By Lewis Foster @lewfos67
The story of two friends Climbing The Classic Tasman Peninsula Pillars - The Moai, The Totem Pole and The Candlestick - in a single day.
This story starts with an unforecasted rainshower, a tent zip opening in the middle of the night and some Soggy Spooning.
To live up to my nickname of Alpine Lew, traveling fast and light I ambitiously decided to Biivy out at the Moai to save weight. I walked in alone and met Liam and his partner Elle just in time to hit the sack in preparation for our big mission the next day.
Within an hour the rain started, it was soon apparent this was no passing svitz and wet was the word for the night. After an hour using my z-mat as a makeshift shelter, I approached Liam and Elle’s tent in defeat. Before I could even unzip the thing I heard Liam joyously declare “Is that a Soggy Lew coming to join us”. Leaving my soaking sleeping bag outside I snuggled in and managed to steal a few hours of sleep.
Liam and I have only been climbing together for a year but our ‘belaytionship’ is at the point where a bit of soggy spooning is not entirely out of the question. Liam is a strong thuggy sport climber, often found pushing his limits on a textbook Nowra sloper or a heinous Blueys crimp. I myself came to climbing from the Traddy end, learning to climb on lengthy alpine routes in Chamonix. While we dabble in each other's realms, the thing we both share that truly makes our missions memorable, is the love of an envelope pushing epic.
It was Liam's 21st Birthday and my present to him was three summits of three of Tasmania's most famous Sea stacks, The Moai, The Totem Pole and the Candelstick. We had been planning for months to bag, in a single day, what Liam had been calling the “three salty sea dogs”. With Liam departing Tasmania and me heading to Federation peak the next day we literally had a one day weather window. While the condies were not perfect we had no other option than to go for it .
A little groggy and soggy from the night before we were acting like a couple of tent babies. This state of mind is often induced by the warmth of a sleeping bag during cool early mornings in the outdoors. I've always said to never make a decision about your day until you are out of your tent with boots tied.. Uncertain if the rock would be dry or our mission doomed before it even started we slept in until 8:30am. Finally the tent babies gained some courage, got up, put our harnesses on, and started the approach to the Moai.
Once moving there was no slowing us down. Like a flick of a switch we were on. We arrived at the Moai rappelling station and in the magic morning light laid eyes on our first salty sea dog. The pillar looked incredible, the rock was dry and the mission was on.
The Moai was the obvious first choice of our pillars as it was the easiest to bag quickly. TO access the Moai you rappel about 50m, walk over to the pillar, climb one pitch, Summit, rappel off and then ascend your initial 50m rap line. Job done.
We chose to climb the grade 22 mixed Pitch “Burning Spear.” Liam gave me the lead. This mega classic was the perfect dose of movement, excitement and a bit of fear to make us forget the cold reality of the night before. Within the hour we had bagged the first dog andwere back on the walking track with the hour return journey to Fortescue bay in our sights. It was easy to feel a little excited about being, numerically at least, one third of the way through our mission, but we both knew that the most challenging dogs were yet to come.
To our great surprise Elle (also no longer a tent baby) had packed up the tent and prepared Birthday pancakes for us. Now I can’t claim to be a relationship expert but I do know if someone makes you birthday pancakes then sitting down and enjoying the meal is the least you can do.
So after a longer but more delicious break we were back on the trail at 10:50am heading out to Cape Houy for the bulk of our day’s work. Liam and I happily chatted logistics for the Tote and the Stick making good time on the travelator that is the Three Capes Walking Track. I knew that with the day slipping away from us we had little room for faf on the remaining pillars. Any stuck ropes or a misstep in route finding could lead to benightment or failure.
The Totem pole and the Candlestick are located right next to each other. Both are surrounded by water and require differing amounts of shenanigans to reach and escape from without getting your gear soaking wet.
I felt that the Totem pole would be the crux of the day as it was the most sporting grade, Liam more wisely was wary of the Candlestick assuring me that it would be the meanest dog to bag due to its size and quality of rock.
We chose the Totem pole as Dog number two for a couple of reasons; One, the climbing was more difficult so best to tackle this while we felt less fatigued and two the access and escape was much easier.
To access the Tote one must simply rappel down a 60m fixed line and at the sea level Kick off the cliff and swing across a 5m gap to the Pole. Once the leader has successfully grabbed a chunk of the Tote and clipped into the bolts the seconder can rap down the line and join them without having to brave the Swing. In our scenario I was the second on the rappel so I could then lead the First pitch, Deep Pay (grade 24). This left Liam to lead the crux pitch, the 45m Ewbank Route graded at 25 all the way to the summit.
