Thursday, 11 December 2008

Off to the Solomon Islands!!

Climbing Rack - old gear for new routes in the Western Province!

Well, we're (the family and I) are off to the Solomons Islands very shortly. I'll be reporting regularly using Blogger's email feature so that all I have to do is email the story, and it will be automatically published on the blog (hence this story, which is really a test email). If you see a picture with this post, the attaching a photo to the email feature is working too. We'll be hanging around Gizo most of the time, but I hope to get some climbing, tropical mountaineering, surfing, fishing, and the odd beer or six in (essential food group in the tropics). Solo, here we come!

View Larger Map

Google Map of Gizo Environs

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The Cloisters, Orroral Ridge, ACT

I'd planned to go climbing with Wallwombat at The Cloisters, a pile of granite rock on Orroral Ridge in the Namadgi National Park in the Australian Capital Territory, and so contacted Cuzzi Bro Brett and Owen to come along too. Brett hasn't climbed since we went to Arapiles, and Owen climbs well but hasn't done much trad climbing, so I thought it would be good experience for them to come along too. Owen turned up at my place at 10am on Sunday morning, and as I expected, Wallwombat sent me a text message at 10.15am saying he wasn't turning up. I hummed and hawed what to do at first, as I had never been to The Cloisters and usually like to go to a new crag with someone who knows the place first. In the end I decided we should go anyway as the weather was perfect, we had plenty of time, and we were all arranged to go anyway. A quick drive over to Brett's place and he was in the back of the car and we were off.

Orroral Ridge is an unusual place. It is at the top of a high hill (well, high for Australia that is) and has outcrops of VERY large granite boulders (tors) sprinkled along it for quite a distance. Because the boulders that make up the tors can be quite jumbled, the quality of the climbing can be quite mixed, and at times, short (i.e. there are lots of climbs there that are only about 10m long). Its a good place to find lots of tricky problems, and there's plenty of cracks if cracks are your thing. There is really only one road in (driving - you can walk in on fire trails from other directions) - Apollo Road. The road sounds spacey, and it is. The road was originally put in to access the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station, which was a huge satellite dish situated not far down from the top of Orroral Ridge, and so consequently it is well tarred and in good condition. The tracking station has long gone, though the site remains, and there is now a great little camp ground there. To access Orroral Ridge you turn right at the campground onto a good dirt road, and follow it all the way to the top of the hill. The road was put in to service a communications tower which was associated with the tracking station, but it is long gone too, and only a cement slab remains to mark it's passing. There is a group of boulders only a couple of minutes walk directly south of the carpark, and, not surprisingly, these are called Tower Rocks.

View Larger Map

We got to 'The Ridge' (got to talk like a cool Canberra climber now) carpark with no hassles - the dirt road is fine, even for my little Hyundai Getz. We grabbed our packs and headed off down the path that is on the eastern end of the carpark. The path meanders along the top of the ridge for quite a way, though it's quite obvious, until you get to a large area of flat rock and a few fallen trees. We had to search a bit before we found the path again, but it wasn't too hard (we placed some cairns on the way out, so it will be easier for other people who aren't familiar with the path) and after about ten minutes we were approaching the area of rocks known as 'The Belfry'. It's obvious why it's called that, as one of the central rocks of the tor is a soaring granite spire. Very pretty.

The path heads around the northern side of The Belfry, and after about two hundred metres it drops downhill (southwards) between two large boulders. Each boulder has a large cairn of rocks on top of them, so this turn-off is fairly obvious. The path then winds down and along the main line of the rocks that make up The Cloisters. The first part of the crag that will catch your eye are some lovely cracks that are begging to be climbed. I did a quick inspection, and though wanting to climb them, I thought they would not be appropriate for both the other guys - Brett needed something easier, and Owen is just getting into trad climbing, so something easier is always better when starting out.

What is Trad Climbing?(climbers who know this can by-pass this paragraph). Climbing has various different styles, or approaches. Trad, or traditional, climbing, is distinct by the fact that the climbers place and retrieve all their protection pieces (pro) as they climb - nothing is meant to be left on the rock, and bolts (permanent, like expansion bolts) are only placed in the rock if there is no other possible way of protecting that section. As the lead climber climbs, they place camming devices, nuts (little metal wedges), and various other cool little pieces of gear into cracks and crevices, then clip the rope onto the protection. The seconder stands at the bottom of the climb and belays the leader, ready to catch them on the rope if they fall. When the leader gets to the top of the pitch they set up an anchor point, then belay the seconder up the climb. The seconder removes the protection as they come up the climb.

We walked a bit further and came across the section of the crag known at the Simple Simon Slabs. Excellent! a couple of easy looking flaky cracks that weren’t too steep, with a nice little harder slab climb off to the right. We checked the guidebook and the two cracks were Smooth Dancer (9) - on the left - and Tarantella (10) - on the right. Climbs with a rating of 9 and 10 are not hard, so perfect for Brett after his working out on the couch for the last few months, and perfect for Owen to practice his trad leading skills without having to be too challenged by the climbing. I offered Owen the lead on Smooth Dancer and he agreed to go. We sorted our gear a bit, and then I did a small lesson on safe placing of gear with the guys in some of the small cracks at the base of the crag. Placing trad pro such as cams and nuts is not a perfect science, as rock is so variable it is often a compromise, but the principles are always the same, and I made sure Owen felt competent about placing the gear and leading. Without much more mucking around, Owen was off, leading up Smooth Dancer with Brett belaying him. I hassled them into using all the correct trad climbing calls, making sure they used each others names in each call (important when you are at crowded crags with people yelling out the same calls all over the place).

Owen leading Smooth Dancer

Owen led well, and before long he was at the top of the climb. He set up a good anchor and called down for the next climber. As there were three of us, and the climb was only 20 metres long, we had enough rope to tie a figure eight on a bight in the centre of the rope for Brett to tie into, and when he got to the top there would still be enough rope length left for me to tie into the end.

Owen - Smooth Dancer

Brett headed off up the climb, and reached the top without too many problems (though the step up the break in the middle is a bit scary for beginners).

Brett heading up Smooth Dancer

I then headed up, cleaning all the pro out and visually checking it before hand so as to give Owen feedback on his pro placement - every bit of gear looked fine by me!

Nick on Smooth Dancer

We then left Owen's rope in place on the anchor at the top, and rappelled (rapped) down it to the bottom of the crag. We had taken my rope as well, so we had rope to spare. I then headed off up Tarantella on lead. So different to Smooth Dancer as every bit of gear I was able to place was a nut, whereas Smooth Dancer was all cams (different shaped cracks take different types of pro). I cruised up it and then belayed the other two guys up.
As we now had two ropes up the top of the crag, we needed to get one back down to the bottom, so I suggested to Brett that we simulrap down the rope. This is where the rope is hanging down doubled up and only looped through an anchor at the top, and each climber raps down each piece of rope at the same time. As long as no-one gets off the rope before you both get to the ground, it is safe (and make sure you tie a figure eight knot in the end of each piece of rope so one person cannot rap off the end of the rope!). You can then pull one end of the rope and haul it back down the cliff. We reached the ground without problems and Owen started to rap down his rope. Before he got far I called out for him to stop and swing across the face and check out the conditions of the four bolts (and hangers) on Irish Sheila (17), the interesting looking slab climb a few metres to the right of Tarentella. Owen gave them a good check over and declared them "old, but OK". I got him to clip a quickdraw (two karabiners with a sling in between them) into the last one (at the bottom) and give it a good yank to check that it was sound. I got him to leave the quickdraw in and clip my rope into it before well hauled it back down the cliff. This way, the rope was already clipped into the first bolt on the climb and made the start a lot safer (being a slab with no features to place protection in, Irish sheila had four bolts up its main section). This is sort of like top-roping to the first bolt.

