This was written 1993 for a club magazine.
Ever since I saw the video, “BASE Climb” (where a couple of guys jumped off the Great Trango Tower in Pakistan), by Leo Dickinson, back in 1993, I had wanted to climb Cornerstone Rib in the Warrumbungles. In the video there was footage of the base jumpers training on Cornerstone Rib. At first the climbing shots didn’t look so hot, but when the camera just kept on pulling back on the zoom, and the climbers were reduced to little specks on this amazing looking volcanic plug, it just looked so utterly spectacular.
The Warrumbungles are a series of volcanic remnants in a national park near Coonabarabran, which is about 8 hours drive, N.-west of Sydney.
The BASE Climb, video was much discussed by those I know, who climb. A friend, Colin Skinner, had on various times in the past tried to climb at the Warrumbungles but had been rained out on each occasion over the October long weekend and felt that he was cursed. Obviously it was not a power place for him, but he said he’d like to try one more time to overcome this spot on earth where he felt the dark forces of nature held sway over him. Another climbing friend of mine at the time, Peter Butler, with the physique of a greyhound knew he wanted to thrash himself on such a massive block of stone. The pain! The agony! The ecstasy! Pete was just chomping at the bit to give Cornerstone Rib a try.
My regular climbing partner at the time was Tim Allen. Tim’s father is Bryden Allen, one of the heroes from the dark ages of Australian climbing, back in the 60s, and who was the first to climb Cornerstone Rib 30 years previously. The Warrumbungles had piqued Tim’s curiosity, as he knew his father had been one of the people to open up many of the climbs in the area. One of the first guys to climb in the Warrumbungles was called Dr Dark; great name eh?
I knew that the climb would be a great place to use all my shiny bits of pro (the temporary pieces of protection that one places as one is climbing) and thereby justifying their purchase!
This picture taken about a year before this story shows a typical “protection rack”.
I’ve always been a bit of the gadget freak. Plus there was the added of attraction of doing what I consider to be a “real” climb. A climb with multiple pitches, and exposure (great height), that is.
The October long weekend (Labour Day), is an opportunity for many families to go camping and as a consequence, the main camp grounds at the Warrumbungles were fully infested with families in caravans and 10 room mansion’s disguised tents with the ubiquitous early rising and screaming children (It’s no wonder why my mother hated me in the mornings when I was a child). After the long drive in, we were so tired and we were disappointed that we didn’t get the chance to sleep in.
The walk-in up to the top where the climbs are was up a well-maintained track and it would have been an easy walk if we didn’t have to take all the climbing gear plus camping gear as well as extra water. There was no water to be had at the designated campsites inside the park.. Our packs were very heavy, and this brought to my attention the amount of fitness, one would need to do mountaineering. Our walk-in was only about 4 km and not much above sea level and on firm ground, never mind being at 8000m (26,000ft) trudging through snow during a blizzard with frostbite and lugging heavy pack!
Colin and Peter had managed to arrive a day earlier than us, and had arranged to meet us at the smaller camp ground at the top (known as Grand High Tops). When we reached the campground, we set up our tents next to our friend’s tents, and then we went looking for them. We found some high ground and looked across at Cornerstone Rib with binoculars, to see two little specks, which were Colin and Peter. They seemed to be having a bit of trouble figuring out which way to go and were spending a lot of time in one place. They were on about the fourth pitch. Each pitch is about 25 m long, and the climb up on Cornerstone Rib was about 8 pitches.
Cornerstone Rib is part of a volcanic dyke that makes up the “Butter Knife” which goes across from Grand High Tops down a valley to “Crater Bluff”, an old volcanic plug. When you look at Crater Bluff, Cornerstone Rib looks like the most obvious route to climb.
I didn’t take this photograph but I’m using it to show the
“Cornerstone Rib” climbing route up Crater Bluff.
