“Of these two rocks one of them reaches heaven and its peak is lost in a dark cloud. This never leaves it, so that the top is never clear not even in summer and early autumn. No man though he had twenty hands and twenty feet could get a foothold on it and climb it, for it runs sheer up, as smooth as though it had been polished. In the middle of it there is a large cavern, looking West and turned towards Erebus; you must take your ship this way, but the cave is so high up that not even the stoutest archer could send an arrow into it. Inside it Scylla sits and yelps with a voice that you might take to be that of a young hound, but in truth she is a dreadful monster and no one- not even a god- could face her without being terror-struck.” – Homer, The Odyssey
My entire existence hung from a piece of brass smaller than the nail of a pinky finger. The tiny piece of metal, connected to a thin sliver of aluminium wire, connected to a carabiner, connected to the rope was all that stood between me and the down-pointed nothingness of air. If the stopper wire ripped from the sliver of sandstone in which it was embedded, the force of my fall would rip out the tiny (the tiniest, in fact) of camming devices two metres below that. And when that pulled I would hit the ledge, bounce off and hit the ground twenty metres below. It seemed a paradox that in this moment more than anything in the world I wanted to be firm on the horizontal but right now I was thinking of every possible solution to keeping myself attached (somehow and with something) to the flaking cliff from which I hung.
With one hand, I began brushing litter from a band of shale at eye-level, burrowing through the choss in search of something solid wherewith to place another piece of useless, expensive metal. With each excavating motion of the hand, fragments off diaphanous stone disappeared into the night. My headlight shining through the darkness, I looked down at my bivy site below, rock particles showering downwards as though sucked down by some unseen vortex. With every rock I heard striking my haul bag, I wondered how my rope was faring beneath a shower of sharp conglomerate.
More and more I excavated. Digging, delving. Nothing solid. Just more choss. I turned my headlamp to the left and the right. The band of brittle rock extended the whole way along the cliff, a darker band of taupe beset against a tapestry of reddish-brown. Like some primordial line of same-coloured Tetris bricks, it constituted an entire sediment layer in the most fragile, flaking cliff in the Blue Mountains… the Dog Face. Unlike a completed line of same-colour Tetris bricks however, the shale band had not disappeared after completion.
I looked up at the rest of the route, a mighty, loose corner cruelly carved into a beautiful stone monument by ancient seas and centuries of wind and now a proud feature on one of the mightiest cliffs in the Australia. The route had been first climbed by John Ewbank, the father of Australian rock climbing in the 60s, towing along Mick Davis as his belayer. And now, fifty plus years later I was trying to solo this vertical sand dune with a second-hand eighty metre rope and a chestful of expensive metal. Ewbank had named the route Scylla, after the monster from Homer’s Odyssey.
I’d rope-soloed before… Bunny Buckets Buttress at Pearce’s Pass, Dunes Buttress and the Tiger Wall at Mount Arapiles. And I’d been spending a bit of time in the Bluies lately as well. John Price and I had done a pretty cool link up of Bunny Buckets (270m, 18/5.10b) and the West Face of Mirrorball (120m, 19/5.10c) in about eight hours in May and the Monday previous I had taken a monster lob after ripping a hold on the second-last pitch of an everything-but-free ascent of Hotel California (350m, 22/5.11b). All of these routes were sandstone too. But the Dog Face was a whole ‘nother level of sandy. It was literally a pile of choss – the remnant scar of a landslide a couple of decades ago – a playground for only the strangest of climbers… aid climbers.