I started off on Irish Sheila, feeling light as I didn't have to haul the full rack of pro up the cliff, only having to take a few quickdraws clipped to my harness. I did the full slab start from the bottom, which we considered to be the crux as it was so smooth. Delicate moves, careful shoe smearing and splayed palms (also thinking "I'm Spiderman, I'm Spiderman") got me up to the flake above, then easy moves up to where the first bolt was. Then onto the real stuff.

Nick Leading Irish Sheila

Slab climbing is an interesting style of climbing. Being a slab, it means the rock is not vertical, merely steeply angled. It can also mean that there are next to no obvious holds or protrusions to place your feet and hands on. You look for slight bumps and raises in the rock, little crystal protrusions or edges, place your feet on them, pinch them with your fingers, and slowly move up. You feel like you could slide down at any time, but you ignore it (getting your 'slab head' happening) and move on. I moved up cautiously, clipping each bolt on the way with a quickdraw, then clipping the rope into the other end of the quickdraw. I started to notice further up the climb that there was faint bleaching of the rock where little crimpy hand-holds were, bleached lighter than the surrounding rock by the chalk (gymnasts chalk) that had been used by previous climbers. This can be a big help mentally as sometimes the way ahead on a slab just looks totally blank in regards to where to place your hands.

Nick - Irish Sheila - the climb follows the rope on the right

Gently, gently, then up to a final bulge at the top. No bolts. Ignore it, there are four good ones below. Move up again, smear, stay focused. The top! Elation. I knocked the bastard off. I rigged up the top belay and belayed Owen and Brett up.

Owen - Irish Sheila

Owen had one hang on the rope (he likes climbs with big holds) and Brett spent half the time pulling himself up the rope (the training on the couch for the last few months had helped him with that), but we all got up it in the end.
We decided to call it a day as it was starting to get late and the call of cold beer was becoming too enticing. We packed up the gear and headed back along the ridge top, placing a few more cairns as we went to help other newbies through the unobvious sections of the path in. Back to the house for a backyard sunset with barbeque, beer and bullshit. We'll be back to The Cloisters again - a great spot with some great climbs.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Booroomba Climbing Day with the CCA

The Canberra Climbers' Association held another successful Booroomba Day on Sunday, 26th October 2008. The idea behind the CCA's Booroomba Days are to give climbers who don't have trad experience (or want to get out of the climbing gym) an introduction to outdoor/trad climbing. Booroomba is a great place to do this as there are plenty of lower grade routes and plenty of multi-pitch climbs to choose from, and everything from cracks to slabs - the usual granite menu.

We all met as per usual in front of the Tharwa Store for general introductions and to organise climbing teams. There were about 20 people all up in the end, with the number of leaders down a bit from last time due to a mass exodus to the Wolgan for the weekend by numerous beard strokers so as to stuff themselves full of dead goat. Due to the need for more leaders, I put my hand up to lead Sunstroke** (9), a nice, not too scary, three pitch slab climb which the guidebook says is 'one of the original routes done on the Northern Slabs, following the line of least resistance'. I hitched up with Owen and Chris to climb as a team of three.

We headed off to the Booroomba car park and made the slog up the hill, which always seems so much more fun with a fifteen kilo pack. I had to take it a bit easier this time as I was just recovering from a nasty cold, but that stomp up the Booroomba hill is great for clearing the lungs. I spared a thought for wallwombat on the way and reflected on how much fun he was missing out on by not coming along.

We organised ourselves in the 'top camp' area, signed off on the clubs climb register and headed off along the ridge to find the descent path to the Northern Slabs. This isn't so easy at the moment as the scrub is growing back thickly after the effects of the bushfires, and the ACT has had some good rain in the last couple of months. The path along the ridge of the Northern Slabs at present winds its way through waist high shrubs, concealing the path further on and making route finding difficult. We found the top of the descent path without getting too lost, and the top of the descent path is well marked with a couple of large cairns.

The descent path is nasty, with broken dirt interspersed with a loose scree of small granite rocks. At times you could almost glissade down the scree, and care had to be taken not to knock rocks down on those further down the path. I'm glad I didn't have my usual procession of porters with me carrying a gramaphone, typewriter and case of champagne.

As I mentioned, the scrub is growning back thickly at Booroomba, and due to the winter climbing lull and low level of access, the area around the base of the far Northern Slabs is especially thick with shrubs and saplings. Finding the way into the start of Sunstroke was not easy, but we got there in the end despite my attempt to kill Chris with a couple of soccer ball sized rocks (see, isn't it so much more fun than going to a climbing gym?).

We surveyed the bottom of the climb and I talked to the other guys about procedures, calls and general technique. Everyone was happy, so I led off up the first pitch. Sunstoke is a great Booroomba introduction climb due to the fact that it has a bit of everything - some committing slabby moves to start, up a chunky rain groove that you can get the toe of your shoe right into, then traverse diagonally to the left following the obvious break to the first belay, a slabby traverse on the second pitch over to the next belay, then a tricky move up a vertical face to a lovely, long, easy angled slab climb to the top. Owen led the second pitch, and I finished by leading the third, running the whole pitch out as there is not really anywhere to place pro anyway, and I think you've got to be trying pretty hard to fall on the third pitch of Sunstroke.

At the top of Sunstroke there is a nice stout tree to belay off, and a 50m rope just makes it. I'd recommend using a 60m rope though as we only just had enough length on the first and third pitch.

I was sitting at the top of the third pitch, on belay, waiting for Chris to head up to me, when I looked down at the big, dirty, rocky ledge in front of me, and noticed one of my Metolius screw gate 'biners sitting there, a couple of metres away. I knew I hadn't just dropped it, so I was a bit confused as to what it was doing there, then the penny dropped. Just before winter closed in I'd led Sunstroke with another mate - I'd been missing one of my Metolius 'biners since around that time, so the mystery was solved. My 'biner had sat there all of Winter waiting for me to come back. Booty is sweet, but there is something sweeter with your own booty!

We cleaned up the ropes and headed back to the top camp, grumbling as we went about the access path and how we should get a tick just for the approach. We sat down and had a bite to eat and decided to call it quits for the day. We'd had a hard approach and a great climb, but the long necks at the Tharwa store were getting just too damn attractive.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Blue Lake Analysis

Lessons / analysis (please see the full story, below this post):

These are notes that I have made. They are not comprehensive or complete. Please feel free to comment on them.

Stay well clear of cornices, no matter how stable they look. The cornice fall at Blue Lake may have been survivable if it had only been the cornice that fell, but the cornice triggered secondary avalanches on the slope below which contributed to the bulk of the avalanche debris field.

When responding to an emergency - take your pack with you.
When Owen and I rushed over to help we left behind our packs as we had them off at the time. Owen had his gloves off and left his gloves with our packs. When he returned and was helping with the probing he was using some surgical gloves supplied by one of the paramedics. By that time I had retrieved my pack and was able to lend him my heavy duty, wool lined ice climbing gloves.
Later on when we were working we had no water, spare clothes, first aid kit etc. with us. Owen also became cold when we were called off the rescue effort as his clothing was still half a kilometre away where we had lunch. I had a down jacket with me and was able to lend Owen my polar fleece jacket until we picked up his pack.

Take comms when you have the opportunity – Owen, being a trainee Volunteer Ski Patroller, had been advised by his colleagues to take a VSP radio with him. Due to its weight, he elected not to take one with him. If we had had that radio we could have called in the emergency services a lot faster, and would have had extra manpower to work on the search of the avalanche debris field. We both had mobile phones on us, but there was no reception in the vicinity. I also own two small, light wieght 1 watt VHF radios. Due to oversight, I did not take these with me. If I had taken these with me, I would have been able to give one to Owen and kept one with myself, thereby allowing us to stay in communication during the time that he climbed Little Twynam for help. I would also have been able to communicate with him when he found the loose ski on the debris field, rather than wonder where he was and what he was doing after I saw him ski back across to us at the time that the Careflight helicopter appeared.

