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A Tasmanian Devil of a Holiday

Submitted by philbox on 2004-01-28 | Last Modified on 2010-02-25

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...those are the scariest words any belayer ever wants to hear...

I am looking up after hearing those dreaded words and can see momentarily a block heading towards me, looming larger and larger with every nanoseconds passing.

As most climbing adventures start out, someone had an idea that they would like to head out to somewhere they have never been before. Neil Monteith called for expressions of interest in a Tasmanian climbing road trip. At first we were to head to an island in Bass Strait, but due to problems arranging a suitable boat to take us out there, we would have to settle for visiting various crags around the east coast of Tasmania.

Lee Skidmore and I, Phil Box, flew into Launceston airport and picked up the hire 4WD with which we proceeded into town to await the arrival of two more of our cohorts, Jono and Kent. Neil Monteith and Kathy Dicker would also meet us when they dropped Neil's dad off for his Brisbane flight.

Lee and I had no concept of how cold it would be in Tasmania, after all was it not Summer now. Leaving Brisbane's 35C heat and near 100% humidity, we got a rude shock stepping out of the plane into the cool dry air of northern Tasmania. Whilst waiting to meet up with the others we decided to try our hand at finding the local crag right in the centre of Launceston.

There is a rather prominent gorge that splits a mountain right there beside the CBD. The name of the gorge is Cataract Gorge, and we snaked our way up the hill to find ourselves at Duck Reach. Ambling down into the bottom of the gorge we hit one route, and then not realising that we were now on daylight savings time, we rushed off back to the airport only to find that we now had an hour to kill. We eventually met up with the others and then organised a supermarket trip to stock up with some vital food supplies.

Neil was to be our guide for the trip, as he had been to Tasmania once before, so we followed him out to the Hillwood Volcano. Hillwood Volcano climbing area is located in the remnants of a long ago extinct volcano. There are a lot of single pitch sport routes on the tessellated patterned walls of this amazing area. The lava has cooled to form geodesic patterns on the rock that are perfect for steep crimpy climbing.

Jono topping out on "Ancient Of Days" at Hillwood. Pic by Phil Box.

A quite curious feature of this area is the fact that the guide book is kept in a plastic box underneath a rock; this is done to ensure that the area is not too widely advertised. I do believe that in the near future this is going to change, as an online guide is in the works and access issues have been sorted out. Many of the routes are described as “The Best at Hillwood”, so this was a recurring theme for the rest of the trip. As we encountered new areas and got on classic routes at completely separate crags we would declare that this particular route was “The Best at Hillwood!”

Lee crimping on the platelets at Hillwood

After spending the rest of the day at Hillwood, and half of the next day as well, we motored off in convoy to our next destination; Ben Lomond. The Ben is quite high, located at over 1,500 metres above sea level, and this is where we experienced the coldest weather on the trip. We had all of our limited Queensland tropical cool weather gear on, and we still froze. At 6pm, Lee was shivering while wearing the sum total of his clothes for the trip: three thermals, a T-shirt, a light Polartec 100 jumper, and cotton three-quarter pants. I am afraid that coming from the subtropics we simply are not prepared for cold weather.

Lee and Neil enduring the 40 minute boulder hopping session on the way up to the start of the hundred metre cracks at Ben Lomond. Pic by Phil Box

Ben Lomond is famous for its 2 and 3 pitch soaring crack lines. We were not disappointed as we gazed up on the marching diorite columns. Lee and I chose a grade 18 crack Barbe Di Vendetta, on which we got to the top of the first pitch before descending for the night. We did not want to face the 40 minute boulder hopping session in front of us in the dark. It was so bitterly cold that Lee seconded me up the sustained jam crack wearing thermal gloves. Tempting an epic, Neil and Jono forged on up Rajah (18) , to top out on their route as the light was dying around 9:30pm, to face the descent and walk-out in the dark.

