Titan Free

Two brothers retrace their father’s footsteps 44 years after his first ascent of Titan on Geryon’s East Face.

It is 1968, the dying days of a Tasmanian summer. My father, Rob Taylor, and his climbing partner, Roland Pauligk, maker of the legendary brass wires RPs, stand beneath the vast dolerite spine of Mt Geryon in the dominion of Gods, Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park. Rising more than 300m above them is the powerful crack and corner system they intend to climb.

By today’s standards their climbing gear is antiquated: wooden chocks tied off with cord, mild steel pitons, hexes cut from steel bar, a hand-drill, hammer and bolts and a selection of Roland’s heavy handmade stainless steel pitons. They are clad in the rough gear of the era: woollen jumpers, flannelette shirts, hard-soled EBs and heavy climbing helmets – they wear no harnesses, instead they tie the end of the rope around their waists.

But the spirit of adventure is strong in them, and they leave the ground at 9am, heading boldly into the unknown.

Moss falls in my eyes. I rip out a small leafy plant getting in the way of a good jam, and stuff my taped-up hands deep into the recesses of the crack. It bites in the good way you want when you are desperate, but at the same time you know will hurt later. Above me the crack stretches towards a wide off-width roof liberally covered with black moss; chockstones wedged in the back like rotten, uneven teeth in a savage vertical smirk. Giant cams pull at my waist, the daypack on my back filled with water adding its own awkward weight.

How did I end up here? Good question.

Sometimes history has its own weight, tugging at your sleeve incessantly until you can no longer ignore it. Forty-four years ago my dad and Roland climbed a new route on Geryon called Titan, a proud, intimidating line on the vast 300m-high East Face which goes to the top of the Foresight, a pillar of rock that sits between the North and South summits of Geryon. But they left a little unfinished business. In the style of the day, where just getting to the top was the main thing, they used aid on six of the 13 pitches, grading it 17A3 – a grade that suggested it would require some hard climbing to free it.

I had always carried a vague plan to try and free Titan, one day. But life is often unforgiving of vague plans. Plus the description in Chris Baxter’s mini-guide to Geryon didn’t make it sound exactly alluring: “This (probably) unrepeated scrubby monster was a big effort for the day, but could well go free to a off-width king.” I am mainly a soft sportclimber that steers away from cracks, particularly the scrubby kind, and I am definitely no off-width king, unless this is a monarch of avoiding them.

Roland at work showing the style fo the time.

But really it started with a phone call from my brother Lachy.
“Hey mate, you coming down to Tassie at all this summer?”
(Lachy lives in Hobart.)
“I’m keen to, what do you have in mind?”
“What about freeing Titan?”
Like many decisions where you don’t know exactly what is involved, it was easy to make.
“Sure.”

And so it began. But the story was a little more complex than that. As it turned out, we had a little competition to free Titan – that nasty description hadn’t put everyone off.

Tasmania is full of strange, twisted character who are into all kinds of perverse pleasures, including off-widths, and one man with more than an unnatural taste for them is ‘Crazy John’ Fischer, or CJ, as everyone calls him. CJ had been into Geryon not once to try Titan, but twice. During the first trip with Deano Rollins the two of them spent five days at the Geryon Campsite (which is in the damp, sunless valley below the West Face) waiting for the rain to stop (it didn’t), and living on a diet of Mi Goreng noodles and playing endless hands of spades. On the second trip CJ had good weather, but his partner, in CJ’s words, “Shat himself,” so they ended up doing nothing.

And so Titan remained unclimbed.

But, CJ had plans to return – and he really is an off-width king, having repeated many of the hardest in Tassie (indeed, run laps on them). At the same time Lachy and I made our plans and hoped we could at least convince CJ to hold off and join us on our attempt as our rope gun. My brother was the conduit in this conversation between the three of us, and duly reported that CJ had made plans to go back into Geryon on the Australia Day weekend, this time with his girlfriend Anna. But, as if cursed, when Australia Day weekend came Anna pulled out, exhausted from work. And so CJ planned to come in with us in late February.

