Yi Chao Foong on the first ascent of the Cape Pillar Trident’s final prong, 44 years after Mendelt Tillema and his merry men climbed the first two prongs
WORDS: Yi Chao Foong, IMAGES: As credited
10th December, 2016
I stare at my feet, ignoring the drizzling rain as I focus my centre of gravity over a shallow toe jam my trembling right foot is in. In my peripheral vision I spy my two RPs behind a flake that looks unlikely to hold a fall. Fifty metres below me Poseidon plays havoc with his waves, tempting me to fall into his embrace. My left foot scrapes the side of the wall, desperately looking for friction amongst the grains of ancient dolerite. My left hand slaps the arete, fingertips slowly losing traction on a nubbin the thickness of a 50 cent coin. I am shaking more than Michael Fox off his meds – Poseidon gleefully waits for me in the depths of the Tasman sea below.
I blame Mendelt Tillema for me ending up here.
In 1972 – three years after Roland Pauligk made his first RPs, six years before Ray Jardine made his first camming device and 18 years before I was born – he came out to the Trident with Graeme Boddy, Mick Flint and Ian Lewis and climbed all but the most seaward prong. They bivvied at the base of the second prong, and Mendelt wrote afterwards:
The bivouac is still imprinted in my mind. The light of the Tasman lighthouse swept the cliffs behind and above us casting the shadow of the many prongs of the Trident onto the cliffs. To cap this off the moon came up between the prongs of the Trident to the sound of the waves brushing the cliffs.
I read these words again and again when I moved to Tasmania alone at the dawn of adulthood. The lore and adventures of Tassie’s climbing legends took firm hold of my malleable mind, lighting a fire in my subconscious. One of my lasting images of Mendelt Tillema is from a video about an ascent of the Candlestick. He plunges head-first into the surging waters, getting thrown asunder by the waves. You can feel Glen Kowalik and Les Wood’s relief as they watch Mendelt’s madness. There are nothing more than nuts, hexes and pitons on their rudimentary harnesses. This is hard-yakka, old-school, fair-dinkum climbing of the olde world.
Eight years after moving to Tassie I woke up late on a Saturday morning after a particularly boozy evening. My head hurt, I had constant low-level nausea and motivation was at an all-time low. I suppose this is the starting point of many climbing epics. Sebrina (my partner) convinced me that I’d be a grumpy bastard either way, so I’d be better off being grumpy on my own in the wilderness. I couldn’t argue so I drove out to the Cape and spent the night on my own eating mee goreng and reading Kundera. The following morning I woke at 6am and walked out to Cape Pillar.
Poseidon was putting on a hell of a show that morning. Maybe he had the power to foretell that this harmless looking lad was about to snake his trident. He lashed the towering coastline with gusts of fury and raging seas, pounding the long-suffering Jurassic dolerite with impunity. I trudged on alone, awestruck by the sheer wildness of the place. And then, out of the early morning fog, I spied the Trident partially-hidden in the maelstrom.
There are moments in one’s life when you form an instant connection with a physical place. When I laid eyes on the Trident, the memories of Mendelt’s words came flooding back. They added an undeniable allure to the place – one of the great narratives in Tasmanian climbing history left incomplete. I was caught hook, line and sinker. I think it was Lyle Closs who once said of second ascents, ‘The grave may be the same. But it was not dug for you.’ This grave was not dug for me, but the light that was lit in Mendelt’s mind 44 years ago was now passed to me.
I returned home and devoured all the information I could find on the Trident. I read Mendelt’s paragraph again and again, until each sentence was seared into my mind. I also read Heidi Wirtz’s words from The North Face expedition in 2010. A trad climber’s wet dream team of Wirtz, Cedar Wright, Matt Segal and James Pearson attempted the route only to be shut down by endless scrub and loose rock. In particular, Wirtz’s first line struck me, ‘…the guys that climbed the two out of the three towers of the Trident for sure must have balls made from steel… ‘
My testicles are soft, fleshy, of very average size and without a trace of steel. The point being that I am not a strong climber, mentally or physically. I have never climbed anything harder than 21 on gear. The tranquil serenity of Mt Wellington on a Saturday afternoon is often interrupted by my high pitched cry for mother and whilst on the sharp end ‘take’ and ‘fuck’ are my two most commonly uttered words. My mates often comment my climbing style is a fine impression of Elvis Presley. And yet, I could not escape the lure of the Trident. I was driven by a hunger, a desire to stand upon that final pinnacle.
