Dave Rhodes and the Claustral Canyon

By Natsumi Penberthy 10 August 2012
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Pioneer Dave Rhodes was the first to traverse the Claustral Canyon.

CHEEKY TEENAGER DAVE RHODES gave himself a Christmas present when he led his first canyoning team – with little experience – to claim Claustral in the Blue Mountains. Snake bites, waterfalls and injuries slowed, but didn’t stop, this young team.

“It’s almost like being in a tunnel. You’re in the water a lot of the time, and the water is very, very cold. It inspires a great deal of awe. You feel that you’re in a place that you absolutely don’t belong. And that it’s probably a dangerous place.”

Deep in the cold bowels of the Earth, a group of shivering teenagers stood in darkness, slapping backs, shaking hands and swigging rum. They had just poached the first full descent of Claustral Canyon, a dark chasm full of roaring water that has, over the ensuing half century, become the most popular and famed of all Blue Mountains canyons.

The history of Claustral Canyon

It was January 1963. The teenagers, led by Dave Rhodes, weren’t the first to venture into Claustral. In November 1804, explorer George Caley entered one of Claustral’s tributaries; he named it Dismal Dingle.

But it wasn’t until the summer of 1961-62 that interest in it flourished. A group of Sydney University bushwalkers, led by Col Olomon, forged deep into nearby Thunder Canyon. Word emerged of “a great black chasm”, inspiring Terry Thomas and Rick Higgins to explore the area.

Following [the then unnamed] Claustral Brook downstream, they sidled around waterfalls at Claustral’s entrance, electing to abseil in from the side. Running out of rope halfway down, they found no anchor points for another abseil; only a hairy slide across a tree suspended more than 30 m above the canyon floor let them reach the bottom.

Late in that same canyoning season, Barry Dunnett and Dave Lambert, of the Kameruka Bushwalking Club, descended nearby Ranon Canyon. Where Ranon joined Claustral, they ventured upstream; it was immediately obvious they had to tackle the full canyon. But it was April; with all the rushing water, this was a trip for warmer months. No-one wore wetsuits back then.

Claustral Canyon: Dave Rhodes’ first attempt

They delayed the return until December. Barry led it, again accompanied by Lambert. Aat Vervoorn and Jack Pettigrew, both experienced canyoners, joined in; along for the ride, among others, was young Dave Rhodes, a relatively junior club member who’d only canyoned once before.

Jack had grown up nearby, hiking and climbing in the mountains since he was young. Despite his experience, though, he didn’t always make the wisest of choices.

“Pettigrew [found] a canyon snake (or a broad-headed snake). He thought it was a [non-venomous] baby python, and he was playing with it. And somebody said, ‘pythons climb trees’. So he kept trying to put it in a tree but it kept falling off. And then it bit him. And they found out later, when they went to a herpetologist, that the only ever recorded bite by this snake had proved fatal.”

The party pressed on, ignoring the puncture marks on Jack’s now blackening finger. Reaching the abseils, there was little room, so only Barry, Lambert and Aat descended. Rhodes and the others stayed above. The first and second falls – both 10 m – were separated by a short swim.

Forced to swim again after the second, Barry rounded the corner: “All of a sudden he just found himself at the edge of a 45 foot [14 m] drop and there was…nothing. Just smooth rock. So Lambert and Aat Vervoorn went down, and they tried to hammer a piton into a crack. The rock just broke away.”

Continuing was impossible. Now the three were forced to climb the ropes they’d left in place, hand-over-hand, hauling themselves to the top. From there, the party skirted around to Thunder Canyon. Then, after rejoining Claustral, they went upstream to the falls that had thwarted them.

Claustral was now explored for all save 15 m. But while Barry felt no point in coming back, other senior club members decided they’d knock Claustral off after their Christmas trips. Cheekily, young Dave Rhodes determined to claim it for himself.

Claustral Canyon: Dave Rhodes’ successful attempt

Putting the trip on the club program while the others were away, he assembled an inexperienced party; Bruce Powell, Aat Vervoorn and Steve Sessions from the earlier trip; Jeff Boyd, Don Willcox and Brian O’Halloran came as well.

Aat was the only one with real experience; as it transpired, a mix-up meant he missed the trip. Of the other party members, several had never abseiled before. Jeff, who later became an instructor of mountain guides, had abseiled just once – out of a tree in his backyard, hitting his head in the process. He’d also had an appendicectomy just days earlier, and so refused to tell his mother he was doing Claustral.

“It was probably foolish. I hadn’t done a lot of canyons. Maybe one. I hadn’t done a lot of abseiling either. But I knew the principles. In retrospect, though, for us to attempt that trip without anyone good at climbing or rope work was probably crazy.”

But Rhodes had the confidence borne of youth. He was 18, and didn’t think of failure. He devised a plan that he felt if adhered to, everything would be okay. He made up a bolt at work, which he brought down the canyon, along with a loxon, a star drill and a lump hammer. Most importantly though, he brought Bruce Powell. The whole operation rested on him.

“We organised [it] like a military operation. I went down the first fall and swam across and put the second rope in, then Bruce came through with the ironmongery. He went down and began drilling this hole in the rock. And of course, it took him forever. And you couldn’t communicate, with the sound just bouncing off [the walls of the canyon] and the roaring water, so nobody knew what was going on.”

After 30 minutes, Bruce was done. The party negotiated the abseils without incident; soon the teenagers were swigging rum on the sandbank. And they were immensely pleased with themselves.

“We’d stolen it. That’s what we’d done. We’d stolen it from the big names. When it emerged that a bunch of kids had knocked it off, they weren’t too happy.”

It was the only canyon trip Dave Rhodes ever led.

Source: Australian Geographic Outdoor March/April 2010