in the afternoon. I had just led The Great Roof. Sensational. Cait and Greg had been on belay way below.

Peter heading up to the Great Roof

The best pitch I had ever led in my life, tricky, wildly exposed, thin small gear, each aid move tenuous but workable, through the Valley sunset into a blaze of glory.

The hardest section

 

In my head I was thinking “This is it, this is what The Nose and big walling is all about. This encapsulates what makes The Nose the best rock climb in the world.”

 

I had hooted and danced high among the sky full of stars across the final moves onto the foot ledge.

Just before dark

Cait jugged up, we hugged then we hauled. Greg cleaned the pitch by torchlight. 2/3 of the way up The Nose.

Day 4, had started at 4.00 am. We had packed up our bivvy on the comfy El Cap Tower ledge and started jugging up the fixed line to the top of Texas Flake at 5.00, a prearranged hour ahead of the German team we had been held up by 2 days prior. Greg had led the notorious unprotected chimney up behind the Flake in the afternoon of Day 3 – a gutsy brave effort, lonely and completely isolated, hidden in the chimney while Cait and I willed him on in silent trepidation from below – until he poked his head thankfully mischievously over the lip. I’d offered to take the risk of the chimney fall from him but months before we had divided up the key pitches and this was one of his, and he was determined. We jugged and hauled again to the top of Boot Flake. That had been one of mine and the last pitch from the day before – a bolt ladder then a cam hook and micro nuts that led into a good crack up the edge of the Boot – brilliant aid climbing. The latest research shows that only 7% of the boot is in contact with the cliff, but reassuringly (?!) it needs another 4% to give way to send the whole thing plunging. I had contemplated this as we fixed our anchor system to the bolts on the actual cliff above the top of the Boot on which we had stood.

At the top of the Boot the crack system and climbable features end in blank smooth granite. This necessitates switching to a crack system about 20 m to the left. I lowered Greg down vertically to a point at which his feet were level with the third from top bolt in the bolt ladder I had climbed to reach the Boot – invaluable detailed intel/beta like this we had been collecting over previous months through research and talking with people. This King Swing was a deal breaker and a legendary pitch. We had met a group retreating from the climb who had spent hours on it and then one of their climbers had become injured attempting the swinging pendulum. Feeling totally amped and confident, hanging by his thread Greg strode back across the face then while he hung horizontally he jogged with large paces towards the protruding edge. First warm up shot he nearly made it. On his return swing he sprinted to build up momentum and as he swung back wildly he took giant athletic slow motion strides thru space, hit the ground running, launched with arms outstretched and grabbed the rib. We cheered, not quite believing he had done it so fast, and the crowd of spectators 1500 feet below in the Meadow cheered as well, along with other climbers on the mountain. It was as if time had slowed right down. Like all his youth of developing diverse sporting prowess and 25 years of PE teaching had led him to that brief moment of athletic mastery in the most hostile and dramatic arena.

For a full screen view search   Youtube King Swing Greg Fisher

It was exhilarating for our team as a whole. “He’s our secret weapon”, Cait said with great confidence. She knew him better than me. I was just grinning, shaking my head and thankful to be in his team. It blew his mind. He had found it easier than expected. He balanced carefully across and up to a safe anchor then started up a difficult section after we had lowered him down all the gear. The hardest moves were just above Eagle Ledge which is where he was pretty much on a top rope from the side. He climbed slowly up the crack system but as Cait and I had to lower down from about 20 m to the side he had to place protection then climb up a little before going back down to retrieve the lowest gear. It was like yoyoing bit by bit upwards balancing the risk of a long sideways fall with having enough protection in and minimising rope drag. We cheered and whooped again when he reached the belay bolts at almost the same level as us.

Cait lowering out across the King Swing

 

Cait lowered out and rope wrangled her way efficiently down then up.

 

 

 

 

The Germans on the boot hauling. Peter lowering out across the King Swing. Photo Tom Evans

I thought I had it figured out but managed to tie myself up from both anchors at the mid-point spread eagled in deep space and somehow extricated myself in what would be the first of two key skills that I should have practised more thoroughly back at home.

A good pitch of aiding up cracks took me to a belay at the edge of a steep grey wall. A few well spaced bolts led out left across this almost blank wall while the crack system continued up. If we could climb across the rising traverse we would save at least an hour. Cait was our gun free crimpy face climber and was keen to give it a try. Failure would mean significant wasted time. Below the Germans were across the Swing and looking upwards. Tentatively at first Cait delicately placed her feet on tiny sloping footers and pinched even smaller finger holds and side pulls outwards away from safety. This Lynn Hill Traverse wasn’t sport climbing with bolts every meter. Rather it was bold and hard. She clipped through a couple of bolts at full stretch then the wall blanked out to a subtle arête further up. Climbing wise this was Cait’s forte, her world. Hard, fine, balancy moves. Technique. Smooth. Bold. Control. Strength. But here, so far up that the thousands of feet just turn to huge sucking exposure, she was being tested. Just like the boulderer, Kevin Jorgenson, up on his Dawn Wall. Run out. In the space where “real climbers” do their dance. I held my breath as time once more seemed to bend around us, to focus our inner worlds and our skill into an intense relationship with this stone.

Cait leading the Lynn Hill Traverse, Peter belaying. Photo Tom Evans

A small nest of microcams protected her final choreography to the end of the pitch. Following her long battle with cancer Cait had determined “not to waste another moment ….. I could be dead or taken into hospital at any time”. As I belayed and she shimmered across the wall the moment was etched into our hearts and into the spirit of the granite that seemed to shine in grey and brilliant yellow bands of colour. Her relentless positivity was infectious.

Cait Horan high on The Nose

(Haul bag quote)         Cait, you have always been my role model, my biggest inspiration and the person I still hope to grow up to be like. There is not a haul bag big enough to write all the ways you motivated, inspired and shaped the person I have become.                                                                                                                           Emma Horan

Into the Grey Bands. Cait was on a roll. The day was going well. We were making steady progress. In the ebb and flow of my confidence and feeling that we should consider bailing I felt optimistic. We left Greg with “Kevin” the haul bag, and the now catching up Germans. Cait led a long traversing weird pitch across the Grey and up to Camp IV. She then wove her way, gracefully free climbing, following seams up a huge concave hanging wall below the Great Roof. When all three of us considered our position we made that first decision to keep going, knowing that whenever we needed to stop we could pull out the portaledge if need be. Without a nearby rock ledge for one of us it would be a challenging, uncomfortable and long night. But it would be ok. It would be safe. We were 2/3 of the way up. Still a long way to go. 10 more pitches. None of them easy. Some of them difficult, more difficult than we knew.

Everywhere the outlook was stupendous. The Valley. Half Dome. The forest way below. The Nose of El Capitan, we were there, we were doing it. So amazing and hard and spectacular and fun and stonkingly huge in all dimensions. In our 90 years of shared climbing experience no other climb ranked or loomed larger, more grand, more beautiful, more full of history, more daunting. More wonderful in its surrounding landscape.

And so to the top of the Great Roof pitch. We discussed our options. The promise of a good ledge at Camp V offered some comfort and the possibility of laying down sleep. “As long as you’re ok to lead we are happy to keep going”. With a big rack of gear and under head torch light I set off up Pancake Flake. This would have been classical in daylight. It passed through the narrow beam slowly bit by bit. I was switched on. Didn’t feel tired. Not conscious of time. Just going step by step – place a piece, test it, walk up the aider as high as possible, repeat. A long pitch. Occasional call to the others met with encouragement. Belay anchors, 3rd person jugs, lower out the haul bag, haul, cleaner does their job, eat, drink never enough.

I set off again for the next and last pitch of the day/night. The pitch had no name known to us. Nondescript. The topo just said “awk” and listed the gear needed. “Awk” it proved to be. After midnight. And strenuous. And painful. It was a deep flaring groove. I had to reach far in to place each piece then struggle to fit the aider and detangle then step up with toes squeezed deeply into the narrow fissure with all my weight on them then struggle to place a piece just a little higher. It became a horror. Not unsafe. Just low down awful and strenuous and more painful and more and more “awk”.

(Haul bag quote)         “You have to want it more than it hurts.” Tommy Caldwell

Like a too big worm with too short arms I had to struggle in between the walls of the flare. It took an age. The others could hear my struggle and never once exorted me to move faster or try to do other than I was doing. For a too short time there was a blessed crack on the left wall that eased my passage. Then more struggle. I held it together. Just. They must have been drifting in a cold haze of discomfort below. A nightmare awake. In the end I reached a slab and exhausted hauled my way to its top and a couple of bolts. Totally smashed.

Cait on the way up the Butt Crack pitch.

The easy 15 feet of 5.6 unprotected slabby wall I just could not face so I called up Cait who flew up the fixed rope then waltzed across to Camp V.

At last. The ledge. Relief 4.00am. Between Greg below, with the haul bag, and me on the ledge and a miscommunication we nearly had a problem hauling into which Cait switched into safety mode and brought us all back into line and onto the Camp V ledge. Hot chocolate and food never tasted so good. Portaledge erected. We drifted off to sleep at about 6.00 am in the first glow of dawn. 26 hours. 10 pitches. Our teamwork had been pushed into another zone – patience, support and assistance for each other, generosity, giving our all and trusting that each of us were doing the best we possibly could do, for each other.

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The lead up

 Alpine rock. Endless “thousands of feet” of climber’s granite spired, walled and domed skywards across the spine of the “Range of Light”. Over four weeks Ian and I had threaded our way from peak to peak through the High Sierra and brought to fabulous fruition our dream of forty years. Perfect weather, warm rock – Tuolumne, Fairview Dome and Cathedral Peak, Mts Whitney and Russell, Temple Crag and Charlotte Dome. Stunningly beautiful. The routes made up our own “Classic Climbs of North America” list. Then for a final week we pilgrimaged to Yosemite. Like an addendum to the main game. The Valley. Legendary. Even chanced a spot in Camp 4. I’d spent a lifetime reading about the big walls and climbs which over the years had settled back into a nice comfortable place of reverie, like a favourite book lying dusty on the bottom shelf. On another perfect day we climbed the easy “Snake Dike” up the side of Half Dome – a wonderful romp up runout slabs to the glorious summit where we soaked up the grand scenery as the sun set over Yosemite. Then it rained. For four days. We hiked trails through forest and beside streams.

One evening high up at Glacier Point at minutes before  sundown shafts of blazing light finally broke through a gap in clouds and lit the summit of Half Dome gold then pink.

Next day we walked down to El Cap Meadow in drizzle and mist. Again the sunlight streamed up through the valley in the last of the day and lit the top section of El Capitan. I hardly dared breathe for wanting not to break the spell and wonder of the scene. I had fallen in love with the place. Our last day slowly cleared. With binoculars I traced the line the setting sunlight had taken the evening before as it had risen up the wall. The bottom section was less than vertical. There were crack systems that linked nearly all the way. The Stovelegs and the Great Roof – names etched in memory. Totally unexpectedly it looked even possibly climbable. For me. On a maybe good day. The realm of possibility arose from a long buried precious place within. The Nose. Of El Capitan.

Back at home a plan hatched. Two years, two trips, two routes, The Nose and the Regular Route on Half Dome. And the Tip of Lost Arrow Spire. Heart and psyche set a course for the big adventure – the outcome unknown. A new lightweight portaledge arrived eventually.

My partner from the Sierras, Ian, wasn’t interested and another dropped out. From a solo mountain summit in New Zealand I messaged a climber back home, strong and skilled and tough, a teacher friend – Greg. During my pitch to him about the concept a few weeks later at the climbing gym he mentioned another person who would possibly be interested. Cait joined our discussion outside. She jumped head first straight in while Greg needed more time to let the idea percolate.

(Haul bag quote)         Aim and dream big you guys.                      John Fantini

We did some practice and made a plan to climb Australia’s biggest aid climb (Ozymandias at Mt Buffalo) to see if we were ready and willing to commit. Snowy storms got in the way so in the Blue Mountains we did Australia’s longest sport climb (Hotel California) with two of us doing a bunch of jumaring. Then at Piddington and Mt York some technical aid climbing and hauling, a night on the portaledge for two of us and a day of crack climbing (Eternity led by Greg with a few concerned grunts as he had not trad climbed for a fair while) at Piddington. Over the three days we shared some successes and a few rude awakenings. A lot to learn and practice and research. Results were inconclusive on our readiness. There and then Cait was in. I was happy to go with the two trips over two years process. Greg was keen but only wanted to give it one shot with a high probability of success. We could spend 18 months slowly preparing or throw ourselves in with five months intensive work. With something of a casting vote I plunged us right in. Later, in the darkness, on the journey home, after chatter of climbing eventually subsided I listened from the back seat to their close sharing of deep personal traumas and life struggles. I hoped the undertaking might give them some respite and renewal. And that we could meld ourselves into a cracker team.

(Haul bag quote)         Greg, you’ve been an incredible, selfless role model. I’m so glad to see you making time to pursue your own dreams after helping so many others achieve theirs.       Emma Horan

Cait used her myriad of contacts in the climbing industry, derived through many years of being SuperCoach to up and coming youth climbing teams, to order a stack of gear. The hugest haul bag we could find arrived. We practiced on Greg’s school climbing wall. Hauling 70 kg. That was the weight we had calculated that we needed to start up El Cap with. 7 ten litre water jerry cans just fitted in the bag, could NOT be carried by one person and made up just the right haul weight to practice with. Early on we settled on a strategy for 3 people that involved 2 climbing ropes, a static haul rope and a skinny tag line. It was complicated and several times we ended up badly tangled up and cluster f…ed with all the ropes and the very heavy bag. The big green haul bag became “Kevin”, through an iteration of the common term for such bags by big wall climbers being “The Pig”, which led to bacon, then Kevin Bacon and then just to Kevin. Cait’s “people” had been in touch with Tommy Caldwell’s people who were trying to get us together with him and “Kevin” Jorgenson who would be presenting in our home town Canberra about their epic Dawn Wall climb (just to the right of our Nose route) before our trip. So it was with fondness that the bag became “Kevin”.

Offset nuts and the latest and best Totem cams were obtained. A microtraxion was upgraded to a protraxion for the haul device. I was soon convinced we needed a 2:1 haul system to enable us to more easily haul the big load with the aid of some mechanical advantage. Endless research, “homework”, led to improved pulleys and a workable system. Cait, the gun sport climber, taught me how to correctly use a grigri. Our main concerns were hauling the big load, efficiency in a group of three and the queue for the world’s best rockclimb. There were lots of other things to find out about in amongst watching YouTube videos of big wall skills and climbing the Nose films.

The haul bag started doing the rounds. Our friends and some renowned climbers wrote messages of support on it for us. We had a sense of taking these others along with us to give us strength and inspiration.

(Haul bag quote)         Thanks to all 3 of you for teaching and inspiring multiple generations of outdoor enthusiasts. I would have had a completely different path in life without the encouragement and the opportunities you guys offered me. May your protection be bomber and your hauling system be efficient. Stay safe.                  Matt Cools

Cait went to USA for a climbing trip in her school holidays, she’s Deputy Principal of a Canberra secondary school. She cut her high end sport climbing short and did a few days climbing and familiarising at Yosemite. She returned scared and extremely highly motivated to train, learn, practice and research harder. About this time we started emailing and messaging each other regularly. It didn’t seem to me that Yosemite was the ONLY thing I was thinking about – at least every week or two I thought about something, or someone!, else. Greg was in the zone as well having put his other climbing goals on hold. To augment her amazing climbing training walls in her garage Cait and her Dad built an adjustable crack system to work out on while she watched more YouTube videos.

(Haul bag quote)         Climb hard. Stay safe.             Brandon Maggs

Early on the time arrived for camping bookings in The Valley. At the stroke of midnight (which was 10.00 am USA time 5 months in advance) on the appropriate day the three of us feverishly typed our requests into the recreation.gov website that contains hundreds of campsites. For our planned three weeks the best we could manage was bookings for about 80% of our nights but pretty much every night in a different site in a different campground. Trying to manage this would have been an absolute nightmare. I’d envisaged this from previous experience and don’t know what the solution is. Camping arrangements for Camp 4 are changing but may still be almost impossible for international travellers. So I booked us in to a permanent tented glamping place “Housekeeping Camp” which had vacancies for all our nights! Except the weekends! This situation is an indicator of the popularity and crowding on the Valley floor. The previous year Ian and I had found that once you are on the trails and up near the crags the crowds melted away. Stories of queuing for 2 – 3 days to get on The Nose and clusters of climbers higher up the climb were daunting. Hopefully patience, a positive approach and solid skills would see us through. I did wonder on the flight over the Pacific how many others were flying or driving a similar path, with similar objectives, to Yosemite.

The day before Tommy and Kevin arrived in town Cait’s people arranged for the local newspaper to do an inspirational full front page story about her near death experience with cancer, her incredible recovery and dedication through a slow build up back to her former climbing performance levels. During her illness the Dawn Wall saga had played out on El Cap and in her psyche. Climbing El Cap went onto her bucket list. She was now inspired herself by Kevin Jorgensen’s own exploits and dedication in transitioning from sports climbing to completing one of the most amazing trad climbs in the world today. With Tommy and Kevin she also did radio and TV slots on the day. And two of us did meet them later before their show. They signed and wrote messages on our haul bag and posed with Cait in CAC (Climbers Against Cancer) tshirts.

Cait Tommy and Kevin

Cait also had them sign a special CAC shirt which she had already got Chris Sharma, another world leading climber, to sign and which she was going to auction for the charity at a later date. Next day, unsolicited, Tommy sent her a photo of himself and Kevin climbing in the Blue Mountains wearing their CAC shirts. The photo was great publicity for the charity.