Soaring crack lines on Ben Lomond

The next day while we waited for the air to warm up, we drove up to the ski village at the summit. I was awe struck by the road carving its serpentine way up through an incredibly steep scree slope. When we got to the ski village we could imagine that we were in far off Baffin Island at some Inuit village. The low coarse heath and heather were quite arctic in nature, and the combination of the weathered buildings and seeing Neil's Baffin Island slides, one could almost imagine that the deserted village could come alive with natives returning from a Polar Bear hunt.

Ski village at Ben Lomond. Pic by Phil Box

Half of the reason for heading up there was to show me snow for the first time. All we ended up seeing was some white shade cloth that would have to double as snow. Lee threw himself down on the shade cloth and proceeded to try to make a snow angel. While we were tooling around up at the top of the ancient rickety ski lifts, I just had to check out the winching mechanism for tensioning the lift cables.

Serpentine road from the ski village at Ben Lomond. Pic by Phil Box

Back down what seemed like a third world winding serpentine road which had been cut in an incredibly steep scree slope we geared up to do the 40 minute boulder hop mission back to Frew’s Flutes (the main crag) on the Ben. Lee and I jugged back up to our high point, and Lee took over the sharp end to dispatch his 30 metre pitch. I was handed the rack to top out on the supposed 15 metre pitch, only to need to continue up for around 40 metres. The quality of the rock on Ben Lomond is superb with awesome friction. The crack climbing is different from that which I have encountered at Frog Buttress, inasmuch as they are not straight splitters. They certainly split straight up and down, but when you place your hand within the crack, you find that the crack wends its way to form a sinuous crack that is perfect for hand jamming, and the offwidth sections tend to be much easier than on a perfect splitter crack.

Another view of Frews Flutes, Ben Lomond. Pic by Phil Box

Sadly our time on Ben Lomond was drawing to a close. We carefully abseiled off the top and cautiously pulled the ropes to avoid the fate of another party who had left a rope draped all over the cliff. I would be very afraid of losing ropes here in a high wind, a much better option here would be to walk off.

Our next stop would be Coles Bay, which boasts some outstanding hard granite sea cliffs. This location has easy trad and hard sport, so there is something for most climbers. The surging ocean heaves itself up on the low rock platforms to threaten the belayer on some of the climbs. I received multiple drenchings on one climb whilst belaying Lee. The cold Southern Ocean makes for a very uncomfortable belay when it surges up around one's knees and splashes up ones back, and sometimes right the way up to lick ones helmet. Of course this is the state that I found myself in when I had to second Blue Eyed Blonde (19), which I climbed clean with saturated shoes and white mud for a chalk ball.

Phil Box soloing Apline at Coles Bay

Neil took me around to rap in and do a 2 pitch crack climb that was just fantastic. Neil led the first pitch and quickly handed the lead over to me when he noticed that the top pitch was offwidth for half of its height. Before heading up the top pitch, we set up a top rope on a 23 which Neil worked the moves on and got clean on lead the next day when we came back with the other guys.

Whilst at Coles Bay, Marten Blumen joined us, and I am expecting to see some awesome photography from him.

We all trudged down to The Hazards, which are a chain of weathered granite domes. Route finding was a little problematic at first, and Neil was the first amongst our number to launch up a climb. From all the pathetic whimpering we heard coming down from him while he was on what should have been a straight forward easy climb, we all decided to go exploring some other area. Neil backed off and went searching for an area called The Underworld.

The apron below The Hazards at Coles Bay, The Underworld is behind the photographer. Pic by Phil Box

The Underworld is a sea level cave that was formed by waves crashing up into the bowels of the earth. The cave is fully 60 feet deep and there are a couple of routes that climb up and around the mouth of this cave. Neil proceeded to fall up this improbable line on the right. We were fortunate that in all the days we were in Tasmania the swell of the ocean was slight, or we may have had to curtail some of our climbing otherwise.

Neil Monteith (orangeoverhang) scampering around on the lip of the Underworld, Coles Bay, Frecinet Peninsular. Pic by Marten Blumen (martenb)

Whilst at Coles Bay, the camp we set up was nightly raided by Beastor, the gargantuan possum. This creature of the night would devour all the food scraps from Neil's pot and any other food left out. Beastor annoyed me so much one night with his gnawing on some uncooked macaroni, that I got out of bed and marched over to him and gave him a whack on the back, then put the macaroni packet away.

