Tasmania, that little island at the bottom of the Australian landmass is about as close as you can get to the frozen beyond without taking a 50 hour flight to Elephant Island. Or something.
In addition and conveniently enough, Tasmania probably has more remote, untouched rock within a concentrated area than anywhere on the Australian mainland. Granite sea cliffs bearded along their bases by ragged manes of seaweed; dolerite columns riven by perfect splitter cracks running vertically without bow or bend; quartzite mountain faces rising six hundred metres from brook-laced meadows to windswept summits; entire peninsulas of unclimbed pinnacles battered by the spume of Antarctic-borne swell. In short, Tasmanian rock climbing takes place in the wildest places imaginable, in locations that occupy the ether between the oft-desired wilderness and the terror that comes with being detached whole-bodily from the bosom of civilisation.
There is literally unlimited potential for the adventurous trad climber hungry for first ascents and wild experiences. Courage is occasionally mandatory, suffering inevitable, adventure guaranteed.
In 2010, my friend Andrew and I had taken the ferry from Melbourne to Devonport before paddling back across Bass Strait in a double sea kayak. I think I was the youngest person to have ever made the trip, but I haven’t really bothered to dig deeper.
It was a wild trip and one which had left me curious about the climbing potential on the cluster of islets and peninsulas at the bottom of the world, not least because Deal Island, where we had sought shelter from storms halfway across, had sported some massive cliffs hundreds of metres high all around its southern and western flanks.
This time though, I was back with two new companions – my long-time climbing partner Ben Young and Johannes Kirschner the German crusher who was on the back-end of a whirlwind trip of Australia as an exchange student. In the short time he’d spent in the country he’d visited most of the best crags on the mainland sending hard routes at Nowra and in the Blue Mountains, onsighting my redpoint projects at Boroomba, sampling the classics at Arapiles and the Grampians. Now, Tassie was next.
The plan was to hit up as many epic Tasmanian crags in as short a time as possible starting with the splitter crack paradise of Ben Lomond and finishing with the remote spit of land at the bottom of the Tasman Peninsula known as Cape Raoul. Fresh from some good training sessions on a little “Wideboyz”-style crack climbing dungeon I had built in the garage I was ready. “Yoyo” had just finished a multi-week hike at the bottom of Tassie called the South Coast Track so I was hoping this might at least bring him back to my level.
We struck out for Ben Lomond after a quick shop in Launceston for 6 days of groceries. Of particular noteworthiness about this place is the fact that Ben Lomond has been developed by its climbing pilgrims as an untouched wilderness area, the ultimate demonstration of what is best about the traditional ethic. There is not a single bolt on the entire mountain – neither for climbing nor descending. Even leaving rappel slings from stand-alone pinnacles is frowned upon. The cliffs also finish on a tarn table-top so every climb must be climbed, topped out and descended via a scramble down the Main Gully. Basically, you have to earn your climb.
With our ethics unimpeachable, we set to the task of climbing the mega-classic splitters on offer on the mind-blowing Frews Flutes area on the mountain’s North Face, most of them between 150-200m high. The climbing was fantastic, the endless handjam sequences like doing freestyle up a vertical wall. After a few days of wandering through our crack-climbing paradise we heard word from our friend Ben in Canberra that he’d shortly be joining us.
So, after a day in Launceston, we picked him up and drove back to Ben Lomond for some more splitters. On the final day of the trip, we forayed onto the face to the right of Frew’s Flutes known as the Rock-a-Day Johnny Face. Spying a line we thought looked good but wasn’t in the guide book we struck out for what we thought would be our very own 200m first ascent at Ben Lomond.
Yoyo dispatched the first pitch with maximum fuss. A nice hand crack widening out into a shoulder-chomping offwidth before finishing with a desperate (read “unprotectable”) squeeze chimney to finish on the ledge of the first belay. It seemed and felt ungradeable.
The second pitch looked hard and we considered the possibility that we’d been a bit too ambitious but Ben was still fresh and psyched and threw himself wholeheartedly at it. He took a nice whipper on a wire and then aided his way through the crux – a thin, technical finger crack splitting the column to a stance beneath a big roof. The aid section looked tricky – finicky flaring wire placements in vegetated cracks all done without etriers and I was happy to be seconding. Thinking it looked possible for me to free climb I gave it a go, resting on the rope on second as I worked out the moves. A few delicate foot placements later and I managed to link the moves reaching Ben’s stance with a self-reminder to return for the lead. Pitch 2 went at grade 24/25 (5.12a).
A terrifying but easy traverse and a perfect hand, finger, fist crack later and we found ourselves linked-up with the eponymous Rock-a-Day Johnny, the classic ridge climb which had been the first major mission completed in the area. Our route, it turns out, was a variant of another variant already put up by Jake Bresnehan at the end of 2012. The crux pitch, per Bresnehan, was called “The Firecracker”.