Greg and I did several training days on local granite crags. We aided popular free climbs where we had to be single minded and resist climbing free. We practised with cam hooks and peckers. Surprisingly the cam hooks worked very well and felt secure. On a solo day, while backed up on a top rope, I levered out a block which grazed my helmet, took a chunk out of the stiff brim of my cap and shaved my cheek bone. It seems that aid climbing puts different forces on rocks in free climbing areas. I immediately thought of Tommy’s comment on our haul bag. I went straight up and finished the climb before I went home to clean myself up. Later Greg did a great lead across under a tricky roof then up an overhanging crack line.

Greg aiding Sipple at Booroomba Rocks

(Haul bag quote)         Enjoy the process.                   Kale

It may have been a case of overtraining that led to Cait getting the flu.

Greg and Cait flew up to Frog Buttress near Brisbane for a long weekend to hone and consolidate their crack climbing skills.

(Haul bag quote)         You’ve worked hard for this. Enjoy the type 2 fun. Rob H

At another Canberra school we used their climbing wall for simulated multi pitch climbing, hauling and anchoring training. We all had strong connections to Lake Ginninderra College. I had been Outdoor Education teacher there for 14 years and had taken Cait and her brother and sister on numerous climbing, and countless other, trips as part of their year 11 and 12 studies. Both Cait and Joe later became teachers themselves. As a student in year 12 Joe became probably one of the youngest qualified climbing guides in the country.  Greg’s five sons had all spent two years at the college with several of them being outstanding Outdoor Ed students and elite level climbers. Greg led one of the best high school Outdoor Education courses in the city at one of the feeder high schools. He has organised and run the state school climbing competition for decades. He accompanied several college trips to Arapiles on which his son Ben led Kachoong 21 and later Daniel led India 28 – amazing. Together the two families have been the throbbing heart of a vibrant youth climbing scene in Canberra. I felt privileged to be teamed up and connected, literally, with the two key players of local climbing royalty.

“Yosemite Erik” Sloan, who authored the Yosemite Big Walls guidebook, talked to us for over an hour. He introduced us to a much simplified strategy for our group of three. Two people is the most common team size and can be very efficient. Efficiency is a major aspect of success. The retreat/failure rate is about 50% on The Nose. If you are inefficient then you take much longer, have to carry more water and food, overflow your poop container, run out of water etc and so you are likely to bail out. Three can be good because there are more people to spread the load – physically, socially, psychologically – and you have more fun. We were committed to our team of three which would automatically take longer and require carrying more food, water and gear. We could hopefully haul well with the 2:1 early on when our bag would be heavy. Erik gave us a simplified system with only two ropes – less chance of getting things tangled up. We still brought over all our ropes so that if we changed back to our earlier system we would have that option. Many groups also do not take a portaledge and camp on the available ledges where possible. With our lightweight double portaledge we intended to sleep two on that and only one on a ledge nearby. Hopefully this would provide some good flexibility, but it would be another substantial extra bit of kit to cart up.

At a dinner with partners and family within the first couple of minutes the two wives shared perspectives on how we had been extremely focussed on our climbing and research and training. In retrospect now I would probably agree but feel also that all the time spent had been necessary. Even with our combined extensive climbing experience we all had tons to learn and sort out and practice. In the end we still might have been underdone and alternatively if we were successful then maybe our level of prep was just right. All three of us had become swept away with it all. Just as I had been captivated by The Valley and the possibility of tangling with the Capitan. Intellectually our wives supported us but they struggled with our unavailability and preoccupation at times. The support of loved ones was an enabler for each of us. I hoped we could return refreshed emotionally with a deep sense of gratitude. Our best selves.

In the lead up I had wavered in my assessment of our chances. From strong confidence to doubt. Sometimes it was related to how our skills practices had gone – Cait and I did some smooth hauling of a bag full of stones and each other, a breakthrough in our systems – or how my puny muscles and ageing joints had stiffened up after a session at the gym.

“I think I understand and can work the systems now and concentrate on being faster”. Cait at our final practice the week before leaving. “In the nick of time”, I replied as we high fived.

Friends were full of the generic questions. “How do you go to the toilet up there? What do you eat? Where do you sleep? What happens if you roll over at night? What do you do if it rains? Have you updated your will?”

(Haul bag quote)         The bigger the dream, the more important the team. You have done the work now enjoy the success. Stay safe, look after each other and enjoy the view from the top.       Cait’s Mum and Dad

During the first part of the flight from Sydney to LA I listened for the hundredth time to some tracks from our Yosemite playlist. And I reflected that it was similar to the start of a marathon. You have to be thrilled that you have reached that starting point – completed enough training to be in the ballpark to finish in reasonable shape, to be healthy. And different to a marathon – to be part of a cracker team.

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Day 1

Our efforts telescoped right up to the point where we stood at the bottom of Pine Line. The initial access pitch. 6 months of training, planning, research at home. Long haul flight to SFO Saturday. Food shopped then drove to Yosemite Sunday and checked out El Cap. Monday we multi pitch free climbed. Tuesday and Wednesday we worked with a guide, Greg Coit, to tune our systems and obtain last minute beta on the route. Greg suggested we start the next day and get straight into action. The weather forecast was excellent and our Greg had an important commitment a week later. An evening packing. Early morning start.

(Haul bag quote)         Peter, I will never forget the confidence and trust you gave me on Danielle. Now it’s time for me to return that confidence and trust. I have no doubt you will achieve your dreams.     Mike Law-Smith

Pine Line went well. I led, we hauled, Cait cleaned. As the most experienced aid climber I led the first two main pitches which were fabulous. To get us going as smoothly as we could. It was a fantastic feeling to be actually climbing on the big stone. Tried to just focus on the pitch, the placement at hand, the systems, being careful and efficient. Not on the huge distance and steepenings in the corners far above. Just the job at hand. I dropped an offset alien. Bugger. Pin scars, totems, offset cams, micro cams, micro nuts. Bolted belays. Quad anchors. 2:1 haul system. Everything went pretty much to plan.

(Haul bag quote)         All three of you, Pete, Greg and Cait, are people who have touched my life in only positive ways! Enjoy the climb up that wall.                Chris Webb-Parsons

That left Greg with the two hardest pitches. Two of the hardest of the climb. Thin aid. Pin scars. Slippery smooth rock.

Greg leading

One fall when his gear pulled out unexpectedly. A big pecker the only thing he could find to get through one section of pin scars. Lower outs. He did well. The practice back on home crags paid big. Then a big complex lower out and traverse right and he was on Sickle Ledge.

 

 

Greg on the way to Sickle Ledge with the Great Roof looming 1500 feet higher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 A smooth day. In anticipation we enjoyed spying out the route ahead up high.

On Sickle in high spirits

We met up with a German pair who we had spied during the day jugging their fixed ropes up to Sickle and hauling quite slowly. We secured our haul bag and portaledge onto the ledge then fixed and repelled our own ropes 150m down to the ground in the late afternoon.

The lost alien was replaced at the mountain shop. We packed up our stuff and sorted all our food.

Day 2

4.00am start. At that stage we didn’t know this would become the norm. Everything in the car. All the leftover food and other scented stuff went into a bear box at the Meadow.  By 5.00am we were jugging the fixed lines with our sleeping bags, some snacks for the day and extra water. Hard work. The third rope we dropped to join others at the base (we had arranged for it to be picked up).

Getting stuck in amongst other groups on the Nose is a major problem and almost inevitable. We had spent time on previous days scoping out the traffic on the route. There seemed to be a pretty good gap ahead of us, maybe due to some cold weather that had just passed. And miraculously no one else had climbed up to Sickle on the same day as us. Things looked good until we arrived at Sickle 5 minutes after the German pair, who had bivvied there overnight, were ready to go. They seemed to have a lot of stuff. We waited. And waited. While one of them led the next pitch and then tried to haul their large load.

Waiting on Sickle

A pair of Nose In A Day (NIAD) speed climbers passed through quickly. An American pair jugged up with their haul bag. And another pair who were doing a run to Dolt Tower. Eventually Cait led off, only to have to wait while the Germans struggled first with a pendulum across to the Stoveleg Crack system then with their big load and inefficient hauling system. This was really frustrating and required all our reserves of patience.

Us and the Americans still waiting on Sickle. Photo Tom Evans

Getting gridlocked with other groups is one of the primary reasons for the high bail rate on the Nose. Greg Coit, Erik Sloan and Tommy and Kevin had told us that early on we would be looking for excuses to go down, that the secret to success is just to never give up. We were a group of three which is slower than a regular group of two. And we weren’t experts, but we had practised and for a group of three were travelling light. We had proved the previous day that we were in the ballpark to be successful. Our water supply was calculated to last a little short of 4 full days, now we were getting behind schedule, maybe critically. The Dolt runners bailed and rapped back down.

Cait waiting, hanging in the middle of the Germans and Americans

The Americans looked fast and needed to get high up as they had no portaledge and only 3 days water. We let them take a higher route through the Dolt Hole but then they caught themselves out by running the pitch too far. They lost communication with each other and got tangled trying to make sure they didn’t lower out their haul bag onto us to the side and below them. Clusterfuck. More hold up for us. The wind picked up.

Cait eventually pendulumed across and we got set up in the bottom of the Stoveleg Cracks mid afternoon. She had been training and practicing trad crack climbing intensively for 6 months – building a crack machine in her home climbing garage, spending multiple weekends at local crack climbing venues and flying up to Frog Buttress for a 4 day weekend. She set off with a big rack. Made slow progress. The hours of “hanging around” had taken their toll. She fought the wind. Communication was difficult. I gave out slack and held the belay tight at the wrong times. She inched upwards then stopped for a time. Alone. Strung out.

(Haul bag quote)         Very important – DON’T FALL! Stay strong. Will be thinking of you crushing!!             Peta

Then she moved on again. Not much free. Eventually reached the belay. We made our way up and joined her. Her face was tear stained, her jaw set rock solid. Silent.

She gave me the rack and I aided up as the light faded. A piece pulled and I took a long fall scraping my shin in the darkness. Set my own jaw and continued up two pitches. Three of the most famous pitches we’d got smashed on due to the traffic, out of our control – the Stovelegs.

At 2.00 am on Dolt Tower the Germans were in bed. While we set up our ‘ledge and had some dinner. Tried to regather ourselves. Respect. Mutual support. Dig deep. We decided to negotiate with the Germans to go first in the morning. This was one of those critical points where it would have been so easy to bail but almost without speaking our plan was hatched through this very low point – Cait had really lost it for a bit, I’d led for hours through the dark, Greg was psyching out from spending the day hanging, hauling and cleaning but isolated from the leading. We started a nightly round of ibuprofen with the best hot chocolate on the planet. The wind had dropped. 20 years earlier Cait had been a student in my outdoor ed. class. I had introduced her to climbing and then she passed that on to her brother and sister. At my retirement they had given me a small clock with an engraved quote from Ed. Hillary, “It’s not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves”.  The night was velvet and star studded – I did notice this for a second as I zipped my sleeping bag shut. Up was the plan. Bed at 4.00 am.

Day 3

We were woken early by a NIAD (Nose In A Day) group climbing past. Up at 6.00 am.

Air B n B at Dolt

We then chatted with the Germans, Wolf and Herbert, “Your climbing is great but your hauling takes a long time. Could we leave first today and see if we can stay in front?” They agreed. We were off by 7.00 am. I led down into a bottomless gap then up a steep crack system. Great to be in front. The Americans were a long way ahead. Our combined teams strategy was working. Maybe we were settling into our groove with a team above and another below.

Cait leading, Greg and Peter on belay between Dolt and El Cap Tower. Photo Tom Evans

Cait took over the lead and really enjoyed two mixed free and aid pitches. We cracked along nicely.

On one of the belay ledges Greg confided to me that although this type of climbing was not really his thing he had wanted to be part of the undertaking to assist Cait and I who were so deeply passionate about it and that we were two people who he respected so much. We hugged and cried.

In the early afternoon we reached the palatial El Cap Tower ledge – “a good bivvy for 4”.

On El Cap Tower ledge.
Photo Tom Evans

After a short rest and food and precious water Greg led into the Texas Flake Chimney. He was super psyched, extremely well informed, very nervous and his heart was pumping. When we had first met local big wall guide, Greg Coit, he had straight away asked who was going to lead the Texas Flake Chimney – unprotectable, dangerous and scarey. A hard part was actually getting in to the bottom of the chimney. There were some gear placements there and a bolt higher up but if Greg clipped these he would not be able to swing the rope out of the chimney to make the going easier for the second climber. Also the bolt in the chimney was where the harder climbing was. Further to the west in the chimney there were more flake holds on the wall. Greg had set off into the chimney but had to retreat to the bottom to reset his shirt and the gear on his harness.  It was digging into his back as he chimneyed up so he went back down and switched it to the front of his harness. He had also left the rack at the front of the Flake for me to collect as I jugged up.

Greg at the top of Texas Flake, Peter jumaring up. Photo Tom Evans

When I joined Greg at the top of the Flake we considered the time of day and the shortage of good bivvy sites ahead (and the strong pull of the fabulous El Cap Tower ledge) and decided to fix the Boot then rap down and stay the night on El Cap Tower.

Peter leading the Boot Flake pitch in the last of the daylight.

Cait set up camp and had the dinner ready as we arrived back down. The Germans had arrived. We shared chocolate, yarns and good times together. Respect. Patience. Support.

 

Cooked dinner!!!

Just before dark a wacky, fun motormouth, Pass The Pitons Pete, and his mate passed through our camp on their way to set up a camp higher up and out right on their New Dawn route. In a party atmosphere they regaled us with tales of haul bags full of beer and margaritas. Total wall rats completely at home up there.

Pass The Pitons Pete dropped by.

(Haul bag quote)        

Shut up and climb!                        Pass the Pitons Pete

 

 

 

 

 

The ledge was like a small horizontal oasis in an ocean of verticality. We savoured the delightful evening, the shadows, changing colours – John Muir’s Range of Light. Warm sleeping bag, harness still on, tethered to the wall.

Greg’s spot on the ledge was a little too close to the German waste case, we would get to retaliate later.

Day 4

We jumared through the dawn to the top of the Boot. Then the King Swing, Lynn Hill Traverse, Great Roof, Pancake Flake and on to Camp V. Each of us digging deep, being our very best selves with each other and in our own private journeys across and up the mountain. Endurance. Support. Care. Trust.

“Even if we’re breaking down, we can find a way to break through
Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through hell with you
Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you”        Rachel Platten

Through the longest and hardest day that any of us had maybe ever encountered. Time stretched to allow us to fit it all into one exquisite day of struggle and joy and awe in the grandest place and quest of our lives.

At some stage Cait said, “I’ve never done anything as gruelling as The Nose.” I could only agree.

Day 5

Camp V

The sun opened up across the wall. Heat pulled us out of slumber at 8.00. “I’m starting to poop my pants,” Greg. It was his way of telling us he was getting scared, struggling. We needed to get going. Breakfast and packed up.

Camp V. In the lower right the top of the Butt Crack is visible. Above right the thin crack and the big corner lead to the Glowering Spot. Photo Tom Evans

Big walling is an intimate pastime. The portaledge is small. On belay you hang off the same anchor bolts for long periods of time together. Your daily issues are closely shared. Space anywhere is limited. One of our waste cases was full. A wag bag is a clever invention that mostly does the job. You poop into the large plastic bag which contains some crystals that absorb moisture and some of the smell. Then you squeeze the air out and tie a knot to seal it up. This is stowed in a heavy duty zip lock bag which again you squeeze the air out of to reduce the storage volume. The wag bag also comes with a small supply of toilet paper and hand sanitiser. And in the logistics of cramped space you often have one person that pushes them down into the waste case that hangs below the haul bag. In a moment of brilliance back home I had bought a second waste case. “Look the other way guys”. I shuffled round the not quite corner of the Camp V ledge. While Greg and Cait busied themselves. Every morning was the same, for each of us. “There’s something not right with my system”, Cait said as we stowed her wag bag in the waste case. Change of diet, lack of food, not enough water, too many Cliff Bars, dehydrated dinners, physical and psychological stress, too much of the energy drink additive. Any of the above. Life on the wall? Concerned I asked her if we needed to go down. This would have been a dreaded prospect of 20 abseils. But we would do it if necessary. “Absolutely No Way”. Fierce determination.

I led through a section of thin aid above small ledges that would not have been nice to fall onto. Then up to cool shade in the Glowering Spot, a comfy but slightly sloping ledge big enough for two people to sit down on. While Cait belayed Greg into the next pitch I dozed as the sun arrived in the alcove. I rested while Greg pushed thru an awkward wide section then up the higher part of the long and taxing pitch. I’d suggested he just take it slow and carefully, one small step at a time.

(Haul bag quote)         As long as you’re going up you’re sending.                Kevin Jorgenson

In the heat of the day Greg made it up to Camp VI. A nice triangular gently sloping ledge, big enough for us to spread out and arrange our stuff, all clipped in to safety ropes. It had been a short day. Welcome relief from the day before. Occasionally we caught faint noises from the Germans down below. One more pitch to fix and that would set us up for the summit next day. Changing Corners. Another game breaker and the higher crux for us. Famous for aid and the few free climbers able to give it a shot. Another key pitch for Greg. He was psyched for it but fatigued. I really hoped he could push himself into it. I was wasted. I made him a sun shelter so he could cool down a little and some lunch wraps. There was a 1 foot wide crack at the rear of the ledge that dropped down about 15 m and then into the bowels of the mountain. Cait handed Greg the stove bag with the instruction, “Don’t drop this down the crack”. Immediate tinkling sounded our disappointment as it fell down out of sight. Greg! Oh No! Hot dinner gone, hot chocolate, coffee gone. Oh No. He wanted to abseil down in a forlorn hope of finding it. I pretty much vetoed that idea as I wanted him to have every last bit of energy for the pitch above.

In the cool of later afternoon Greg geared up bravely and headed up. Things got steadily harder. Another long pitch. At some bolts he had to move right from one corner system to another. It was all very steep. These were the corners way up high in the top, over vertical section of the route we had tried to avoid looking at from the Meadow. He reached a lower set of bolts but then headed up to a higher set that were strung with old climbing tape and cord. He clipped a couple then teetered round into the next corner, placed an offset alien and a micro cam, moved up slowly. “Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!!!!” Both pieces popped up there and he took a decent fall, slamming back into the corner. He had just missed reaching a fixed wire.

