“Do you feel like you could die at any moment?” Chris asked at the start of pitch 4 of The Sydney Route. We had hiked 25km with 50lb packs to Frenchman’s Cap in remote Northwestern Tasmania to climb Australia’s tallest route. Now, belaying from inside a massive chimney, he was protected from most of the shrapnel I was tossing at him, but blind to the battle I was fighting 20 metres above.
“ROOOCK!” I yelled towards Chris as I pulled out another bowling trophy sized shard of quartzite and let it go into the abyss. A second passed before I heard it explode below. I was on steep terrain, the overhanging rock coming out at me like an array of safety deposit boxes slipping from their lockers. As I tested my holds, each started to slide out from the cliff. Some I could desperately push back into their slots but most became missiles, launched towards my partner below. I was trying to ignore the fact that I hadn’t yet placed a piece of protection. I was far off-route, climbing loose rock at least a few notches above the route grade, and hoping I could find my way back on track.
After traversing the overhanging section and mantling a small lip, I found myself standing on a ledge. I looked around and found the route from which I had strayed about 10 metres to my left. Still without a piece between Chris and I, and unable to build a belay on the featureless ledge, I had to keep moving. The sixth pitch trended rightwards, so if I continued straight up, linking the two pitches, I would eventually meet up with the route and could continue as planned.
The nature of the hard quartzite at Frenchman’s Cap does not lend itself to good gear placements. Though often riddled with positive edges, the rare cracks in the rock tend to be forming around blocks that are delaminating from the cliff. It was like climbing a bookshelf and looking for gear between two fiction novels while hoping the encyclopedias might have enough mass to bear weight. I was now 40 metres off the belay, still without gear, and testing every hold twice. I put my right hand up behind a microwave sitting on a bed of moss and gave it a firm shake. Solid. I brought my left hand up to match. As I lifted my left foot, I felt my heart stop. The block which I was holding with both hands was slowly sliding towards my face. I lunged with my right hand towards the next closest hold only to find it too slipping off of the shelf.
I’ve been in some dangerous situations before, I’ve soloed, I’ve dislodged plenty of loose rock, but I’ve always been able to maintain at least two, if not three, solid points of contact. With both hands holding escaping rock and my toes finely balanced below, facing a fall of more than 80 metres over a series of ledges then through the chimney where Chris stood, oblivious to the situation, I made the one move that no trad climber ever wants to have to make. In a dynamic leap reserved for indoor bouldering competitions, I cut all but my left foot from the rock as I fully committed to a suspect hold far to the left.
Breathe. I looked towards my feet. My left foot was where I had left it. My left hand felt solid. The void below would have to wait; I wasn’t falling here.
I managed to keep the thought of another nine pitches out of my head as I pulled through the next 15 metres. I could see the belay just up above me and I still hadn’t placed a single piece. I took a quick look around and found a crack between a detached block and the main cliff face. I gave it a tug. It moved. I pulled out a .75, fully cammed the trigger, stuffed it in the crack, pushed the block up against the cam to hold it in place, then climbed up to build a belay.
“On belay!” I yelled down to Chris after instructing him NOT to follow my line. He looked terrified for me as he came into view having had no idea that I hadn’t placed gear for two full pitches. His terror changed to frustration as I watched him struggle to remove the stuck cam I had rigged for him below the belay. “I don’t know what to do, man, it’s fully cammed?”
“Just slide the block over,” I laughed.