About 2 1/2 hours later, when it was quite dark, our friends turned up at the campground. Of course, we were very keen to hear how the climb went and what we heard was a bit disturbing. The guys said that they would never do it again as it was on loose rock and the protection (protection is were one places various safety devices in cracks in the rock, and then attach their rope to) was insecure and the long and short of it, was that it was a scary, windy and exposed climb, even if it was only a grade 14 (US 5.8, UK 4b, French 5b+). Whenever I had been climbing with Peter and Colin in the past and I had seen them having trouble with a climb, I knew that I was going to have a lot of trouble and probably wouldn’t be able to do it, so I was quite concerned.
I had seen Colin lead climb (leading is where you are climbing up past your last place of protection and place protection as you climb), grade 23 (US 5.11d, UK 5b E2, French 7a) and I also knew people who had seen him in Thailand on grade 27 (US 5.12d, UK 6c, French 7c) sports climbs. Peter Butler was also a much better climber than me, and the best I could manage at the time was to grovel and fall up grade 21 (US 5.11b, UK 5b E2, French 6 c) leads. So naturally I respected what they had to say about climbing, I must admit though, that I was shocked by their shaken state and I found it hard to understand why these guys at such a time with a lowly grade 14 climb (US 5.8, UK 4b, French 5b+), which they should have found easy to do. When I asked Colin for advice about the climb, he said, put in as much pro as possible and make sure you don’t fall on it. Peter nodded in agreement. Usually after a climb there is an air of exhilaration, but on this night there was a pall of doubt hanging over the rest of us.
The next morning, Tim Allen and I got an early start and on the way to the climb we saw a koala, which is pretty rare because they are so quiet and keep still. The first two pitches of the climb were quite easy and we quickly soloed (climbed without protection) them. It was more scrambling than climbing. The third pitch was also not so bad, but of course, we definitely felt the need to use our safety gear. Tim and I had been arguing the day before about whether or not we should use single rope or double rope. I was for single and Tim was for double. Double is considered safer, but I was concerned with the weight. I eventually capitulated, and we used two 11 mm ropes instead of the normal 9 mm ropes that are customarily used in tandem. Double rope technique also requires a fair bit more communication between the lead in the second, which is hampered by strong winds.Another unpleasantness about climbing in strong winds is that one tends to brace against the wind to prevent being blown off, but of course, winds usually come in gusts and when one is bracing against the wind and it suddenly stops, there is a tendency to suddenly fall in the direction that the wind was coming from. It is very disconcerting!
As we headed up the climb, the conditions got worse, as the wind picked up. It was at this stage that I was thinking about what mountaineers have to go through again. By the time we got to the fourth pitch it was easy to see why Colin and Peter had taken so long. About 8 m (26ft) from the belay point there is a bulge in the rock that requires a committing move to get over. Normally that sort of move is not so bad, but the height (exposure) was starting to get unnerving and stuff that is easy to do on one pitch climbs, take on a different hue when they are attempted a few pitches up.
While I was messing around looking to for a way up over the bulge, there was another two guys climbing off to the right of us up a manky looking corner. They were only about 10 m away (about 32 ft), and we were able to talk to each other. They said they were climbing up that route, to keep out of the wind. They had long beards, and looked as though they’ve been climbing for years, and their choice to climb on the corner showed the experience they had. It was fascinating to watch them climb. They only had one piece of protection and it was a large hex about the size of a fist attached to a sling about a metre long (about a yard). They just raced up the climb, and quite often they didn’t even use their one piece of protection, and they were climbing the full-length and 50 m of rope at a time. They were amazing, and absolutely fearless.
I finally overcame the bulge by going around it to the left into the wind. The fifth pitch looked much harder and is seemed to be to be ever so slightly overhanging with milk crate to refrigerator sized blocks of loose rock. All the angles on the rock were sloping down and it was impossible to mantle over them. Every time I put in the protection, it didn’t feel positive. I could hear the words of Colin ringing in my ears, “put in plenty of pro-make sure you don’t fall”. He wasn’t kidding!