(Haul bag quote)         We tend not to remember the easy days out adventuring. Make this trip one to remember. It’s going to bring with it suffering and anxiety. But for some reason it will all be worth it. Savour both the moments when one is riding the metaphorical suffer bus, and when you are filled with wonder, joy and happiness, because it’s a mixture of these two that drive us up the walls, across the continents and has us training tirelessly for months on end. Enjoy the good and bad moments because there will be plenty of both.                                              Daniel Fisher

Straight back up, delicately round the edge, cam hook, micro gear then the wire. Slowly upwards. Cait and I held our breaths, again. The rope stopped inching upwards. He was out of sight. Up there alone. 2,500 feet up. Time stood still. He’d been studying this for months. Visualising. We willed him on. “Safe. Yeah!” Met by whoops from us. We were going to the top for sure now. Four pitches to go. Tomorrow. Nothing could stop us now. Cait and I hugged. Golden light. Greg fixed the rope and abseiled back down, cleaning the protection as he descended. In the highest spirits we hi fived and chattered. Jubilation. Tension relieved. (Apparently if the leader top steps on the third bolt and tensions right it may be possible to reach the fixed wire at a stretch.)

Greg. At the end of Day 5 after success on Changing Corners.

Just before dark we hung the portaledge just over the lip and had muesli for dinner which we ate with our nut tools from our now one shared remaining cup. Our sporks had gone down with the stove. Herbert, one of the Germans, appeared below and called up. We tried to convince him to make his camp at a nice small ledge about 10 m below ours. He preferred to come up and check out any spare space on ours. Cait and Greg collapsed into their sleeping bags. I rearranged all our gear and our anchor system to make space for Wolf and Herbert. My climbing ethics demanded that we share whatever space we could with another party in need. Herbert ascended through our waste cases then anchored his ropes carefully underneath ours to limit tangles the following morning. By then we were good friends with them and this was more a meeting up than a cluster. We had been clustered and held up by them low down on the route but had been clear of each other since then and worked together so that both of our parties could move at their own pace. He then descended to the smaller ledge below where they set up in comfort. Cait, Greg and I had traded hours of sleep for a clear run. (In the following week, from the Meadow, we had noticed a major cluster of parties high on the route. This would have been much more problematic as climbers would have been strung out, dehydrated and fatigued and slowed up within sight of the summit.)

(Haul bag quote)         Have the best adventure sufferfest ever.       Tracey

Greg and I slept on the ledge, Greg with his shoulders over the crack, and me, at regular intervals through the night shuffling back inwards, at the edge.

“I’ve battled demons that won’t let me sleep
Called to the sea but she abandoned me

But I won’t never give up, no, never give up, no, no
No, I won’t never give up, no, never give up, no, no”                        Sia

Cait on the portaledge

Cait slept fitfully on the portaledge – alternating gazing up at the stars and peering over the edge to watch tiny car lights snaking down the valley way below.

 

A plane passed high overhead – its flashing red light reminded her of her flashing monitor lights during her year in hospital.

Day 6

No tea or coffee. “What peanut dropped the stove?” It would take a lifetime to live that one down. I took the haul rope and the huge rack and I began jumaring up the fixed rope. For about 25m the rope hung out away from the wall, which showed that Greg’s Changing Corners pitch had overhung, and made my ascent of the rope exhausting. Maybe my arms were already tired from all the jugging and climbing and hauling. I had to break it down into small sections, each with its own end point objective, just like marathon running when you’ve hit the wall.

(Haul bag quote)               “Swing on some jugs for me Pete. I’ll be willing you on”.                Ian Brown.

Ian’s message echoed in my head. Eventually I was able to reach the wall with my feet and the going got a bit easier. Greg came up and we got ready to haul the bag. By this time we had drunk most of the water and eaten a fair amount of our food so we could body haul instead of using the 2 to 1 system with pulleys. We took the weight of the bag. Cait then lowered it out of the anchor below. Greg and I pulled it up a little so she could get started ascending the fixed rope. Unbeknown to us this meant that our two waste cases, which hung below our haul bag and were by now pretty full and ripe, hung right next to Wolf’s head. He had re ascended to our Camp VI ledge and lashed himself to the anchor. In her sensitive and interpersonally aware way Cait noticed his discomfort and yelled up to ask us if we could haul up the bag some more. As the bag ascended slowly Herbert thanked Cait for asking the question.

From the belay at the top of Changing Corners the action picked up. I led up a nice pitch of easy aid, shuffling red cams up a curving cracked corner.

Cait jugging up Changing Corners in the early morning of Day 6. The toe of The Nose is lit up way below.

The view back down the pitch funnelled down the Corners, past Camp VI, then down past the Great Roof, the Grey Bands, eventually to the sloping section of white stone glistening in the morning sun around Sickle, eventually to the base, the Meadow and then to the forest of tiny trees. Over a lip of rock above a rope snaked down followed by an abseiler. “Hi. I’m Brad” “Yeah Hi. I’m Peter.”

Brad Gobright working on the Changing Corners.

He continued down some more then started doing free practice on the hardest section of the Corners, falling and grunting. “Hey that’s Brad Gobright”, whispered Cait to Greg, “He’s the Alex Honnold you’ve never heard of.” So he had hiked up and ascended fixed ropes from the base of El Cap to the top (1000m+), abseiled down 150m, to do 30 minutes practice on the Corners then reversed the whole approach – very impressive motivation and effort. Since Lynn Hill’s first free ascent of The Nose only about 5 – 6 other people had managed the feat. The Changing Corners pitch is the hardest free pitch on the climb. Perhaps Brad was working on trying to be the next. Two groups are also competing with each other for the fastest ascent of The Nose. Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold currently have the fastest time of 1 hour and 58 minutes. Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds hold the second fastest time of 2 hours 2 minutes. As impressive as these speed ascents are they are also incredibly dangerous. Many of the recent accidents on El Cap have been on the faster ascents where aspects of safety are compromised while climbers are simul climbing. Tommy, Alex and Brad, the elite of world rockclimbing with athletic capabilities equivalent to Olympic gold medal level are pushing the envelope of possibility. To witness Brad training on the hardest pitch on The Nose between us and the Germans was almost as good as his offer that we could jug his rope that was anchored nearby.

Greg jumaring Pitch 25

All’s fair in aid climbing and he totally unexpectedly sped us up a pitch to The Wild Stance before he jugged out and pulled his rope up.

 

 

We found the megadeath loose spike beside the Wild Stance that we had been warned about. The thought of anything falling off the climb was horrendous. Even a dropped water bottle or carabiner could cause a major injury 1000’s of feet below.

We could see the summit overhangs but not the well known pine tree. 2 pitches to go. Cait showed off her latest and best aid climbing skills lacing up a curving crack that led to a bolt ladder. High stepping, back cleaning like a big wall pro she was taking us to the top in style.

Meanwhile Greg and I guffawed and laughed as we likened the sound of our regular farts to various makes and models of motor bikes. Must have been the change of diet or too many cliff bars.

Cait with that “nothings gonna stop us now” look at the final, and worst, belay stance below pitch 28.

The bolts led Cait, with her trusty extender draw, through an overhanging section to a very uncomfortable stance. Greg lowered out on the haul rope and swung out over 3000 feet of space on the single 10.4 mm of nylon life line. I know that if I did what Brad had done and gone to the top and abseiled over the edge I would have found it terrifying. When I start at the bottom however and slowly ascend step by step increasing the height I get used to it and as long as I am connected to the rope and cliff correctly the exposure doesn’t really concern me. It certainly focuses the attention and adds massively to the experience and perception of the landscape but it’s not like when I stand unroped near a cliff edge and feel the fearful sucking pull of vertigo. After Greg left I had an alone overcome with emotion weeping moment – deep dreams only occasionally reach fruition in life.

“Don’t stop believin’

Hold on to that feeling”          Journey

I found following the bolt ladder really strenuous. I tangled, thrashed and graunched ungainly up to the stance completely devoid of style or finesse. The others were in a state of uncomfortable distress on the very poor stance. For some reason our toes were squashed into the wall. (Cait and I have ongoing big wall nerve damaged big toes that should heal eventually) Cait then free walzed off across a wall then up and round out of sight and then to the top where we heard a very faint “Safe” call. Greg once again floated in wild space up and out of sight. “Oh My Gosh,” Greg. I was out of sorts, out of style, totally blown emotionally and deeply satisfied. Following the bolts up I made a mistake and found myself stuck in tight on a quickdraw. In haste I took out my knife and sliced it free of the rope. This climb never broke down or got easy even to the final moves. Greg was at the final bolted anchor. He had jugged and then hauled. And was now hot and dry and wrecked.

We struggled up to the famous pine tree with a bit of the gear and collapsed. Sipped some of our little remaining water, sat or lay down, let the focus and being switched on drain away. We smiled and cried and hugged. One of the best experiences of our lives. 6 days. Massive in every way. Together. It was like everything had fallen into place. Sipped some more precious liquid. After a while we carried the rest of our gear from the bolts up to the tree. Called home, reported in safely to our supporters. Then we took summit photos in soft golden light in our Climbers Against Cancer t shirts.

Deeply fatigued as we were we couldn’t face the daunting task of switching on again and carting our heavy load down the unknown East Ledges abseil descent. So we stashed all our climbing gear under a rock then packed up all the stuff that bears might tear to bits – left over food, rubbish, flattened drink bottles, full waste cases and other essentials. Just prior to leaving we discovered a stash of water under a rock and took some glorious big gulps like nectar from the gods. “Light and Fast” we set off on the long hike down the back at about 6.00 pm. Tired, sore, slow. But elated. We would make it down that night. In the darkness with head torches we trudged. Greg muscled the haul bag. I carried both waste cases in a smaller backpack. Every time I stopped the smell enveloped me. The others always walked in front. Through the forest. Across rock slabs. Up and down. For hours. Then to the steep descent which went on forever. 12 km never seemed so far. In a quiet moment of rest, “I feel like a real climber now,” Cait. Down. Switchbacks. Down. At about 9.15 we realised the last transit bus that could return one of us to the car would be at 10.00 pm. From somewhere deeper than I knew existed I summoned the ability to run downhill. For 45 minutes then I saw the bus disappear. In desperation I flagged down a passing car after I had ditched the stinking waste case backpack into the scrub beside the road.

(Haul bag quote)         Get after it and take the whip! I always thought you were a bit on the nose.  Joe Horan

An English couple who never mentioned my smell and showed great interest in the climb thankfully gave me a lift. In my fatigue I walked up and down the road looking for our car. After an age I located the car and picked up the others. We collected our stashed food and stuff from a bear box.

Shower. Hot chocolate. Bed. Horizontal. Sleep.

 

The Days After – Part 2

Rest day. Bruised legs. Swollen hands. Greg had sausage fingers. Numb big toes – nerve damage. (Tommy’s haul bag message kept repeating)

“We climbed The Nose”. Greg said about every 10 minutes. Coffee. Deep satisfaction. We felt surprisingly ok. Walked round just smiling. Savouring. Pizza for lunch.

In The Meadow later in the afternoon we spent a long time just drinking in the scene. Tracing the route on the mountain. Checking out the other climbers. Beautiful. Grand. Powerful. “Yes I know Greg. We climbed The Nose.” Smiled a lot more. Cait – “You know. Up there. Here. This is the happiest I have ever been.”

Tom Evans

A fellow in a red shirt with a big camera. Tom Evans! The legend. Turned out he had started his daily photo record of El Cap climbs for the season the day we started from Sickle!!!!! And he could give us copies of photos of our climb later that night!!!! When he asked how we found it I mentioned the pitch above Pancake Flake that I had led in the depths of the night and found so hard. “Oh that pitch is notorious. Lots of people have had accidents on that pitch. It’s called the ButtCrack.” I’m glad I didn’t know that beforehand.

Erik was there too. “I’ve only got one thing to say to you Erik”. And I just gave him a big hug. His info and encouragement had been instrumental. He offered to help us retrieve our gear from the top the next day, especially as he was going up anyway.

Cait, Brad and Greg – legends!

Later that evening we met up with Tom and picked up a USB full of his great photos. Brad just happened to be there as well.

 

 

Even though Cait had climbed across the world for 20 years and coached the Australian team it wasn’t until she had completed The Nose that she felt “like a real climber”. It struck me that being in the spiritual home of rockclimbing and mixing it with the world’s best was perhaps a fitting place to come to that realisation.

Next day Cait dropped me off at 5.00 am on her way to take Greg towards San Francisco to catch a bus to the airport for an engagement in Canada. I hiked back up the 1000 m and 12 km to the top of The Nose. True to his word Erik was there assembling our gear. He took the haul bag  and I a large rucksack. A program to clean up Yosemite, The Facelift, was on and Erik had set himself the task to update the abseil ropes on the East Ledges descent route. We donated our static rope. We spent the rest of the day replacing the ropes that were worn and abseiling down with our gear. Erik was a trooper. I was very fatigued. We paid him well. At the bottom I met Kevin Jorgensen and reminded him of our meeting in Canberra and the message he had written on our haul bag. He said he wanted to catch up with Cait and congratulate her.

Tommy just happened to be in the Valley

 

 

She met up with Tommy Caldwell and Kevin that evening in one of the many circularities and synchronicities associated with our climb.

Kevin – boulderer to big wall climber, Cait – sport climber to big wall climber!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We arranged to meet up with Greg Coit. We had heard his prearranged stuttered horn honking encouragement each morning as he drove past El Cap on his way to guiding work in The Valley. He was generously interested in our climb. He told us that when he saw our slow early progress he doubted we would make it up. I also sensed that Erik might have doubted we would be successful. We were an unusual team for The Nose. A group of 3. Two males and a female. An old trad climber with some aid climbing experience in Australia from decades previous, an experienced traddy who was now a committed sport climber (also an all round strong athlete) and a younger gun sport climber. Different ages with at least 12 years between each person. And we each had our fears. Greg was worried about dropping stuff and the height and exposure during his down time. Cait became very anxious during the lead up – failure, not being able to do it, fear of dying, worried about the media hype, what if something goes wrong, anchor failure, ropes getting cut, falling rock, falling on trad gear. She had a major crisis of confidence in her own climbing ability and got sick three weeks before we departed Australia. I was mainly concerned about my body breaking down. We were all scared of being the weakest link. The bail out rate was high – over 50%. Greg Coit told us he had bailed on his first two attempts though I wasn’t sure whether he was just telling us this to soften us up for our own possible failure. We had met teams from UK and Australia who were going home without making it. The Germans too had failed on The Nose and Half Dome in previous years.

In the aftermath we considered at length what may have been critical factors in our success. We had an unusual combination of experience and skills. 90 years of combined climbing experience. 75 years of combined outdoor education leadership. Being in a team of 3 where there is always someone to share things with on the wall and more fun to be had. Very serious research “homework” in the 6 months prior. Substantial training in the lead up. Good gear. Diverse and complimentary skills. The depth of our shared dream. The public nature of our climb, encapsulated by the messages we carried up on our haul bag, added a sense of wider support. Cait wanted to make her family and Greg’s wife proud. We had the ability to cover for each other. Our life experiences that gave us the endurance, the will and and the wherewithal to be able to dig very, very deep. Our emotional commitment to each other borne of appreciation of each other’s struggles. Friendship.

(Haul bag quote)         To the team. The fellowship of the rope is one of the most powerful bonds. Climb hard, climb strong, live life and come back as mates.                  Zac Zaharias

Our journey up the mountain together was a massive test of each of these. Throughout, our underlying respect for each other and mutual support prevailed. What more could I have asked for when I shared a dream and an interpersonal hunch.

“All fired up (now I believe there comes a time)
All fired up (when everything just falls in line)”                    Pat Benatar

Sometimes things do fall into line. Sometimes things go your way. And sometimes when you do good things in the world with good intentions things around you conspire to make things happen. Fate and karma intertwined.

On our last night in The Valley we went down to the Meadow. A string of twinkling lights hung down the Nose and marked the bivvys of climbers on other routes across the Cap. And possibly of others like us climbing into the night. Stars blanketed the deep blue sky above. Huge black pine silhouettes framed the whole magical scene. Once again I was overcome with emotion – the surreal beauty of the place, we had been those starry lights up there, everything had fallen into line for us. The three of us together had climbed the most famous and beautiful route on the best cliff in the world.

Text msg 3 weeks later “Hey. We climbed The Nose.”

Thanks

Especially to our partners and families for their support and forbearance.

Erik Sloan and Greg Coit

Tom Evans for your brilliant photos

Tommy and Kevin for inspiration and generous encouragement

Ian and Dan for loaned gear

Canberra Indoor Rockclimbing, Mont, Climbing Anchors

————————————————————————————-

Greg’s Poem – Part 3

Slack Pete, Cross Cait and Safety 5th vs the Nose             Greg Fisher

It was early in 2019 that Peter made his emotional plea,

Let’s have an awesome adventure, by going over to Yosemite.

The goal was to conquer The Nose on El Cap,

A wall climb, 28 pitches, 1000metrs high, ooh..crap!

 

This would take much more than some training in the gym,

What was needed, was the Spirit of Adventure, just to follow him.

Increased fitness, new gear, different techniques and a little sacrifice,

Pete’s little adventure was going to change us for the rest of our life.

 

Three friends, comrades, colleagues and mates,

Would form team awesome combining their special traits.

Peter, Cait and Greg were the three who dared,

They trained, practiced, studied and constantly prepared.

 

Greg was the comedy relief, grunt and crash dummy,

Caitlin organised everything and her pro deals saved money.

She was the chauffer and all round booking queen,

But it was her free climbing skills that cemented our team.

 

Pete was our wise leader, full of passion and desire,

With him on our team, he did nothing but inspire.

From YouTube, Erik, Tommy, Kevin and Greg our guide, we drew,

On the wealth of their experience and knowledge to make this dream come true.

