Angie Scarth-Johnson new routing in Tonga

Angie Scarth-Johnson goes way back home and, under the watchful eye of maestro Lee Cossey, bolts her first ever route

WORDS: Angie Scarth-Johnson & Lee Cossey
IMAGES: Lee Cossey

Developing new routes is hard yakka. Developing new routes when you have never bolted anything before, on a tropic island, thousands of miles away, under time pressure and the glaring lights of the movie cameras even more so. Late last year Angie and Lee headed to Tonga, the country of Angie’s father’s family, to see if Angie could establish her first ever new route. In the shadow of the release of a film about the trip, we publish some snippets from their diaries.

Day One: arriving in Eua after a death-defying boat trip

Angie: Waking up on the first morning and getting ready to head out, the excitement started to pump. However, I couldn’t help but dread the thought of how long the walk-in must be considering it’s a completely new crag. But I also didn’t want to ask Lee because I would have seemed weak. We arrived – and joy!!! – after only a  five-minute walk on flat, clear land. Lee pointed out the cliff, and straight away I was amazed by how much untouched rock there was. ‘How can something this amazing not have been explored before?’ I thought to myself. The cliff has so much potential. Eua climbing pioneers had called this wonderland ‘The Bowl of Cliffs’ and if I was to describe it I’d say the cliff symbolised the bowl and the greenery inside was like a salad. Straight away we rapped down a huge chunk of salad, checked it out, went back up, rapped over the line I was thinking of bolting, and placed the temporary bolts for our soon-to-be masterpiece.

Angie's first first ascent, Tomatao (26). Image Lee Cossey

Angie’s first first ascent, Tomatao (26). Image Lee Cossey

Lee: Three days after arriving in the rustic nation of Tonga we finally got to lay our eyes on the cliffs of the island of Eua. This was a moment I’d been nervously anticipating. I’m here to help Angie, find and bolt her first route, something that would hopefully be a worthy addition to the ongoing climbing development of Tonga all while helping to make a documentary of it. Having never been here before the pressure was on today to find a crag that would work in the timeframe we had.

Along with Greg, Paul and Josh, the veterans of Eua climbing, Angie and I went straight for the Bowl of Cliffs area known locally as Laku Fa’anga. The area seemed an obvious choice for new, slightly harder route discovery. We weren’t disappointed, being greeted with gigantic seaside limestone arches and caves over a base layer of black volcanic rock. The wall that took our attention most of all was a steep prow that looked as though it would provide a handful of exceptional sport routes. A quick jungle rap later and our thoughts were confirmed; this would be a cool crag and provide a perfect project for the short trip. Back up the jungle rap and over the top of the routes to see if there were holds. As I anxiously kept watch, Angie got in the zone uncovering the subtleties of the overhanging line placing temporary bolts as she went. There was something very cool about watching a small teenager, drill in hand, hanging off the end of a rope on a wild seaside crag bolting her own route. The pressure was off.

Day Two: spending an unnatural amount of time in a harness.

Bolting lessons in Eua. Image Brett Williams

Bolting lessons in Eua. Image Brett Williams

Angie: The next day was very hot and humid. After I hung out with some dogs and their many fleas we decided to head over to the cliff. We rapped down the spikey line of vegetation and began drilling the holes for the bolts from bottom to top, I found this hard on my arms, but I really enjoyed seeing my line come together. I wasn’t used to being in a harness for so long, spending hours trying to drill into this surprisingly hard rock. Not long after, I realised I wanted to move the middle section of my line a little to the left because the holds thinned out, but hole by hole I was slowly nearing the top of my climb. Drilling the last two holes for my anchors I was super excited. It was a different type of excitement – a mixture of halfway-done and about-to-get-out-of-this-painful-harness excitement. By this time I was busting to climb it!

Lee: With the easy, fun exploratory work behind her, Angie got stuck into the arduous job of deciding where to drill the big holes for the permanent bolts. These are the days that probably discourage more than a few would-be new routers from getting their hands dirty and putting up routes themselves. They are the days on which your decisions and thoroughness either make or break the ‘classic-ness’ (and safety) of a new route for all those who come after you.