To add to the drama, the wind was really starting to pick up and the gusts were constantly pushing me off balance. The first couple of pitches were relatively easy and I couldn’t understand why Colin and Peter were so shook up the day before. Now, I understood! Things were at that stage where I started asking myself how far I want to take this climbing lark.
Whenever I’m in “a predicament”, I find it helpful to tell myself to calm down and concentrate and it was this aspect of climbing that was one of its main attractions for me. It is very satisfying to delve into oneself and find those hidden reserves that we hoped might be there. It is even more satisfying to overcome a daunting situation through relaxation and concentration. I find that climbing has put a lot of things into perspective for me, especially when it comes to what is to be feared or not.
All that remained to do after that fifth pitch navel gazing was to marshal my forces and “just do it”! And so I continued placing dodgy pro after dodgy pro. I guess I was concentrating on the task at hand so much that I missed the start of the sixth pitch, and I continued to climb off route and onto the sheer face of the wall, away from the arête (the corner ridge). As I climbed, I noticed that the rope was not coming after me so easily and I started to yell down to Tim to give me some more slack. The wind was blowing so hard that all I could hear was a muffled unintelligible reply. The ropes still seemed tight, so I yelled for more slack!! Muffled reply.
Not so muffled reply.
IT’S F#$&ing ROPE F#$&ing DRAG!!!
(translation: the tension was caused by the weight of the two 50m lengths of 11mm rope dragging over the rock).
It was not the place to be having to struggle up, with trying to hang on; placing pro and having to drag out what felt like a dead body on the end of the rope, moving over loose overhanging rock, while being buffeted by the wind and placing dodgy pro on what is an awesome wall of stone, 140 m up (about 450 ft)!
Through the gusts of wind, I could hear a thin voice of Tim calling out for me to look out for a belay point as I was running out of rope (I’d never done that before)! At this point I was beginning to wonder if I’d been wrong in doubting the existence of God. As I looked around, I couldn’t see any place to belay from so I just kept on climbing hoping that there was enough rope left. There was one other problem, I was running out a quick draws (clips that connect the protection to the rope) and pro. Just when things were bleakest I managed to get over yet another bit of manky loose rock to a point I could belay from.
Ask anyone who has been climbing with me and they will take you how paranoid I am about setting up belays. I usually put in at least three to five bits of pro-making sure everything is mega safe. Since I had so little pro-left and the rope wasn’t long enough to reach a better belay point, I had to content myself with a sling around a boulder that in fact probably weighed about the same as myself and placed a nut (a small piece of protection) in a movable crack as a belay. The area I had to sit on was loose and in no way did I feel good about things. Anyhow, in the circumstances, I had no choice.
Luckily, Tim didn’t fall and we didn’t have to test the belay. When Tim, who is a bit of a Luddite, saw the belay his face lit up with glee to see how shonky the belay point was that I had set up. It gave Tim, a warm inner feeling to see how uncomfortable I had been, having to belay off so little gear.
All that remained was for one more pitch and then the descent. Tim led the last pitch in fine form (we found out later that we just could’ve walked to the side to get to the top). Just as I got to the top, I said to Tim “scary, wasn’t it?” and he agreed.
At the top we savoured the moment and flicked through the notebook that was left at the top, under a cairn of stones to help people get over the need to spray paint their initials with “I was here” all over the rock. As we were looking through the book we came across quite a few names of friends and people who we recognized and of course we had to leave our little scribbles of drivel to prove that we too had climbed up Cornerstone Rib.
We descended down a route called the “Green Glacier” sharing our ropes, with the old hippies who we had been climbing next to. They were nice guys and we made good time down.
We got back to our camp before dark, and as we walked into camp, I said to Colin and Peter with mock bravado. “What was all a fuss about it was a piece of piss”. “Oh yeah!” They replied in chorus, “how come you said to Tim that it was scary”? Apparently they could hear everything that was said between Tim and I, quite clearly across the valley. The valley acted as an amphitheatre, amplifying and carrying the sound with great efficiency. They had watched throughout the day and heard little bleat and profane curse we made.