 

We were pumped and excited as Peter led the way,

This was the start of our inspiring first day.

Greg pulled out the Pecker, early on the Sickle Pitch,

But with the haul bag up, the day went without a hitch.

 

We jugged up early the next morning, and ran into a road block,

The Germans were in front, and so we fell way behind the clock.

Americans too decided to thwart our ascent to Dolt Tower,

Pete was undeterred, head torch on, he forged forward on will power.

 

Cait found Stovelegs hard, but it only fuelled her fire,

To make certain this achievement on her bucket list, would transpire.

Going down was never an option in the words of Cait,

She was going to drag us all to the top and strive to keep Greg awake.

 

Who needs sleep? was to be the slogan for this epic wall,

After only 2 hours of sleep, Pete kept climbing to give it his all,

Onto El Cap Tower which is the goal we would reach,

Smashing Texas Flake, The Boot Leg and fixing ropes from each.

 

Things were working smooth in our team, hauling and ropework understood,

Cait cooked up a storm that night, the hot chocolate and dinner, sooo… good.

At last we got some sleep and our bodies were so thankful and glad,

Greg fell unconscious after laying his head directly under, the Germans poo bag!

 

We were up again early and jugging to the Boot,

Greg did the King Swing and found it a hoot.

The Lynn Hill Traverse Caitlin left in her wake,

She led us to the roof with skill, make no mistake.

 

An ominous roof, lay directly in the path of this little group,

Most people would look at it, and it would make them poop!

Pete smashed The Great Roof and enjoyed the challenge and thrill,

He climbed like a demon, and so continued up, on desire and will.

 

His energy maxed out, after grunting through the Bum Crack Pitch,

He called on Cait to now lead, and so they did a switch.

Greg was struggling with micro sleeps and staying awake was hell,

Cait finished the pitch and used a clear mind, to save the haul bag as well.

 

Her toilet routine had been affected, and was totally out of whack,

Greg had lost focus and had to get back on the wall to stay on track.

Pete led to the Glowering Spot, then slept as Greg led and Cait was belay,

Greg pushed on and reached Camp VI, pitch 23, hip hip hooray!

 

Greg felt like a King as food, drink and shade was provided,

His crew was helping motivate him and get him excited.

Up Changing Corners which he had studied for months,

Where’s all my gear, cam hooks to the rescue after falling just once!

 

A good sleep would help, knowing tomorrow we would top out,

Was crushed as the Germans, messed our sleeping quarters about.

We jugged past the corner and then past Brad Gobright,

He gave us his rope to use, and the end was in sight.

 

We planned food and water for four days on the wall, but five it would take,

We had all been so determined, no one in our team would give up and break.

Greg dropped the jetboil, no coffee, this could be bad,

It pushed the team to their limit but they weren’t even mad.

 

Pete and Greg talked of motor bikes, and laughed at sounds that we made,

As Caitlin focussed on the last two pitches, bolt ladders, she would smash that grade.

The team, awesome, incredible, cohesive, formidable, focussed and it shows,

We had arrived at the top the incredible and impressive Monolith, The Nose!

 

The Nose had taken its toll on our party of three,

There was no major celebration or jumping up and down with glee.

We sat and reflected, we hugged and we cried,

This whole epic adventure had been one incredible ride.

 

Greg Fisher (Peanut)

Greg – “This climb took our friendship to a whole new level. The Nose changed our lives forever.”

Cait – “El Cap is no match for 90 years of Canberra Climbing.”

Peter –

“In the fellowship of the rope

time shifts and dreams become reality

as we journey upwards together

into the golden light.”

__________________________________________________________________________

Part 4

Notes for other climbers

 

Did we belong up there? Our ascent was slow – 6 days total (1 to Sickle then 5 days on the wall). We arrived at the top pretty wasted. Chris McNamara, in his “How to Big Wall Climb” book which we had used extensively, exhorts teams heading for the Nose to hone their skills by climbing a series of lead up big walls in Yosemite so they are efficient. For international teams this ideal prep is difficult as it is sometimes not possible to do multiple trips to The Valley due to expense and time shortage and many of us cannot stay for long periods. We did lots of training at home on small crags. We practiced hauling with real loads and doing thin aid climbing. We researched and practiced our system with three people. We gathered good information. On the climb we didn’t hold up any other teams, we arrived at the top with enough water to make our descent, we didn’t endanger ourselves (more than anyone else) or anyone else, we still had space in our second waste case, we didn’t leave any rubbish behind, we could have retreated at any point, we could have bivvied on our portaledge at any point, we patiently and respectfully dealt with being held up ourselves and we could have assisted any other team in difficulty at any time. And we had the most fabulous time!

Getting held up by crowds – In the main big wall season from mid September to late October there will be other teams wanting to attempt The Nose. It is one of the most popular routes in The Valley. Being delayed by other parties is inevitable. There is no formal queuing system at the base from what we could see and Greg Coit and Erik Sloan told us. You just have to get to the base on your preferred approach to the actual start of Pitch 1 and then wait for your turn among whoever else is there at the time. We didn’t have anyone else on our climb up to Sickle day but then the next day when we jugged back up to Sickle the team of Germans who had portaledged up there the night before and started climbing 10 minutes before we were ready, then an American pair arrived having started in the night, then a pair planning to go to Dolt. In amongst all this a NIAD pair cruised past us all. During that day the Germans held us up considerably, we let the Americans overtake and then they too held us up and the Dolt runners bailed from Sickle. By the next day we had all sorted ourselves into a workable order that continued for us to the top. We were clustered for one day which required much patience and made us dig into our water supplies. Later after we had finished our climb we noticed clusters near the top of the route which would have been worse. ADVICE – plan to get held up, prepare to be patient and respectful, be friendly to other groups and take photos of them to share afterwards, bring some extra food to share and bring extra water. Be prepared to climb in the dark. In the lead up to your start spend time in the Meadow and at the actual base of the route tuning in to the ebb and flow of the traffic.

Sickle Ledge – we climbed to Sickle and hauled a third rope and our bag with everything except our sleeping bags and 3 litres of water each. We secured our load on Sickle then rapped down on 3 ropes to the ground and spent the night back in camp. The next day we jugged up pre dawn with our sleeping bags and 3 litres of water each to Sickle having dropped our third rope back to the ground on the way. We had arranged for someone to pick up the third rope but several ropes had just been left at the base for later retrieval. This process worked really well for us. Not having a group behind us up to Sickle meant we could take our time and check all our systems. Not camping on Sickle meant we saved carrying up one extra day of food and water. But maybe it also meant we didn’t start before the Germans. The Germans had climbed without hauling to Sickle, rapped down, had a rest day then jugged and hauled and camped on Sickle.

Aid climbing practice – High stepping, placing and weighting gear, managing ladders, using Fifi hooks. Use of peckers and cam hooks. Use of offset nuts and cams. Multi day multi pitch endurance. Portaledge set up and pack up, sleeping in, hanging vertically and off ledges, using the rain fly and bivvy bags. Hauling with your estimated loads – body, space, 2:1. Get your jumaring nailed using different methods for off vertical, vertical, overhanging – with 2 people you will jumar half the route and with 3 you will jumar 1/3 of the route. Belay and anchor setups and changeovers – quads worked well for us. Rope management on hanging belays – use of rope hooks, rope bags or saddle coils with slings. Bolt ladders including overhanging leading and cleaning. Lower outs and pendulums. Free and French free with a big rack. Climbing in approach shoes. Climbing in the dark. Be very careful practicing aid climbing in areas which are not regularly used for aid – aid placements put unusual forces on rock. Anchor systems, attaching, backing up then releasing the loaded haulbag straight up and on traversing terrain. Hauling straight up, traversing, overhanging and off vertical, releasing from getting stuck.

Pitches – consider dividing up pitches to be led beforehand. That way each person can practise, psyche up for and research their pitches. Share info in case things change on the mountain. Practice each key pitch – King Swing leading and following, top overhanging bolt ladder, Great Roof, ButtCrack flaring awkward groove.

Key bits of equipment

Portaledge is great to give flexibility in timing and placement of camps and fitting in with other groups. Without a Portaledge you get committed to specific objectives each day which adds pressure and may turn hold ups into more stressful situations. We used a lightweight Runout Customs ledge that took several months to arrive from USA.

Cam hooks – we used two wide and one medium.

Pecker – we used one large

Proper belay/climbing gloves – your hands will get worked

Climbing balm and tape for hands

Spare head torch and batteries

Light rain shell jacket (used for wind shell as well) and pants. OR Helium were great and surprisingly durable.

Sun protection hat system and sun shirt.

Clothing – wear bright colours for photos!

Footwear – TC Pros were excellent with TX 4 approach shoes. I led a lot in the TCs and Cait only occasionally – we both ended up with numb big toes with nerve damage. Apparently this is common.

Rack – Totem cams were great with a range of small alien offsets and micro cams, brass micro and larger offset nuts, regular cams. The listing by Erik Sloan in “Yosemite Big Walls” was great.

Topos – we mainly used the one from “Yosemite Big Walls” by Erik Sloan. Have several copies with associated collected beta on each pitch.

Waste cases by Metolius are excellent. Taking 2 for our group of three was a masterstroke.

An extender draw was found very useful for fixed gear and bolts.

Go light!

Descent – sort out options for the descent. Have a map of the hike and detailed topos for the East Ledges. A great idea would be to recce the East Ledges by hiking and jugging up it or climbing the East Buttress then doing the East Ledges descent.

Sources of info

Erik Sloan – “Yosemite Big Walls”. Erik also offers a 1 hour chat over the Internet – his support and encouragement is fabulous. Check his website too. He also has an as yet unpublished guide to climbing The Nose – this has terrific info on each pitch. https://store.yosemitebigwall.com

Chris McNamara – “How to Big Wall Climb” (associated videos on YouTube) and also his guide “Yosemite Big Walls” – both published by Supertopo. Also “The Road to The Nose” supertopo.com

Websites – Supertopo and Mountain Project are great

Guide services

Yosemite Mountain Guides is the only licensed operator in The Valley. Greg Coit is fabulous – as well as instructing he guides various big wall routes on El Cap and other Valley cliffs. He provided lots of good beta on the route.

Yosemite grades – “Remember Yosemite 5.8 is probably 5.10, Yosemite 5.9 is also probably 5.10 and Yosemite 5.10 is about 5.10 as well.”

xRex Studio – extremely high resolution panorama photo of El Capitan. You may be able to zoom in on this image to show a series of about 2,000 individual overlay photos of Erik Sloan and Roger Putnam climbing on every pitch of The Nose route over a seven hour push from bottom to top. I could only zoom on my phone. http://www.xrez.com/blog/el-capitan-gigapixel-climbing-routes/

2:1 hauling system – we used this system from Alpine Savvy. It was excellent and worked extremely well with our Protraxion, Rock Exotica PMP 2 pulley at the top, small Petzl Partner pulley at the bottom. A Rock Exotica Pirate carabiner for the hauler to clove hitch into worked well as it had a round spine. We used this for most of the climb until we were able to do a standard body haul near the top when the load diminished. Our starting load would have been about 75 kg. https://www.alpinesavvy.com/blog/the-2-to-1-z-pull-haul-explained

System for our group of 3 – our team of three was fabulous from a mutual support and fun point of view. We researched widely, tried several systems and sought lots of advice. The system we settled on was recommended by Erik Sloan and checked by Greg Coit. It is simple, straightforward and reduces the potential for complicated tangles (which we had experienced in practice with use of 3 ropes and a tag line). Key bits of equipment – pretied quad anchors, 2:1 hauling system as above, microtraxion, 3 rope hooks (not essential), lead rope, haul rope, 17 m lower out rope for the haul bag, long back up sling for haul bag, anchoring cord for haul bag long enough to anchor and tie munter/mule. The beauty of this system is that there are only 2 ropes to deal with.

  • Leader leads pitch trailing up haul rope.
  • On reaching the anchor leader attaches quad to bolts (on the Nose there are always at least 2 bolts at each anchor) and makes self safe. Leader communicates “Safe”. Leader fixes haul line and communicates “Haul Line Fixed”.
  • 3rd Person connects microtraxion from harness to haul rope (Grigri won’t work due to traversing nature of many pitches on the Nose) and pulls through slack. 3rd Person attaches jumars to haul rope then lowers out from anchor generally by hand over handing from the bottom end of the haul line, which is still attached to the haul bag, which is still anchored to the belay at the bottom of the pitch.
  • 3rd Person jumars up the haul line with the microtraxion as a backup so they don’t have to tie back up knots. She carries a small backpack with the haul kit and some water and food.
  • While the 3rd Person jumars the haul line the leader pulls up 4 m of slack in the lead line and then fixes the lead line. The leader communicates “Lead Line Fixed”.
  • When the 3rd Person reaches the anchor she makes herself safe. The 2:1 hauling system is removed from the 3rd Person’s small backpack, which they have jumared up with, and is attached to the quad and the haul line is set up in the 2:1 system. Excess haul line is coiled on a rope hook and the haul line pulled up tight. 3rd Person communicates “Ready To Haul”.
  • The Cleaner undoes the haulbag back up sling from the anchor at the bottom of the pitch. The Cleaner then undoes the releasable munter/mule knot and lowers out the haul bag. The lower out line is not tied into but is threaded thru a snaplink biner on the Cleaner’s harness (the Cleaner will not be dragged sideways but can access the lower out line while going up near the haul bag in case it gets stuck)
  • The Cleaner starts cleaning the pitch using a grigri as a backup and tying knots in the lead line which are attached to her harness to stop it hanging down too far and getting stuck.
  • The 3rd Person or the Leader or both haul up the haul bag. The person to lead the next pitch eats, drinks and prepares. The haul line is coiled onto a rope hook as the bag comes up.
  • When the haul bag arrives it is attached to the anchor with a munter/mule knot then backed up with the long sling. The haul kit is detached and stowed in the 3rd Person’s small backpack. The haul bag rope coils are rotated as necessary to allow it to feed out smoothly on the next pitch.
  • When the Cleaner arrives she is made safe. The Leader collects the cleaned gear. The lead rope is coiled onto a rope hook. The Leader attaches the haul rope to the back of her harness and sets off up the next pitch.

Communication – needs to be very simple and very consistent. We used a combination of calls, radios (2 very small and rarely used), rope tugs and visual signals.

 Rope coils – pro tip. When using the rope hook or lap coiling into a sling start off with a long coil then make each subsequent coil a little shorter than the last. This stops the coils getting tangled in each other.

Tag line – we did take a 60m 6mm cord tagline in the haul bag but ended up not using it. Sometimes when the leader was less than ½ the rope length out we tagged up gear on the haul line.

Some specific pitch beta – the best pitch by pitch info is on Erik Sloan’s as yet unpublished “Guide to Climbing The Nose” which won’t be reproduced here. (Call or email him). The beta below is based on Erik’s topo (28 pitches) which seems to be preferred to the Supertopo one (31 pitches) – the pitches are slightly different in where they start and finish

  • Pine Line is the best approach if hauling – climb and haul round to the right of the tree and up to the anchors at the start of Pitch 1.
  • Pitch 4 – Greg used a large pecker twice on pin scars. Use the higher anchors on Sickle.
  • If hauling Pitch 4 don’t let the bag go low or it will get stuck in the “man eating flake” – haul and lower out at the same time.
  • Pitch 6 – the lower line with two lower outs worked well.
  • Pitch 9 to Dolt Tower we used larger cams including leapfrogging 2 no. 4s towards the top.
  • Pitches 10 and 11 – do not link
  • Texas Flake – leave the rack at the base of the chimney.
  • Boot Flake Pitch – a cam hook, micro cams and micro offset nuts were used above the bolts, leader to clip bolts across top of Boot for Cleaner.
  • King Swing – For the video with tips and beta look at Section 1 above or search;   Youtube King Swing Greg Fisher.  Leader is lowered down 16 – 20 feet below The Boot to where her feet are level with the 3rd from top bolt on the bolt ladder on the Boot pitch. To get maximum traction on the wall and a good sprint action Greg positioned his body so he was running with his toes pointing towards the direction he was running to get maximum speed. The hardest section of the aiding up to the anchors after the swing is through the wide part of the crack just above Eagle Ledge. It saves time for the leader to back clean as s/he climbs so that no-one has to go down to Eagle Ledge to clean it and also to reduce rope drag. The Germans did an extra pitch by anchoring on Eagle Ledge and lowering their haul bag down.
  • Lynn Hill Traverse – is not sport climbing. It is 5.10 face climbing with bolted protection and a little bold. An extender draw is useful. Cait only found 3 bolts (not the 4 marked on both Erik and Supertopo topos). A few micro/small cams can be used together to protect the section between the 3rd bolt and the anchors.
  • Great Roof – there is usually fixed gear with various tat up the final section into the roof.
  • Pitch 21 up to Camp V – this is a very awkward and strenuous pitch! It’s called The Butt Crack. Take care there have been accidents on this one.
  • Pitch 22 up to the Glowering Spot – On the thin aid section up the crack offset nuts are good. Don’t back clean as there are ledges below to fall onto.
  • Changing Corners – there are two bolts that lead right into the right hand corner – don’t take these. Continue up the 3 bolt ladder above. From the top bolt if you high step in your aid ladder and tension right you may be able to reach into the corner on the right high enough to reach a fixed wire. Cam hooks and micros in this section until bigger gear up to the anchors.
  • Wild Stance – Avoid the MegaDeath Spike on the left of the anchors.
  • Pitch 27 – an extender draw is useful. The anchor placement is uncomfortable.
  • The Top – communication may be very difficult from the top down to the anchor below. Plan for this prior to setting off on the last pitch.

 

Remarkables – Grand Traverse – Summer Solo

High above Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu the skyline is jagged with rocky spires. From almost the lake’s edge the ground rears up skywards through a wild country of grassed ridges and walls. All of this catches the wind, the storms, the snow and the late afternoon light. So close to civilisation but not to be underestimated.