This account simply cannot be considered to be complete without mentioning Neil's cooking adventures. Neil was given the task of cooking up a huge noodle and veggie meal in his great, wooden handled wok. What he had forgotten, though, was that the wok's wooden handle spun on the shaft, with the consequence being that virtually the entire meal ended up on the ground. Neil shouted “This why I never cook, ever!” The rest of us were looking in every direction but the meal on the ground, and I neglected to even get the episode on film...DAMN!

Kathy was an angel the entire trip, and she has the patience of a saint dealing with all the admin. Nothing was too much trouble, and I found out that she loves going for cold water swims. This is something that I can`t get my head around, as I need to have the water around tepid tea temps before I can pluck up the courage to dip my toe in.

One of my first climbs at Coles Bay was an attempt on a grade 24, 45-degree overhanging hand crack. I failed miserably trying to pull the lip on slopers, but I had fun hanging around getting my pic taken hanging by all fours. We all agreed props have to be given to the first ascentionist, Queenslander Rob Staszewski.

Phil Box hanging by all fours in a hand crack at Coles Bay. Pic by Katherine Dicker.

Our next destination was the Tasman Peninsular. The first cliff was to be The Paradiso. Here we met Steve Hawkshaw and his lovely wife Catherine. They were down from New South Wales on a climbing holiday.

The first days walk was around 3 to 4 kilometres to the cliff, and the same on the way back. The walk was spectacular through low heath and banksias which closed in around ones waist and threatened at times to impede ones progress. The soft sand hills made for some slow going at times. We broke out of this onto the wave washed rocks where the salt spray had killed off all vegetation for a hundred feet above sea level. About half of the journey was across this moon scape of weathered rocks and the wave worn apron which descended down into the waters edge.

One could observe where the power of the Southern Ocean sweeps its mighty rollers up to dash their force onto the land. Only the toughest of rocks withstand the constant onslaught of mother natures worst. The Southern Ocean encircles the Earth and the roaring fortie's fearsome winds whip the ocean up into stupendous swells which ultimately crash into Tasmanias rugged coastline. I would love to see some of these great swells come ashore. Even with the calm conditions we encountered, the long slow swell would gather momentum and hurl itself into sea level grottoes and fountains of spray would erupt into the air near where we were belaying.

Neil Monteith crimping above the wave tossed platform at The Paradiso, Mt. Brown, Tasman Peninsular. Pic by Phil Box.

Some of the climbs at the Paradiso started off from wave swept platforms, and one would have to gingerly step across to get oneself established on a climb before the next swell and surf pounded in. There are some way steep, hard climbs busting up through the overhanging black, salt encrusted diorite. I scampered up a 21 and a 17 before being offered a chance to get caned on a steep 23. I think I will just take pics for a while.

At this stage of the trip, I was becoming familiar with Jon and Kent, so we all started to mix up the climbing partnerships so that someone was always on the sharp end. I love the social aspect of a climbing road trip. One really gets to know the other guys. I really did appreciate Jono's humour and even Kent's occasional spack attack. Neil as always was entertaining the whole time with his good nature. I can`t say a bad word about any one person!

The next day was the Friday after New Years Day. We decided to spend another day out at the Paradiso. Lee and I set off across the sand hills and heath after the rest of the guys, but soon lost sight of them. We found out later that we had gotten mixed signals and the rest of them went to the Parrot Shelf Cliffs, where as we went direct to the Paradiso.

Lee warmed up on the slabby 17, and I decided to repeat it wearing my sandshoes. Then it was my turn to lead, so Lee put me on something he considered to be near my limit, a steep overhung grade 21 sport route almost 30 metres long. This route was not in the guide book as it was pretty much a brand new route, evidence of which was the tick marks at some of the bolts. I must confess that I struggled, but I did eventually gain the onsight. The black diorite was spalling in places with chips flying off here and there. The rock was also a little slimy, which was the result of much salt encrusting the facets of every feature.