The following week I drove out to The Paradiso with Max Lopez. Max is a true partner, both in life and climbing. We met initially on the slabby choss of Waterworks, progressed to the chipped, glued-up pumpfest of Fruehauf, and then the serious trad climbs of Mt Wellington. We were on the same rope when he took a 20m factor two plummet on the Hazards. We have seen each other at our best and worst. We share our most intimate dreams, desires, obsessions and ecstasies. When one gets laid the other is euphoric, almost more so than when he gets laid himself. We are true blue mates.
The feeling in the car was of faked enthusiasm. We tried our hardest to be psyched on the idea of dogging up otherwise gymnastic, acrobatic moves, but we knew each other too well. There was a palpable undercurrent of wanting to do anything other than hard crimping and clipping bolts. My mind wandered to the Trident, ‘Why don’t we go out there and stash the gear today?’
In an instant, the atmosphere in the car was electric, the sweet taste of inspiration on our tongues. We smashed out to the Pillar, slogging ten litres of water, ropes and a rack along the recently completed Three Capes Track superhighway and I can only imagine the steady slogging Mendelt and friends must have endured 44 years ago. We passed the well-equipped Three Capes walkers, resplendent in their dirt-free Kathmandu 80%-off-real-retail-price merino wool thermals. As Max caught sight of the Trident, I knew I had a trusted ally in my battle against Poseidon. The odds shifted ever so slightly in my favour.
The following weekend we headed out to the Pillar on our first attempt with Tim Kirkby, the grandpa of our group at an ancient 30 years old. He is revered amongst our group as the wise Elder with the most climbing experience – he’s actually broken a leg whilst climbing. Having said that, lately his ravings against sport climbing, bouldering and even microcams have a tinge of fundamental religiosity about them. It reminded me of a church I once drove past in Launceston with the proud slogan printed large above its door: ‘We preach Christ Crucified’. Similarly, this bastion of old-school climbing, born 40 years too late, has the spirit of the Old Testament instilled in him.
We spent the first day scoping out potential approaches, eventually settling on a steep gully to the east of the crest leading down to the Trident. Rocks tumbled down this gully, gathering tremendous speed as they cannoned around on the way down. The shattering dolerite seared my nostrils with its acrid smell and the sickening sound of breaking rock echoed forebodingly. Once in the gully there was no escape, no side wall one can hug. We christened it Death Gully.
We survived Death Gully and bashed our way through dead trees, shifting dirt, loose rock and dense scrub to arrive at the start of the Trident. In the distance we could see dark clouds rapidly approaching, obviously summoned by Poseidon who was furious at our unexpected progress. We hastily stashed my rack under a large rock and beat a harried retreat, but we had travelled barely 20m before the heavens broke upon us. Rain stung our faces and winds whipped through our jackets. We hurried up Death Gully and settled under Tim’s tarp, taking generous nips of single malt to calm our frayed nerves. We prepared to settle in for the long night. Tim pulled out his bivvy, whilst I turned to Max and casually asked him where his tent was.
‘I thought you had the tent.’
We stared at each other with a mix of anger and bewilderment and spent the night huddled together under the tarp, Poseidon laughing at us hopeless gumbies trying to steal his trident. Winds tore through the tarp and rain drizzled on our face. We huddled together to stay warm. I nodded off only to be awoken in the middle of the night. I could feel Max’s impressive erection pressed hard against my back through two layers of goose down. I snuggled closer for warmth and fell back into a dreamless sleep.