Pay close attention to any gear that may be on the avalanche debris field and concentrate your search in that area – I did not see the loose ski that Tom had been carrying, even though I carefully scanned the avalanche debris field. When Owen returned from calling the emergency services he noticed the ski and carried out an investigation in the area. He did not inform me (or I do not remember him informing me) when he returned to us that he had seen a ski.

From what I had seen from my perspective of the fall, I had felt that Tom was further down the hill from where we were searching, in the centre of the debris field. I had just finished reading McKay Jenkins' book 'White Death – In the Path of an Avalanche', and knew how difficult it could be to locate someone buried where there were no signs. I could only work on what Peter said he had seen, as he was the closest person to what had happened. I still felt at the time that Tom was located further down. If Owen had been on the scene earlier and noted the position of the loose ski, I would have been more adamant about searching in that area.

On later inspection of photos that I took, I realised that I could have walked out onto a rock formation called 'The Boulder', which was immediately to the south of the avalanche debris field. This would have given me the ability to look down on the avalanche debris field, and I may have spotted Tom's loose ski.

The Careflight chopper, flying close to the top of the cliff line, could have caused further cornice collapse, endangering the rescue team below. The helicopter crew should have been made aware that their downwash from the rotors may have triggered another cornice collapse if they had maneuvered too close to the top of the cliff face that the rescue team was working under.

Not enough probes were brought in fast enough (maybe due to not many being available in one spot)
Owen commented that he emphasised in the initial call to Ski Patrol that we needed personnel and avalanche probes. He was disappointed that not enough probes were delivered in the initial response.

Rescuers did not understand avalanche shoveling technique – when other rescue services personnel arrived some of them began excavating areas where probers indicated the victim may have been. They did not understand avalanche shoveling techniques where a hole should be dug using at least two people – one person doing the main excavation, with another person behind them removing the overburden that has been shoveled out. I attempted to improve their technique at the time.
We had problems with the expandable ski poles coming apart while probing (Black Diamond extendable poles). If I had brought the first aid kit with me, rather than leaving it 500 metres away where we had lunch, I would have been able to use the elastoplast tape to strengthen the poles. It is highly recommended that people use ski poles in the back country that can be easily converted into probes.

Owen should maybe have stayed and search with us, rather than calling in the rescue team. This is a hard one, as if we had found Tom earlier (just Peter and I), and he was requiring immediate evacuation, Owen's decision to call in rescue services could have been justified. On reading avalanche rescue documentation, the more appropriate course of action may have been for Owen to start the search with us, as time was of the essence, and he was the one who noticed the loose ski (one of Tom's) on the avalanche debris field when he returned. If his had occurred earlier, as stronger case could have been made to search in the vicinity of the loose ski. Again, this comment is made in hindsight.

Use ski poles that can be turned into avalanche probes – when buying new ski poles in the previous year, the Paddy Palin sales person suggested that I buy the Black Diamond poles that could convert into avalanche probes. I thought this was what I was buying at the time, but on closer inspection with the sales person it was found that the model they had sold me were not the model that could be converted. I told them not to worry, as when did we have avalanches in Australia?

A safety person should have been placed at the top of the cliff to warn off any onlookers in case they triggered further cornice collapses. There was clear and present danger of another cornice collapse on top of the rescue crew who was operating in the avalanche debris field, especially on the souther side as there was a cornice section that had not collapsed adjacent to Grey Buttress. If this had occurred there was potential for quite a few of the rescue crew to suffer a similar fate to Tom. If some other back country skiers had appeared at the top of the cliff line hoping to get a better view of the rescue activity, another cornice collapse may have been triggered. A safety person should have been stationed at the top of the cliff line, well away from the edge, with the responsibility of keeping any other back country travelers away from the cliff line. Rescue workers were not made aware enough of the imminent danger that was still present. When the policeman on the scene attempted to move everyone to the south of the avalanche debris field so that the snow ploughs could get to work, I loudly voiced my concern that anyone in that area would be in the danger zone. After that, people stayed clear of that area.

Always set the date / time on your camera – this was one of the few times that I had not done this after changing the batteries – the camera will then mark the time for you as you take the photos. I took plenty of photos of the different stages of the rescue attempt, but had difficulty marking the time that certain events occurred. If my camera date and time had been set correctly, the camera would have recorded the events chronologically for me as I took the photos.

Tom's body was found about 2/3 of the way down - from what I had seen I felt he was in that area as well, but his brother watched him fall from about 30 metres away and was adamant that he was in the area we were searching. I scanned the debris field as I climbed up next to it, but saw no indication of any gear on the surface. When Owen returned from calling in the rescue services he saw a loose ski on the debris field and carried out a solo search in the area - Tom was carrying his skis when he fell - this was not communicated effectively to me when he joined the main search, and I would have definitely searched in the area of the ski if I had known. In the end, Tom's body was found not far from the ski. Tom was also found about three metres under the surface, and from what I have read it is unlikely to survive being buried more than a metre deep. We had a good idea of his fall line as there were two marks above the cornice crack line where he tried to grab hold, and there was a well defined vertical slide mark down the first 20 metres where he was attempting to self arrest. I think his brothers estimation of Tom's position was muddled by the fact that at least two secondary avalanches were triggered by the falling cornice, which made a major contribution to the volume of the load and swept him further down the slope.

Probing can be a very time-consuming process if a thorough search is undertaken for a victim without a beacon. In the U.S., 86% of the 140 victims found (since 1950) by probing were already dead. Survival/rescue more than 2 m deep is relatively rare (about 4%). Probes should be used immediately after a visual search for surface clues, in coordination with the beacon search.

Blue Lake - That Day the Mountain Fell

That day the mountain fell
There was something in the air.
We stopped, that sound? Just like the knell
Of doom, in which we were to share.
That's when the mountain fell.

A tremble neath our feet
That makes the heartbeat stop.
A tear – most horrible – though neat,
A crack that parts the mountain top -
That starts the heart to beat.

The avalanche starts down;
Relentless, surges on.
The snowface crumbles, smashed and broken,
The debris rumbles tonne on tonne.
No mercy has been shown.

Alan E.J. Andrews
from Skiing the Western Faces of Koscuisko [sic]

I write this story for a few reasons. I feel the most important one is make the story known (my version at least) so that this type of situation may be avoided in the future by those who share the love of skiing the wild back country of Kosciusko National Park (KNP). Another is to tell my story so that those who were not there will gain some insight into what happened – to dispel myth, rumor and speculation. The final, and perhaps the most selfish reason, is to purge my own demons.

Blue Lake is in the heart of the Main Range in KNP. It is a glacial cirque, which is a small circular valley surrounded by steep cliffs with a lake in the centre. If you had been standing on the spot sixteen thousand years ago you would have seen that the valley would have contained a glacier. As the last ice age retreated, so too did the glacier, finally melting to reveal the valley. To the north of Blue Lake, Mount Twynam and Little Twynam rise majestically above the surrounding landscape. To the east, there are easy slopes that descend into the Snowy River, with the Charlotte Pass ski resort just up and over the next hill.

Blue Lake is a popular destination for many visitors to KNP due to its natural beauty and remote ambiance. During summer it is visited by walkers who find it a perfect destination to sit and lunch and reflect on the wonders of the mountains. Rock climbers find the buttresses of the western walls a worthy spot to test their skills. In winter, especially in seasons of heavy snow fall when the central lake freezes over, back country skiers challenge themselves on the surrounding steep slopes of powder snow, and would-be mountaineers don crampons and ice axes and dream of harder mountains whilst picking their way up ice covered rocks.