After our FFA (faux first ascent) on the Rock-a-Day Johnny Face we headed down to the Freycinet Peninsula to enjoy some sun, sea and spume-soaked stone, sipping on softies and sweeping sand off our Sterling ropes. On the first day I had an unusually rough time on Harlequin, a slippery, slabby, sandbaggy 5.10 classic on the White Wall before getting to know the amazing moves of The Heat of the Night (24/5.12a), an amazing roof crack whose perfect hand jams cruelly deterioriate into funky, technical groove climbing after you pull the lip. We were on holidays, which meant high volume classics rather than project, project, project so I promised myself I’d return for the tick when I inevitably moved to Tasmania.
The next day we experienced an epic and some Type II fun on the Sea Level Traverse from Honeymoon Bay to Wineglass Bay. The traverse is exactly that – a way to get from one beach to another without straying more than 50m above sea level. But in the sea cliff paradise that is the Freycinet Peninsula, this traverse meant climbing for 3km across smooth, clean slabs, mostly unroped up to grade 5.8.
The crux of the Sea Level Traverse is a 100m swim, involving a dive into the broiling ocean from the edge of a tenuous arete, a few strokes of freestyle past some omipotent sharks and a hell-ride of an exit. The exit, onto a seaweed clad slab is the true crux. Floundering in the water next to the slab, you wait for a wave to take you in, dump you onto the rocks and hope you can crimp on an oyster or grab a stalk of seaweed before the backwash drags you back into the waves.
It being my turn to exit, I timed it well with the sets but then, just as I was dumped onto the slab, an unseen wave dumped me again, knocking me from my stance and dragging me back down into the brine. I slid down the slab like a congealment of lard on a cheesegrater, wondering if my bleeding limbs would attract a shark. On Take #2 I was more fortunate. A mound of rock-affixed seaweed presented itself and I snatched at it with glee before the ocean could retake me. Odysseus at Charybdis eat your heart out. I would give the exit crux the cautious grade of 5.15+ with perhaps an R/X in there since there is certainly no gear. The moral of the story is don’t join the Merchant Navy, embark on a circumnavigation of the Freycinet Peninsula and sink your ship halfway between Honeymoon and Wineglass Bay. It’s hard to get back to the shore when you’re in the water.
With sea air in our lungs and salt in our hair, we embarked upon the final leg of our two week trip… the spit of wave-battered rock at the end of the Tasman Peninsula known as Cape Raoul. Raoul is an aspiring first ascentionist’s dream. A ridge of unclimbed dolerite columns, split by an assortment of corners, chimneys and cracks of all sizes. Replete with stand alone columns it is also the habitat of some impressive arete sport climbing, a style at which I do not excel but for which I can appreciate when it takes place on a 30m stand-a-lone pinnacle at the end of the world with nothing but ocean between you and Antarctica.
Anyway, after a two hour walk-in, we hid from the sun for a few hours and then had a look. I found an offwidth ready for the picking. Splitting a very obvious wide pinnacle towering over the sea, it is a very prominent line when seen from anywhere. I flailed on it, dogged it, then, trying harder now, figured out how to do kneebars and stacked hands and found some hidden strength within my skinless legs to drive myself up the final squeeze chimney to the top. To my surprise, my grovel so happened to be the line’s first ascent. I named it Ijtihad (5.10+), for the Arabic word meaning “diligence” which, in Islamic jurisprudence, pertains to “the utmost effort an individual can put forth in an activity”. The Arabic root of the word “j-h-d” (the triliteral is جهد for those of you playing at home) is the same root as the word “jihad” which means “struggle”, “purification of the self” or “blow myself up in a cafe so I can get some poonani in Paradise” depending on who you ask. I was proud of my “utmost effort”. After all, I had grovelled and heaved and moaned up it and – over-estimating my offwidth abilities – hadn’t nearly taken enough #4 cams (and we didn’t even have any #5s or #6s on the trip). I felt the name “ijtihad” justified.
The last climb of the trip and the mega-classic of Cape Raoul just so happened to be called Jihad (18/5.10-) and far be it from a “struggle” it was another perfect hand crack, soft for the grade and wonderfully tall and exposed.
At the base of the route my psyche after two weeks of non-stop vertical nomadism was dwindling but Ben was keen to lead us toward jihadic victory so I happily seconded. Good choice. Sometimes it’s fun just to be the punter coming up the other end of the rope.
Perched on the side of this pillar at the end of the world, encircled by a vortex of wind with the sea crashing into the base of the cliffs below, the exposure was total, our elation unbound. The crack wound on, the perfect width for effortless handjams, a cleft in the rock for us to swim up. Below me, the ocean raged, the swell sidewinding into the rock, crashing, frothing, broiling. From above and looking straight down, the crest-lines of the waves looked like worms wriggling beneath a tullamarine silk tapestry.
This is why we do it, I mused as I made the final moves to meet Ben at the anchor. Oh yeah, this is why we do it.