Published in Rock, Spring 2009
I’m not really sure why some routes stand out in my mind no matter how much time and distance passes, while others fade away, lost and adrift. Perhaps at the heart of it is confrontation: the idea that somewhere up higher, things are going to get stressful, that I will be a kid just trying to make it to the top, innocent, panicked, raw—an animal. The beauty of the mountains and the rock is most intense when you are on the edge of exploding with fear, exhaustion or both. Without the hunger for that feeling and all the ways it can affect you, I would never have kept climbing after the first time.
The routes I’ve chosen for this piece are ones that forced me to understand why I climbed and kept climbing—why I ‘chose life’. Of course there are many others. From my first trembling leads at Arapiles to routes like the north face of Thalay Sagar not a lot changed. Yes, things got a lot harder, but always at the center was a sense of synchronicity with the earth and the stone I held with my bare hands.
These are some of the routes that made me feel, temporarily at least, at peace. They are but fragments of the total sum of life, something I wasn't acutely aware of when I was younger. Nature has a strange way of revealing everything if you are prepared to lose yourself in its unpredictable throes. The rock, the walls, the ridges and hidden faces will, for the most part, always remain the same. Deciding to be part of them, and sharing that with your good friends, is what makes the difference. Riding that wave is what climbing is all about.
Burnley was raw and inspired. It was, at first take, a chaotic arrangement of holds, plastic and real rock, stuck on to the 30° overhanging underside of what was then the South-eastern Freeway in Melbourne. It was perpetually shaded, dry, and ready. It could give you a beautiful, painful workout if you were prepared to listen to it—to feel its rhythm and the undulating arc of its path. More than any other route it taught me about endurance, about pushing into uncharted terrain and discovering that, given enough investment, I could hold on longer and recover on smaller holds.
When I first went there I felt its visceral pull and the splendid, loping waves of its holds, an artful vision of Chris Shepherd’s. To go across you had to go up and down. Some days it was menacing and brooding, full of teeth and wintry aggression, the Melbourne drizzle softly blowing in. On other days light seemed to shine on it, and I would float along it as if I were part of the breeze, feeling miles above the ground (although I was only inches from the woodchips and ratty bits of carpet).
Plenty of people misread it, yelling in frustration that it was too hard, that there was nothing ‘easy’. But it all depended on how much you wanted to link it. And this was the prize: climbing all four panels, and the final two roofs, without coming off. And then it became about the double lap. Our crew, which most often consisted of Athol Whimp, Simon Parsons, Malcolm Matheson and myself, met there ad hoc for vomit-inducing sessions. I’m sure there were others—I remember seeing Dave Jones from time to time, pulling on a newly added tiny-pebble section, twisting upward then popping off.
The first panel kept your feet tucked up (this panel wasn’t as high as the rest), and was about 24. The second panel, complete with a couple of grim dynos, checked in at around 26, the third and fourth at around 24, and the final two roofs at around 25. The further you got along, the more you had to dig in, fight and feel it deep inside.
I would leave there and wander back up to my car barely able to crank the wheel: the roundabouts of Richmond turning into serious moves, the evening traffic lights a blur, thoughts of work the next day taken away by the spontaneous replay of how I somehow managed to get through the final crux and land on a shakeout jug with the sound of cars speeding overhead, droning, empty, eternal.
Burnley died a senseless death some years ago now, the victim of bureaucracy on autopilot. I miss it—the moves, the epics, the conversations, the organic accomplishment of it all. People stuck holds on, people took some holds off, but always everyone respected—stood in awe of—the traverse.
It was dusk, and Athol Whimp and I were 2500 metres off the glacial deck. Descending from the summit, we’d just rappelled off the east summit ridge and on to the steep face below. Gusts of wind blasted us with snow, glittering like headlights in the rain, exploding crimson, the glacier far below, darkness sinking everywhere we looked. I pulled the rope and packed it away, balancing on a step I’d kicked, one knee against the slope.
