A couple of weeks ago, John and I went camping and climbing at the Warrumbungle National Park near Coonabarabran, NSW. This was our first time backpacking with our climbing gear, tent and five days worth of food. Fortunately our campsite had a water tank. Otherwise, carrying five days worth of water would have been a non starter.
We grumbled the entire 5 kilometers from the Pincham Carpark to Balor Hut, which would be our base camp for the weekend. It was a really weird hike in, made up of either a brick walkway or metal stairs. I was carrying the heaviest pack I've ever carried. My stiff hiking boots and a paved uphill ascent turned out to be an awkward combination. None the less, we made it, through a nasty rain storm, to our campsite.
John and I started the weekend out with an easy climb on Crater Bluff, Cornerstone Rib. It was a great day, perhaps a little boring. The climbing was super easy at grade 14 and the views were spectacular. I followed the entire climb because it was trad and the rock is notoriously crumbly. I don't have a lot of experience in leading trad. We moved to Australia from Boston before I was a confident leader. New Hampshire is full of great trad climbing. The Blue Mountains and it's crumbly sandstone doesn't allow for many trad opportunities. Sport climbing is easier and much safer here. So, on long multi-pitch days on new terrain, I tend to be the follower.
The forecast called for possible rain on our second day. Also our next climb required a pre-dawn start. With a long climb on day 1 and not much daylight to prepare for our next climb, we decided to spend a day scouting. Our next climb, Flight of the Phoenix on Bluff Mountain, apparently had an epic approach. So on day 2, we packed light and did the approach to take a look at our next climb.
The alarm went off at 3:00 AM. John is awesome on these days. He makes breakfast and hands me a coffee as I crawl out of the tent. Otherwise, I might never get out of bed. We hit the trail at 3:30 by headlamp. The approach consisted of ~3km of trail followed by 45 minutes of bushwhacking down then up a gully, skirting across a boulder field to finally get to the base of the climb. Hiking by headlamp seriously reduces your field of vision, obviously. We couldn't see the mountain or major landmarks to gauge the distance traveled. Needless to say, we went about 1km beyond the base of our climb. We thought this was the case, but couldn't tell without being able to see rock formations on Bluff Mountain. We found an almost level spot to sit and waited until the sun came up. Immediately it was clear that we had to backtrack. Our path was easy now, with a full field of vision as the sun rose. We arrived at the base of our climb around 7:00 AM.
John geared up to lead, and the day started. After a while of confusion on the first pitch, John decided to bail. Flight of the Phoenix looked like an obvious line. The first pitch is described as follows:
"45m (18) Up jamcrack (trickier than appears) for 12m, then step L onto nose. Up for a few moves then do an intricate (dicky?) traverse R across slab and tricky step onto nose below chains. Nice moves lead up nose to chain, step slightly L and up corner to small belay stance at small tree/bush ~8m above chain (PR, wire, small cams)." From The Crag
There were a few cracks to choose from and the slab wasn't so obvious. I'm sure my lack of confidence leading trad weighed on John. Oh well, he bailed and we decided to do a nearby climb. Neither of us wanted to bush bash home again!
A few meters left on Bastion Buttress, I felt confident that I would be able to lead some. Regardless, John started off the climb. Both of us were a little shaken from his retreat, but still wanted to climb.
John got up the first pitch easily. As I followed, each piece of gear felt tentative and the rock felt loose. I hate hearing that hollow sound when you tap on a flake that you're about to use to hold all your weight. John is a really great leader. He has pulled my butt up so many climbs. I trust him completely. I don't always trust the rock.
The first pitch was odd. It was a slab with diagonal crack systems running down. I felt off balance the entire time. Each piece of gear I cleaned, freaked me out just a bit more. I got to the anchor, surprised that a grade 13 was causing such trepidation. John reassured me that everything was fine and, Hey!, we're having fun. There were four pieces of gear equalized to make our anchor. We moved smoothly through our routine of swapping the rope and gear. John began to climb and BAM! A cam from the anchor flew out! I absolutely flipped. In hindsight, everything was fine. There were three bomber pieces still keeping the anchor together. We were safe, no one fell. However, at the time, that didn't matter. I wanted to go down and it had to be immediate. John came back to the anchor, he lowered me to the ground and then followed. This resulted in leaving more gear in the rock, on a grade 13!
I've never had a piece of gear pull out of the rock at an anchor. If it's a piece along the route, no big deal. Something clicked when I saw a cam fly at my face having been behind a flake moments before. In that moment, I realized I didn't know if that rock was going to pull off the wall. I didn't know if our gear was solid. Yes, I trust John to take care of us. However, we're both responsible for checking the others gear placements. I'm an idiot!
We ended up bushwhacking back to our campsite. John was calm and listened to my worries. We talked through the situation. You see, he had known there were three awesome pieces and one marginal anchor point. He considered taking it out before belaying me up to him, but decided against it. He didn't communicate that to me when I reached him and I freaked out when it pulled out of the rock. Perhaps more importantly, I should have checked his anchor. I always trust that he knows better than me. This is a habit I need to break. It's better to check your partner rather than take a chance on it being the one time they slip up. John didn't slip up. Everything was so safe, but my freak out stemmed from a feeling of insecurity that I wasn't confident to approve or question his gear choices.
The last days of our trip was forecast to be stormy. We hiked out on day 4 and just missed a massive rain storm. It sucked that we didn't get to climb more on this trip. I guess we will have to come back another day. The Bungles are a beautiful place. Even the non-climbers should come visit!
The Next and Every Weekend From Here On Out
I am determined to become a better trad leader! After getting home, I told John that we would go to Mt. Piddington every Sunday to practice trad. This is just about the only place in the Blueys to climb trad. He brushed it off as one of those things I say but don't follow through on. Two weekends of trad leading later, I successfully led Eternity at Piddo. It's a notoriously sandbagged 18 hand crack. My hand is a bit cut up, but I'm feeling good. We can't climb this upcoming weekend, but plan on hearing more about Piddo in a few weeks. I want to swap leads with John in Yosemite one day. This is a necessary step towards that goal.