A friend and I did a climb on the North East Buttress of Single Cone, one of the three pinnacles on the Traverse. The rock was coloured grey green and veined white. Smooth slabs had off sloping holds and overlaps. After two pitches we reached the less steep upper section where we could unrope and scramble. Up gullies, featured walls, slabs and finally the main ridge which ran through to the top. This climb was a familiarisation of the access, the climbing and also primarily a chance to scope out the descent at the end of the Traverse. All checked for the next day I scrambled down to the walk down track.

We all walk our own line of risk within a complex interplay of skill, experience, confidence, motivation. On my traverse day I would be going solo.

Remarkables at the head of the lake – early morning

I drove up the winding mountain road with my favourite tunes cranking through the spectacular landscape. An hour’s hike up from the ski field base and past Lake Alta arrived me at the Traverse proper, below a set of cliffs that topped the main ridge and provided a high point for a communications tower. At this level I headed across a large undulating shelf. I undulated down at one stage instead of regaining the ridge which meant that I had to scramble through some tricky terrain before I could climb up to a helipad. This switched me on, focussed my mindfulness about each move, made me start to feel “out there” a little, exposed. I’ve done a few solo things, including some long climbs at Arapiles. My mind tangled with the contrast to having a buddy around. A list of about a hundred mountains to climb in New Zealand and only probably 20 more years (61 now) to do as many of them as I can carries part of my motivation. Plenty of rockclimbing and hiking are under the belt but I only started serious mountain climbing two years ago with a sudden set of circumstances that enabled me to have the time and the means to stretch into real mountains. An unexpected dream coming. In my backpack I carried a harness, short rope and a small rack of gear for any difficult and scarey descents. Or to retreat.

“To be clear, I normally climb with a rope and partner. Free-soloing makes up only a small percentage of my total climbing. But when I do solo, I manage the risk through careful preparation. I don’t solo unless I’m sure I can do it.” Alex Honnold.

The day before there had been about ten parties on the Traverse whereas on my climb day I could only spy out one other. They were up ahead, roping up the ridge towards the North Peak of Double Cone. There was an easier route up a series of ramps on the left side of the ridge which I scoped out as the most straightforward way ahead (this is the route in the guidebook photo topo). Once I started though the actual ridge became my route of choice – the rock was mostly sound and the actual climbing moves were fabulous. Not hard but interesting. Huge drops down either side of the knife edge. Queenstown way below, snowy, iced mountains to the west including Tutoko and Earnslaw which remained on my list, and Aspiring. Way to the north Cook’s distinctive shape was visible on the horizon – beckoning. Narrow flat sections required confident balance, in places I crouched and ran a hand along the edge. When the holds ran out on one side of the ridge there was often an alternative on the other. A steepening towards the top drew me away from the edge then to the summit. The views all around were sensational.

It took a little time to find a way down the steep section to the gap between the North and South Peaks. The guidebook recommends considering rappelling if the sloping ledges are covered in verglass (frozen water ice). Fine in good hiking boots and dry summer rock. In many places the rock was scratched from crampons. The prospect of a winter climb, with a buddy and a rope, was enticing but a completely different sort of challenge. The group in front pitched their way up slabs from the gap, the top of the Petit Couloir, and an exposed arête. I found solid holds for hands and feet and continued up to the south summit of Double Cone. Rock shoes lay unused in my backpack. I first lunched on top while the other group did the same on the next pinnacle. Across the void we nodded at each other and exclaimed the beauty of the day. I loved being on my own, felt I was in my element, wide awake to the world, confident moving over the warm rock, in striking terrain.

Between the South Peak and the next gap, the Grand Couloir, was uncomplicated. I left the others, who were pitch climbing up the edge of the ridge, and this time followed the photo topo from the guidebook up a series of linked slabs and to the top of Single Cone. These slabs were riddled and crisscrossed with extrusions of white quartz, in beautiful profusions of patterns and wriggles, that appeared like writings, hieroglyphics, telling the stories of the mountains for those that could decipher the language of the rocks. I could only ponder the geology and appreciate the aesthetics of the figures. Run my fingers over the intricacies. Second lunch on the summit. Two other later climbers topped out on the South Peak of Double Cone. Their silhouettes against the deep blue above the horizon of the Main Divide looked stupendous. In my exuberance I felt like shouting over to them to ask their email addresses so I could send them a couple of cracking photos.

On the familiar ground of the ridge from the day before I descended. Not quite so keyed up from the unknown. The South East Gully must have been a little further along the summit ridge – I would probably need to rappel this if I climbed the traverse in winter. Back down to Lake Alta, hardy people swam in the glacial green iced water, tourists hiked up in the afternoon for sunset photos.

Notes

Scoping out the access the day before was very beneficial.

Conditions can be changeable – wind, rain, snow etc – can change the nature of the Traverse significantly.

As an Australian rockclimbing instructor I would always recommend having a rope, a buddy to hold the rope and gear for pitching.

The info and photo topos in the “Queenstown Rock, Ice and Boulders” is excellent and highly recommended. $50 for a “Grand” adventure.  From NZAC or outdoor gear shops in NZ.

Kumano Kodo

Kumano Kodo

 Nakahechi Route – a 5 day walk

 

Background and History

“Kumano is the ancient name for the southern region of the Kii Peninsula – a sacred site steeped in mystery and legend. Since ancient times this lush and rugged environment has nurtured a profound form of nature worship in which mountains, rocks, forests, trees, rivers and waterfalls are deified and revered as objects of worship. Kumano’s rich natural landscape is believed to be the otherworldly abode of the gods, and has been the focus of pilgrimage and spiritual training for centuries.” (Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guide Book, 2017)

Grand shrines and sacred sites of Buddhist sanctuary and mountain ascetics are linked by a network of pilgrimage routes. Together these shrines, sites and pilgrimage routes are recognised as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. The Kumano Kodo is “linked” to the only other UNESCO recognised pilgrimage route, the Way of St James in Spain (Camino de Santiago), enabling walkers to become “Dual Pilgrims”.

For more than a thousand years the Kumano area has been a place where Buddhism, Shinto and nature worship have been combined, adjusted and redefined – syncretised. Spirits of the dead inhabit the peaks. Pilgrims sought healing, regeneration and salvation. In this “paradise on earth” they walked to be spiritually and physically purified. In Shugendo, a combination of folk religion, shamanism, Taoism, Buddhism and Shinto, followers sought to gain supernatural powers through ascetic practices in the mountains. The early Kumano, 794 – 1185, was the golden age of pilgrimage reserved for the Imperial and aristocratic families who trekked in great assemblages. Later, 1185 – 1333, the Samurai warrior class continued the tradition and then from 1336 – 1573 came a wave of more common people. During the 17th to 19th century the Kumano became very well frequented. Under a stricter regime the Kumano fell into decline from the late 19th century. Only very recently since the 1990s have contemporary Japanese people rediscovered the pilgrimage routes and then in the last 10 years has it been opened up to westerners.

Day 1    Into the Mountains

Access was easy. Train to Kii Tanabe. The tourist info at the train station has free info booklets with maps. The bus station is right outside the station. Lots of helpful people speak English and were very friendly. An ATM is nearby and probably supermarket if required. Buses departed for Hongu stopping at Takijiri Oji every hour. The bus took 40 mins.

All accommodation and luggage transfers should be pre booked from the Kumano Kodo website which is a little complex but can be worked out and the website does everything once you learn how to use it for bookings. A booking request will take a few days to process. We had a group of 9 and some nights we had to be accommodated at different places in the same locality.

At Takijiri Oji we were met by our luggage transfer people with “welcome” signs. There is a Kumano Kodo visitor center with more booklets of maps and stamp booklets that are both free but must be requested. Water is available in the center.

The pilgrimage starts at Takijiri Oji where there is a shrine, stamp station and covered shelter.

An ascent of 300 m steep hiking took us up through beautiful forest on a path which was held together by the roots of many trees. It twisted and zig zagged and wound past rocks and mossy logs. An optional crawl through a tight rock cave added challenge. Towards the first flattening the trail followed a narrow ridge line. Stone steps and flatter open trails led us to the first lookout which revealed marvelous views of very steep hill slopes and deep valleys, all thickly forested in varied shades of dark green. The forest reminded me of ninja movies from my childhood where characters leapt backwards up into the trees from the ground and the “Twilight” films – brooding, silent, still. Small villages nestled in the valley bottoms. On the way up and across the ridge top we chattered, catching up with those in the group we knew and getting to know the others, gradually establishing and deepening the friendships with each other.

“To resolve to attain supreme enlightenment and then, to travel this distance can only be accomplished by way of our own feet.” (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)

Further on we rested at small shrines then entered a village perched on the ridge. A special walkers’ rest area provided excellent views of distant ranges foregrounded by terraced vegetable and rice gardens. Yellow and pink and white flowers bordered a narrow road. An old man proudly showed us his beautiful bonsai trees and well-tended garden. A larger shrine had been freshly painted. Accommodation – delightful hospitality, very comfortable rooms with stunning views across the valley. Hot bath with glimpses to the distant mountains. Sumptuous food. Good company.

4km – 2pm to 4.30pm, 430m up, 200m down. Takijiri-oji – Takahara

Day 2   Bamboo and Cedar

In the morning showers swept up the deep valley to our North. Mist rose and wisped between the forest and a low layer of heavy cloud in a changing series of Japanese landscape paintings. Birdcalls, crickets, and breeze made up the soundscape. Almost alive with a watchful presence the misty mountains had stood bearing witness to our fleeting passing and even to that of the pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo from across the centuries. What changes would they endure in the future I wondered.

A rainbow coloured the ranges auspiciously as we started walking. A good omen for the day ahead. Uphill through the village. Rainfall flowed at the roadside and turned a small waterwheel. Forest. Uphill. Sunlight streamed occasionally through the canopy. Dappled light then dim as cloud and mist vapours rose through trunks. Damp. Ferny forest floor on steep slopes under tall cedar trees. A pond overhung by delicate green. Shrines, red raised mini shelters, ancient standing stones, jizos alone beside the mountain path. The narrow track was carved into steep hill sides. Beautiful light, soft, changing with the vegetation and weather. Countless thousands of trees. Eerie birdcall.

We walked, sometimes chatting, sometimes quiet and alone with our own thoughts, tuned in to the landscape, to the past, to our own inner worlds. Brightly coloured in our designer outdoor gear contrasted the greens and browns of earth and plants. Mosses covered trunks growing and rotten, delicate fungi, surprising red crabs scuttled. Rest, eat, laughed together, regained hydration lost in copious sweat. Humid. Warm. Hard work uphill.

The trail is well signposted and mapped. “Kumano Kodo” with arrows and “Not Kumano Kodo” indicated diverging ways not to go. Distances. Interpretive information signs at key points of cultural interest. We stayed in touch with a couple of other groups, Australians, an older Japanese couple, and others.

Streams flowed over smooth stones. The sound of running water. Log bridges. Another small shrine. A place to collect another stamp in my pilgrim booklet. Lunch shared, plans made for the next day as we had to split up for different accommodations. Bamboo in amongst the forest cedars. Large village, paved road, cup of tea. Then uphill on a narrow road. More uphill.

Tsugizakura-Oji shrine at the top of the hill. Magnificent cedar trees, like an ancient growing cathedral. Tori gate, stone steps led up between the giants. We are quiet and awed again by the connection of nature, spiritual pursuit, homage.

“If the surroundings are serene, the mind is clear. When the mind and its surroundings are deeply connected, morals are profoundly cultivated.” (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)

At sunset the forested hills across the valley turned iridescent green. Our small guesthouse, Minshuku Tsugizakura, became a door opening onto the best Japanese hospitality we had experienced. Comfortable room, a very friendly older couple. It only holds 6 people and each was treated like a queen or king. The sumptuous meal was prepared by, Mr Yuba, a retired chef with 50 years Tokyo hotel experience and a passion for creating the tastiest dishes. The food was served and interpreted for us by, Christopher, a New Zealand Japanese with impeccable English and Japanese. Conversations ranged across diverse subjects adding a deeper layer to the “Masterchef” cuisine. This experience was an honour and privilege to be treated to. Bath, tired, plum wine, sleep.

13 km, 8.45 am – 4.30 pm (the walking seems to take a long time – hills, lots to investigate, millions of photos, rests, lunch, humidity, chatting). 830m up, 650m down. Takahara to Tsugizakura

Day 3  Through the Tori Gate

Breakfast was a replay of dinner with a fusion mix of Japanese-western friendly micro dishes. Bacon and eggs Japanese style, fruits and yoghurt, orange juice and then fish, tofu, pickles, salad etc. After copious thanks and smiles and gratitude for the extraordinary hospitality our hostess drove us down to the bus stop. We bussed through a short section of road walking to make a shorter day which enabled us to get to Yunomine, a famous onsen village. Much of the trail is serviced by local buses from nearby villages so the walk can be made extremely flexible based on time constraints and physical capabilities.

From Hosshinmon-oji we walked through small settlements. Fecund veggie patches and what appeared to be rows of tea hedges. Many houses fronting onto the route had quirky carved figures displayed for hikers. From a hilltop shrine we glimpsed Hongu, a final destination for the ancient pilgrims, the place of one of the primary temple complexes.

I walked alone for a little and pondered. If part of our hike, our journey was to be something of a pilgrimage on the Kumano Kodo what is it that we were trying to find? To discover? To pay homage to? To learn? To connect with? that brings a deeper meaning to our walking together. What would we “take home after internalising our experiences?” Like the lotus flower – I can grow in strength into something fine, acknowledging the darker and negative sides of myself, working thru them to seek beauty in myself, relationships and my impact on the world – perhaps to leave criticism of others behind, to make my garden more beautiful, to be careful and positive in my dealings with others. To gain a deeper awareness and understanding of the pursuit of challenge and lifefullness thru mountain asceticism and effort. To gain a more appreciation of the universality of our human seeking for deeper meaning in life connected to the cosmos.

Our “mind” is covered in the dust and dirt of our weaknesses, trauma, bad habits, cruelty etc. We need to work hard to sweep this dust away. We are connected to our physical surroundings. By “cleaning” our rooms and tidying them we create order and beauty and so do the same to ourselves. (Kuki a.k.a. Kobo Daishi)

Forest under bright sunlight contrasted the previous day’s somber mistyness. Ferns, rooted pathway, stone steps, sandstone worn from centuries of footfalls. Less humidity. A high vantage point provided distant views of a giant Tori gate in the valley below.

The famous temple of Kumano Hongu Taisha seemed to rise out of the land, made of timber with a thick thatched roof and brightly coloured wall hangings. Incense and smoke – a purification symbol. The area was busy with walkers and day trippers. We lunched in the grounds nearby, bento boxes packed with goodies and rice balls wrapped in leaves. Stamps pilgrim booklets. Left the town, exiting under the massive Tori gate, the biggest in Japan.

Up, up and up. Steep root bound steps in forest that got darker again. Mosses, ferns. A small shrine and the remains of a very old tea house – rest. More upwards effort. Then the trail showed its incredible age. It wound down a narrow ridge on a pathway that had been worn into a deep groove, steeply down, down. Crossed a stone bridge into the old onsen village. Sulphur smells of the hot mineral waters mixed with the aromas of timber. The constant sound of running water from a stream that ran through the middle of the settlement.

Onsen. Relax. Washed away the day’s sweat. Conversation in the bath about Jung’s collective consciousness connecting with the Buddhist concept of the universal consciousness or mind. Hot mineral salted water. Clean. Washed through. Another series of culinary delights at dinner seated on the floor. And later a cooler evening.

Bus from Tsugizakura to Hosshinmon-oji then walk to Hongu and on to Yunomine.  11km walk

Day 4   Over the Mountain

A short bus ride took us to the next trail head at Ukegawa.

At the start of the trail a newish sign in four languages proclaimed “Peace to the World”.

Coloured flowers in gardens. Steep uphill for 400m. Through the back yards of houses. Into the forest. The weather was clear and warming but a gentle cooling breeze blew across the hills. We made our way upwards steadily. We were getting into a rhythm with the days and the group. The forest and hills, greens and browns became like home, meditative. A time to think and reflect. A time to interchange. We rested at the remains of a tea house that had been very busy on the route during the Edo period between 600 and 848 AD. The antiquity of the path we were following added a huge depth of history to our journey. At times we walked along high, narrow ridges where the slopes on each side plummeted away. Some sections of track were carved into the steeps and very old stone walls hold it in place in others. Small wooden bridges crossed streamways. Lush ferns, moss, tangled undergrowth, open forest.

 

 

 

 

A small, solitary Jizo shrine was perched atop a pile of small stones. I felt quite affected by the script that described this. It seemed to encapsulate a key part of the rich and mythical nature of the spiritual belief of the people of the past, and perhaps the present also, that pilgrimaged along this Kumano Kodo. The lyrical description, the story, the rawness of my own mother’s recent passing, the thought of young children dying and the large pile of small stones struck a chord deep inside me.

A rare opening in the forest which coincided with a high point revealed a panorama of hills and mountains that faded from green to blue into the distance. We morning teaed and chattered and laughed together. A small Jizo watched over us. At its feet a recent hiker had laid a small bracelet as an offering that was inscribed with colourful peace signs.

At first I was dismayed at the spoiling of the sanctity of the tiny shrine but on reflection I thought of it as a form of syncretising of modern beliefs and symbolism with those of the ancients. This is exactly what had been taking place over millennia in the Kumano in the merging, blending, mixing and coming together of different forms of Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, shamanism, folk religion and Shugendo.

Undulating terrain followed for several kilometres. We lunched on our bento boxes at a shelter on the site of another old tea house ruin. Then downhill. Past poem monuments and small shrines. I walked alone for a time with some music – a hybrid chant overlain with lilting electric guitar – that connected immediately the inner landscape with the outer world. And more steeply down. Stone steps. Smooth river rocks had been transported high onto the hill to stabilise the path and in places to form a tessellated pavement which could have proved difficult in wet conditions. For some of us with joint issues the down was much harder than the up. Eventually to the village. And the river, pristine, clear and deeper green water flowed over rocks and pebbles.