We began front-pointing down—tired, cold, thirsty and hungry. Dropping down a gear we turned, heavy with concentration. Fear and ego dissipated into and across the gusting air. The darkness from below reached up and took us in, so that every so often I’d peer down to make sure I was tracking right, and what I saw could have been outer space itself, save for Athol’s dull red down suit moving rhythmically down. I now look at photos of where we were and see the beautiful line we took, guided by our instincts. From every angle Jannu intimidates, raw and perfect.
We had climbed the final 1000 vertical metres without sleeping bags or our bivvy tent. We carried a short seven millimetre rope, a couple ice-screws, a few wires and pins and a stove with one gas canister. What we thought was going to be a relatively straightforward climb along Jannu’s east summit ridge to the summit turned out to be a steep, dangerous, cornice-ridden adventure.
Time slowed, the sun arced, a storm moved in. We hid in a cave on the very edge of the top of the north face after being hit with electricity at 7600 metres on a knife-edge, the air buzzing, shorting, hunting for something. A long night followed—sitting, shivering, eyes bloodshot, shrunken in by the violence of –18°C cold.
An American alpinist, Randy Rackliff, did a woodcut print called ‘Bivouac’ and it hangs on a wall in my house: three haunted faces, each in its own world yet forever bound together on the trip through the frozen night. Each time I see this as I pass by in the hallway, the foggy daily routine is arrested and I am taken back to that night on Jannu and others.
On that night, the earth kept turning and daylight eventually returned. At 10 am we were on top, and the afternoon that followed saw us climbing back along the ridge, at times like dancers and at others like exhausted ants. At one point a huge section of cornice dropped away a metre or so from Athol. By dusk we were rapping off the east summit ridge on to the top of the face. Eventually we got off the mountain.
On the walk out from base camp the humidity engulfed us. On the third morning our sirdar and our cook double-crossed us, drunk and yelling, three months of boredom pouring from their mouths. The porters stood by our side, and so on we marched.
At Taplejung the porters cooked us all a feast and we gave the good clothing and gear to them. After three days of waiting to see if a plane would arrive, I traded in my books to persuade a Tibetan hotelier and his son to take our gear up to the airstrip on their yaks. The plane circled but didn’t land so we rounded up a truck and left, down through the valleys to Biratnagar. When we hit the plains around Biratnagar we bought some mangoes and revelled in the sweetness. When I got home it was winter in Melbourne and I longed for more. But I peered around, empty, the drone of everything pushing in.
I was with my brother Rob the day I climbed Serpentine (29). Athol had ticked Rage (29)—Andy Pollitt’s fine direct addition—a few days before and headed off on a solo mission on the western side of Mt Cook. In my head it was, at first, too hard. It felt so different to any other route—so truly unique, connecting disparate features to form something fiercely obvious.
Five years earlier I was 17 and watched Malcolm Matheson put a bolt in the first pitch, a supporting stream of ropes rising above him. Back then Taipan Wall was a bittersweet pill many climbers couldn’t swallow. Mr Joshua was the object of affection for those who did wander in, and it kept people slipping and sliding enough at grade 25 that anything harder seemed diabolical. As Taipan Wall came into view from Flat Rock on the walk-in, the adrenaline would surge. I could just about see all those deep powder-orange holds waiting in the shade, seemingly bursting with latent energy.
The first thing I wanted to sort out was the first pitch. So I swung along the base and then lurched up and into the groove, blindly feeling through the crux and staggering through to the pocket that takes the large cam. Then out left and eventually up to the belay, the perfect grotto. On the second pitch, the ‘fat fingered’ crux kept me working for a while, but as soon as I had it I had the route. The crisp morning I did finally make it to the top, I pulled the lip and stared back down the wall, the rope gently running through the ’biners, the breeze soft and morning cool.
