It all started at the 'Death Stairs', a flight of 250 steps above Coogee beach, Sydney. The endorphins were obviously running rampant after those sweaty laps, because when I asked Michael Mate whether he wanted to join me for an ascent of the infamous big wall aid climb Ozymandias at Mt Buffalo, he said yes straight away. A wise decision on his part? Time would tell. But I was stoked. Michael was an ideal partner for this climb - not only because he owned a crucial three sets of RPs (tiny brass nuts), a double rack of cams, and a Hilux - but because I knew he could fight his way out of any tough situation this climb might throw at him, and he was super keen to learn. The fact that he didn't know what 'aid climbing' was until he Googled it that night was no problem. Two quick jumaring practice sessions the following week sorted that out, and despite a certain rat-infested chimney and a frayed rope cutting our practice sessions short, after watching a few SuperTopo YouTube videos we were confident that the first few pitchs of Ozy would serve as adequate warm-up...
We rolled into the Gorge carpark at Mt Buffalo at 1am on a clear starry night. After a few hours kip in the stone hut, we tip-toed out to the viewing point for our first glimpse of the great North Wall, just as the sun was rising.
The crown jewel of Mt Buffalo, this 300-metre high granite wall streaked orange and grey was a mesmerising sight. The direct route of Ozymandias cast a sickeningly steep line up open-book corners and impressive roofs to finish up cam-swallowing off-width cracks. Squinting at the line, we spotted a party sleeping on the wall, just waking up on their precarious perch. I smiled in nervous apprehension...
But to attack such an objective so quickly would have been foolish. We needed to get acquainted with the Buffalo granite first. 'Where Angels Fear to Tread', an 8-pitch, 260m crack line seemed like the perfect way to ease ourselves in. Michael and I hiked down the steep goat trail down into the gorge, occasionally losing track of the vague trail, but eventually reaching the base of the Angels buttress by mid-morning. Every inch of skin taped up in defense against the notoriously coarse rock, we sunk crack-gloves and #2 cams into the steep first grade 17 pitch. I arrived at the first belay in a thick sweat, reminded how gloriously painful sustained foot and fist jamming can be!
The angle eased, and I could see the crack snaking out of sight up the silver slabs. Occasionally the crack petered out, requiring a few tenuous friction moves to transition into the next crack system. After four pitches of trench-warfare, jamming and shuffling up the deep crack, we were treated to a cruxy finger crack, followed by the opposite end of the crack spectrum - squeeze chimney's and grovelly off-widths. Chicken wings and knee jams, oh joy! We jangled back into the carpark in the mid-afternoon, much to the enjoyment of the hordes of tourists who wondered if we were in the business of selling carabiners. Angels was a quality day out, but now the free climbing bug was out of our system, it was time to re-hydrate, feast and rack up for the real prize - Ozymandias.
Inside the 70L haul bag we crammed:
- A double-set of cams from #0.1-#3 + singles in #3.5-#5
- 7 sets of nuts including 3 sets of RPs, 1 set of micro-offsets, 1 set of micro-nuts, and 2 sets of regular nuts
- 3 hooks - talon, sky hook, cam hook
- 20 quick draws including 6x 60cm plus 8 spare snap biners
- 4 sets of anchor slings
- 1 set each ascenders, daisies, etriers
- Mini-traxion for hauling 12L water, food (no cooker)
- Bivvy gear: clothes, sleeping bags, 1 sleeping mat, 1 tarp.
Hoisting the pack onto my shoulders at 6.30am the next morning was a rude awakening, but fortunately we had scoped out the steep goat-trail the day before-hand and didn't get lost down to the Crystal Brook, and we reached the base of the wall 2 hours later. Michael confessed to a sleepless night in the cold stone hut, tossing and turning over the prospect of this massive climb. He seemed relaxed once standing in it's foreshortened presence, and we geared up for the first of the ten pitches.
The first moves were desperate. We stick clipped the first bolt 3m up the seemingly blank slab, and I hauled myself up on the etriers. The next bolt was out of reach. I didn't think I'd be reaching for the sky-hook so early on in the proceedings. I rested the hook on a precarious edge, etriers clipped, I used this artificial foot hold to launch up to a jug, and clambered up the slab in my approach shoes to the base of the main corner... Pretty stiff off the deck! The thin open-book corner system rose directly upwards 100 metres to our bivvy ledge for the night, Big Grassy. At first I was treated to a pleasant series of medium sized nuts and cams with the odd piton to make progress. I was finding a rhythm! The four-bolt belay offered security as I began the first of the hauling routines. "The pig is fixed. RELEASE THE PIG!!!" Power-squatting into my aiders, I was able to drag the fat pig up the wall fairly efficiently, the micro-traxion capturing every inch of progress and my body-weight doing most of the work. Michael powered up the rope on his jumars, wrenching out the nuts on his way.
The next two pitches were graded M4 or A2+, and I soon found out why. The corner-splitting crack was microscopically thin in places, opened only by decades of hammered in pitons. I was now faced with choosing the correct micro-nut or micro-cam to fit the flaring piton scars, feeling increasingly exposed as I climbed higher and higher above the marginal placements. Weighting the infinitesimal #0 RP was comical, but the solid granite held the tiny brass wedge securely; by physics or prayer, I'll never know. Big Grassy almost within sight, I found myself in a predicament. The only crack at my disposal was both too flaring for any nut, and too narrow for any of my remaining cams... After several attempts to find even a body-weight placement, each effort resulted in my etriers shooting out of the crack as the piece ripped violently, and my weight dropped abruptly back into my lower piece. I finally reached for my cam-hook in an all-out attempt to reach the grassy ledge. I could only sink half the hook into the crack.