The following day, winds were unleashed yet again on the coastline. We had a nip of scotch at seven in the morning and braved Death Gully yet again. I stood frozen at the base of the gully, snot running down my chin. There was no denying it – it was fuckin’ shite. We agreed that this was incredibly stupid and turned back, glad to be rid of the gully. We left our gear stashed at the base of the Trident, confident we would return the following week.
The following weekend I was all ready to head out. However, Poseidon had other ideas, wreaking 120km/h winds and 8mm of rain onto the Tasman Peninsula. We spend the weekend in Tim’s shack on the Peninsula, playing board games, drinking whisky and writing haikus. The wood fire stove cast a warm ember in the shack, in sharp contrast to the wild winds driving rain against the roof. Max and Tim both had stunning ladies in hand; we were relaxed, laughter all round as we prepared food in the kitchen. And yet, I could not rid my mind of the Trident – I thought of the wild weather and imagined what it must be like.
Sheltered from harsh rain
Warm voices in the kitchen
Dreams of the Trident
Then life got in the way. Work and weddings connived to impede my progress. Before I knew it, a month-and-a-half had passed before I got the chance to head out again. Tim was unable to make the trip, busy guiding adoring grandmas on Maria Island. Tom Giles, fresh from the classy, solid rock of the Grampians, was manipulated into joining us in Tim’s stead. He was meant to spend a day on the Pipes to get used to Tasmanian rock, but was shut down by the weather – the Trident would be his first climb on Tassie soil. I took an immediate liking to Tom. He seemed like a good bloke and – more importantly – I didn’t have another option. We headed out to the Pillar on a Friday evening under the cover of darkness; the Tasman lighthouse beaming its lonely light as we set up camp.
We were an unlikely team. Having met less than 48 hours prior, we had neither the kahunas of Mendelt, nor the technical skill of Wirtz. We were, simply put, very average punters. We had a nip of Jameson’s the next morning and tumbled down Death Gully yet again. Nothing quite like the familiar smell of rock dust in the morning.
Poseidon had wasted no time in sabotaging my gear. It was encrusted in a layer of sea salt and rust. Of my single set of cams, most were rusted shut – only the three smallest micro cams and my 0.75 Black Diamond Camalot worked. I let out a howl of furious anguish, chiding myself for my foolishness. Fortunately, we had brought Max’s rack as a spare.
We abseiled down to a muddy terrace, then Max set off on the first pitch, a rising traverse out to the base of the most seawards pillar. The rock was horrendous, a mishmash of dolerite blocks held together by a sandy, muddy paste that crumbled under any pressure. He made slow progress, finding minimal gear in hostile terrain. Occasionally he turned to me with widening eyes and slashed his throat with his hand. I contorted my facial features into a wide grin and gave him a big thumbs up. Better you than me, mate. Tom thought we were hardened men who did this sort of thing routinely and that the throat-slash was a signal from Max that things were going swimmingly. After an eternity Max got up to the main rock shelf and disappeared out of sight. Tom followed the pitch, midway putting his arm on a mini-fridge-sized block, which promptly came off sending him on a ten-metre plummet before the rope caught him. I set off shortly after, secure in the knowledge that Tom had kindly tested the anchors.
Before I knew it I was there, face to face with the final pillar. I tied into the sharp end, full of optimism. In Mendelt’s words, their team had simply ‘ran out of time’, and in a prior recce I had spied bomber horizontal cracks on the eastern face. However, as I traversed further my heart began to sink. These ‘cracks’ turned out to be shadows, and when I reached where they should have been, the chimera proved to be only cold, hard rock unaccepting of gear. I turned the southeastern arete to inspect the seawards face, the only face we had not inspected previously. The glimmer of hope was dashed instantly – the wall was blank, not a hint of protection. I eyeballed the arête closely, spying a jug two metres above me, but in between the rock was utterly blank. My weeks of effort and mental energy had come to bitter failure by just two metres of blank dolerite. I could hear Poseidon’s guffaws in the drizzling rain.