I had planned a trip to Blue Lake for quite a while. I'm a member of both the Canberra Climbers Association and the Canberra Cross Country Ski Club and I had been wanting to get up there to take photos for a proposed new climbing guide book, and to recce the route in so as to lead a tour for the ski club. I needed a partner to ski in with, and had made contact with Owen Hrabanek though the ski club – he was wondering if anyone did any ice climbing and if there were any trips planned. I'd never met Owen before, but he said he had rock climbing experience and was a trainee Volunteer Ski Patroller at Perisher, so I knew he would be fit and would definitely be able to ski. You need at least one partner for safety reasons when traveling in the back country, and I was willing to go with Owen as the route would not be difficult, and is often the case with climbing, he was the only one willing to go with me on the day.

I met Owen as planned at the Guthega carpark at seven o'clock on Sunday morning, 17th of August, 2008. Guthega is a quiet ski resort to the west of Perisher on the Snowy River and is a favourite starting point for back country skiers heading onto the Main Range of KNP. Our plan for the day was to follow the Snowy River up to where the Blue Lake creek cut in, then follow the creek up to Blue Lake itself. I had brought along all the gear for ice climbing – ropes, crampons, harnesses and ice axes – and we divvied it up between us to even up the load. I'm a very careful back country skier (and had competed a NSW TAFE Ski Tour Leaders' course only a few weeks before) and so had emergency equipment with me such as a snow shovel, first aid kit, emergency shelter, cooking equipment and food. This made for a heavy pack on my part, but nothing I took was superfluous for what we were planning to do.

The day was shaping up to be perfect for back country ski touring – sunny, no clouds whatsover, a very light wind, and excellent snow cover. I had been watching the weather map like a hawk for days and knew that there was a high pressure system moving over the top of us – everything was falling into place for a perfect day on the Main Range.

Owen and I started off on our skis up the eastern bank of the Snowy River. Blue Cow Creek to the south of the resort had been snowed over, so there was no need to use the much feared and talked about flying fox to get to the other side. The snow was hard packed and still icy from the night before, but we knew that as the sun rose it would soften up the surface and make ski travel much easier. We were able to make an almost direct route to the Illawong suspension bridge a couple of kilometres up the river. We needed to cross over to the western bank of the Snowy River and the suspension bridge is often the only way to get to the other side. When we reached the suspension bridge I was surprised to see that sections of the Snowy River had been covered completely by snow, and that other skiers, gamer than I, had used these natural snow bridges to cross the river. There had obviously been a lot of snow this season.

After crossing to the western bank of The Snowy we more or less stayed on the contour, neither climbing nor descending, and followed the river south. We were not going at the pace that I had hoped to achieve, as Owen was skiing on older alpine touring gear – he was having trouble with one of the bindings which forced him to stop regularly – and was also using skins. Skins are material attachments that adhere to the bottom of skis to enable the user to climb straight up hills without slipping back, but on the straight and level or downhill they slow the skis down considerably. I was using almost-new back country skis that look like downhill skis, but have a patterned base that grips into the snow and allows the user to climb hills, but do not noticeably slow the skier down when skiing level or downhill. I did my brand new official ski tour leader best to break the trail the whole way, and stop regularly to allow Owen to catch up. After starting so early we had plenty of time up our sleeves, and the return route would be mostly downhill and quite fast, so I was not worried about our progress. The weather was so good that it was just great to be out on skis.

By the time we reached the junction of Blue Lake Creek and The Snowy we were a little tired, so we decided to rest and eat before making the final slog up to Blue Lake. This done, we donned our packs again, and I elected to walk up the steeper sections of the hill towards Hedley Tarn – another glacial lake that is down hill from, and fed by, Blue Lake. There were sections where the snow cover was quite icy, and with such a heavy backpack, walking was the easier option. We reached Hedley Tarn and were starting to flag a little, but on checking the map we realised that we only had to ski around the contour of the hill in front of us and we would be at Blue Lake shortly. We marveled at the snow cover and stiking scenery. By then we were above the tree line and were confronted by endless hills covered with the best snow cover I could remember seeing.

Owen traversing above Hedley Tarn

Blue Lake itself came into view around midday, and we elected to stop and lunch at the point where the creek exits the lake, which was completely iced over and covered with snow. The scenery was magnificent. Towering Mount Twynam to the north; the vast, featureless expanse of the frozen lake; and the imposing snow covered crags on the western wall of the cirque. There was another back country skier taking a break nearby, and we rested while chatting and watching his mate ski down the slopes to the north. We watched as he carved beautiful turns down a steep section, then a high traverse across the slope above the lake, before tearing down the hill to join our small group. The two new guys were hooting. They were quite young and competent and were obviously having a ball, and their good humor was infectious. We all started taking photos, exchanging cameras so we all had our partners in the picture. We ended up goofing off with them, taking their lead by doing silly poses, handstands and the like while taking shots with the main wall of the cirque in the back ground. I secretly wished I was like these two guys again – young, full of piss and vinegar, having a great time and not a care in the world. The weather and conditions were so good that it made everyone want to jump up and down.

Me and Owen at Blue Lake - the cornice that was to fall is circled

The two guys headed off and left Owen and I to ourselves. We sat down and ate lunch and surveyed the crags for ice climbing potential while discussing where the best place to climb would be. I looked directly across frozen lake at the main cliff line of the western wall, a distance of around five hundred metres, and noticed that there were big cornices built up along the top of the cliff line in the gullys between the buttresses (sections of rock protruding from the cliff line). A cornice is like a big lip that protrudes out horizontally from the top of a vertical snow bank. The wind blows the snow over the top of the cliff and it gradually accumulates until it looks like a frozen wave caught in the process of breaking. They are well known for being unstable and many a mountaineer has met their end by unknowing walking too close to the top of one and falling through, such as the legendary Hermann Buhl, who fell to his death through a cornice on Chogolisa in the Himalayas in 1957.

There was a vertical gully about sixty metres wide in the centre of the cliffline which at its top had biggest cornice of all. The snow covered cliff dropped about forty metres vertically below it with some protruding boulders, with another forty metres of very steep snow covered ground below that. Climbers know the buttress immediately to the south of this area as Grey Buttress. I remarked to Owen that there was no way we were going anywhere near those cornices and that the safest place to climb would be on the less steep northern side of the cirque. We scanned the safer looking area for rocks with the tell-tale glint of ice that would allow our ice axes and crampons to bite as we climbed.

By this time it was a quarter to one, but we were in no hurry to move, soaking up the sunshine and recuperating from the long haul we had just done with heavy packs. Owen then spotted another back country skier on the top of Grey Buttress, just to the left of the large cornice and drew my attention to him. At the same time, another skier appeared right above the centre of the largest cornice to the north of Grey Buttress. We both sensed the immediate danger that the second guy was in. I callously remarked that this was going to be a good photo opportunity. I seriously thought that he would just fall through the cornice and end up sliding down the slope below it, probably none the worse for wear. We were too far away to yell a warning, and by the time I thought about it, it was too late.

At that exact instance the cornice began to peal off from the left hand side of the cliff line. A big crack appeared in the snow right across the cliff as it broke like a wave. The guy, whom I now know to be Tom Carr-Boyd, was still on top of the cornice as it started to drop and he made an attempt to turn back, too late. We watched him fall for about twenty metres, then lost sight of him as snow was thrown into the air by the massive force. For the time that we could see him, he appeared to have turned back and faced the snow-covered cliff as he fell, and looked as though he was either scrabbling for holds, or was trying to swim his way to the top of the moving snow.

