Four pillars in one day: The North Face grant winners’ report

By James Trainer 11 May 2015
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A relaxing Christmas lunch sparked an idea that won this team winning The North Face/AGA Adventure Grant

IT WAS CHRISTMAS 2012. Erin and I were spread across our couch, exhausted, our three-month old son Amos asleep for what we hoped would be a long, tearless nap. Flint was in the kitchen, preparing yet another delicious Christmas treat, when Lani sauntered in, laptop in hand, touting The North Face/AGA Adventure Grant.

It sounded exciting, and Lani suggested we should think of some ridiculous endurance challenge to undertake so we could go adventuring together.

Bleary eyed, we exchanged glances, tweaked smiles and began mulling over the potential possibilities that could see this crew of comrades and their motley backgrounds of climbing, cycling, kite-surfing and mega-enduro walking win the opportunity to have some fun in the wilderness together.

The trip needed to be local. The idea of taking a three-month old to some third-world, high altitude extravaganza seemed rather unappealing. A series of rapid fire, 24-hour missions on some of Tasmania’s toughest walks was floated, but after breaking an ankle somewhat irreparably in a climbing accident in France three years ago, the concept of moving quickly over loose ground didn’t float my boat either.

After several options were tossed about, the one that stuck was let loose; we would link technical rock climbs on three separate, freestanding sea pillars that hug the coastline off Tasmania’s Tasman Peninsula, by sea kayak, in less than 24 hours.

The plan to climb Tassie’s four pillars

We planned to paddle 2.5km from Fortescue Bay to The Moai, a 30m pillar nestled below the cliffs of Dolomieu Point, land our kayak and climb Sacred Site (Australian Grade 18) before the sun rose. We would then launch back into the water and paddle 2.5km across the mouth of Fortescue Bay to the tip of Cape Hauy, climb the 65m, world famous pillar of the Totem Pole (25), then return to our kayaks and set off upon the most treacherous part of our journey – the 30km of the Tasman Sea that separates The Totem Pole from our next target, the notoriously exposed Cape Raoul, home to Pole Dancer Pillar (22) and Pole Axed Pillar (21).

Both of these routes are 40m long; however, they are typically accessed by a three-hour land approach. Being that we wanted to access them by water, it was necessary for us to climb a new pitch that would allow us to access the belay of these routes from the seal ledge below, thus adding an extra 40m of unknown climbing.

In total, our day would equate to approximately 200m of vertical rock between the grades of 18 and 25, and close to 40km of open-ocean sea kayaking around one of Australia’s most exposed and weatherbeaten coastlines. Sounds fun, right?

We spent the rest of our Christmas preparing our Adventure Grant application.

Through the zombie-like state of early parenthood, Erin and I had all but forgotten about our little Christmas dream when, in mid-February, Lani received a call informing us that our grant application had been successful – we had 24 hours to accept.

It was crunch time. We had a few serious questions to ask ourselves first. What is really possible during the first year of one’s child’s life? Is it irresponsible to commit to such an experience? Could we find the time to train?

One thing was for sure, that we couldn’t do it alone, so we referred to the grandparents. With their tick of support we accepted the grant and the long hours of training began, particularly in the kayak, in rain, hail, swell or glass.

Preparation for the climbing/kayaking adventure

During the next couple of months of training, two of our team members sustained injuries that would compromise the trip for them; Lani had an injured wrist that prevented her from climbing, and Flint had a shoulder injury that ruled out climbing and paddling. Luckily, he could still take photographs.

We spent some time hunting for a suitable sub to allow the paddling to take place in two double sea kayaks. A friend of ours, Joel Murray had been climbing with Flint in the US when Flint’s shoulder tapped out of the game and, with considerable paddling experience, Joel turned out to be the perfect teammate for a group of paddlers with experience that can only be considered limited.

Furthermore, we discovered that the summer months represent seal breeding season, and due to the large seal colony at the base of Cape Raoul, we would not be able to land sea kayaks there at that time of year. The seals are quite aggressive at breeding time so, unless we wanted to face a pack of crazed seal bulls, we needed another plan (and quick).

We decided a reasonable substitution for Cape Raoul’s Pole Dancer Pillar would be the three-pitch route Psycho-Man on Mount Brown, as it maintained the same distance of paddling and a similar difficulty of climbing.

Thus, Erin and I spent Christmas morning testing out the Psycho-Man leg of the trip to ascertain what it would present in both time and difficulty. After the one-hour trudge up the hill from Crescent Bay, we located the abseil station and descended down the route.

The first two pitches climbed beautifully and all seemed to be running smoothly until about halfway up pitch three. The climb weaves its way between an arête and a corner crack, sidling its way back and forth between bolts that are dangerously distant.

I was about 5m above my last bolt, leaning over my left foot into the corner when, suddenly, my foothold gave way and tumbled down the cliff and splashed into the ocean below. I fell, face first down the corner, rope wrapped around my waist, battering my past broken ankle, shoulder and elbow against the cliff for 10m before the rope finally caught me.