An old school had been converted cleverly to accommodate walkers in comfort at Koguchi.  We swam in the cold water in gently swirling pools below a riverside shrine. More delicious food for dinner. Plans were made for an early start to the challenging last day.

Moonlight suffused through paper screens. The flowing stream sounded outside our window. Smell of timber.

Bus from Yunomine to Ukegawa. Walk Ukegawa to Koguchi. 13km. 670m up, 690m down

Day 5  Walk

The trek over the Ogumotori-goe section is the hardest of the Nakahechi Route. A long day  ascending, traversing and descending a large mountain. Straight into mossy stone steps, up and up and up. Forest. Chat and step up a thousand times and then a break and then again. The incline was well graded, not as steep as anticipated. A boot repair with zip ties seemed to be working well. We kept to a slow and steady pace. A flat section half way up provided a little welcome relief. Maybe it was the meditative nature of repetitive movement through the forest landscape that made the actual nature of the path so interesting. Large stone pavements, smooth rocks heavily mossed at the edges of the “way”, steps edged with triangular shaped blocks, twisted cedar roots, logs that hold back erosion and my favourite a large ascending smooth slab that could have been treacherous without pegged in logs affixed horizontally. In places huge gnarled trees had grown into the side of the path and occasionally a large boulder had come to rest in the center.

At one point golden light beckoned through the trees from higher up. Under foot constantly changed and surprised.

Flat shelves had been excavated and held strong with stone retaining walls. These had become overgrown through the centuries. In ages past this area had been a small village of accommodating guest houses. I imagined the noise and activity of owners hustling pilgrims to stay in their lodgings, the smells of cooking, smoke from fires, and walkers, some struggling uphill and others in high spirits nearing the completion of their journeys with one last mountain to cross.

This steep hill known as Dogiri-zaka means “Body Breaking Slope” – an 800m climb. “Even the famous poet Fujiwa Teika (1162 – 1241) was at a loss of words after walking this section, stating in his pilgrimage diary from 1201 that, ‘This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is'”. (Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route Maps information booklet)

I was able to feel a small connection, in my own struggles upwards, with the Shugendo who sought to gain supernatural powers through ascetic practices in the mountains. Stone poem plinths had been placed at regular intervals. I wished I could have read each inscription, the Japanese script appeared evocative and mysterious. Brendon’s altimeter GPS watch indicated earlier than expected our imminent arrival at the high point and still in good condition we made Echizen-toge Pass. Small celebrations, chocolate and a group photo.

Thankfully downwards for a short time took us to a beautiful stream. Grottos, mossy boulders, flowing water, ponds, overhanging delicate green foliage. Reflections.

According to Kuki Ietaka, chief priest of Kumano Hongu Taisha (one of the three Grand Shrines) “Kumano is a feeling, not form – a manifestation of the Divine Intangibles – a celebration of life’s powerful vitality. The value of Kumano is universal, timeless, and as relevant now as it was 1000 years ago. It is a peaceful place in nature to take a moment to reflect on, and reaffirm one’s future direction and meaning in life – a sacred space to open one’s mind, heart, soul; all of one’s senses; and let the artificial boundaries and borders of the modern world disappear – allowing us to contemplate life as one unified humanity on planet earth. The importance of a pilgrimage to Kumano is not in its completion, but rather what you take home after internalising your experiences.” (Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guidebook, 2017)

Up and over an intermediate hill on the larger ridge line to the remains of an old tea house. Now there is a forestry road and in spite of guidebook exhortations that there are no facilities on this day’s walk there was a flushing toilet, shelter and a drink vending machine. The small cans of hot coffee from the machine proved very popular. Jenny shared sweet mung bean cakes carried from the day before. We undulated on the forestry road and the trail along the tops. Water flowed gently beside and over the path flagstones at times.

Like characters from Lord of The Rings we passed through the “Abode of the Dead”, “the souls of the dead gravitate to these higher mountains, where spirits inhabit this section of trail”. The forest then parted to reveal a rare view of the region ahead – the ocean, convoluted coastline, a small seaside town – our ultimate destination. Bob stood tall on a tree stump. Laura and I did ninja jumps in the trees. Our finish was in sight way below. And we all ate rice balls for lunch, again.

 

 

 

Down, down, down. Joints complained. Knees, hips, ankles. It was a long way to the base.

Eventually our journey ended at Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of three grand shrines of the Kumano. The temple complex was wonderful. Incense fragranced the air at the entrance to ancient wooden temples. A massive old-growth camphor tree, incorporated into the terraced grounds, has a narrow cleft in its base through which pilgrims can pass into rebirth. From the terraces a magnificent view of a colourful three storied pagoda shrine in the foreground and the plunging Nachi-no-Otaki falls, the highest in Japan. We stamped our pilgrim booklets and walked on tired legs to the bus stop.

Later at the coast in outdoor onsens we soaked in hot mineral water while looking out over the smooth green sea to other islands. The setting sun touched high clouds with colour. Raptors floated effortlessly over the water and a fish jumped. The natural world rolled ever onward and our “other” journey continued.

14km, 1260m up, 930m down. Koguchi – Kumano Nachi Taisha.

Totals – walking

Distance  55.4 km

Ascent     3,400 m

Descent.  2,970 m

Logistics

Bookings – for accom and luggage transfer done through Kumano Travel (see note below). The website is excellent once you have engaged with the route.

Costs – package for 5 nights accom, dinner and breakfast and some bento lunch boxes, and luggage transfer was about $700AU per person. Extras were for drinks, snacks, onsens etc.

Food – provided was very Japanese. Dinners are generally sumptuous. The occasional mini mart in villages provided more variation. Suggest you take tea and coffee and other special drinks and powdered milk if you are addicted to these otherwise plenty of green tea provided. Take a coffee mug? Bring some muesli and powdered milk if you struggle with Japanese breakfast. Suggest making use of mini marts to stock up on snacks.

Boots were found suitable

Luggage – arranged transfer worked seamlessly

Groups – don’t worry if you can’t always be accommodated in the same place as there are usually multiple places available nearby

Pace – we walked slower than on a standard hike/bushwalk because we had shorter days planned but also because we found there were lots of interesting things to investigate along the way. Also there was quite a lot of up and down.

Path – ancient and mostly well-formed but could be slippery in the wet.

Walking poles – highly recommended to have 2 in case of wet conditions and also to ease the downhills.

Water – fill up enough for each day – at least 2 litres – each morning. Vending machines for drinks also available.

Map booklets – maps should probably be printed from the Kumano Travel website before you come in case you can’t get them in Japan. They are available from Tourist office in Kii Tanabe, the Kumano Heritage Centre at Takijiri and some places along the way.

Stamp booklets – each of the special places has a very nice little unique stamp that can be collected into a Pilgrim Booklet. You have to ask at the Kumano Heritage Center at Takijiri for the Booklet.

Local buses – are accessible from many places along the route and make flexibility easy to enable changes to walk plans along the way.

Signage – is generally but not always excellent.

Local people – very friendly and helpful

Useful contacts and info

Kumano Travel – is an international award winning community-based initiative; a bilingual (Japanese and English) online reservation system for the region. Accommodation reservations, tours and activities, local guides, info, luggage shuttle, model itineraries

Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau

Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Pilgrimage Route Maps. Booklet

Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Official Guidebook 2017 – available through the website of Kumano Travel

http://www.kumano-travel.com/index/en/action_Default_Index

Mount Aspiring – Sublime Adventure

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Mount Aspiring – Sublime Adventure

(Note – topo sketches included at end)

The rope connected us. Tied us together. Inseparable. I’d consider and agonise over its necessity many times in the next week. Ours was beefy, strong, purple. A crossover from the static and predictable world of rockclimbing, not well suited to the wild and dynamic higher mountain. Aspiring. The questioning would reach a crisis at the last throw of the dice.

Day 1

The plan was a good one, to walk in some of the way as the forecast weather cleared, which would give us a shorter day for the main approach to Colin Todd Hut up on the ice plateau. From the Hut we could climb the peak. Rain and storms had swept the South Island as we made last minute preparations and gathered more information.

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Snow covered the peaks on the drive in to the road head. Creek crossings were a little flooded for the hired corrolla. We left Raspberry Flat at about midday with the showers seeming to retreat up the valley as we walked. The Matukituki River was swollen green with rain and glacial melt water. Through daisies fields and past cows and sheep the flat trail led us to Aspiring Hut where we rested and took stock of the weather. We pushed on relying on the forecast for an improve which it did for a time. Shovel flat, high hanging glaciers, Pearl Flat, wire bridges over streams, into magical mossed beech forest like Middle Earth. We forged ahead through wet scrub on a lesser trail getting saturated. Scott’s Bivvy Rock beckoned us. Alas even the fancy GPS phone navigation app could not help us locate it. We thrashed around looking. Totally buggered. Showers returned. 7.30 pm. In a tussocky clearing we sheltered from the wind behind a clump of bushes and laid out bivvy bags. “I need food”, Tom.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stood around miserable, ate dinner in the rain. I struggled into my goretex bag and wrestled into sleeping bag and dry thermals. Then through the long night I fretted between searching for down soddening drips and leaks and asphyxiating due to lack of oxygen. Showers persisted through the night. Miraculously I stayed dry and warm and alive and welcomed the relief of morning. More sprinkling rain brought a sleep in.

 

 

 

Day 2

The forecast good day did clear a little so between showers we packed up. EVERYONE had advised us not to go up the Bevan Col route in wet conditions so we headed off on a retreat towards the alternative French Ridge Hut which would give us shelter and a chance to dry out, but use up a valuable extra day.

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Walking down beside the stream within 100 meters of our Bivvy spot we noticed some of the river rocks were drying out. Maybe the notoriously treacherous steep slabby rock would be dry enough to be feasible. So we decided to change the plan and try for the Bevan Col route. 100 meters up the valley we discovered the palatial, dry (compared to a rainy night in a bag) Scott’s Bivvy rock We could have spent a fun, comfy, dry night holed up in the small shelter under the rock and looked out at the passing showers. We lost the track then and struggled and fought through tangled, wet boulder scrub with the really heavy packs (RHPs) for way too long. The food, fuel, warm clothes, too thick rope, rockclimbing gear, my antique heavyweight ice axes etc etc weighed too much. I thought a lot about Sherpas, porters and people of the past with their heavy loads carried into the mountains as I struggled. I thought about how much work and punishment a body, my body, Tom’s body could take before breaking down.

At the “Head of the Valley” we met up with a Canadian couple who had camped for two days waiting for the weather to clear. They somehow exuded mountain competence and experience. Up past the first waterfall all the rock was wet, and steep! The other two started up a low route on a rising traverse of narrow ledges as Tom and I roped up and pitch climbed a section up to and past a bolt, more vertically and closer to the edge of an abyss on the right. The Canadians joined our route and within sight of each other (this leant a significant air of confidence and commeraderie) we decided the rope was unnecessary as there were no real anchors (we didn’t see any more of the abseil route bolts that must have been hidden from us) and the terrain seemed ok. Just! Tussocks and small plants were good to pull up on, the boots edged on small holds and grooves enabled us to balance our loads and teeter upwards as the drop below beckoned with greater height. One section had tricky moves on a ramp overhanging the abyss. Scared. Tenuous. I’d seen a video of a group having an epic descent in heavy rain. They had given up, camped on a small ledge then finally reached the ground next day terrified and drenched. Eventually we made the flat ridge at the top. Flat. Safe. We navigated together then in mist, sharing our info and topo sketches and trying to make sense of the complex terrain. Down a little then up right along a system of slabs which were covered in snow and wet, balancing delicate moves with the RHPs.

The slabs dropped off to the valley floor. After crossing a stream gully we slogged up a steep snow gully, sharing the step making effort. Above a buttress we climbed onto a snow arête and saw the Col only a little higher and further over.

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In a small clearing in the clouds the white summit cap of Aspiring mystically appeared, lit up by the late afternoon sun. As if rewarding us for our effort and risk, and beckoning us on. A moment of clarity and beauty. Our first view of Tititea.

It had taken 6 hours to toil up the 950 meters to the Col. Having roped up we crossed our first crevasse within meters of starting down a snow ramp and then onto the Bonner Glacier.  It seemed to take forever, slowly plodding across the snow and ice. I focussed my mind on looking out for crevasses and tried ridiculously to step lightly. Following the Canadian’s steps was reassuring but no guarantee. At every step I tried to sense the tension in the rope behind leading to Tom, to be ready to instantly throw myself down and dig my boots into the snow so I could hold his fall through into a hidden canyon of ice. This was our first glacier crossing since our mountaineering course. On our own. At the end of a very long day. Stay switched on. Don’t relax. And hope Tom, at the other end of the rope, was doing the same and was ready if I suddenly holed through to thin air underfoot, that he’d hold me dangling by that thread over the icy void.  With RHPs. A final killer 100 meter ascent from the glacier slip sliding up a narrow gully took forever before we reached the rocky domes around the hut. 7.30 pm. Totally spent – physically and mentally.

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The weather cleared. Aspiring/Tititea is a stunningly beautiful mountain. Any ascent from the valley floor is a huge challenge, nothing is gained easily and the fickle weather dictates the terms. Friends have spent weeks hutted and camped nearby only to return home without having stepped on the mountain. We were trying to make the most of the first period of forecast clear weather for the whole summer season (mid Feb) so far. Boots off. Food. Tea. Dinner. Comfort. Shelter. Relief. Rest. Amazingly at 8.30 pm two fellows arrived who had walked in in one 12 hour push – epic!

The Plan – 3 days good weather was forecast – clear, light winds. So far in New Zealand we had only had the occasional good days in amongst atrocious conditions – rain hammering, winds belting. We shared valuable info on possible ways of doing the North West Ridge with the two other pairs. They were on tighter time schedules and aimed to climb the following day. We would trust the weather and have a day to rest and explore to sort out which way we would take, and to familiarise.

To sleep, to sleep, dry and long. My heart seemed still to be thumping as I lay in the moonlit hut – altitude (surely not), dehydration, exertion?

Day 3

The “one day walk inners” left at 4.00am and the Canadians, who turned out to be a mountaineering instructor and an Antarctic remote camp supervisor, departed with more confidence at 7.00am. Later on we followed their tracks up the ISO Glacier and then went on to climb on a nearby smaller peak, the Rolling Pin.

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We returned via the Shipowner Ridge to the hut. Throughout the day Aspiring stood clear and majestic from every vantage point, intimidating, tantalising and always beckoning. Much later than expected we spied both groups near the summit in perfect weather – around 2.30pm. Later still we saw nothing of them. 2 guides arrived with clients who had walked across from the helicopter landing about 2 km away. Then another 2 couples arrived from French Ridge Hut having made it through the Quarterdeck Pass which was normally cut off so late in the summer. Throughout the afternoon I checked on the climbing pairs, seeing nothing, with a growing sense of concern for their safety.

From all our sources of info there seemed to be four main ways to climb the North West Ridge.

  1. The “full” NWR – very long and time consuming on the lower third. And we had already done the  Shipowner Ridge section.
  2. Via the ISO and Therma Glaciers – a quicker way past Shipowner but still slow below the “slab”.
  3. Via the Ramp – a steep snow slope overlaying slabs that bypasses all the rock on the ridge – deemed too dangerous due to avalanche risk so late in the season.
  4. Via the Kangaroo Patch which is a snow slope leading up to the “slab” at 1/3 height.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Late in the day the guides and their clients did a reconnaissance up the Kangaroo Patch, and in the process set a nice set of steps in the steep snow. Based on our own analysis this was also our preferred route. I worried some more about the two climbing parties who were spending so much time on the climb and I considered how remote and isolated they were should anything go wrong.

Tom and I carefully prepared for the next day – lunch, gear, rope coiled and set out, bags packed, clothes laid out, boots and crampons readied. It was reassuring to have time to do all this methodically – for our first big mountain. Just like in our training course we had everything ready for “summit day”. We just hoped the weather gamble would still pay off.

Eventually one party returned at 8.00 pm. They’d had an epic 16 hour day including having to reverse 4 pitches trying unsuccessfully to do a rising traverse on snow across the slopes above the Therma Glacier. The other party returned at 8.30 – 13 1/2 hours. Tom and we’re both thinking that if these parties had taken so long we would be in for a very long day. It was difficult to get to sleep with the buzz in the overfill hut, and to stay asleep later. Keyed up. I drank water through the night top prehydrate.

Day 4

I awoke before the alarm at 2.50 am, lit the stove and woke Tom. Within 15 minutes there were 5 climbing pairs bustling about. Muesli, 2 cups of tea and another drink of water.

Harness on, crampons, backpack, axe, rope. First out the door. A slowly moving set of tiny headlamps followed up the crunchy set of steps under moonlight and a canopy of stars. At 6.00 we reached the slab. At its left edge we climbed a short easy pitch up the ridge as the other parties got going, and then traversed round left onto the open face. The sky lightened a little. Fears of a bottleneck on the rock dissipated as parties climbed around each other on the fairly straightforward rock. Friendly and unhurried, waiting, moving aside, cheery chat. We made up a commeraderie of climbers from Australia, New Zealand, France, Peru and Italy. It was like a day out on a popular crag – on the “Matterhorn of the Southern Alps”, surrounded by now pink tinged snowy peaks and plunging dark valleys and glaciers and snow all around and below. 3 pitches of roped rock climbing on the left hand face (looking up) brought us back onto the ridge proper. I felt at home on the rock – on familiar ground. We were going well. Tom and I moved efficiently together. The practice climbing we’d done was paying off. I laughed and chattered and waved to the other groups nearby.

For a time we simulclimbed the rocky ridge with 20m of rope between us threaded round blocks and through gaps in the rock. On both sides verticality plummeted away to steep snow and ice below the cliffs. The sun goldened the surrounding peaks and ranges. The two guided parties dropped behind and one pair went in front.