I hung around for an eternity, fighting mounting despair. The marginal gear played in the back of my mind. I had placed an RP and a 000 microcam (the irony that this is the emergency phone number is never wasted on me) on the traverse, a no. 3 DMM nut and a 0.4 Camalot behind a suspect flake, and the two aforementioned RPs behind an even more suspect flake that I had my left hand on. Tom and Max wondered aloud if it would even go. Doubt entered my mind – to think I imagined I had a chance of doing this! And yet I could not let go, could not give up. A deep hunger was within me, unlike anything I had felt before. It drove me on, and forced me into tentative moves up multiple times, each time getting my right toe into the shallow jam and my right hand slapping the arête, but never quite able to will my left hand to leave the comfort of the albeit-suspect flake.
I cursed everything I could think of. Mendelt for sandbagging me. My lack of physical strength. Poseidon for his temper. But mostly I cursed myself, and my lack of mental resolve. What a chickenshit coward. Absolute fecken disgrace. Useless piece of shite. I abused myself until I could take no more. My left hand took its leave from the scant comfort of the flake, and found a resting place matched with my right hand on the nubbin…
And that is the tale of how I find myself in this predicament now. My left hand wavers, lactic acid slowly creeping into my forearm. My right foot shudders in grim anticipation of the whipper I’m about to take onto marginal gear. And yet I refuse to let go.
I will my left arm into position, pulling with waning strength to hold my torso pressed closely against the wall. My right arm slaps a miniscule dimple, providing nothing more than balance. I inch my left foot upwards, each movement throwing me increasingly off balance, closer to the surging waters below. A combination of fear, desperation and hunger fills me with extra strength – I find myself using my will to levitate my left foot upwards, time freezes as my foot finds the crucial, suspect flake that my RPs are behind. Suddenly, the struggle ceases. Balance returns as I transfer my weight onto the flake.
I romp to the top as the climbing eases, ecstatic and exhilarated. Delirium takes hold – primal screams rip from my vocal cords and tears cloud my vision. Cape Raoul shimmers in the distance and Tasman Island looms large behind me. The light drizzle stops and the waves flatten in the ocean below. Even Poseidon is moved.
I had no right to pull that move off. It is by far my hardest lead on trad. I bring Max up and we rejoice on the Pillar. A proud moment for an unlikely trio.
Swollen with our success, we set off to climb the middle prong. We had spied a searing line on the west face, a crack line splitting the pillar right to the top. Max sets off confidently whilst I belay. Suddenly the rope tightens, and I feel a knock on my head and right shoulder. Seconds later, my right shoulder explodes in pain.
The sheer stupidity of the situation floods my mind. We are on the Trident, deep in Poseidon’s territory. His anger throbs painfully in my shoulder. I leave the others and have a moment by myself, gathering my wits, accepting the risks we are taking. Meanwhile the lads climb the chimney on the south side. Max puts a no. 4 Camalot halfway up the climb and runs out the next 15m. He latches a chockstone near the top, which gives a timely wobble but stays set in place, then atop the prong he finds a couple of rusted pitons – a reminder of Mendelt’s valiant attempt.
Tom cruises the last prong. We scramble to the base of the last prong, where we find a large spike with Mendelt’s tat. The long-suffering sling gives way to my gentle pull after years of abuse. We make the difficult decision to use new tat and rap back to our muddy terrace.
We jug up the fixed line to our starting point, breaking rocks onto each other as we go. We brave Death Gully for the final time, and the others pass me in their urge to leave. I am the last to clamber from its deadly grasp. I make the final step above the rubble and back onto stable ground. I whoop and holler, hugging Max and Tom whilst making incomprehensible noises. It is over – we will never set foot in this amphitheatre of death again. The thinly-veiled anxiety, fear and nerves lift from our hearts and we down the bottle of Jameson’s to their memory.
I turn behind me, a last glance at the Trident. The sea is calm and the setting sun shines on this stunning landscape. Poseidon has relented.