Slightly shaken I looked across to Erin whose hands were firmly locked down on the belay device. She calmly inquired as to my wellbeing, I thanked her for the catch and swung across to the belay. All seemed well, albeit a little sketchy. Then we realised that the rope had been caught in a crack, and that the outer sheath had been ripped open, leaving the internal strands grating against the sharp rock edge. This was our suitable alternative?

With the route plan sorted, our next concern was the weather. Tasmania’s spring is notoriously windy, and this year the summer was to suffer spring’s fate. As November and December rolled by the winds on the Tasman Peninsula were averaging 40-60km/h.

Erin and I had made several attempts at recon missions on the Totem Pole, each of which had been battered by high swells or savage winds that made completing the chasm swing required to access the base of the route somewhat suicidal, and the one time that we had made it onto the pillar and started climbing, Erin was drenched by swell whilst on belay.

Then, once we reached the first belay, rain greeted us in gallons from above, leaving us with no choice but to bail out by jumaring across the chasm. It really seemed as though the weather gods hated us. The Sydney to Hobart had just started, and the weather was not doing the yachts any favours either; masts were being snapped in the exact section we wanted to kayak, which seemed more and more daunting as time closed in.

We kept an open mind, however, and on Wednesday 8 January, winds were forecast to be south south westerly, at 20-25km/h; faster than we’d hoped, but the calmest they had been in weeks. It seemed the only option was to do the mission from south to north, the opposite to our original plan, leaving the Totem Pole to be climbed after a 30km paddle. At 5am we set off from Safety Cove towards Mount Brown to have a crack at it.

The mission

The first half of the day went off without a hitch, apart from the hilarious beach landing that saw Erin and I in the drink. We dispatched Psycho-Man with ease and paddled off towards Tasman Island in a rolling 1.5m swell.

Throughout the day we were joined by albatross, terns, seals, and a small whale that would only let us see its footprint. Oh, and the guest of honour, a 4m great white shark who sat on our tail at just the right distance for about 15 minutes.

As we turned into Munro Bight the swell dropped further and we approached Cape Hauy and the Totem Pole paddling through soft, glassy waters only to be met by a group of climbers on the Totem Pole. It turned out we weren’t the only party taking advantage of the only good day of weather this summer.

Hmmm… we waited for a short while then realised, at this speed, they’d be on till almost dark – there was no chance of us climbing the Tote today, so we had a quick swim before heading across to the Moai, which was also dispatched with speed, then paddled into the beach at Fortescue Bay for some delicious but somewhat anti-climactic champagne.

As Thursday rolled by we weren’t satisfied with the fate served to us by the traffic on the Totem Pole, so we knew we’d have to try again. Unfortunately, Joel had to work so another sub was sought. Dan Panek stepped up to the challenge of paddling with Lani so she wouldn’t have to paddle the distance on her own.

Tuesday 14 January was to be the window, but a late change pushed the weather back a day and so, on Wednesday 15 January, we paddled out of Safety Cove once more, at 4am, lit by phosphorescence, bound for Crescent Bay and beyond.

Take 2: climbing Psycho-Man

This time we all landed dry and moseyed up the hill towards Psycho-Man and climbed it with the efficiency of repetition. On the summit of Mount Brown we were met by a series of cold fronts blowing in from off-shore, creating a series of white-outs followed by blue sky, ending in the fourth front settling as a dense fog that limited visibility to less than 200m.

It was in these conditions that we paddled across Maingon Bay towards Tasman Island. We pushed directly across the bay towards Haines Bight to stay as close to shore as possible, adding around 4km of paddling to the trip.

We turned south towards Tasman Island, then coasted north on the back of a 20km/h southerly, landing at the Totem Pole at around 2:30pm, arms fatigued, bellies squelching with sea-sickness, and a sense of relief at finding ourselves alone and ready for the next stage of our adventure. After about an hour’s rest and some lunch, it was time for the Tote.

We slid across the Tyrolean, abseiled in, then it was time for the climb. With our recon attempts thwarted by weather, we had no idea about the moves and, combined with the effect of kayaking and climbing since 4am, we spent more time on the wall than anticipated. Nonetheless, this time we were victorious before we headed back to the kayaks and were off to the Moai.

While we were on the Totem Pole the weather changed somewhat; swell was coming into Fortescue Bay from both the southwest and the northeast, creating white, frothy sinkholes on either side of our landing ledge at the Totem Pole. After much instability while counting waves from every direction, and once again spending more time than I desired in the water, we were paddling towards the Moai in less than ideal conditions.

It was 8:30pm, the wind had picked up to a steady 50km/h, and the duelling swells were washing up onto the landing ledge of the Moai, sluicing the base of the pillar. The sketchy conditions combined with encroaching darkness seemed foolish and thus resulted in the decision to not risk exiting from the Moai in the dark, which would have likely seen us all ending up in the ocean, with the swell pounding us against the rocks.

So we paddled back into Fortescue Bay once more, this time thwarted by the weather, and our only welcoming party was Flint, sprinting back from taking photos on the Totem Pole, but satisfied with our attempt. It felt okay to be denied by the weather and, after two serious attempts, it seemed as though the stars would not align for us.

And thus, Four Pillars in One Day became two pillars in two days: half the pillars, twice the time, but at least three times the fun.