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At 8.30 am we reached the “notch”, a low gap between the rocky lower ridge and the snow and ice of the summit section. Morning tea, stash the rock gear and some water for the descent. We removed the rope as the snow looked straightforward and consistent. Without anchors and belays, which would have taken too much time, any slip or mistake by one of us would mean the end for both if we had remained roped together. I remembered a line from my course, “If you’re not attached to the mountain the rope is a danger to you both”. Crampons back on we made our way up.

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Stepped up slowly through the snowfields. As the angle steepened I zigzagged a slow and careful ascent. The ground and snow continued to be fine for well placed steps, driving the side points into the surface for maximum grip. Over near the right edge Where cliffs dropped away I  was able to spy another group on the near vertical ice couloir section of the South West Ridge.

Higher up my mind played tricks with the numbers I had written down as staging points. Tom’s altimeter had us at 2870m which I calculated at about 500m still to go but I could hear whoops and see helmeted heads peering over at us from not very far above. The summit ice steepened but it was still ok for us to safely solo so we made our way up subtle slightly lower angled ramps and then out left a little. And then there it was. 10 m away. The others were taking photos of us as we made the final few steps. I was overcome.

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I had to hug and shake hands with everyone. Reaching a dream that had percolated for forty years happens only rarely. Time and health and loved ones and the world has to come together in a special combination in that one place at that one moment. The world is indeed a wonderful place. Peaks and lakes and glaciers and valleys and ice and snow and rock blazed with light everywhere. In certain moments time and life is concentrated in sublime adventure.

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10.30 am. We photoed and laughed and lunched in perfect windless calm on Tititea’s mountain top. The south west ridge pair appeared to join the merry throng. In a quiet moment Tom and I shook hands in a gesture of thanks to one another for sharing the climb and for making it possible for each other.

Down – switch on again. The ascent is only half the climb. We stepped down the icy sastrugi, slow, measured steps, taking lines that gave the greatest chance of a self arrest should we make a mistake. Minds off the view, eyes locked on feet. Concentrating hard not to tanglefoot or catch a crampon strap. Back at the notch I collected the rock gear. Six of us scrambled back along the narrow rocky ridge together. Awkward moves over the left or right faces or along the actual crest. Up and down. The axes came out for a steep short icy section and the rope for a snow slope protected with an old piton.

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At the base of the steep buttress now 8 of us shared ropes and chatted as we abseiled 4 rapells in happy company together. Then all safely back at the slab we descended at our own pace in pairs roped together against the hidden crevasses in the softer afternoon snow.

Back to the hut. 3.30pm. I was tired but not buggered. The climb had been splendid. Easier and less nerve wracking than anything on the Bevan Col route, which was true to popular legend. All our skills had been brought out, but we had not been pushed out of our comfort zones. Bit by bit, section by section, it had all been OK.

Tea. Boots off. Rest in the warm sun. Inner glow. Food.

A tepid bath in a secluded pond in the rocky knolls nearby – heated by the sun, clean and washed, then lie on the warm stone, naked before the stupendous landscape and the sun. Best bath ever.

The guided parties arrived over dinner. Our thoughts turned to the next stage – getting down to the valley. The Bevan Col route filled us with dread even on dry rock so we opted for French Ridge via the Quarterdeck – in spite of the crevasse stories.

Day 5

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Another up at 4.30am and depart at 5.30 morning. We hoped for firm snow in the cold morning. We plodded back across the Bonner then did a slow climb to the higher part of the glacier between ice falls. The blue ice rose like a silent, slow moving wave in front of us.

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The sun touched the South West face of Aspiring.

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We trudged upwards, the packs a little lighter. A long uphill in the sun and glare took us to the snowy pass of the Quarterdeck which led down to French Ridge and the safety of hiking trails. It’s never over till that lady sings and I couldn’t hear any notes in the breeze. We had also left early to go through the Quarterdeck icefall before the sun softened everything up. So a quick stuff of the face with food and we were off. It was firm and hard still. A little scarey. Down steeply, then across a huge crevasse at the edge of the cliff above Gloomy Gorge, down some more, over (just!) a crevasse with a large foot hole, down, gingerly across then onto a steep section of ice. We front pointed sideways on frozen toe holes from previous climbers. Committed, we continued across then diagonally down.  The ice axe pick dug in deep with each step.  A massive yawning crevasse waited 30 meters of steep ice below. This was much harder than anything on the climb, the course or even Bevan Col. Trust your buddy. Front point down, some more, careful. I could see the bottom. Concentrate. Tom’s crampon came loose. I dug a little stance for myself and tried to ram my axe handle into the ice for an anchor, unsuccessfully. Tom stayed in control, balanced with his pack on, ice axe dug in, and carefully reattached it. Trust. Don’t fall now. Ice screws were in the bottom of the pack, unavailable. The rescue knife that could have cut us free from one another lay forgotten at the back of my harness. We didn’t both have to go. Then down a step at a time. Eventually onto softer then less steeply angled snow and finally to the bottom. Release. Relief. A close call, just in control, there’s a very fine edge between safety and danger sometimes.

Lunch on a sunny rock. A pair of tar scampered over the snow. Valleys. Mountains. Down snow then scree and rock and into alpine grassland. French Ridge Hut. Tea. Views. Keas. Muesli leftovers for a second lunch. Waterfalls tumbled from hanging glaciers everywhere into the valleys. Their constant murmur, a low hum, sounded like it could be the lady’s song at last.

Day 6

Down, down, down. In the dark (it’s a habit now) to reduce the risk of getting stuck in the carpark due to flooded streams from the forecast afternoon rain. Down from the bright red hut. The descent track hugged the edge of the drop into Gorge. Tangled roots provided hand and foot holds. Into the beech forest at last. Careful not to twist a knee or ankle. The stream at the bottom, 900 m below the hut, tumbled and churned glacial green and silver over boulders beside mossed trees. Rest, eat, recuperate.

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Along the valley floor the track wound back in and out of the forest and daisy fields. At regular rest stops we looked back and far above to the mountain top visible above the ice of the Breakaway. High, aloof, imposing, now with a wind blown cloud plume in the deteriorating weather.

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We passed by a variety of people, hikers from across the world, the DOC hut warden off to catch and band robins. And at Aspiring Hut a pair of seasoned climbers, “Aspiring is probably the finest mountain in New Zealand”.

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And a group of exuberant young adults who had mountain biked into the clearing to lunch and rest. A similar age to the students I had worked with for many years I struck up a conversation with a bubbly guy and girl at the table where I was tying up my pack. I learned that they were a group from Mount Aspiring College out on an outdoor trip for the day. “I want to climb Mount Aspiring in 2019. It’s my aim”, the shining young man told us with a determined and hopeful grin while pointing up the valley from where we’ve come. “Good luck and good on you”, I responded and thought ‘may the force be with you and may the lady of the waterfalls sing your safe and exuberant return from the journey’. In this brief interchange I sensed a strong connection through a wrinkle in time, a reflection of my self across the decades and across the wooden bench. A circularity, a sense of completion and renewal. The call and wonder of the mountains.

————————————————————————–

THANKS

Tom – for being on the other end of the rope, for trusting and for sharing every aspect of the journey

Tai – from AGL for all the info so generously shared about the climb and access

NZAC – for providing the forum for Tom and I to connect up

AGL – for the terrific Technical Mountaineering Course which gave us the skills and knowledge and confidence to take it all on (Bill and Tai)

Adventure Consultants and Aspiring Guides in Wanaka for providing even more bits of information

NOTE

Message from daughter on the day we left – “Sorry I missed your call. I was at an African dance class. Hope your adventures are sublime.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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Abridged article in NZAC Australia Section magazine Sept 2017

 

Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary Volunteers

62

Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary Volunteers – 2 weeks

Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) sanctuary 15 – 30 June 2016img_0076

Having kept an eye on the SA Outback Roads website for a month it was clear that with the recent rains we were lucky to make it to Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary’s gate on schedule. All the way up the Birdsville Track was green. Sanctuary Manager Tess met us at the gate with a welcoming smile and instructions on driving carefully in her tyre tracks. Over the first big dune a large claypan opened up. Over the next was the homestead and nerve centre for the property. Arid desert country at the meeting point of the Tirari, Sturt Stony and Simpson Deserts and bordering Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre, the old grazing property now provides a continuous reserve system linking the Simpson Desert Regional Reserve and Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre National Park. Cath and I, both recently retired, had committed to a two week volunteering stint.

On the first day we settled in to our extremely comfy cottage. After an induction Tess drove us out to a beautiful place on the Warburton Creek, Stoney Crossing. The birdlife was plentiful on the strongly flowing floodwater. Sunset across the enormous sky was stunning.img_0111

The property is managed by a couple, Mark and Tess, who are employed by Australian Wildlife Conservancy. On our second day we cleaned and tidied up the Saddlery which is set up as a base camp for scientists and research survey groups. Tess drove out to the remote part of the property to escort back in a couple of palaeobiologists who were investigating 100,000 year old egg shells of Genyornis, a large emu-like bird – now extinct. Showers were threatening. Mark had been stranded in Leigh Creek by closed roads and rain further south. We started a cleanup of the workshop and garage area and unpacked some new air conditioning units. As rain started the scientists just made it out to Mungerannie before the access road was closed again. Apparently when the big rains came on New Year’s Day (180mm) Tess and Mark couldn’t get out for 4 months due to floodwaters coming down from the Channel Country and the damaged roads. Over sunset we watched black kites in groups cruising over the dunes and swales.img_0047To minimise damage to the internal tracks we restricted ourselves to the homestead area. Next day we tidied up garden areas and removed bushes that could have been a fire hazard. Cath did some caulking of the cracks in the cottage while I made up some bed bases and tops for work benches. It was a wonderful change to be doing work that at the end of each day you can look over what you have achieved and actually see the results. We drove over to the next door air strip and collected the mail.

img_0088Our days took on a pattern. Start work at 8.30am and go thru till 4.00ish including breaks then go for a sunset walk over the dunes and along the claypans birdwatching, exploring and photographing. Dinner, catch up on emails, read. Be in the landscape, experience the weather changes, live on the property, learn about all sorts of things, do physical work.

On day 4 we continued gardening and carpentry. Mark finally got through with his load of solar panels and batteries and food supplies for him and Tess. Amazingly a fuel tanker arrived and filled up the diesel and generator tanks and dropped off some helicopter AV gas drums. There was heavy rain in the Channel Country in the Cooper and Diamantina catchments. We got the TV going in the cottage and discovered that the one station we could get broadcast AFL during prime time 5 nights a week. A shame those games last so long!

img_0140Mark burnt the piles of brush that we’d removed from around the buildings. Then we drove out together to check on the campsites in readiness for a couple of small groups of ecologists and volunteers – to “Pretty Place”, “The Island”, “Stoney Creek” and “Boat Ramp”. Yellow flowers were starting to carpet the landscape. Mark spotted a red backed kingfisher. After lunch I helped unload the heavy solar gear at the airstrip hanger and washed down the vehicle that had been in to town. It’s quite a job to remove all the mud to ensure all the weed seeds are removed. Kalamurina is mostly weed free but a few species are knocking at the fence to get in.

On day 6 heavy morning fog lay in the home claypan. I cleaned up and fitted a new battery in the tilt trailer hydraulic unit and finished the bed bases. Cath got the plum job of “tyning” the outer part of the airstrip which involved driving slowly and carefully up and down and round in the landcruiser ute towing a heavy meal square which scraped the ground smooth and free of weeds – all while listening to the only cd in the cab – Slim Dusty. I started fabricating some signs and working on a mobile workbench.20160620_121102

Day 7 we worked on the airstrip together, driving and hoeing the round markers. The strip is used for visiting tour groups and emergencies mainly so must be maintained to RFDS standards. The property strip is clay based, next door’s is sand based and 60km away at Mungerannie on the Birdsville Track there is an all-weather gravel strip. We had the afternoon off and went birdwatching at “The Island”.

Next day we were homestead bound again due to rain so I assisted Mark prepping the area for the solar installation. On the property nearly everything is recycled. I spent time stripping the plastic off various bits of copper wire to take into town for recycling. Cath assisted with stocktaking the RFDS emergency box. In the afternoon I continued with measuring up and routing the signs while Mark did several jobs. He’s a super talented guy with immense skills developed over intensive time in the bush. He welded, backhoed, fenced and road maintained like an artisan. He and Tess must be some of the hardest working people in the Southern Hemisphere. They have amazing attention to detail and safety and deep care and concern for the property. We drove out to “Stoney Crossing” and saw pelicans, kites, spoonbills and a host of others. 4.8mm of rain fell overnight and in the middle of it I inexplicably received a text message.

20160627_103123I finished fabricating some metal signs and together we painted a stack of survey pegs. More showers fell during the day and Cath had an afternoon off. In the evening we watched a video from the collection, counted out our supply of teabags and rationed our remaining fresh vegies.

On day 10 we did more signs – I routed and Cath painted. We sorted and cleaned the sheds some more. In the afternoon it fined up and in the evening we walked west to a large claypan through the now blooming desert.

20160625_151023At last next day the roads had dried out so after lunch by the Warburton we spent the afternoon out at “Mia Mia Camp” dismantling and removing broken rural structures and old building materials – tin, timber, logs, poles, wire. The rechargeable angle grinder worked a treat along with the shovel, mattock and rake hoe.

Day 12 was Sunday. We had the day off. More rain overnight so a group of campers were brought in from “The Island” camp to base themselves in the Saddlery.

On day 13 we finished the sheds and continued on with the signs. Day 14 the weather cleared again. I washed down the vehicles that had been into Mungerannie and back the day prior. We continued routing and painimg_0030ting then walked out to “The Island” to stretch the legs. On day 15 I washed down the wash down pad before the drying mud turned to concrete. We finished the set of signs which stood proudly against the back wall of the super tidy and clean sheds. We walked parallel down the dunes to where they dropped steeply into the Warburton. Wildflowers profused in white, pink and yellow and a variety of birds sang the sunset.

On our final day we packed up the “Saddlery” after the visitors left, cleaned the cottage, pulled out a line of star pickets in the home paddock and packed the car for a crossing of the Simpson Desert. The tracks on Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary were still muddy so the annual July bird survey had to be cancelled. More rain was forecast. We departed and made it out between closures of the access road.

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Budgerigar

Pelican

Black kite

Willie wagtail

Crested pidgeon

Fairy martin

Sparrow

Brown song lark

Red capped robin

Zebra finch

Red-backed kingfisher

White-necked heron

Whistling kite

Cockatiel

Rufous songlark

Black-shouldered kite

Magpie

Galah

Magpie lark

Gull billed or Caspian tern?

Black-faced woodswallow

Weebil?

Royal spoonbill

Great egret

Yellow-billed spoonbill

White-faced heron

Nankeen kestrel

Masked woodswallow

Black-fronted dotterel

Diamond dove

Crimson chatimg_0125

Raven

Horsfields bronze cuckoo

White-winged fairy wren

This was a pretty good tally for us beginner birdwatchers.

Special thanks to Mark and Tess and AWC for the opportunity to live in the desert and make a small contribution.

Thanks to Dr Phil Tucak (AWC) for corrections and to AWC for permission to publish this narrative and photos.img_0034

Thankyou

photograph by William Blunt

Thankyou

I’ve learned over the year that when I open myself up to taking note of deeper meaning in experiences and looking for connections they tumble forth with reflection onto the page. The added richness to life and adventures has been surprising and wonderful.

This journey has taken me into the ocean, canyons, rivers, caves, cliffs, forests, deserts and to sacred mountains.

“52adventuresblog.com” has given me the structure to write and photograph and film regularly.

Along the way I have tried to minimise the self-indulgence and self-focus inherent in a blog and attempted to give attention to those alongside. By far the most popular entries have been about “others”.

THANKYOU for your interest, for reading, mostly for sharing being out there in the bush. Your company has been a treasure. Thankyou for letting me write about you. With your help and support I was able to complete the 52nd adventure on the 365th day of the year following completion of the first adventure. More importantly I was privileged to be able to share time with very special people. THANKYOU.

The future

I might explore a very small print run self-published book of the highlights (let me know if you are interested). The blog will remain live. The adventures will continue and the writing will happen at opportune times. But I won’t try to keep to 52 in the year. Other writing will take precedence – Africa Stories, contributing to a mythopoetic book on outdoor education, working on films and who knows what else. Maybe a small charity initiative taking shape – “Save the Planet, Save the World – One Day at a Time”.

Thankyou,

Peter

 

52 adventures list

95 days in the bush for the year

Trips from ½ a day to 10 days duration

Canberra area, Blue Mountains, Snowy Mountains, Tasmania, Central Australia

Activities – rockclimbing, caving, cross country skiing, cycling, hiking, surfing, canyoning, ocean swimming, vertical rescue, abseiling, whitewater kayaking, ski touring

 

Thankyou

52        Bowens Creek Canyon

7/2/16 Canyoning – Blue Mountains  Lower Bowens Creek North

51        Serendipity

6/2/16 Canyoning – Blue Mountains  Serendipity and Wollangambe 2 Canyons

50        Edge – Night Climb   

4/2/16 Booroomba Rocks       Rock climbing

49        Gibraltar Creek

11/1/16           Natural world immersion

48        Bogong Moth Frenzy NYE

31/12/15 – 1/1/16      Brindabellas mountain peak

47        Settlers Track

28/12/15         Hiking

46        Bold and the Beautiful

Ocean swimming        Manly to Shelley Beach return           23,24,25/12/15

45        Surfing Manly with Royalty

Surfing – Manly Beach           20 – 24/12/15

44        Drawing the line

14/12/15         Bungonia – Cooee Point         Abseiling

43        Big Wall Roped Solo Booroomba

10-11/12/15    Booroomba Rocks       Rockclimbing

42        Underestimated and Under threat – The Best of the Snowies on Foot

5-6/12/15        Snowy Mountains        Hiking

41        Volunteer

3/12/15           Budawang Ranges      Hiking

40        Respect, Admiration and Gratitude

2/12/15           Booroomba Rocks       Rockclimbing – with Neil Montgomery

39        Friends Fab Fun on the river

14/11/15         Cotter to Urriara Crossing      1.43 on guage at Mt. McDonald

38        Fog

11/11/15         Camels Hump and Pierce Trig            Hiking             18km

37        Fields of flowers

4/11/15           Short Wednesday walk – Tuggeranong Hill. 8km. 2 ¼ hours.