For a second or two we were stunned as we watched the falling cornice trigger secondary avalanches on the steep slope below. I have been asked since whether there was a lot of noise caused by the avalanche, or whether I heard yelling or warnings shouted by the others, but all I can remember is silence. There must have been some sound, but I think I suffered sensory overload watching the drama unfold before us.

I watched the skier who was on top of Grey Buttress immediately launch himself off the cliff, carve a few turns on the near vertical face, then stop on the right hand side of the avalanche debris field. I remember being mightily impressed by his skiing skills.

I swore loudly and yelled at Owen for us to get over there. We donned our skis and I yelled again at Owen to grab our snow shovel. We were about five hundred metres from where the bottom of the avalanche debris field stopped, but the ground was flat as it was the frozen lake surface and we moved very quickly. After a couple of hundred metres Owen yelled that he was going to try and get mobile phone reception and call for help, and threw the snow shovel over to me and turned back to climb Little Twynam, the hill to the north of our position.

I arrived at the bottom of the avalanche debris field, which had pushed out over the flat surface of the frozen lake for at least fifty metres, and was up to two metres thick, and I kept swearing over and over to myself in an attempt to get a grip on the situation. It was surreal, the volume of debris was enormous and couldn't believe that that much snow had dropped off the hill. The avalanche debris field extended for at least another fifty metres up the hill and stopped where the cliff line became more vertical. I climbed as fast as I could up the right hand side of the debris field, scanning it as I went to see if there was any sign of the guy who had just fallen. I tried to move out onto the debris field as broken blocks of snow obscured visibility somewhat, but its loose blocky nature forced me to move off it as I kept sinking up to my thighs, and I continued climbing up the clearer snow slope, scanning as I went. At the time I saw no sign of a person or any equipment in the avalanche debris. I could see the other guy at the top of the debris field, working at a frantic pace, but I did not know whether he had found the other guy or not.

Looking down onto the debris field where it has flowed out onto the lake - my ski is circled to give and indication of scale

I know from the literature and associated statistics that you have to find an avalanche victim as quickly as possible. The survival rate drops rapidly between fifteen and thirty minutes. Some avalanche victims end up close to the surface, and are easy to dig out (or in fact extract themselves). Others are able to form a pocket of air around their heads which enables them to keep breathing until they are found. Others are not so lucky. One of the characteristics of an avalanche is that when it is moving it is quite fluid, and one of the recommended techniques is to discard any equipment (skis, ski poles, etc.) and attempt to swim to the surface of it (literally). Once the avalanche stops it compresses itself and becomes quite compact underneath, much like when you pick up a handful of snow and crush it into a hard snow ball. This can trap the victim so that they cannot move, and may even compact so hard around the torso that it is impossible to breath, even if there is an air pocket.

I made it to the top of the avalanche debris field where the guy was probing like mad with his ski pole. I yelled at him if he knew where the other guy was, and he indicated that he had seen him go down in the area that he was working on. I asked if the person we were searching for had their skis on, and the answer was no. I mentioned that that was probably a better thing as survivability in an avalanche is greater without skis on. I did not ask my fellow rescuers name, I was too aware of the time constraints that were on us and just got to work. The guy who was probing indicated that he had set up snow cairns (blocks on top of each other) to indicate the area he was working on. I ripped the bottom half of my extendable ski pole out of its handle, and started probing with it upside down. I started working further down on an area he had not probed. I then realised that I need to be able to probe deeper, so pushed the basket off the bottom of my ski pole, then inserted it back into the handle so that it was like a spear, giving me about one and a half metres of probe depth. About this time I also realised we should be working in a slightly more co-ordinated fashion, and the two of us worked out a more systematic probing pattern, again marking out our search area with snow cairns.

The reasoning behind the probing is that you are hoping to hit the person with the probe, and that you can feel the person's body or equipment (such as a ski boot) with it. If there is any indication that someone or something underneath has been found, more intensive probing is carried out in that area, and if there is any further confirmation a snow shovel is used to excavate the area. I held my snow shovel in my left hand, and probed with my modified ski stock in my right. I swore at myself. The previous year the sales person at the Paddy Palin store at Jindabyne had tried to sell me ski stocks that converted into more adequate avalanche probes. “When do we get avalanches in Australia?” I'd asked. We'd had such dismal snow seasons that I had dismissed the possibility.

We worked harder than Trojans, probing across the slope with thirty centimetres between each probe. I would stop every couple of metres and scream out “Can you hear me!”, and listen for a second or so in the hope that the person under the snow could make a noise, then continue probing. After a short while, the other guy said “His name is Tom”, so I started calling his name instead. Again, I did not ask my fellow workers name – somehow it seemed too personal for the situation and would be a waste of time. We were highly aware that the clock was ticking and the sands of time were slipping though our hands. I could tell the other guy, though working like mad, was in shock. He was calling Tom's name way too gently and sadly. “Brother Tom” he was saying. He was firing himself up and trying to motivate himself by repeating “Not today Tom, not today”. I did not think at the time that is was his brother, as I also was in a frantic state of mind and, being married to a Melanesian, I am too used to the Melanesian use of the word brother to indicate a good friend.

We worked and worked, trying to cover as much of the area as possible. I tried to ignore the passage of time, concentrating on the probe, yell, listen sequence. I knew that the situation was getting worse as the minutes ticked by, but I had been reading some of Joe Simpson's writings lately, and I reflected on some of his points about mountaineering tragedies as I worked. He emphasises that you should never give up on someone until you know that all is lost. Never say that someone has not survived until you know that they have not survived. Even if the situation is obviously hopeless, be there and help others in their time of need. I used this philosophy to motivate myself and cursed myself for not being as fit as I had been the previous year as my energy started to wane.

After about forty minutes I realised we were going to need more people in the search, and could not believe that I had not seen any other skiers in that whole time, as I was randomly scanning the frozen lake surface and surrounding hills for other people who could potentially help as my energy levels dropped. I stood up and had a good look around the area below us and spotted two more back country skiers (who had been camping next to the lake and had just come back from a mornings tour). I started screaming like blue murder at them “HELP, HELP”. They were obviously stunned for a couple of minutes while they took in the scene before them. Just at that time I heard the sound of a helicopter, and I noticed Owen skiing back over the lake. Owen had climbed Little Twynam in record time until he moved into mobile phone range, and called the Ski Patrol emergency desk directly, informing them of the situation and that we needed a whole pile of people and avalanche probes (poles of thin tubular metal about 3-4 metres long). Owen had climbed the hill so fast that he had given himself muscle cramps in the legs and was having trouble moving quickly. By this time the Careflight helicopter was coming over the top, and the couple who had just appeared down on the lake skied the words “HELP” into the snow in large letters. As the chopper went overhead I raised both my arms over my head in an attempt to give the mountaineering rescue sign, and hoped that they saw me. After a couple of minutes of doing that I realised that it must be highly obvious where the avalanche was and that they would be able to see where we were working.

By that time, the couple who had been on the lake below reached us. We explained to them what had happened and they asked how long it had been. I shook my head and couldn't say much as I felt that admitting how long it had been would make the time span too real - I had checked my mobile phone clock and it was at least forty-five minutes – the time had gone way too quickly. They did not have ski poles that allowed us to remove the baskets, so I modified my other ski pole for them, and after a few false starts one of them decided to use a ski, which was better than nothing for probing. They too joined in the grid pattern and worked like mad. They were the first to ask the name of the person who I was working with, whose name was Peter, and they found out that Tom was Peter's brother, and told me. As I feared, this made things too personal for me. I introduced myself and kept probing.