Aid climbing goes hand in hand with the first rock climbing outings – bearded explorer types wearing hobnailed boots, hammering pitons into thin seams and threading home-made carabiners with hemp ropes doubled back around a scavanged car seat belt wrapped around the waist. You get the idea – these guys weren’t meditative, vegetarian types wandering around Fontainebleau with a bouldering mat. They were into getting up shit. In this golden age of climbing there was no such thing as a “crimp”. Sinking a good hand jam was as good as (you get the idea), scrounging about on your knees and belly was a valid form of mantling a ledge and shed-carved wood chocks were a legitimate prevention method against the leader falling to his death. In short, these guys had no technique but a lot of heart, they loved to grovel, hated the idea of falling (and who wouldn’t when you’re talking about wooden chocks as protection) and used any means to ascend. I could relate to these men. I enjoyed grovelling (because I did a lot of it), I hated falling and I often just gleaned satisfaction from topping out. John Ewbank was one of these golden era climbing men. His name was literally on the first ascent of every route on the Dog Face – constituting a grand total of more than a kilometre of choss climbed. Scylla, the crumbling corner on the far left of the Dog Face was almost an afterthought for a man like Ewbank. Sure, it had required five metre run-outs on knifeblade pitons, dubiously hammered into rock the texture of pizza crust, but this was nothing for Ewbank and whichever partner he had tricked into coming along for the day. His era of rock climbing wasn’t about chalked-up hands and fancy redpoint shoes. In the man’s own words: “it doesn’t really matter what you’re wearing on your feet when you’re shitting in your pants.”
And now here I was. Trying to repeat “Scylla”, one of Ewbanks’s Blue Mountains “classics” – here understood as proud lines which should never have been repeated. And I was trying to do it both solo and hammerless. Asking an aid climber to climb sandstone without a hammer was like asking a lumberjack to cut down a tree with a rasp. In Ewbank’s day a hammer was standard issue for a climber – along with the mullet and the moustache. Using the hammer, they would bury pitons into fused rock seams, nailing their way to the skyline and glory. In my day, with the thousands of dollars of equipment the aid climber had been duped into buying, climbing “hammerless” was the ethic. It didn’t leave ugly scars in the rock and ensured the cliff remained in pristine condition for the next ascensionist. I was also too cheap to buy a specialty hammer and too lazy to steal one of Dad’s and drill a hole in it.
As a vertical sand-dune, Scylla was the definition of poor-quality rock – the kind of poor quality rock that did not require “saving” from piton scars. Looking at the route from the ground it would be easy to surmise that I was the first climber on the route since Ewbank had put up the route since 1968. According to the guidebook however, the route had enjoyed a free ascent (that is, climbing with just hands and feet and a rope to catch your fall) which meant someone was even crazier than I was. I figured this would be the route’s first solo dalliance – not that this was particularly noteworthy… at all. Scylla was an ugly bitch and not something a normal person would want to climb… that much was certain.
The original Scylla, from Homer’s Odyssey was a six-headed, twelve-legged chthonic monster with three rows of sharp teeth in each head. Passing betwixt two cliffs within arrow’s range of each other, the sailors of passing ships would have to make a decision to hug alongside the cliff inhabited by Scylla or brave the whirling maelstrom of water, Charybdis, lying next to the cliff.
“Hug Scylla’s crag—sail on past her—top speed! Better by far to lose six men and keep your ship than lose your entire crew.” That had been the sorceress Circe’s advice to brave Odysseus on his way home. Needless to say, Odysseus had lost some of his sailors to Scylla’s maw.
I was making no progress with the choss band. There were too many geological eras to get through and I only had eighty years left of life. I would have to reach higher… higher than I could reach. I gulped. I would have to free climb this section… because I didn’t have a hammer. Thinking light thoughts I stemmed with my legs across the void, reached up and then back-stepped onto a higher hold. Wheedling my way into another stance from which I could place another piece… Another micro-wire. And the smallest of cams – a #0.1. In hindsight it seems ridiculous but I let out a sigh. A micro-wire was better than a shale band.
Above the crack became thinner again. A fused corner. Damn Ewbank and his pitons. I reached for a unique instrument of torture known as a cam hook. A cam hook is a type of aid hook which is inserted perpendicular to a vertical crack. When weight is applied to the other end, it torques downward and becomes cammed into the crack as long as body weight remains evenly applied to the piece. All this occurs while the aid climber prays to the Greek gods for mercy. Hera wasn’t listening to Odysseus’ prayers again, because I was still locked in Scylla’s grasp.