36        Vertical Rescue

29/10 – 1/11/15          White Rocks, Snake Rock, artificial environment, Legoland

35        Rope Guiding

20/10/15         Jindabyne Rock           Abseil guiding

34        Hero At The Seaside

16 – 19/10/15 Cycling and bodysurfing – Illawarra coast

33        Snakes and Lizards

15/10/15         Western Foreshores Walk – Googong Dam carpark to Tin Hut return – 21 km  Hiking

32        Riverplay

23/9/15           Point Hut to Pine Island – Murrumbidgee River        Whitewater kayaking

31        A walk to the creek with Mum

30/8/15           Pennant Hills Park

30        Making the Most

25 – 27 Aug 2015        Perisher Valley Nordic trails   Cross country skiing

29        Jagungal –  Journey to the sacred mountain

17 – 20/8/15   Kosciuszko National Park – Jagungal Wilderness       Ski touring

28        Cross country ski trails with novices and winter Olympians.

14/8/15           Nordic Ski Trails – Perisher Valley     Cross country skiing

27        Mount Twynam – A Day in a Life

26        Larapinta – Part 2 Ellery Creek to Simpsons Gap – 9 days

8/7 – 15/7/15              Western Macdonald Ranges – Northern Territory – Central Australia     Hiking

25        Larapinta Trail – Part 1 Mount Sonder – Day walk

7/7/15 Western Macdonald Ranges – Northern Territory – Central Australia         Hiking

24        A chilly swim in the local river

30 June            Murrumbidgee River  Whitewater kayaking

23        A walk in the old country – Gibraltar Peak

26 June            Gibraltar Peak – Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve Hiking

22        Cliffcare

21 June            Honeysuckle Crag – Namadgi            Rockclimbing

21        Outlaws, bushrangers and hidden treasure

12 June            Canberra Nature Park – Rob Roy       Hiking

20        If we could read this landscape

6 – 8 June        Budawang Range        Hiking

19        Bucket List

4 June Googong          Hiking

18        The Good the Bad and the Ugly

1 – 2 June 2015           Wee Jasper again – days 8 and 9 working underground       Caving

17        Caving Connections

26 – 27/5/15   Wee Jasper again       Caving

16        The Outdoor Education Teacher Underground

18 – 20/5/15    Wee Jasper     Caving

15        Walking with Dad

9 – 10/5/15      Blue Mountains – Blue Gum Forest    Bushwalking

14        Conversations while Walking for Pleasure

7/5/15 Canberra Centenary Trail       Walking

13        Club day at the local

3/5/15 Booroomba Rocks       Rockclimbing

12        Back at school – On the river

30/4 – 1/5/15  Clyde River      Canoeing and kayaking two day tour between Nelligen and Anglers Reach.

Notes on Falling

11        Ethics and Retreat

Secret spot #2 14 – 16 April    Rockclimbing – more new routes

Interlude        Run

Canberra half marathon         April 12

10        Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Maria Island – Tasmania        March 30 – April 1      Bush cycling

9          Test of the toughest

Freycinet – east coast Tasmania         March 26 – 28            Hiking

7 and 8            Pine Valley

March 17 – 20            Tasmania – Lake St Clair area            Hiking

The Labyrinth, Cephissus Falls

6          Rocky Cape

March 16        Tasmania north coast Day walk

5          Adventure climbing

March 10 – 12            Secret spot in the Blue Mountains – no clues given   Rockclimbing new routes

4          Eighteen

March 8          Booroomba Rocks       Multi pitch rockclimbing

3          “The biggest abseil you could do on a school trip”

March 5          Blue Mountains           Abseiling

2          Back on Rock

Feb 15 Booroomba Rocks       Rockclimbing

1          Surfing in the Lucky Country

2 – 8 Feb 2015 Point Plomer – mid north coast NSW  Surfing

Manly – Surfing with Royalty + Bold and Beautiful

46 and 45 – Manly

All photos by Elspeth Blunt

46

Bold and Beautiful

Ocean swimming

Manly to Shelley Beach return

23,24,25/12/15

The prized cap
The prized cap

We watched through the window spray and seaweed thrown two storeys into the air as waves pounded the stone wall below. Just after 7.00am the first of a small group of brave swimmers appeared pink headed round the point. Somehow they had made it out safely from the beach then headed across through the chop and rebound. 1500 meters overall with a stand on the beach at Shelley to wait for the slower people in the group at the half way point. Every single morning of the year. Conditions permitting were a grey area and up to each person to make their own judgement. The “Bold and Beautiful” informal, no exchange of money, swimming group. Ocean swimmers.

We had done some ocean swims in the past. The Cole Classic on almost this same route with a couple of thousand others. Months of training, butterflies in the stomach, the swim and elation at finishing. Now we were hoping to join this group who practically do the “Classic” every morning.

I did a trial swim with my brother while the swell was still big and just managed with a total hammering coming back in to the beach which tumbled me into the sand. I surfaced into foamy water that didn’t support my body weight as much of the water was bubbly air. Lost my goggles and swimming cap and coughed and spluttered my way into the beach. Overambitious.

On the first calm day Cath and I did a practice run. It was a little spooky on our own. Deep water mixed up with rocky terrain and seaweed shallows. With googles unfogged it was almost like a strenuous version of snorkelling. I knew there were sharks in the water. I knew if I was attacked I was unlikely to see it coming. I knew the statistics of thousands of people in the water every day and no recorded attacks in Sydney for some time. But. And I kept occasionally looking over my shoulder out in the depths.

Nervous wait for the start
Nervous wait for the start

Next morning the sea was calm. We registered at the surf club and were given our prized pink caps. Milled around for a while and chatted nervously. The start was massive – hundreds of people pushed out through the small swell and then swam out to wait off the point. IMG_4038Legs, arms, bodies, sleek, tubby, strong, strugglers all mixed up and headed towards distant Shelley Beach. Breathe, stroke, kick. It was hard to build a rhythm in the pack but the camaraderie was wonderful. A hundred different styles and speeds. Pink heads were everywhere. Male, female, young, old. Across the open part I measured off sections past blocks of units, the outdoor pool, tall trees and finally made it onto the sand. I was about half way through the pack. IMG_4040Around stood hundreds of healthy humanity sharing a long early morning swim in the most staggering surroundings. This must be one of the best informal, non-competitive sporting events in the world. Every morning. Free. IMG_4064 IMG_4062Patiently and without any pressure the crowd waited for the slower swimmers. Then the splashing arms and legs whitewashed the whole of the small beach as we all left for the return. I slowed towards the end and found more space. Every now and then I raised my head between strokes to check direction before ploughing on again. Round the headland I tried to take it wide to come in with the waves but found myself closer to the rocks and swimming doggedly tired against the gentle rip. Eventually on the beach Cath and I bubbled over with impressions and feel good vibes. Health. Vitality. Cleansed body and mind and soul. Manly, so beautiful. Ready for breaky and to start the day.

The following day we swam like old hands. Confident. Capable.

On Christmas day the crowd was just as big. At Shelley we sang happy birthday to one of the swimmers as we waited. Back on the main beach day trippers had already arrived with hampers to stake out the best bits of shaded grass and beach for the day.

 

45

Surfing Manly with Royalty

Surfing – Manly Beach

20 – 24/12/15

 

Storms lashed the coast early in the week. After some tough times during the year we’d lashed out with a pile of hard earned for a week in an AirBnB right near the water. The swell picked up. The beach was closed. Surfers went wild. Along the main beach the bigger sets rolled in and peeled left and right. Out at Fairy Bower the long right hander was crowded. From our window bay I watched it all. Surfing is a wonderful spectator sport. Fluid moves, wipeouts. Power in the waves and the riders.

When the weather cleared I ran along the beachfront promenade – walkers, scooter kids, pram pushers, Christmas groups from the western suburbs, beach volleyballers, swimmers, joggers, runners, cyclists, people doing yoga and hard isometrics, scuba divers, kite surfers, kayakers, snorkellors, sailors, coffee drinkers, picnickers, beach dance party goers. It was like the world was out And right there was where it was all happening. The homes and units along the water’s edge make up a millionaires’ row but the beach, the surf, the foreshore and the coffee places belong to Everyman.

In the smaller swells that followed and matched my ability I took my longboard straight out from the main beach. There were other surfers in the water but I was amazed there was space for all of us. I got a few nice ones. Lefts and rights. And long enough to play a little up and down along the face. Enough to bring out the full body smile and the endless “just one more” as I bailed out each time in the shallows. I thought of the Hawaiian Duke, Kahanamoku, in the summer of 1914/15 showing the locals right here how to ride a board on the waves, initiating with Tommy Walker the whole surf culture that has become such a huge part of Australia.

Late the next day I surfed again. Sitting out the back my gaze shifted from watching for swells o ut at sea then round to the scene on shore. The strip of beach sand was backed by the stone wall with the path above alive with active souls. A strip of grass, Norfolk island pines, the road, coffee shops and surf shops then the high rise units and hotels. In a sweeping arc all the way from Shelley Beach to North Steyn. Magnificent. I felt a connection sitting out there, still, calm, waiting, with Layne Beachley. Years before I had been to a conference where she did the keynote. Then I read her book. What a tough life she has had in so many ways. One of our most successful sports people ever. 7 times world champion. Totally inspirational. And she surfed right here too. The “Beachley Classic” is held at Manly every year. In the National Portrait Gallery there is a photo of her by Petrina Hicks. I’m not usually one to be taken by a person’s appearance but this shot portrays her arresting eyes that seem to be made of translucent pools of clear, blue ocean. Layne’s comment on the portrait was that ‘whales look you right in the eye, sharks stare straight through you’. I caught a last wave of the week in.

In the evening beautiful coloured lights of the Manly foreshore were visible from Shelley Beach.

 

Layne Beachley from “Beneath the Waves” (2008) on what makes a champion;

  • 2 Champions have a strong support team
  • 5 Champions have often suffered emotional or physical trauma before they succeed
  • 9 Champions give something back
  • 10 Champions inspire

Respect, Admiration and Gratitude

40

Respect, Admiration and Gratitude

2/12/15

Booroomba Rocks

Rockclimbing – with Neil Montgomery

Took a little time putting his boots on. Then he put the rack on over his slings and had to shuffle them back over. A few large cams were taken off. A new belay device hung on his new harness. Not dithering. But not fluent. Rusty. Weighing it all up in his head.

“People don’t use stopper knots anymore do they?”

It had been a while. Years since he had climbed properly. Now here we were at the bottom of our local crag’s classic climb. Equilibrium. The perfect slab. The perfect climb for us both. Hard enough. Beautiful polished granite. Two superb pitches. Cool summer day. Gentle breeze. Like everything had been laid out for us.

It had taken about a decade. For me to entice him out from his always busy world for just a day where we could climb together. For fun. Just us. No students. Not PD. Just a climb. Where we’d both started independently about 40 years prior. On rock. Just one day. Precious.

First steps up were smooth. A wire in a thin crack. Then a sling over a spike. Not many people even notice them these days. More moves up the slanting groove. Fluid and confident as the protection thinned and he was straight back into the mindset. My hands could feel it as the rope paid out steadily. Runners in, he moved straight up the committing wall to the belay. He slowed again there and laced up a bombproof anchor.

“Safe”.

35 years ago I’d chanced a job at an Outdoor School teaching mainly environmental studies and a sprinkling of adventure activities. Over a long time there I kept hearing rumours of a guy at Narabundah College doing phenomenal things in his outdoor ed program. Caving in the Nullarbor. Ocean Sailing. Hiking in Tasmania and the Gammon Ranges. Climbing at Arapiles and the Warrumbungles. Amazing. Abseiling into the Big Hole 90 meters then jumaring out. Snowcamping trips. Wow. It seemed that whatever adventures I could dream of he was already doing with high powered students. Like there was no limit to what was possible. So long as everyone came back safely. He trusted the students with safety and good judgement. They trusted him. The school trusted him. The Department of Education trusted him. He carved out and pioneered the very best outdoor education course in the country. Safety guidelines and standards followed where he led. Somewhere I picked up a copy of his “Single Rope Techniques” book. I began to picture a person of quite extraordinary outdoor and adventure skills and knowledge. Occasional meetings we participated in together reinforced this. His course grew to include units like Lead Climbing, Advanced Vertical Caving, Bushwalking Leadership so students could incorporate these amazing trips into their academic programs.

On the belay ledge we chatted about the Larapinta Trail that he had done with a group that had 10 out 12 days of cold and rain. My recent tough personal experience seemed like a doddle in comparison. We swapped the rack and I led the next pitch placing a few wires early on then clipping two new bolts on the thinner section. I anchored on a tree and lowered so I could see him on the way up. Catlike he padded up as I took a couple of photos.

“1983 to 2012”. He responded about how long he had worked at the college. A friend of mine, who worked in the Maths faculty where Neil also taught the smartest kids in the territory, had told me that he was the most popular teacher among the student cohort in that subject. His classes were the first to fill up to bursting. Only sometimes when you get to know someone how they are matches the impression you might have of them. Like an onion every layer of Neil that was revealed to me increased my respect. He had resisted the promotional ladder in school as he loved teaching so much. I had managed in about 20 years to wrangle my way onto two of his outdoor ed day trips. Both were incredible. Wyanbene Cave took us through cold cold cold water into the Gunbarrel Aven and on to the very end. Then back. Way more advanced and challenging than I would ever contemplate. Similarly Jerarra Creek Canyon had multiple abseils and a scary climb out. Of course his students handled it all beautifully. In the cold darkness of night on exit from Wyanbene as we changed, freezing, out of wet overalls he warmed the massive pot of minestrone soup he’d made at home and brought for the group. It was only much later I started to fully appreciate the significance of this type of generosity and care and planning. His leading and relationships with students were the most naturally skilful and genuine I had ever witnessed. In leadership theory “situational leadership” is good for aspiring outdoor education teachers to work towards. At higher levels of capability come “charismatic” leaders, “transactional leadership” and “servant” leadership qualities. At the pointy end the best leaders are “transformational” and “authentic”. Neil’s leadership stretched beyond even this and aligned beautifully with the latest in leadership theory. His head, heart, body and soul seemed to etch his being among those around him. Passion, strength, imagination, humility suffused his work. He seemed intuitively in tune with the people and the world around him. I could see that his groups became communities where each person was cared for and appreciated. He had an almost tangible “presence’ in the group and led with a spirit that rose from a deep well of concern for “the good of humanity and the natural world” (Smith, 2011). Extraordinary. Overnight at Wyanbene he shared his deep knowledge of astronomy and the universe as we sat around the fire. I began to sense a huge intellect. During his 30 years at Narabundah he had met his wife there and then in time brought his own children through.

He enjoyed the next lead across the top of the Northern Slabs to the easier ground. Lots of pro, a moac even and more spikes slung in good old style. As we rolled the ropes he recounted how he had lived the dream in his twenties spending years doing caving expeditions, living overseas and climbing in the USA at all the places I had spent a whole adulthood dreaming about – Yosemite (he storied about an epic on the Salathe Wall), Tuolumne Meadows, Joshua Tree and the Sierras – like a sort of bubbling stream of music pictures and landscapes flowed through my mind as we talked about his early premature “retirement” before he had even started working properly. Now I was at the other end filling my retirement with adventure days like this somehow bookending our two lives in a small way.

Early afternoon. He brewed up some tea over lunch. Now he works at ANU in the science and maths faculty. He is acknowledged and valued highly there for his unusually high level of teaching skill and experience and care for his students. Some things never change. We talked about research and he intimated ideas of a new way of looking at time and motion and philosophy that he is working on. As the concepts washed through my mind I pictured him in his office, across the corridor from one of Australia’s Nobel Prize winning physicists, with his own Nobel Prize if there was one for being an outdoor leader, a teacher, an inspiration, a mentor, a pioneer and just the person he is.

Later Neil found more spikes to sling and threaded his way with cams and wires up the two main pitches of a more moderate climb. This brought back more confidence and finesse to his moves on the vertical walls and cracks. On the final section of the day he pulled through some harder layaway steeps. In my own outdoor education work I was able to follow his lead into a series of wonderful adventures and life changing experiences with my own group of fabulous students. I couldn’t have forged a more challenging, meaningful and enjoyable period of work in education. For that I owe him profound gratitude for the courage and imagination to set up the possibilities of my own trail.

At the end of the day we were both satiated. Smiling.  Content. Back at the crag. “Derwentias” he said, noticing my interest in a beautiful purple flowered plant along the side of track back to our packs. “I’ve planted heaps in my garden at home”.

A few days later Neil emailed offering to return one piece of gear “next time” on a possible night climbing escapade when the weather would probably be too hot during the day. I had a delightful image of us enjoying more occasional perfect days like this one into the future.

I’m not embarrassed to have a few well-chosen heroes to admire and try to emulate. Especially those in our own circles.

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Thanks to Heidi Smith for providing some of the words and concepts on leadership Unpublished PhD thesis Extraordinary Outdoor Leaders: An Australian Case Study 2011, UOW

Winter in the Murrumbidgee

24

A chilly swim in the local river

30 June

Murrumbidgee River

Whitewater kayaking

A short day’s paddle from Casuarina Sands to Urriara Crossing. The level was about 1.2 at Mt. McDonald. Canberra has some great whitewater right on its doorstep – half an hours drive from the city. It is generally only paddleable for a short time after rain which makes it difficult to fit in with work, family and other commitments.

Sometimes things go to plan.

Air temperature max 6 degrees C. Water temp – cold. Check the video (GoPro chest mounted).