A couple of days later Malcolm came back in with me to take some photos and we talked at length about all the intricate ways of solving various moves. But what struck me most of all about Serpentine was not its difficulty but its beauty, and I am still grateful for the mark it made on me. Whenever I see a photo of it in some magazine I feel its transcendent power, its ability to say so much to climbers everywhere—even now, 20 or so years later.
I’d climbed Fringe Dweller (21) many times, but never done the Skywalker (23) finish. Recently back from the USA, Athol and I were bingeing on the Grampians day after day. We wandered up the track and I saw the cliff much earlier than in years past as the fires of a couple of years before had burnt most of everything away. More than ever, I felt how its strength, ironically, lay in its broken structure: smooth vertical pillars blown out by thin slots and horizontal breaks that led to detached blocks, all haphazardly arranged—a gift for climbers.
The burnt orange tones that bled into dark greys seemed to echo the pain of the fires. Beneath the Fringe was the landing zone of a recent rockfall. Trees had been obliterated—nature’s force on display. I always loved sitting beneath the cliff, the wall overhead, seeing the trees that grow outward from the cliff silhouetted against the summer blue sky.
Athol won the toss for the first pitch and cruised on up, slotting some wires in, then stepping right through the crux from the corner-crack’s perfect finger-lock, on to those speckled-yellow first joint edges, and up to the belay after rounding the protruding prow. I followed on through, and the moves only came back to me the very moment before I got to them, and sometimes not, like reading a book you once knew well.
The next pitch is short and steep, loaded with small hollows, pockets of air and shallow fissures sometimes hidden by curving, flaky edges. The final move on to the flat belay ledge was off an angled crack, home for a perfect large cam. Sitting there gave a view down and across to The Last Rites (19) and two guys cruising up, their chatter floating up with the rising air. Athol came through to the belay, picked up some small wires and kept going. Small, bomber wires protect the direct.
As I took them out following Athol’s lead—a line straight up a deceptively blank corner—the moves flowed easily. Sprinklings of sand from earlier rockfall lay about on the edges, so I brushed them with my fingertips, trying not to stop.
At the belay I sorted the rack and stepped right and up through the steep grey blocks, stained with bloodshot orange. Through a small roof there was an intermittent crack that led up and right some more, so I followed it intuitively. It felt like this pitch was a road less travelled. No worn spots, no chalk, and no sign of passage. It wandered ever so slightly back and forth on a straight line, stitching cracks together in a way that saturates you in the contest, working the gear, putting it together.
It’s one of the best pitches around, on the highest part of Rosea, a beast of iron grey, an offering to the sky. Glenn Tempest and Simon Mentz’s 1998 guide describes this combination as the ultimate ‘combo’ on the wall, and I’m sure it doesn’t get done that much, mainly because you have to take a specific and certain turn where you’d normally do the straightforward final pitch of Fringe Dweller.
It was deep winter. As light crept in through the foggy windows of Empress Hut, Athol Whimp and I took the first steps out of our sleeping bags and embraced the cold. Small, short snow showers were still passing through after a few days of storms. Soon we were frustrated and fuelled up with food. We radioed our intentions to Mt Cook Base and headed up towards the Sheila Face for a look.
As we got closer we reasoned that we could climb the North Ridge of Cook with little trouble (in other words, we thought we could climb it and get back to Empress that night). With little thought we crossed the ’schrund and burned up the couloir to Green Saddle. Drenched in sunlight, we enjoyed the view and the stillness.
The pitches up the North Ridge were made up of blocks of rock, drips of ice and the deep cold of the shadows. We broke out on to the ice cap as the sun was setting, small shards of ice dropping away down the face as we rapidly side-stepped up. We busted through the ice step to the summit and peeked around for a few moments, the lights of Mt Cook Village burning like small fires.
We shivered that night away in a ’schrund down towards the summit rocks, emerging slow and weary at first light the next day. We really wished we had a cooker but shrugged it off. ‘Hard core will never die’, said Athol. We climbed down, across and through the Gunbarrels icefall until we could easily traverse across to Green Saddle. I looked up the North Ridge and back to our descent route. I felt like part of the mountain; we both did. Having spent the night out with no gear was a crucial ingredient of this experience, this feeling. Almost literally, we were closer to the mountain, the cold, the infinite vastness, the sort of place where time stops and everything comes together.
