While there may be a lacking of high mountains or ice and mixed climbing, with some imagination, there is no shortage of opportunities to train the mind and body for alpine climbing in Australia. I will recount three recent training missions in Australia - an 850m climbing link-up in the Grose Valley, alpine rock climbing in the Warrumbungles, and a 90km run traversing three of the highest and most remote peaks in the Blue Mountains.
Pierces Pass Triple
In the Grose Valley of the Blue Mountains, the orange cliffs around Pierces Pass boast the longest multi-pitch routes in the region. Some of the classics include Bunny Bucket Buttress (270m, 18) – scene of many a benightenment, Randy Rabbit Ridge (280m, 20) – a funky new addition to Pierces Pass, and Contented Cows/Hotel California (300m, 20) – named after the Eagles song, since on the first ascent the route seemed to never end. A good challenge I decided, would be to climb the three routes in a day, to rack up 850m of climbing.
I pitched the idea to Matthew Scholes, who was heading to Patagonia soon, and he agreed, but had a far better tactic in mind for the day. Instead of fixing ropes down the traditional 90m abseil-in approach, which would require several kilometres of hiking each way between each climb, we would fix static ropes down half of one of the climbing routes and abseil the remainder in three quick raps. Abseiling the entire 300m route had never appealed to me, but only ninety minutes after leaving the car we were standing at the base of Hotel California, and I could already tell this strategy was a winner.
After climbing the first 30m I placed a tibloc and called out to Matthew to start simul-climbing. We regrouped after the first four scrappy pitches at the base of the classic head-wall, where the good climbing begins. Matthew took over the lead for the long crimpy traverse over the void, the beautiful Grose Valley just waking up to a bluebird day. We continued to pitch out the headwall, Matthew cruising through the crux of the climb and soon we had dispatched the first route in 4 hours from the car.
Our next route was unfortunately occupied by a party, so we took on BBB instead, jumping on just before another party – a popular spot! As we racked up, Adam Darragh came over sounding quite happy with himself, raving that they had done the two 45m raps on the approach with just a 70m rope to save hauling up a tag-line on route. How was that possible? A fi-fi hook, some elastic cord, prussic, and suicidal imagination is all it takes. We simul-climbed the first three grade 18 pitches together, thin in places and running low on quick-draws made it to the half-way ledge. We jogged up the grade 8 slab pitches that give access to the stellar headwall, 80-metres of glory jug hauling up the vertical face. The second route was in the bag and we were 6.5 hours in.
The final route RRR was the only one unfamiliar to us both, which wasn’t ideal as our motivation drained, but we had heard great things about the new route (…“climbed it last weekend and it’s still blowing off chunks…”, “some of the bolts just popped out”) so we eager to get on it. The climbing was more technical and varied than the other routes, with a chossy trad feel to some pitches protected all on chain bolts. A brilliant traverse high onto the headwall followed by endless broken flakes, with more that looked set to crumble, a quick jog back to the van and we’d clocked the three routes in 10 hours 30 minutes. The Pierces Pass Triple is set to be the next must-do Blueys challenge.
Warrumbungles Alpine Rock
The Warrumbungles lay claim to some of the best alpine rock climbing in Australia, located six hours drive to the north-west of Sydney. The range is an adventurous destination, with dozens of unique volcanic spires thrust out of the earth, with awesome potential for long rock climbing on faces up to 350 metres high.
After setting up base-camp at Balor Hut, we continued hiking up to the Grand High Tops past the wafer thin “BreadKnife” rock formation where we caught sight of the impressive Crater Bluff. The most striking line of Cornerstone Rib is instantly recognisable, and is the most popular route in the Warrumbungles. Our Austrian friends Thomas and Julia set off for this, while we had our sights on a line on the West face – Lieben (17R, 260m). First climbed in 1962 this was the hardest route in Australia for many years, and developed a reputation of being bold and run-out, it was a great achievement for its time. After a thin time on the direct start (20) with its many flaky side-pulls, we enjoyed repeating the historic route, a truly wild excursion up the centre of the dark west face.
We joined our friends at the summit just as the sun set over the exotic range, and we started the descent of the “Green Glacier”. This strange cleft carved out a steep, wet gulley down the back of the mountain, with several canyoning-style abseils before we once again reached the base. It was 11pm by the time we returned to camp for a hearty beef stew, celebrating a great day’s climbing.
With one more day to climb before a storm, we were determined to tick the iconic Flight of the Phoenix (18, 330m). On the approach, we managed to traverse too high on rock ledges, instead of descending to the north face, and somehow ended up on the summit at 11am. Disappointed that we may have thrown the day away, we headed back down the descent trail anyway for another attempt. Reaching the base by 1.30pm, we decided to head up the route, despite the lateness in the day.
Renowned for its route-finding difficulties through stacked fridge-sized boulders, I was careful to scope the line ahead, and on route managed to blaze a fairly direct line through the first two grade 18 pitches with some choice jamming action. From here we could see an American pair a few pitches ahead. We were determined to catch them.