Angie, now being a virtual bolting pro, was independently absorbed in her process leaving me to start eyeing off other potential routes. Immediately left of Angie’s line was another fantastic series of unforgiving steep features with just enough pockets to make it work. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow.

Day Three: a bad reaction

Angie: Day three and I began to reflect on how much I had learnt. I really felt lucky to have been taught by someone so experienced and psyched on everything. I was starting to feel like a pro! But being stuck in a harness, drilling and jumaring for the last two days was becoming annoying. I was starting to get impatient with so much rock around, I just wanted to climb something. Especially having to wait a whole day for the glue to dry.  I JUST WANTED TO CLIMB!! But here we go again!! I started jumaring up with Lee next to me showing me the gluing techniques, however, when I returned to the ground I suddenly noticed my hands were starting to swell up – I was having a reaction to the glue. While I was resting and trying to get over the pain in my hands. Lee bolted his own route next to mine! He totally did it all in like one day – what a show off! We both finished feeling tired but ready to send the following day.

Lee: Today I learnt two things;

  1. That wielding a glue gun with surgical precision in one hand while your weight is suspended between a skyhook and the other hand is not a skill we’re born with.
  2. That when you are responsible for the safety and sound education of a minor (or other) it is advisable to err on the side of caution and read the Material Safety Data Sheet of any hazardous material you may be working with AND possibly even use appropriate Personal Protection Equipment.

Today started well with Angie continuing to rapidly upskill toward bolting master, getting all the ring bolts glued into her soon-to-be classic. Not long after returning to the ground however her glue-covered hands and body started to hurt, a lot. She’d had a reaction to the glue, which had found its way onto every last bit of her exposed skin. She did a runner and left me to bolt the equal best line I have ever seen. Equal to many others, but among the best all the same.

Maybe there will turn out be a total crusher amongst the local kids of Eua. Image Lee Cossey

Maybe there will turn out be a total crusher amongst the local kids of Eua. Image Lee Cossey

Day Four: eating my first dried up crab shell off a rock, and sending.

Angie: Lee and I were pumped to FINALLY climb our four-day project that we both worked so hard on. This was my first ever bolted climb, I was so proud of myself. This was it, I thought, I was going to climb something I had created. I actually didn’t really care about what grade it might end up being, I just knew it was a cool line regardless… But there was still a little bit of work left to do before I attempted the send. Pulling out the temporary bolts and doing the last bit of cleaning seemed to drag on, but the psych was building up. The rock felt slightly damp from the sea spraying on it, but that was expected as the climb was right above the ocean. Okay, so now it was time to start climbing. I felt very confident with the beta; spending hours bolting a route does guarantee a great knowledge of the beta. The climb felt quite flowy and the bolts were placed perfectly, and just like that I had done the first ascent on my first attempt of my very own route – Tomatoa (26). It was one of my proudest moments.

Later that day Lee sent his awesome looking route, Kaka Maka Faka Haka (30), and I had to keep a dare that I had made with him earlier to eat a dead crab that had been sitting on a nearby rock for days. I was really hoping he wouldn’t send but, Lee being Lee, he sent it, and I had to eat a dried-out crab and its eyeballs.

Eating a rotting crab – the high cost of doubting Lee's ability to get the job done. Image Lee Cossey

Eating a rotting crab – the high cost of doubting Lee’s ability to get the job done. Image Lee Cossey

Lee: Today was the day you look forward to when bolting, the day you actually get to climb! Discovering, deliberating over the nuances of the line and the bolt positions, drilling and cleaning leaves you with a knowledge of the route-to-be that is equivalent to many days worth of attempts. As such Angie made short work of the 25m of steep climbing that she’d become intimately acquainted with. The film crew caught the action and the extended family got to see it from their perch at the top of the cliff. It was an inspiring moment for me to see her complete this idea of visiting the country of her heritage, learning a new skill set, and applying what she already knew of climbing to create something that will contribute to the climbing community for years to come. But even more inspiring than that was seeing Angie apply her creativity to her climbing world with no fucks given to the many preconceptions that float around about bolting, age and often gender.

If you are in Melbourne or Sydney you can see the premiere of Angie and Lee’s film – Pacific Lines – at North Walls In Melbourne on March 5 or at 9Degrees Parramatta on March 7 (see The North Face Facebook page for more details)


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