As I weighted it, the metal twisted outwards, I felt as though it may also pull at any stage... but for now it held. Taking a breath, I slowly climbed up my ladder and hooked my fifi directly into the distorted hook. I now needed just one more piece to gain the ledge! I equalised a #0.2 cam and #1 RP, both marginal, and threw myself onto the ledge, grabbing tufts of dry grass with my hands, which were slowly ripping out of the dirt. Terrified, I somehow clawed my whole body onto the ledge, before realising my daisies were still clipped into the cam & nut combo... It was also at this point that I realised Big Grassy was neither big nor very grassy!
My nerves were slightly shot after all this excitement, and it was already 6pm. Once Michael had jumared quickly up to the ledge, we decided we had just enough time to climb one more pitch towards the base of the Great Roof, fix the ropes and abseil back down to the bivvy ledge, giving ourselves a head-start for the following day. An hour later, we rapped down the ropes on dusk, drained and looking forward to the long night ahead. Cold canned meat stew was as delicious as it sounds, but Mate's 70% dark chocolate went some way to smothering the saltiness. Early in the night we realised just how sloping the ledge was, and we resigned ourselves to an all-night hanging belay, clipped into the anchors above, digging painfully into our harness sores.
Dawn couldn't have come sooner. A slow awakening in synch with first rays led to the next ordeal: disposing with the by-product of a dozen muesli bars and smoked chicken sandwiches. Fortunately the bags were rose-scented and Rene's screw-on pipe duct worked a treat. I jumared up our fixed rope without looking back down, grateful for the slight cross-wind. As I nutted my way up the sixth pitch, the Great Roof began to overshadow me. Overhanging by five metres horizontally at one point, I was incredulous that our route could bypass this massive feature. A line of bolts lead up the blank wall to a piton at the roof. Hanging from my aiders in mid-air, I eyed a thin seam running out through a notch in the roof, choked with fixed nuts from days gone by, set into the stone by hundreds of other terrified leaders and struggling seconders. I swung from one nut to the next until I was at the notch, blindly trusting the fixed gear, until I noticed one nut with an exploded, rusty loop... Revelling in hanging hundreds of metres off the deck, the exposure was immense, so hurried around the lip, pulling up hard on a #0.4 cam and into a jagged nut-seam to the next belay. I was through the roof!
Michael on the other hand had a monster of a time, his ascenders jamming up against the quick-draws as he tried to follow the awkwardly traversing line in vain. Almost at the end of his tether, he considered cutting the quick-draw dog bone with his pocket knife, before using his brute strength to perform a pull up off a piton to un-clip the stubborn piece blocking his jumar. This was Mike's crux for sure, and from the exhausted look on his face as he heaved past the lip, you might have thought he'd just free-climbed the grade 28 beast. The next pitch started easily, clipping a line of fixed gear around small roofs and up a fused corner system. The bash-in rivets with looped wire hangers looked dodgy, but were happily taking my weight as I leap-frogged my way up the line, making quick progress. Suddenly I was stopped in my tracks. I reached up for the next rivet, only to find the wire shredded. Had someone taken a whipper and blown the hanger? The cracks were fused, only opening up 1m higher. I scoured the face for an edge that might take a sky-hook...
Only thanks to the indestructable granite and a barely positive edge that I whimpered up on the hook, too scared to step too high on the ladder. I fiddled in a small RP, followed by the #0.1 cam before I could finally feel slightly secure again. Around the next corner and roof, the summit was in view, excitement started to well up, until the same thing happened - a missing bolt on a featureless slab stopped me in my tracks. After a failed pendulum attempt, I scoured the rock again more closely and found the bolt hole! My saviour. I inserted the finest tip of my three-pronged talon blade into the small hole, and clipped my ladder to the hook. "PING!" The hook ripped straight out as soon as I weighted it. I tried again, wrenching it in deeper with a slight twist, and the hook took my weight. At full reach, I managed to slip a nut over the next bolt, stood up, threw a long sling over a hump of granite, stood up and finally scrambled onto the ledge with joy... A final 20 metre offwidth pitch was all that remained, the #4, #4.5 and #5 cams finally paying their dues, slowly shuffling their way up the glory pitch to the summit.
Michael followed up soon after, cursing jammed ascenders and the stuck pig, but it was finally all over. Ozymandias was a huge adventure for Mike and I. But more than the climb itself, was the process. The process of learning the new skills of aid climbing, hauling, jumaring, big wall rope management, pulling together all the gear (thanks Rene), practising and finally executing on such an aesthetic line was what made the experience so satisfying.
I owe a big thanks to Matthew Scholes for passing on to me his skills & experience in big wall aid climbing. Our two chossy aid climbs in the Blue Mountains served the ideal preparation for this climb. And thanks Michael Mate for letting me throw you into the deep end for your first big-wall!
Now onwards to Arapiles, and back to free climbing...!