A 15m abseil from the pillar positioned us below the great orange wing of the Phoenix, which entailed a fantastic 50m rising traverse through the blocky orange volcanic stone. Above, the terrain was steep and blocky, but at grade 15 and itching for some speed, after thirty metres I coiled half the rope, placed a tibloc on a bomber cam and called out to Guillaume to start simul-climbing. We dispatched the next few pitches in a fervour, and before we knew it were jogging up the final slabs past the Americans to reach the summit with the sun still hanging healthily over the horizon. Soaking up summit stoke in the wind, we couldn’t believe our change in fortunes from earlier on the day.
The Three Peaks
At over 90 kilometres and 5000 vertical metres of climbing, The Three Peaks challenge is a true test of physical and mental stamina, involving a committing element of remoteness and off-track navigation. Since the 1960s, the challenge has forged legends and broken souls and remained a classic in Blue Mountains lore ever since. At a stroke past midnight I rode through the flickering lights of Katoomba’s nightlife, ditched my bike at the official start on the Narrowneck Plateau, and set off into the darkness. Solo, onsight.
Jogging along the mind-numbing 10km stretch of gravel road along the Neck, it wasn’t long until the natural urge to sleep began to gnaw away at me. I curled up on the concrete floor of a toilet block for ten minutes to recharge, before washing a caffeine pill down with potent energy drink, resolving to push on through the night. I would need to be alert as a dropped off the Narrowneck buttress, descending steep rocky trails, and down-climbing a vertical cliff using ancient metal rungs pounded into the sandstone.
I checked my watch on Mt Yellow Dog, 5AM. Dead of the night. The exhilaration of the steep descent of Yellow Pup Ridge to the Cox’s River pumped much needed adrenaline through my veins, and as the river came into view so too did the first glimmering of dawn. I downed a bag of muesli with the murky river water, and began the long ascent Strongleg Ridge to Cloudmaker. As the sun rose on me atop Mt Strongleg, the combined effects of sleep deprivation and heat struck me, and I collapsed on the trail, sprawled out flat on the bush floor.
Sometime later I staggered back to my feet, dazed. Fortunately, there was a vague trail along most of the undulating bush ridge towards Cloudmaker, the first of the three peaks. At the sight of the summit cairn, I clenched my fists in jubilation. Having travelled through the night to arrive at the first checkpoint in good time felt sweet indeed.
Eight hundred metres down into Kanangra Creek saw me shoe ski scree slopes, plough through scrub and dodge stinging nettles to reach the tropical creek floor of the valley. The sun was now scorching, so I doused my cap in the cool river water and filled up another two litres for the next slog, a nine-hundred metre ridge climb to the top of Paralyser. I tapped into new energy on the ridge, swallowing up the vertical as the valley floor fell from my feet. Ninety minutes later I was on Paralyser, starting to feel the burn of the ascent, but keeping well hydrated despite the heat. Now 12 hours in, I reminded myself that this was only halfway. And the crux was just ahead - the final 1000-metre un-tracked ascent of Guogang.
Soon I was flying down into the Whalania, and then up towards the third and final peak. The day grew late as I approached the rounded summit of Guogang. But something didn’t line up. The terrain didn’t match the map - had the magnetics in my phone distorted the compass? What was going on? After a night without sleep and 16 hours on the go, my shattered brain couldn’t handle this. I checked the GPS for the first time, and my blunder was revealed. I had climbed a spur one parallel to the Nooroo buttress, which had later veered away towards Mount Krungle Bungle.
It was 4:45pm, I was racing time to reach Guougang by dark. I gulped down a gel, and plotted out a new route along the vague and undefined ridgetop. The gel was metabolized like fire as I blazed like a mad-man through horrendously thick scrub, but all that mattered was finding the third cairn of Guougang before night-fall.
It was just after 6pm when the glorious summit cairn appeared. I was so relieved. But my problems weren’t yet over, unfolding the map revealed a long and complicated 6-km ridge-line descent to the Cox’s. My heart sunk. Almost immediately the navigation proved difficult and the scrub dense. And as darkness descended on me, so did the rain.
In the twilight, my headlamp almost made it more difficult to see, droplets of rain and fog reflecting the beam of light and soggying my map. After several hours of thrashing around in tree fall, bluff zones, slimy creek waterfalls and fields of stinging nettle, becoming totally drenched and exhausted while making little progress, I finally decided to call it a night and find somewhere to bivvy until dawn. Thankfully I stumbled upon a fallen tree whose dry straw-like leaves formed a dry base and a meagre shelter from the elements. My foil space blanket ripped instantly as I curled into an awkward cramped position in my make-shift bivouac, my warmth slowly draining away.
As the light of dawn finally began to reveal the shape of the land, a route through to the Cox’s exposed itself. A couple of hours later I emerged at the banks of the flooded Cox’s river, found a safe crossing and clambered up to the Yellow Pup ridgeline for the long grind home to Katoomba. In the day, the Wild Dog mountains passed at a swift jog, the Tarros Ladders were a mere scramble but the long gravel road of the Neck was a mind numbing final hurdle. Back on the bike, I slowly peddled my way back up the hill into Katoomba, for a round trip time of 38 hours. What a wild ride it was, but even before I’d arrived home on the Blue Mountains train line, I couldn’t help myself from plotting out the next attempt. Lighter, faster, less-sleep, and less-lost. A sub-24 hour Three Peaks. It has to be done!