The warning signs were there as Lee had to continually duck and weave these flying spalling chips. I should have been more aware to the danger signs of us being on a new route. I thought that I was belaying sufficiently away from the fall line, but when Lee on lead displaced a rock with his foot after starting to crank hard through a crux, the inexorability of gravity took over and the ultimate meeting of rock and body was inevitable. Lee's desperate shouts alerted me enough so that I could twist so no hard bits of my body would get smashed.

The rock slammed into my ribs, breaking two or possibly three of them. As it hit me, I immediately became concerned about my kidney; later the doctor would dismiss that concern and alert me to the much more serious possibility of a spleen haemorrhage.

I can distinctly remember crying out in pain as the rock hit me, however I questioned Lee who was climbing and Jono who was standing right beside me, and they have no recollection. At any rate, the rock laid me out on the ground, but I did not lose consciousness and kept a hand on the belay end of the rope.

Lee called down that Jono should immediately assume the belay duties. I had the presence of mind to assist in the safe transfer of this duty, and after that was effected, I crawled over to the UHF radio and called up Neil, as he was just around the corner anyway. "Ouch!", much pain in the side. I did a thorough triage on myself, checking all my vitals, and when Lee got back down to the ground after completing the tick, I got him to listen to my chest to see whether he could hear any bubbling. I was concerned about the possibility of a punctured lung from the broken ribs. I then got him to look into my eyes to check for the correct dilation of my pupils. I tried to keep myself calm, and those around me as well. I felt all around my backbone, but only encountered pain at my broken ribs. I gave my kidneys and other vitals a good poking also.

The rock appears to not have hit square on, and there is evidence in the scratches that it did indeed scrape across me in its tangential interrupted flight. On its way down across my body, the rock gave me one last whack on my hip bone, and that may have been cushioned somewhat by my harness.

Phil Box showing off his war wounds. Pic by Marten Blumen.

Each and every person climbing with me that day was deeply concerned with my well being, and I could have called upon any of them to perform any task to effect my rescue. Indeed, if this rock had of been 4 inches towards my spine or my head, I may not even be writing this account today! This account may well have been a sequal to Pritchards caved in head from the Totem Pole.

Rock the size of a new born babies head, and the crunched section of rope from where the rock hit the rope. Pic by Lee Skidmore.

Even though I had any and every resource at my disposal (of which I am eternally grateful), I determined that I would like to try to make my way out under my own steam. I had many offers to accompany me, but I wanted the guys and girls to continue to have their fun, and for me to push my limits of self rescue. This is definitely not something that I would recommend anyone else do, and of course if my vital signs had exhibited anything out of the ordinary, there is no way that I would have attempted this. Fortunately we had 4 UHF radios with us, so I arranged for Lee to check with me every half hour or so.

The first problem I encountered was that I had to climb a 6 or 7 foot high rock step. Marty was with me till then, so we called for assistance, and with the help of three or four other bodies, I was soon up and over that. I left them all behind, and with an ungainly gait, I ambled off. I worked out that if I kept myself in balance, the pain would not hit me like a knife. I had to make my way up a steep sand blow, and that was a serious mission with me taking short steps that would slide almost down to where I came from.

It took me a couple of hours to make my painful way back to the vehicle, but as it was a reasonably popular tourist track, and the fact that it was a holiday, I passed a few people and told them my story in the hope that if anything happened and I collapsed, they would find me on their way back from their lookout spot. I was confident that nothing of the sort would happen, but it is nice to have sufficient back up plans. Of course, the sensible and responsible thing to would have been to take someone with me, thus ensuring that we did not transfer the responsibilities of my injured self upon someone else.

I had to wait for an hour or so for the guys to get back to the vehicle, so I tried to lay down on the back seat. Big mistake, much pain getting down to an awkward position, and then when I tried to get comfortable, I was wracked with pain. I then tried to get up, which was even worse. My arms and legs were flailing about trying to get a comfortable purchase, so I must have looked like an octopus out of water. I eventually jammed a hand underneath the front passenger seat head rest, and combined with a sloper edge on the back seat, I pulled myself up. I then reckoned that it was better to just take the pain and walk around in the car park.