Having watched Liam successfully brave the Swing, I rappelled down to join him. The sound and intensity of the swell was immediately obvious. I felt my heart rate rise as I joined Liam on a hanging belay above a frothing,churning ocean created by opposing swell meeting deep in an ocean channel and colliding at just the right moment to send up a white plume of water.
Liam suggested I get climbing if I wanted to stay dry, he put me on belay and as I went to unclip my safety a perfectly timed jet of water exploded from directly underneath. Hours later, Liam would tell me that the look on my face at this moment was the highlight of his day.
With wet boots, hands and chalk bag I started up Deep Play. Launching into the mixed 24 to escape the ferocity of the ocean is a surprisingly good feeling.
With a couple cams and a few bolts between me and the churning seas I felt calmer and began to focus on the climbing. I was not disappointed. It was soon apparent that these pitches deserve every ounce of the hype that surrounds them. To be climbing at my limit in a place as ridiculous as the Totem Pole is a dream come true so by the time we were on the half way ledge we were frothing with excitement. Liam led the final pitch in perfect style and I followed happily with the security that a top rope provides and the ever expanding distance between us and the ferocious swell. To escape the Totem Pole we set up a “Tyrolean Traverse “sing our rappel line, still fixed to the mainland and shimmied across the rope like a couple of cat burglars escaping the crime scene, another sea dog secured in the bag.
The time was now 4pm. With only 4.5 hours of light left and still the largest pillar to go we did not have much time for celebrations. If we were going to pull off this Heist we needed to move quickly. Liam was right. The Candlestick was the cru of the day for many reasons.
- You had to swim across to reach it
- It was 100m+ long requiring four pitches of pure trad climbing
- The Tyrolean Traverse off was 40m long with a 25m difference in altitude between each side
The logisitcs were stacking against us but determination and confidence moved us forward to rappel down into the channel for the second time. To bag the final dog, someone was going to have to brave the swell and swim across to the Candlestick. This would be done naked with a rope wrapped around their waist. They could then use the rope to set up a line the seconder could shimmy across with the climbing equipment and the leader's clothes.
I had put my hand up for this swim earlier in the day and would have been shitting my pants at the prospect of swimming across the pit of chaos that lay before me, but my pants were already off. We had not looked at any ocean forecasts for the mission as today was the only possible day for both of us. Realising that this might be the single stupidest situation i've ever willingly put myself into, I waited, butt naked, on the rock for Liam to give me a signal of a break in the swell. After a minute or so and a couple of waves to the face Liam started screaming NOW, NOW, NOW!
I dove into the water, KIcking and flailing with all my might across the channel. 1, 2, 3, 4 seconds passed, I closed the gap and grabbed some kelp on the other side and turned to regard the short climb before me to the safety of the bolts when BAM! “White Room”, A wave hit me from behind. My kelp snapped and I found myself flailing underwater in a desperate attempt to find something solid. As the wave dropped down I spied a triangular rock offering a solid grasp onto the Candlestick. Then BAM, a second wave hits and I lots all sight, I grasped to find the rock, all the while the rope around my waist pulling me backwards. I’m starting to panic. After a few moments the wave lowers me right into the rock I had seen moments before. The swell calms and I look at the wet, smooth slab that lies between me and the bolts. Fear really kicks in as I realise that this is not the easy scramble I had envisioned. With the speed of a man who knows he could be taken out at any moment I smeared up the slab finding shallow hollows for my feet carved out by the sea.
I had made it, I was at the bolts, and I was shaking with fear. Liam could hear it in my voice as we set up the Tyrolean Traverse and he joined me with all the gear. He sheltered me with his arms as I redressed, re-racked and finally clipped into the bolts with my safety.
It took the next three pitches of trad climbing to calm me down and bring me back from the fear I experienced during that crossing. As we ascended further and further away from the ocean I could feel the fear leaving like a drug wearing off. The rock was sound, the climbing fun and the gear was readily available. Liam led pitch two in style and was pleased with his performance. Pitch three required some clever rope work in order to bring up the tyrolean/abseil line around a tricky corner.
At the ‘Thank Christ ledge’ with one pitch left to go it was 8pm. We had an hour of light left and it had started to rain. We were both feeling the fatigue at this point and with one pitch standing between us and a bag full of dogs we were uncertain of what this rain would bring. Thankfully, unlike the previous night, it was just a passing svitz and soon stopped.
Liam led up the last pitch and we prepared to bag our final Salty Sea Dog. . “Can we summit holding hands?” Liam asked. Laughing, I accepted and we finished our mission in style. Yet every alpinist knows the summit is not the end of the journey. We still had to get off the thing. The final Tyrolean Traverse posed much more difficulty than the first but after careful planning and double checking our work (don't trust your tired self) we made it off the third pillar Three Salty Dogs in the bag and two on the hoof.