Standing on the cam hook I reached for the carabiner of microwires, fiddling another one into the crack. I was thinking about hammers again. Hammers and pitons. With the rope tat borne by every soloist and rack full of metal accoutrement dangling about my chest and waist, I felt like one of Odysseus’ sailors trapped in the folds of Scylla’s necks.
Too much crap to carry, I thought.
I eyed the micro-wire in the crack, wondering how and why it was supporting my body weight. I stepped higher on my aider and higher again. The wire wriggled. I held my breath, awaiting the plunge. Small granules of sand fluttered out of the seam as though from some unseen half-broken hourglass. It was letting me know time was running out. Time was running out. I’d been stuck on this pitch for two god-damned hours.
Two pieces later and I had mantled a small ledglet, facing up against another impossibly thin seam. I hooked three times off the ledge, aware with every metre gained that if one piece blew I would hit the ledge. It was an awful situation really.
Finally, as I turned left, better cracks appeared in the rock to fill with precious metal. I climbed methodically for the next half an hour. Place, test, mount, climb, repeat. I reached a small rooflet and set a belay. “Small wires,” according to the guidebook. It was correct. Above and left however… I looked on in horror. Another shale band. And above that… another.
I looked down and to my right at a multi-tonned flake of rock, suspended in mid-air waiting to drop onto my rope and sever it in two. It seemed unfair that gravity had spent most of the evening doing its best to rip me, a mere seventy-five kilo man from my perch, when a giant rock ten times my weight was allowed to remain impossibly suspended.
Who climbs this kind of rubble? I thought to myself. Oh right, me.
I’d had enough for the evening. I wanted to be on flat ground again. That was all I could think about. Flat ground… and bed. I had packed light though (to make pack hauling easier), so bed tonight was a jumper, a silk sleeping bag liner and the vinyl outer of my haul bag (just big enough to encase a toddler and/or my legs). But hey, suffering in a bivy was what it was all about.
I flicked off my headlamp and gingerly slipped into my silk liner. Winter in the Blue Mountains bit deep and cold, a gelid wind blowing from the east and across the wall. I wondered a few times if maybe I should wear a helmet while I slept too.
I woke again and returned to my highpoint. Time to proceed, I suppose, I said to myself.
A few moves later I was at a fixed wire and roof looking left at dubious looking flake. If I couldn’t onsight rope-solo a grade 24/5.12a move (which I definitely couldn’t) then I would be aiding this section. It was the free-climbing crux of the route. I tested the flake with a skyhook. It expanded, like a flag blowing in the wind. Then creaked. I actually heard it creak.
A song started playing in my head. The Victorian train safety ad… Dumb ways to die… so many dumb ways to die. (If you haven’t heard it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJNR2EpS0jw).
I thought about committing. But then, I also thought about how sad Ellie would be if the flake pulled. Or how disappointed Brendan would be when he didn’t have a partner for alpine climbing in New Zealand this winter. Or what the Army would say if one of their soldiers died in a “freak” (read as self-inflicted) cliff climbing accident. Or how angry Dad would be when he found out I had borrowed his car. Then I thought about all the money that I would have wasted on climbing gear if I died on some ridiculous choss pile like this.
I did what I knew was always inevitable. What I should have done five hook moves ago. I bailed. Fifty-five metres. That was all I had done. Like a broken Odysseus, I threw off my harness and sighed. I hadn’t been resoundingly flogged in a while. But this was a resounding flogging.
As I shouldered my bag and prepared myself for the long trudge up the Furber Steps to the top of the cliffline I looked back at the crumbly shape of Scylla.
How on earth did Ewbank climb that? I wondered.
Well… with a hammer and pitons, I remembered.
The line of Scylla (120m, 15/5.7 A2/C3+) on the Lower Dog Face marked in red. My highpoint was the roof section just before halfway.