Ryan Siacci reports on plans for the first winter ascent of Australia’s longest (vertical) route, Blade Ridge and the Northwest Face of Federation Peak in Tasmania
There are good ideas, and then there are bad ideas. The best of them, quite often it seems, are a combination of the two. On balance, a winter ascent of Blade Ridge on Tasmania’s Federation Peak seems to fall largely into the “ill-advised” category.
Among the reasons that a successful winter ascent is yet to be achieved are difficult access, untamed rainforest, volatile river crossings, endless quagmires of thick peat mud and sustained technical climbing. An exhaustive list, to be sure, but mere trifles in comparison to the almighty Tasmanian winter with its short days and Antarctic tempests.
To a very specific type of person (to wit: those with a penchant for suffering and an appetite for grand and improbable schemes), these very difficulties act as inspiration rather than discouragement. Like moths to the flame, the concept of the expedition soon gathered a dedicated core of climbers, writers, photographers, film makers and humble pack-mules. Together with the assistance of enthusiastic sponsors, this team of conquistadors stands poised to create history in the coming months.
“Winter on the Blade” is the brainchild of Andy Szollosi, a Hobart based writer and photographer. Originally conceived as a proposal for The North Face Adventure Grant, Szollosi’s intent was not only to create an expedition worthy of such a prize, but to showcase the grandeur of South West Tasmania. Rugged and unspoiled, the Arthurs Range is one of the last bastions of true wilderness on Earth, and Federation Peak is undoubtedly the jewel in that crown.
“It’s a very special place,” says Andy, waxing lyrical on the majesty of the Arthurs. “An unbelievable place, kind of like a lost world.”
Whilst not the most technically demanding route on Federation Peak, Blade Ridge is peerless in its aesthetic appeal. One needn’t be a climber to appreciate the delicate beauty of the ridge, meandering its way toward the North West Face from the rainforest below. All told, this route contains some 600m of exposed alpine rock which couldn’t possibly fail to stir the blood of each and every acolyte of ascension.
The project had no problem attracting participants. In short order, Andy had recruited the talents of film maker Simon Bischoff, who had a previous connection to the mountain via an earlier project which had fallen through. Together, they quickly rounded out the roster with Nick Grant, Mark Savage and Mickolas Epstein on the climbing team, and Dan Haley and Olivia Page behind the cameras. With all these cogs in the machine, Winter on the Blade began to take on a life of its own.
“I was amazed at how easy it was to find a team who could actually pull this thing off,” says Andy. “It happened really naturally, and I think that’s a sign that it’s a trip that’s worth doing, that needs doing.”
However, not everything proceeded with such serendipitous smoothness. The North Face grant went to another team, which was something of a blow to the expedition planning. By this point, however, it was clear that the inertia behind the idea had reached critical mass, fueled by the passion of Andy’s band of merry adventurers. The project would go ahead, no matter what.
“After three or four months of preparation, you’re not going to give up,” says Andy. “There’s a momentum that you build up. That’s something that I’ve consciously tried to do as we go along, is continuously build that momentum for the expedition.”
The motives driving each member of the team are manifold. For some, it’s the simple but undeniable tug of adventure, the siren song of an unclaimed prize.
“I was promised scary, exposed climbing along a knife-blade edge – my kind of climbing,” explains Nick Grant, a member of the climbing team. “I’d heard the stories, and I questioned myself and my own sanity… but it sounded like a grand adventure at the very least.”
For others, it’s a case of unfinished business. With over a quarter of a century worth of climbing experience, from big walls in Yosemite to mountaineering in Tibet, veteran climber Mark Savage was a natural choice for Winter on the Blade. Subsequent to the invitation being extended, it was revealed that this would not be his first outing on the route.
After three weeks of severe weather in September 1992, Mark and his team abandoned the Blade in favour of a less technical route on the Berchervaise Face. They were forced into retreat a mere 50 metres from the summit in the face of worsening conditions and returned home chastened. A return to Federation Peak offers a second chance and the possibility of closure.
“That’s definitely part of it. It’s always good to go back and slay your dragons,” admits Savage.
But perhaps the most important motive behind Winter on the Blade is to promote the conservation of such an iconic, yet vulnerable area. Andy’s intent for the expedition and the subsequent film is to display the pure, untamed nature of South West Tasmania, as well as inspire others to connect with the wilderness and with their own crazy ambitions.
“Not many people can relate to it,” explains Andy, “I’m just hoping that people might see our story and be inspired to care about the natural environment a bit more, and to actually challenge themselves to follow their dreams.”
It was this focus on preserving and promoting the natural landscape that eventually won over alternative contributors which helped make the project a reality. In ensuring the minimisation of environmental impact, the team worked closely with the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service who were quite positive in their co-operation.
Additionally, Szollosi was able to secure funding from through the Bob Brown Foundation, a non-profit fund whose vision is “to protect Australia’s wild and scenic natural places of ecological and global significance.” Immediately enthusiastic about the project, the Foundation granted $10,000 to Winter on the Blade, as well as being instrumental in securing the ability to contract an authorised drone operator in accordance with the expedition permit. Given the curtailed time frame of the expedition planning and the stringent application requirements, this license and the aerial footage it allows would have been impossible without the assistance of the Foundation.
With the funding achieved and the team assembled, the wheels were truly in motion. In order to adequately prepare for an attempt in June, Szollosi and crew would need to cache supplies and scout the peak. This preliminary mission met with success, though it wasn’t without its trials.
“On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being a lovely track like the Overland, I’d definitely give it a 1,” laughs Andy. Currently guiding on the Larapinta Trail, it should be noted that he is no stranger to hardship.
Nor are the other members of the team, whose experience includes trekking in wet and windy Patagonia, or the trackless tundra of Alaska where, in summer, mosquitoes are large enough to carry small children away to their doom. Despite the challenges offered by driving rain, knee-deep mud and ravenous leeches, the team remains optimistic about the expedition.
“Tassie can be bad in summer, let alone winter,” admits Mark. “You sign up to that. But we have a good team, a healthy mix of youth and experience. If the weather gives us a break, I think we have a good shot at it.”
With the access to the ridge scouted, filming locations designated and enough supplies cached to ensure the self-sufficiency of the team, Szollosi and crew have toiled to give themselves the very best opportunity to strike as soon as the iron is hot. Their spirits are willing, their vigour and enthusiasm every bit equal to the beauty and drama of the Blade.
For most, the opportunity to be part of something as epic as Winter on the Blade occurs but once. When it happens, the team behind it becomes a beautiful machine, greater than the sum of its parts. No matter the outcome, the resulting film will be a powerful entry in Australian climbing history.
“Even if we don’t get a chance at the Blade, we’re going to have fun,” says Mark. “Whatever happens, it will be an adventure. And adventure is the key.”
Winter on the Blade is slated to take place in June 2016. Keep your peepers peeled for forthcoming updates.