I was surprised that Owen had not appeared at the top of the debris field with us, and it was a long time before he did. He had apparently seen a loose ski somewhere in the debris field and had carried out his own probing in that area. I didn't find out until later that Tom carrying his skis in his hands when the cornice collapsed.

By this time the helicopter had worked out a position to hover, and it lowered a doctor with a winch cable, who then made his way up to our position. Skidoos also started to appear with the first Ski Patrol, National Parks, and other rescue workers who brought along snow shovels and some avalanche probes. Gradually, over the next half hour, more and more skidoos turned up with extra rescue personnel, and an expanded search pattern was set out with the extra people who were on hand.


By this time I had been probing for an hour and a half non-stop, and had to have a break. I actually changed over to working with the shovel on any areas that may have given some indication of where Tom was, helping clear excavated snow while another rescue team member dug the actual holes. I really needed to drink some water, and used some of Peters, but realised that the others such as Owen, and the two skiers who were helping first were going to need water too, so I descended down the slope (again, scanning the debris field), and skied over to my pack, packed everything into it, and skied back to the search area. I had a Jetboil gas cooker in my gear, so I fired it up and started to melt snow for people to drink after the water that I had been carrying had been used up. I first used the water to make black tea, with the hope of enticing Peter out of the probe team (there were now more people than probes) and getting him to drink a brew. Even with hot tea, there was no way Peter was going to stop. I marveled at his stamina and ability to keep on working. By this time we had been going for two and a half to three hours.

Time had obviously slipped away and I could tell be the way the rescue workers were acting that it was now a process of recovery, not rescue. One of the rescue guys got a radio call, and said out loud to everyone that there had been “another” fatality over at Perisher. I remember thinking how thoughtless this was as we had not found anyone deceased yet. By this time the rescue team had brought in two snow plow cats from Charlotte Pass and had pushed a snow road in from the Kusciouszko road and up to Blue Lake to enable easier access for skidoos. They then pushed the road all away around the northern side of the lake, staying high and off the frozen lake surface.

Rescue team probing

The shadows were starting to get longer and we were obviously going to start losing light soon. A general announcement was made by those who were now in charge of the rescue crews that everyone was to move off the slope and away from the avalanche debris field. The snow ploughs were then going to be used to clear the debris field in an attempt to locate Tom more quickly. It took a while to sink in what was happening, and eventually most of the rescue team was moved down and out of harms way to the side of the lake. I packed up my gear and was about to move off, when Peter came over and thanked me for helping. I was almost too embarrassed to say 'no worries', and made my way down the hill.

The full perspective - the rescue team can be seen probing at the top of the debris field

Owen then joined me down where most of the skidoos were parked on the side of the lake, and the other two skiers who helped at the beginning met up with us as well. I introduced myself to the others, but I was so tired that I have, to my chagrin, forgotten their names. The bloke was from Canberra, and his female friend was from Tasmania. Luckily Owen, through his Ski Patrol activities, knew many of the skidoo drivers and we organised to be taken back to our cars at Guthega. That was an adventure in itself, being driven from Blue Lake, to Charlotte Pass, Perisher, and then Guthega on the back of a skidoo, but we arrived in one piece. Just as we were dropped off, one of the skidoo drivers received a call on his radio to inform him that they had found Tom at 5.45pm - he was actually a good way down the slope from where we were searching, and was found under three metres of debris. The sad thing is that he was found in the vicinity of the ski that Owen had seen. We had all tried hard, and without the benefit of hindsight, we had all worked to the best of our ability and knowledge.

I dropped in at Jindabyne police station on the way home, to give a statement as instructed by the policeman on the scene, but they were too busy, told me to give it later at Queanbeyan, and I went gladly on my way, almost too tired to drive, but wanting nothing more than to shower and sleep in my own bed. I also finally rang my wife, who screamed at me down the phone. “What was that for?” I asked. “I'm so glad to hear your voice”, she said. The news had traveled way faster than we had, and for a few hours no-one knew what the details of the accident were. All my family knew was that a skier (some reports said climber) had died in an avalanche at Blue Lake, and they knew that I was there and hadn't reported in. They had all assumed it had been me.

Update: The two skiers who came to help me and Peter were Don Driscoll from Canberra, and his friend Ami from Tasmania. Don's family also were worried that is was Don who had been taken in the avalanche. I have met up with Don in Canberra since.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Arapiles Chockstone Gathering 2008

We (Mr Pip –a.k.a. Cuzzy Bro Brett - & I ) managed to get out of Canberra right on time at 6am on the Friday morning before the Queens Birthday long weekend. We had the topo from the Sydney Rockies website that had the beta on the best route from Wagga to Horsham. It’s almost a straight line on reasonable country roads across vast flat plains. One of the biggest problems we had was arriving at towns like Denilequin and having to work out which road to take out of town to the next place. We managed to make it Arapiles in ten hours, with various stops for fuel, food, shopping, and a beer at the pub at Minyip (sorry Love, we’ve only got Pots… - I misheard and thought I was back in Nimbin for a minute, but then realized we’d entered the land of Pots Only Pubs).

Bard Buttress, Mount Arapiles, Victoria, Australia

Arapiles!! Look at all that fricken rock! After the initial shock of having too much rock to look at, we wandered around The Pines trying to find any other Chockstone Gathering people. We stopped and asked a South American guy, Juan, if he knew where Dave (a.k.a. Widewetandslippery) was. Dave seems to know everyone, so it was worth a shot. “Yeah, actually, I met him today” said Juan “here he comes now”. We looked across The Pines to see a grinning WW&S sauntering across the road. He was camped over in The Gums area, the non-piney campsite to the north, so we headed over there and set up camp with him.

We went for a late afternoon walk around the crag and checked out some routes on Tiger Wall, Castle Rock, and the Organ Pipes. A little later Rod (a.k.a. IdratherbeclimbingM9) arrived on his motorbike, so by later in the evening we had the start of a gathering and some plans for climbing. After the mega drive and a couple of beers an early evening was definitely in order.

Chockstone Camp!

We took it easy getting started the next morning as the sun comes up later in western Victoria, and we weren’t in any rush anyhow. Arapiles is a crag to ease into slowly. WW&S suggested we start on some single pitch routes on the left hand side of the Central Gully or the Organ Pipes area. The five minute walk in to the crag was extremely strenuous, and we were soon ogling what was on offer. WW&S suggested we walk further down the hill, and he slipped in behind a rock tower and the main face of the wall and down climbed a steep gully. Mr Pip and I followed, and as we were handing our packs down WW&S let out a string of expletives that are usually a fair indication that something serious and/or painful has just occurred. I arrived to find him clutching his leg, with a hundred kilo-ish boulder lying on the ground next to him, dislodged from its original position. As WW&S had stepped on the corner of the rock it had dislodged, rolling against his leg. Quick action on WW&S’s part had resulted in him only suffering from a badly bruised leg. Muki (a.k.a .Bomber Pro), had turned up that morning as well and was preparing to climb nearby with IdratherbeclimbingM9 when he heard the commotion. He was quickly on the scene with a First Aid kit and professional attitude and had WW&S checked out and fixed up with an elastic bandage. I was prepared to bail at that point and get WW&S back to camp to get an ice pack on the bruise, but he insisted that we (those left unwounded) should climb first.