I would like to suggest that all the walking I did may have helped keep me from stiffening up. There is nothing like blood flow for healing, of course the disclaimer to that is that if one had an internal bleed, then one should not be moved. If there was an internal bleed, then a lot of blood could be pumped out of the vascular system and into the abdominal cavity, with the accompanying symptoms of nausea, pain and bloating.

We returned to the camp where we had set up at a campground that boasted coin in the slot showers. I cleaned myself up, then Lee and I headed the 70 KMs into Sorrel to the medical centre for a check up. The doctor who examined me related that one of his best mates was one of the guys who had died on Mt. Cook a few days before. He was certainly sympathetic and familiar with climbing related injuries. As I stated, his greatest concern was for an internal bleed of the spleen. The spleen is an extremely vascular organ, meaning that there are an enormous amount of blood vessels contained therein, and rupturing this organ is a very serious thing. The other thing that can happen is that the spleen itself can be bruised, setting up a bleed within the organ. Either way this is something that you do not want to happen.

The location the rock hit me in the side, at the base of my ribs, is the classic spot for a spleen injury. The doc poked and prodded, and so did I. It was decided that it was unlikely that my spleen had been injured such that it would bleed. I do believe that I got off very lightly.

I spent an uncomfortable night in camp, and not wanting to be left behind, decided to try to make it out to the Moai. This formation is a stand alone pillar of rock similar to the world famous Totem Pole. The Moai is somewhere around 25 to 30 metres high and stands outside the northern peninsular of Fortescue Bay on the Tasman Peninsular. The Moais big brother the Totem Pole stands hidden behind the Candlestick on the southern peninsular on Fortescue Bay.

Lee Skidmore (manacubus) preparing to rap down to the rock shelf that accesses The Moai. Pic by Phil Box

I ambled the 5 or so kilometres out to the rap chains that lead down to the rock shelf that the Moai stands on. I never even considered that I would be fit enough to rap in, so I did not even attempt the task. I set myself up at the top and took a bunch of pics and video of the guys and girls having fun. When I got sick of hanging around, I sauntered back from whence I came, taking lots of background shots. It is not often that one takes the time to marvel at all the little things, and some not so little. I checked out some great forest giants that had been blown down in some recent Antarctic icy blast. I also marvelled at the grove of ancient tree ferns. I saw the bones of an old ship that had been scuttled in the bay to form a breakwater.

I listened to the birdsong, and gaped at the Banksias flowering. I set up a self portrait on the swinging bridge. I would highly recommend someday everyone slowing down and not hurrying to the crag, you would be surprised at what you can see along the way.

Collage of the walk back from the Moai. Pics by Phil Box

The next day was home day, so we got Lee, Marty, and myself into Hobart where we took the car through a car wash hoping to disguise the scratches that Lee managed to get on the car from a 4WD adventure gone slightly wrong. It didn`t do anything, and how could one disguise a stone chip in the windscreen. Lee handed the keys over at the counter at the airport, and they weren`t overly concerned; all they wanted was the keys on time.

We got to the check in counter with heaps of time to spare, and I asked for the window seat once again. I love the window seat, I pretty much sit glued to the view out the window. The flight home was rough, I could see the wings flapping like some great prehistoric bird, but I was having a ball!

Wouldn`t you know it, when we got back to Brisbane, we encountered a tropical downpour and the typical humidity of Queensland's capital. Oh yes, I still haven`t told the missus about my injury, as she isn`t back from her holiday down on the coast at Surfers Paradise. Oh man, am I gunna cop it when she finds out! Nah, only kidding! She would rather not know about stuff like this over the phone. She will hug me, I will go "Ouch!", and then she will ask what I`ve done to myself. She will then have an excuse to baby me. DAMN! I think I should go back`s all good!

Thanks for an awesome time---Lee, Neil, Cathy, Jono, Kent, Marty, Steve and Catherine.
Thanks to all of you guys for being concerned for my welfare!


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