It was a warm evening in late summer and Ian Anger floated up Dazed and Confused (20) to the belay ledge with the movement of a life-long climber. His laughter faintly echoed across the back of the Pharos and made me smile. I can’t recall the joke. The day before, he’d belayed me on Slinkin’ Leopard (28), yelling at me to keep it together as I worked in the few wires I had up the final groove—pumping, sweating, summer slippery, the old dark stone giving me just enough to work with.
As I sat on the belay ledge of Dazed and Confused, I looked up and turned to my left and saw what I had come for: "Delirium". My head was on that strange angle where it’s hard to work out what’s what. The sky and the horizon and the edge of the cliff were all spinning around. So I twisted about and looked deeper—I could make out the small roof but beyond this I was lost. Simon Parsons had told me to take a 3.5 Friend, which I had. Ferret arrived and we hung out for a while, feeling that distinct, dry Arapiles landscape, the shade growing deeper. Ten minutes later I was already crouching awkwardly on top of the roof, fiddling in a large wire. Ferret was silent, letting me feel it all, the gentle evening breezes softly tugging on the rope.
Across and up I could see the hanging flake, like a grassy bank on the other side of a river, a mess of watery rocks and ice in between. There was white noise in my head, static confusion, my mind reaching out for the flake, my fingers starting to twitch, to move. So I went for it and relaxed, nursing the little edges, those small yellow incuts as raw as when they were carved ages ago. Halfway up and across I could hear my breathing, lonely and at peace.
And in this I felt part of it all, muscle memory fragments and synapses coming together. I could hear the wind floating over the top of the Pharos as I yarded up the final sections, noticing everything, feeling the dry air through my throat. Ferret worked through it quickly and we sat on top awhile before rapping off and making our way to the pub.
We sat waiting in our tiny bivvy tent at 6900 metres for many days, rationing our food and fuel, wind and snow battering our unlikely position. We did our level best to keep our situation sane by clearing the snow build-up and the inevitable distorting of the tent’s walls. When it was clear we were in a zero-sum game, past the point of having enough resources to get to the top and back, we started down. I had a small topo of the ridge that our good friend Tim Macartney-Snape had mapped for us. I looked it over one more time, thinking about what might have been, and tucked it into my down suit pocket.
Within minutes of dropping off the crest of the ridge and heading down the lee side, snow was pouring down all around us—sliding, sounding like thunder. We rapped down a steep slope loaded with new snow and over a cliff that fortunately got us to a slightly protected spot. But still the snow pummelled us.
With our hoods up and goggles on, we couldn’t see or hear that clearly. With the rope off, we down-climbed through the snow, ice and rocks. It was time-consuming and arduous work. I’d look down and my goggles would fog up, and I’d pull my hood back in frustration, sensations of claustrophobia rising in me.
The closer we got to the col, the louder the roar became. The wind was rushing over the col, angry and ancient. We briefly talked about roping up but dismissed the idea because of the time we’d be exposed to the extreme wind.
Thirty minutes later, after front-pointing very carefully over the col and down into the couloir, we were out of the worst of it. Looking back up the ridge, those colossal ramparts of rock holding up the higher part of the mountain, all we could see was blackness and raging storm. We gasped and scraped up some ice to melt in our mouths as fresh snow began to fall. I kicked a rough, small step to get one of my crampons in so I could take some photos. Then we hammered down the couloir.
This descent was symbolic of our entire time on this brutal, intense and beautiful mountain. Our attempt on the West Face ended in exactly the same way. I remember wondering why we were treated so harshly. It took me some time to see the beauty in this, that we had climbed and survived inside those savage clouds, two human engines looking for a way forward, gasping, hunting, wanting.