Nick leads on the Hornpipe start to Digeridoo

After a bit of consultation, WW&S suggested that Didgeridoo (11) would be a good route to start with. It was going to be my first lead at Arapiles, so something easy sounded fine by me. I was soon to find out that Arapiles is one big sandbag and the routes are all graded about five grades lower than what they would be elsewhere. The moves up the first part of the climb were nice, but as I moved into the climb’s broken crack I missed the step to the left to move out onto the face of the rock. I didn’t get too worried as this was our first climb, Mr Pip had to second, and I didn’t want him put off by pushing him on anything to difficult to start with. If you stay on the right on Didgeridoo it turns into a wide ledge that leads into the back of a gully. It had a good flat spot for belaying from. I plugged into the wall and belayed Mr Pip up. Whilst standing there I was able to look straight across at IdratherbeclimbingM9, then Bomber Pro’s wife Jen, cranking through the roof on Jen’s Climb (19), which was next to us.

Rod Kerr (64) pulling through the roof on Jen's Climb (19)

After getting safely to the gully behind Didgeridoo, I ducked up and around the Didgeridoo pillar to find three people camped on top of the rap station which has about enough space on the associated knife edge ridge for a mountain goat. I didn’t think we were going to shift them quickly, so we decided to rap off the pine tree that is growing out of the center of the gully. I started to abseil down and dislodged some stones and yelled “Rock!!”. I thought that would clear out the crowd at the bottom of the crag, but it didn’t bring about much of a reaction. I looked back up at Mr Pip, who was sitting next to the pine tree rap station, when a fist sized rock came barreling past him, obviously dislodged by the climbers up behind us. The rock ricocheted a few times and then bounced out towards the base of the climb. At the same time Maddy, Bomber Pro and Jen’s very small and cute daughter (3yrs?) walked up the path and into the firing line. I stood aghast halfway down the abseil and watched as the rock made straight for Maddy, who was blissfully unaware of the implications of my manic screams of “Rock!!”. At the last moment the rock dropped, hit the ground about 30cm in front of her, and exploded into pieces. At the same time Maddy put her hands to her face and miraculously avoided injury. They must make these kids tough at Natimuk – she didn’t even cry. Maybe she just hangs out at the base of crags so much that falling rocks are just part of her world.

After the morning’s excitement we decided that going back to camp would be a whole lot safer, and my medical recommendation of an ice pack on WW&S’s bruise and a beer for the pain was eagerly accepted. Back at camp we got WW&S into a comfy position and cooked up a very late breakfast.

Mr Pip and I decided that we had to at least get another climb in, so we went off for a bit of a recce by ourselves. We settled on Ali’s Face (9), which is the face next to Ali’s, and in the guide book is assumed to be the original Ali’s. This looked fine to us as it got us up into that part of the crag without too much effort so we could have a bit of a look around. I climbed to the rap station at the top and tied in just as the rescue helicopter arrived to pick up the broken ankles accident over at Kitten Wall. The chopper kept buzzing the top of the crag in the vicinity of The Bard for about twenty minutes, making it impossible to hear what Mr Pip was yelling from below, or for him to hear me. Mr Pip eventually made it up, then I belayed him down as he moved over and grabbed the Ali’s chains and scrambled back down Ali’s. I then rapped off the very nice double chains and down climbed the last few metres.

Nick leads on Ali's Face

We’d had a very interesting, and at times a bit too exciting, introduction to Arapiles. The beer definitely tasted better than usual that evening. We sat around talking about what we had done that day and decided that we had discovered a variant finish for Didgeridoo, which we decided to call Didgeridon’t.

I slept in a bit on the Sunday morning, then headed over to The Pines to find IdratherbeclimbingM9 who was helping with the official camp clean up (organized by the VCC I believe - grab a plastic bag and pick up rubbish). I got stuck into picking up rubbish too, and it was a good way to cruise around The Pines and check out who was there (for the record, there were more Coopers beer bottle tops than any other – Carlton came in second). IdratherbeclimbingM9 and I caught up with Ross (a.k.a. rhinckle), who was camped at the other side of The Pines.

We got back to the Chockstone camp in The Gums, sorted our gear, and headed off for Tiger Wall. IdratherbeclimbingM9 and rhinkle decided to climb the immortal classic, The Bard (12). Amazingly, they got the climb to themselves. The rest of us (WW&S, Mr Pip, Bomber Pro and I) decided on Kestrel (12), an eye catching deep corner crack. WW&S led, while Mr Pip belayed.

I headed downhill a bit with Bomber to belay him on a sport climb (a grade 23?) he was trying to wire. He soloed up the easy (??) side until he was high enough to die if he fell, then traversed across and threaded the rope through the rings at the top. I fooled myself that I was spotting him, and was more than relieved when he was safely tied in. I lowered him down and he started up the climb. The crux is only a few metres off the ground, where you have to lean right and have all your weight on a tiny hold under your right foot, and reach up high with your right hand to a nasty sharp hold. On about the third go Bomber all but made it, the sharpness of the small handhold doing him in. He gave the move a few more goes, then decided to finish the rest of the climb for the hell of it.

Bomber and I headed back up to Kestrel to find Mr Pip just getting into the crux of Kestrel – a grovelly little chimney which isn’t fun if you are not good at groveling. Poor old Mr Pip gave it his best shot, but in the end just got himself too exhausted. Even my encouragement of Fantini ethics and that we’d all look away while he climbed the rope did no good, so WW&S lowered him.

Just as this was going on there was a pained yelp from the American climber a few metres to our right. He had just copped a rock to his left cheek bone from the climbers above him. He was more shocked than injured, and THEN decided to put his helmet on. There is a common theme involving falling rocks and Arapiles starting to develop here.

I roped up and followed WW&S up Kestrel. It well deserves its two star rating. It’s a great one to do as an early climb at Arapiles as it gets you used to the height without the wild exposure. While I was groveling, thrashing and grunting, Bomber gave Mr Pip some technique lessons in some of the accessible cracks at the bottom of the climb. Brett (Mr Pip) really appreciated someone of Bomber’s experience and ability giving him the time to help him improve his climbing. I topped out and clipped into the chains, then Bomber cruised up the climb behind us. The view was fantastic and the climbing exhilarating. We rapped down on twin ropes and headed back for our last night at Arapiles.

The weather on the Sunday night was really warm. There was only a light Norwester blowing, and it made me think of approaching rain. From the Chockstone camp we had a front row seat view of the Bard Buttress, and we could see there were a couple of crews climbing The Bard. What High Sport, I thought, get out there and climb it with head torches! We all grabbed beers and walked up the road a bit and sat down on the log fencing in the dark and watched as head torches bobbed their way up and down the Bard Buttress. I entertained the idea of top roping The Plaque crag with head torches, and we even got to the point of getting a rope up there, but the alcohol fueled bravado wore off when it was discovered that there were no belay stations there and rhinkle started acting a bit weird and said he was going to tie off at the top of the crag and rap down without a harness. A retreat was definitely easier than having to wait around for an ambulance, so we headed back to camp to find other like minded ground huggers.

We all wandered over to the VCC camp in The Pines and had a breif chat, then went and sat around with some NSW crew who were down from the Bluies. I talked to a German guy, Sascha, who was from the area in Germany where they climb with only knotted rope for protection. I asked him if it worked as well as normal pro, and he said he didn't know, as he was too scared to fall on it and test it out. We staggered back to camp for a quick feed and a very deep sleep for all.

Rod gives the weekend the thumbs up!

During the night the rain came. Light and steady, there must have been hundreds of farmers in the surrounding district who would have been more than pleased. Time to get the Winter wheat crop in!We had a wet morning, though it never rained too hard, and we went for a final walk to the Northern end of the crag. The Watchtower Crack, Arachnus, The Watchtower Chimney – soaring lines for the ticklist for next time. There's Kachoong! So much rock, so little time. We packed our soggy gear into the Go Anywhere Getz and said our goodbyes to the rest of the Chockstone crew – October long weekend – we'll be back!!