It was a fine and sunny day when the Lake St Clair ferry dropped my brother and I at Narcissus, from where we had a six or seven hour walk up to the bivvy cave at the foot of the East Face of Mt Geryon. Despite our heavy packs, full with food and climbing gear, we were feeling fit and strong, having just come off an eight-day walk to Precipitous Bluff on the South Coast of Tassie, where we had climbed a new route.

Sadly, we were not blessed with a rope gun. CJ had pulled the pin at the last moment because he is a lettuce-packing piker (he’d been offered a week’s work packing lettuces). We were going to have to tackle those off-widths on our own.

We walked the nine kilometres to Pine Valley Hut quickly. On the way my brother’s phone beeped a message – from CJ. He had packed in the lettuce packing and was coming to join us the afternoon of the following day. As he said at the end of the message, “Fuck yeah!” It did leave us with a dilemma though, we only had two climbing days and if it was good the next day we didn’t want to waste it waiting for CJ. We decided if the weather was good, we would go for it, if not, CJ could join us the following day.

It took us another hour from Pine Valley Hut to the Geryon Campsite, where we filled up with ten litres of water because we were uncertain about the water situation at the bivvy. Although Roland had told us about a small spring nearby, it had been a dry summer. Our packs felt considerably heavier as we climbed the steep scree slope below the West Face of Geryon, then traversed across to the saddle between Geryon and the Acropolis, before traversing back below the East Face. Under the East Face we stopped to find the line of Titan. Although the face looked foreshortened from the ground – like it was 150m instead of 350m – the crack looked wide and intimidating.

Lachy waiting out bad weather in Heim

We headed on to the bivvy, eager to check it out. Almost 44 years ago exactly, our father had come here with Roland and a bunch of others, including my mother, who had endured part of her honeymoon in this cave. Not only had my dad lost his wedding ring doing a new route on the West Face of Geryon, but mum and dad had gotten benighted on the South Peak of Geryon with another couple, the four of them sharing a very windy, sleepless night with only a space blanket to keep them warm. How my dad managed to get my mum to spend her honeymoon this way (and how they are still married), I will never know.

The bivvy cave was smaller than we imagined, about a metre and half deep. But some history still remained; Roland called the bivvy ‘Heim’, German for home, and had made a small wooden plaque with the name carved out on it – it still hung from the roof of the cave from two rusty old pitons. There were also some old abandoned tins in the back and a broken helmet.

We made ourselves comfortable in the two flattest spots available, then went to find water. It was just where Roland said it would be, a crystal-clear spring of freezing water. With its incredible view out to the cirque below the DuCane Range, Heim seemed like the most magical spot to spend time.

That night we set the alarm for a pre-dawn start – Titan was 350m long, we would need all the time we could get to make it up and then negotiate the long descent off.

“Beep, beep, beep…” The alarm dragged me from deep sleep. It was dark and cold and there was overcast, thick cloud scudding through the Acropolis–Geryon saddle at high speed. I didn’t stir from the warmth of my sleeping bag, and when Lachy asked if we should get up, I said, “Give it another half an hour…”

It wasn’t looking any better half an hour later either when we dragged ourselves out of our bags and into the cold morning air. Still, we made porridge, ate, then geared up and headed over to the base of Titan. Looking up, half the wall was hidden in cloud.

I started up the first pitch, a chimney jammed with giant chockstones. It was good to be on rock, the rough dolerite grippy beneath my fingers. I belayed at the base of a scree slope, off a tipped-out cam, a wire between two loose blocks and the tied-off root of a bush. Lachy led on through, if you can call scrambling up a loose scree slope climbing, belaying at the base of where the proper climbing started. As I seconded light rain began to fall. At the belay we couldn’t see more than 15m above us for mist. We decided to wait. Half an hour later the rain was getting heavier and we retreated back to Heim. Everything would ride on the weather being good the next day.

