Editor’s note to issue 21 of Vertical Life. Download the issue here.
Climbing is full of things relative.
Linking two moves on your project could be heralded as great success for you, whereas your mate falling off on the last move on the flash of the same problem could be an utter failure for her. Adventure is relative – a cakewalk for you is an epic for someone else, bigness is relative, easiness too. And so is the cock up.
Getting your ropes stuck in the middle of an 18-hour day should be a cock up, but it wasn’t.
The last few years I have taken to marking my birthday with something memorable. The ritual wasn’t planned, it just happened. I figure it is mostly due to my birthday falling right in the middle of Tassie Season, and if you can’t find something memorable to do in the wild places of Tassie, you’re not looking. Some people are cynical about birthdays but mine has become a lodestone that attracts awesome. This year, another revolution around the sun was marked by Cape Raoul.
Features, summits, peaks and lines – these have more currency than moves alone do. And currency is more easily encoded into memory. Cape Raoul is a defiant rocky finger thrust out into the Tasman Sea. The sort of place in which you can easily imagine sirens beguiling seafarers to dash themselves upon the rocks. A series of climbs, scrambles and abseils bring you out to its end where a thin, exposed tower of dolerite holds three-star routes. That’s halfway. Then you reverse the abseils, scrambles and climbs to get back out. The out-and-back is a mechanism for feeling that you have stepped off mainland reality and left the world behind.
‘It’s a pretty easy mission really.’
I messaged soloist and image-maker Simon Bischoff (hardened local), as I had seen that he was just out there on what was a soupy Christmas eve. He replied that it wasn’t a big deal, pretty straight forward, not that adventurous. I wasn’t sold on his selling. Seemed pretty adventurous to me (soft mainlander), or at least I hoped it was. Relativity.
Parties of three are notoriously slow, but Jess, John and I were particularly slow. Though we smashed the walk in, we moved glacially when roped up. A short abseil and a sidle across a steepening slope brought us to the first roped climbing. We clambered up onto the squat Wedding Cake and sidled, descended and sidled some more. We traversed the weird and unique stegosaurus back and stuffed up the final insecure diagonal abseil. I thought about how the all-day-wearing TC Pros that were sticky, stiff and comfortable could have been the best purchase I’ve ever made. It was well after 2pm when get to the base of our column, we were slow as a wet weak but we moved with reverence.
As the birthday boy, I led Pole Dancer, the common route up the sea stack at the Cape’s end. It’s an absolute belter that would be three stars for the rock and moves alone, let alone for where it was – at the end of the world. Dolerite always confuses me; the rock feels like it should be slipperier than it is, an arête more insecure than it is. My mate John followed. Jess had done it before so for expediency she said she wouldn’t climb it again. That’s the other benefit of doing things on your birthday, everybody defers to you.
I pulled the rope, feeling the elastic stretch and waiting for the familiar give that would signal it had been released. I wound the cord around my wrist – my hand turning white as I yanked, set my feet wide and heaved, but the rope only sprang back. I lent off the ledge, went down a level to a ledge below hoping to change the angle. My face turned red, my eyes bulged and I held my breath. It did not move. Puff! Fucking shit ropes, who put the anchor on top, pain in the arse, shit. Stuckness is equal to slowness.
‘I’ll go up and clear them.’ Jess said.
‘Great.’ John and I said. Someone had to go.
It took ten minutes to work out the best system. John tied into one rope end and I anchored down the other and we lay as dead weights.
For the first time since we had left the tents in the darkness, I stopped and breathed out. It’s not so much that the day was stressful, just that I was concentrating all the time and now that my senses were released from their bind, they spread out. It was warm, the air smelt acrid and sharp, the seals bellowed and fought, the sea boomed and washed, the wind was gentle. And Jess rescued us, lurching up the ropes on prussiks, at first unsure and poorly co-ordinated but becoming more fluid.
It might have been an hour all told, or a bit more, to go up clear the mess and come down, but with the rope free we reversed our route along that gnarled finger. The sun sank, we were in the lee of the wind, the barking seals grew distant.
All up we were 18 hours car to car. A long way from a record. Tired and stiff and filthy we ate and laughed and caught each other’s shining eyes. The next day I had one of the best washes of my life. The owner of the makeshift campground at the car park has built a wood-fired sauna, an outhouse of steam and scrubbing away the gunk and the past.
That birthday was a long day. Pole Dancer is brilliant and I had wanted to do it for a long time, the whole Cape escapade is a great adventure. But when I think back on my birthday now, the climbing is not what comes to mind. I feel the sun on my face, I can see it through my closed eyelids, the blood in my ears recedes, the ocean sloshes around, the scrape and clunk of Jess up the ropes is cut by the wind as it brings the seals’ barking conversation up to us, salt and shit sears my nose, my harness taut around me, cutting into my skin, arching my back and lifting it slightly off the rock. Everything slowed to a stop on that ledge, a wild and beautiful place. Simon Madden