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Brindabella Journeys

It snowed on the Brindabella Ranges on the last weekend of April. The Brindabellas run north/south - the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales border runs along the top. The higher peaks get snow, but this then causes problems with access. There is only one road in, which comes from the north and follows the ridge line. The eastern side of the range is Namadgi National Park, and the park rangers control the gates along the road. If it looks too snowy, they lock the gates. Luckily this time the road was open to Mount Franklin, which is the site of the old Canberra Alpine Club ski chalet (burnt down 2003). There are still some ski runs on the hill, though they are short and are being slowly reclaimed by the snow gums.

The journey from Canberra to the Mount Franklin car park was 60 km, at least half of this was on dirt road - the road from Uriarra up to the Piccadilly Circus turnoff was bouncy at times - but the Mount Franklin Road, which follows the ridge, is quite good (blind corners! drive slow!). From the car park to the site of the old chalet is only 300m - there now stands a new picnic shelter (totally useless when a snowy south wester is blowing).

Mt Franklin Hut

The old toilet block still survives, and is quite serviceable. The parks service still maintain it as a public convenience. It would also be quite useful as a storm shelter as there is plenty of space inside - at least you wouldn't have to go far if nature called!!

The Mt Franklin Conveniences

I put my skis on (my old Fischer Crown light tourers - perfect for rock scraping) and headed off up the track to the top of Mt Franklin, which was only about a kilometre away. The track had a useable cover of snow - the trees on the western side act like a snow fence and cause a snow drift along the path. The only problem is that the parks service has been throwing logs and branches all along the sides of the path in an attempt to reclaim the old ski run that the path follows - this made it really dicy on the way down as you have to stick to a narrow path and side step down any steep bits.

Mt Franklin Track

It was great to be out on the skis again, working out the rusty bits in my technique. The weather was quite blizzardy too - alternating between fluffly snow and chittering ice which bounced noisily off the hood of my Mammut soft shell. I love being out solo in this sort of weather - it gives me time to think about what I am doing and how my gear is performing - situational awareness - confidence - character building!!.

The climb to the top of the hill, and then on to the trig station didn't take too long - I took my time though as with so much fresh uneven snow on the track it was difficult to know what laid under the lumpy bits. Once on top of the hill it is fine though - an open alpine meadow with scattered trees.

Mt Franklin Trig Station

I had a bit of a look around the trig station, though the fresh lumpy snow (lots of grass tussocks underneath) didn't inspire me to attempt any downhill runs. I took some photos of the icy Snow Gums (no koala bears here!!) and headed back down the hill.

It very icy version of Eucalyptus pauciflora ssp. niphophila

The journey back down was slow as I had to side step on my skis most of the way - there was way too much potential for broken legs with all the snow covered logs next to the track. As I got back to the car there was a couple of guys there with shovels trying to pack as much snow as they could into the tray of their pickup truck - a surprise for the kids at home I suppose - though it would make a great party esky - you could chill a lot of beer with their pile of snow.

The journey up Mt Franklin got me thinking again about the rest of the Brindabellas. I've had plans for about five years to venture further down the mountain range, though again access is difficult if the road access has been cut. I'd been toying with the idea of walking in to Pryor's Hut, which is at the base of Mount Gingera (1857m), another eight kilometres down the road. The plan was to walk up from the carpark at Corin Dam - I'd read as much information about it that I could find and was confident that I could do it solo.

Pryor's Hut is a lovely old mountain hut that was built about fifty years ago for staff of the botanic gardens, who were planting arboretums along the top of the Brindabellas to trial cool climate tree species. It has a couple of rooms, benches, and two lovely stone fireplaces. It is now maintained by the Kosciuszko Huts Association. It is a great place to base yourself for a bit of remote backcountry skiing - the area holds the snow quite well over winter, especially if it's a good snow year.

I've been planning to do a weekend at Pryor's Hut when the snow is good, so I wanted to walk in on the proposed route before it snowed so that I was up to speed on what the access would be like. I'd looked at the map many times, but refrained from working out what the climb out of the valley from Corin Dam was going to be like. I could see that it was steep.

I drove to Corin Dam on Saturday 2nd of May and got to the car park just before dawn. I scouted around a bit and found the path "right behind the toilet block" as had been reported by others. I took a well loaded day pack, as going solo you have to be prepared for anything, and I wanted to know what it was like climbing that hill with a decent weight on my back. The track, though not heavily used, is quite obvious and is marked with pink tape tied to the trees. I started off just as there was enough light to see where I was going.

It was steep to start with. Very steep. I climbed the first hundred metres or so as if I was climbing a granite slab - up on the toes of my shoes, leaning forward, and heading straight up. The slope then backed off a bit, but it was still steep and sustained. Towards the top I was having to rest every 50m or so - all I could think of was how hard it must be doing the final stages of high Himalayan peaks.

Walk up this - for an hour...

When I reached about half-way up the slope, the sun came over the far hill and lit the path up. I was really starting to heat up now, so it was a good excuse to stop, unzip my jacket and take a photo.

The Sunlit Climb to Stockyard Spur

The morning was beautiful and peaceful, with only an occasional bird call. I kept my head down and pushed on. It was a hard slog, but the hill started to level out. I came upon a bushwalking cairn and then noticed a lightly used vehicle track heading off along Stockyard Spur towards my destination. I'd made it to the top of the hill! 600 metre climb, 1.5 kilometres, 1 hour.

The Road Along Stockyard Spur

The walk along Stockyard Spur to the Mt Franklin Road is about four kilometres. There is a bit of up and down, with a couple of small hills to take slowly after all that climbing, but it was easy walking in a sub-alpine bush setting. It would be great for skiing after a good snow fall. Before I knew it I was at the Mt Franklin Road - I turned left and walked for about ten minutes along the well maintained dirt road, and there was Pryor's Hut - a very welcome site. And even better - I'd made the walk in 2 hours.

Pryor's Hut

The hut inside was a clean as a mountain hut can be - with a good fire going in the stone fireplace, a couple of friends, and some good cheer, it would be very cosy. I set up my MSR Whisperlite stove and put some chilli noodles on to cook - even though the sky was clear and blue it was still quite early and it was about 2 degrees Celsius outside (the weather station is on the next hill - Mt Ginini - and all the weather data is published to the web every half an hour - very convenient - Mt Ginini weather station observatons).

I went for a walk around the area after a quick recarb of noodles. There is a clean pit toilet outside (with paper!) and there is a small arboretum of exotic Pines planted nearby. I walked up the road a bit and looked up at Mount Gingera, which is about another 200m higher than the hut. The hill had plenty of treeless slopes, which would be perfect for carving up after good fall of snow. The last of the summer Paper Daisies were flowering, adding some bright colour to the cold mountain.

Australian Paper Daisy

I didn't want to waste too much time or energy, as this was merely a scouting mission, so I went back to the hut, grabbed my gear, and headed back from whence I came. I stopped at one of the small tors (granite outcrops) along Stockyard Spur and snapped a shot of the mountains to the west. There's plenty more hills to be climbed out there!

Looking West From Stockyard Spur

The walk back down the hill was no piece of cake either - because it was so steep it had to be done slowly with a lot of side-stepping. I tried to clear the track a bit as I went, and build more track marking cairns as an excuse for a break. I made it back to the car park in two hours.

This trip, though tiring and highlight the fact that I will be requiring a bit more training, established the fact that it is possible to climb to Pryor's Hut and back for the weekend. I want to do a couple of ski tours up there this winter - if I can con a couple of other masochists to climb the hill with me. I think that climbing the hill, then skiing for the day, then walking out, would be not just too tiring, but not much fun either if done as a day tour. You really need to plan to bed down in the hut for the night, then head out the next day. This place has great potential - especially with rising fuel prices - for a quick last minute local ski tour after a good fall of snow.