Back at Heim it got cold and we rugged up, reading and dozing in our sleeping bags. We kept expecting to hear or see CJ, but as the day stretched into the afternoon there was no sign of him. Then, just as we thought he must have piked, we heard his voice calling through the cloud. Eventually, two or three hours later, he and a mate, Simon Bischoff, appeared looking very wet and bedraggled – apparently CJ had told Simon they wouldn’t need rain jackets… They had also come up the Acropolis track instead of via the Geryon Campsite, but when they got to the top of the Acropolis and tried to scramble down to the saddle they were greeted by a wall of cloud and a precipitous drop. There they had had to wait until the cloud cleared, allowing them to find a way down.

Despite the epic, CJ was his usual ebullient self. While Simon seemed a little worn down, particularly after he changed into his dry clothes, then got lost and soaked again looking for the little water spring.

We had expected CJ to turn up on his own, so now we had some delicate negotiations because there was no way you wanted two parties on a route with so much loose rock. However, CJ had already realised this, and had decided to try the Shield (24), a Steve Monk’s route, and the hardest line on the wall. Now we all just needed decent weather. That night the clouds cleared to reveal the most incredible array of stars.

We woke up at dawn to the most amazing sunrise – and clear skies, the day was looking good. Lachy and I were climbing by 8am, the first two pitches racing by. At our highpoint we argued about which crack line to take for the third pitch – there were many cracks and the description was vague.

My lead probably didn’t follow the original line, but we ended up on what is probably the right belay ledge, where Lachy lead the next pitch; across and left and up to the base of the main crack of Titan, which loomed unmistakably above.

Memories of the past, an old wooden chock survives from an earlier ascent.

The next pitch was mine and the first of the aid pitches, graded 17A2. According to my dad’s diary, on the first day of climbing Titan – it took them three days all up – they had climbed up to this first hard pitch, which Roland then took several hours to lead, before dad followed, cleaning what he could. Then they had abseiled back to the ground and spent another night at Heim.

The start of the pitch was quite tricky, made harder by small bushes and thick, black moss crusting the inside of the crack and falling in my eyes. I was glad I wore tape gloves. But aside from that, the climbing was good, maybe grade 18 or 19 jamming, with the occasional face hold, and protected by biggish cams. It was with excitement that I found the first sign of dad and Roland’s passing: an ancient wooden wedge, still with cord tied through the eye. I didn’t clip it.

It was exciting to get to the belay with the first aid pitch done clean – where I belayed off a single old carrot that Roland would have placed. Funnily enough, we only had one bolt bracket that I had mistakenly not given back to a mate when we were climbing at Freycinet a few days earlier – it was an RP bracket.

I brought Lachy up for his lead. He took one look at the dirty, overhanging off-width above, jammed with chockstones and lined with black moss, and decided it wasn’t for him. I was happy to take the lead.

Dad’s diary says this about their next day on Titan: “Return to previous high point. Roland prussiks fixed rope and I climb. Surmount the overhang and then difficult rock. Just as it is getting dark we get to reasonable stance – however, Roland insists on going on to a ‘better’ one – in the pitch dark. Follow with pack, pulling up on bushes. New bivvy is sitting only.”

The next pitch was 13A3. At its very start Roland and dad aided up the wall to the left of the crack using a bolt, but I climbed straight up the crack, protecting it with a big Camalot that they wouldn’t have had. The overhang looked hard, but despite the steepness and the moss, I climbed through fairly easily, clinging onto the chockstones jammed in its mouth. Another aid pitch down, maybe grade 18 or so.

I was carrying our water in a hydration bladder on my back and every time my brother wanted to drink he had to suck on the hose attached to my chest. So it wasn’t long before I was offering him a drink of ‘brother’s-milk’ at every belay. For some reason it really put him off his water.

The seventh pitch followed a number of discontinuous corner cracks at 13A2. It was actually quite tricky to know which corner to take, and halfway up the pitch I was stopped by an unremarkable little corner. It had low gear, while the corner walls were coated with black moss, making it tricky to commit to the hard moves above. After climbing up and down several times and arguing with Lachy, I started trying a variant just to the right, only to fall off it. After much tooing and froing I brought Lachy up, then tried the corner again, only to fall off it too and land on the ledge.

Impasse.

Annoyed, I climbed down and to the right, then up into another corner, which had a desperate move guarding its entrance. I knee-barred up a very wide crack then was blessed with easier ground. I raced up the rest of the pitch linking it into pitch eight, running it out in eagerness to make up for lost time.

Dad and Roland spent their uncomfortable night somewhere up around this pitch, dad wrote, “Doze in fits and starts. Roland snores. Sunrise over the Traveller Range. Climbing now easier. Penultimate pitch is hard and light running out. I take a fall – peg pulls.”

Pitch nine and 10 were both graded 13A2, but went okay. Pitch 11 is graded 15, but was probably harder and quite bold, making me glad we carried in the number five Camalot. Pitch 12 was the penultimate pitch dad foretold in his diary. When I spoke to Roland he remembered dad taking a big fall, telling me about how dad had been complaining about Roland hammering in the pegs too hard…just before he pulled one out and took a big fall. The pitch followed a tricky corner system, that is maybe 18, then exited right around a roof that exposes you to 300m of clear air to the ground. At the end of the roof, on the arete, was what looked like a block so loose as to be merely sitting there. After some procrastination I realised there was no way I could climb around it – you had to fully commit to pulling on the block with your full weight (there were no footholds) and swing around the arete. Having come so far there was no going back, and with my heart in my mouth I committed; the block held, and I cranked around onto a good stance.

All I had to do then was climb the thin crack above past a bolt and, with just one easy pitch to the summit, we would be home.. The thin crack wasn’t easy. I clipped the bolt with our one hanger, then did the old up-down thing, trying the moves and scuttling back to the rest. Time was slipping away. After much fiddling around I worked out I could step right onto a slab, which I climbed with no gear for six or seven metres, until I hit easy ground.

Lachy on the summit holds up a peg.

I whooped as I brought Lachy up. He led on through to the summit of the Foresight, his screams echoing through the cirque, then he brought me on up. It was 6.30pm, we had been climbing for 10 and a half hours. The sun was low in the sky out to the west, the shadow of Geryon showing the ragged silhouette of the South Summit, the Foresight and the North Summit – Geryon was a mythical three-headed monster afterall. We could see out over the Traveller Range to the east, the Acropolis to the north and to the east, out over the Labyrinth and beyond to Frenchmans Cap.

When Roland and dad breached the summit it was late in the day and they were forced to spend the night on its table-sized summit. Roland remembers my dad being reluctant to share his sleeping bag, but in my dad’s diary he wrote, “Spend night on summit in steady rain with unzipped sleeping bag – soaked.” The next day they started descending at first light.

Lachy and I took photos and shot a short video for our dad, before starting the series of abseils to get off. Shortly after we ran out of brother’s-milk, our mouths cottony with dehydration. As we descended the West Face it was bathed in an orange glow. It took us an hour to get back to the track and as we arrived at the Geryon–Acropolis saddle darkness descended and we made the final bush-bash by headtorch back to Heim. We arrived 9.30, badly dehydrated, totally wasted, but ridiculously happy.

Unlike CJ. He and Simon didn’t have a good day. The first eight pitches of the Shield are basically access pitches and, as they discovered, totally rubbish, covered in loose rock and bushes. Three or four pitches up CJ managed to drop his girlfriend’s camera 80m (which he miraculously recovered unbroken), after which they decided to retreat, spending the rest of the day sulking around Heim. Simon had had such a bad time he wasn’t even keen to climb the next day. That night as I drifted off to sleep I am sure I heard CJ sobbing gently.

The next day Lachy and I were up at dawn again to leave; I had a plane to catch back to Melbourne that evening. We made our way out by the light of headtorch, the East Face looming above us in the dark; it was no longer such a mystery, we had unlocked one small path up its mighty face. As the sun slowly rose, bathing it in rich early morning light, we felt incredibly lucky that we had written our own chapter in the story of Titan, 44 years after Roland and dad had begun it.

As it turned out, CJ’s trip wasn’t totally in vain, he did come away with some climbing spoils. But that is a whole other story, which you can read about here.

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