Party: Tim Vollmer, Bjorn Sturmberg, Tim Gastineau-Hills, Saul Richardson, Kosta Seiler and Sky Reidy
UPDATE: Since doing this trip I have been contacted by Graeme Holbeach, who did the first ascent of Rock Pile Pass in 1988, to tell me the pass we did is not the true Rock Pile. We will do the real pass soon, but be aware this is a common confusion shared by several publications related to the passes of Narrowneck.
The plan was for an early start to allow us time for the ambitious attempt on four of the lesser visited passes off Narrowneck. It would have worked perfectly if I hadn’t convinced T1 to stop for breakfast, making us fashionably late. The rest of the crew were already at the turnoff to Glenraphael Drive and with a stunning blue sky they were champing at the bit to get moving.
Narrowneck is an amazing rock peninsula, projecting about 13kms south from Katoomba, just a hundred metres or so wide in the middle, lined by near-impenetrable cliffs which are broken in just a handful of places. It is arguable the birthplace of Australian bushwalking and is still the main entrance to the Wild Dog Mountains, much of the Coxs River, the High Gangerang and beyond to Kanangra.
While many of the passes are exposed in places, and are often completed with the use of an abseil, I don’t believe you can really call it a pass unless it can be completed without relying on ropes. For that reason our route chose to go up two of the more difficult passes, making the climbs slightly simpler.
Setting off from the locked gate we followed the old track to Diamond Falls, pausing to watch the glistening waters plummet towards the Megalong Valley. From here we continued on towards Redledge Pass, which was first used by oil shale miners more than a century ago.
The tops are zigzagged with tracks of varying quality, for varying uses, and we ended up on one that looked particularly well used (probably by rock climbers) which unfortunately seduced us into travelling much too far on it because of the thick scrub either side. Eventually we admitted the mistake, pushed off and moved down towards Corral Creek, from where the pass begins.
We’d overshot the proper gully by several hundred metres, so were forced to bash our way down through the cutting-grass-filled swamp to the creek. It was tough going, but eventually became rather pretty before the small stream plunged down an impressive waterfall. We went left, looking for a way down, and after crawling along wombat tracks through thick scrub on an exposed cliff edge eventually found a rather pleasant crevasse that led back down to the creek.
Soon we were through the thick ferny undergrowth and at the red shale ledge that the pass is named for. We had a quick glance through the log book (leaving it unsigned in true Fat Canyoner style) before following the path along the ledge. Across from us the spectacular rock face ran north, broken only by an amazing cavernous indent which I’m sure has inspired more than a few climbers.
Once down below the cliffs we chose to skirt along to Rock Pile Pass, rather than head lower into the valley, soon coming to the nose where a short scramble quickly had us at an amazing lookout. We paused to survey the next two passes across the valley, Mitchells Creek and Black Billy Head, and remove some extra large leeches, before moving up the ridge to the crux of the pass.
We had a quick look around, but soon realised that for the next section a rock climb couldn’t easily be avoided. While it wasn’t difficult, it was very exposed. Thankfully having two keen climbers in Bjorn and Kosta meant that a route was soon pioneered and a top belay set up with my 6mm handline and a tape harness.
At the top a few more fat leeches were discovered, with Bjorn flicking a particularly healthy specimen over the edge as Sky began to climb. Amazingly the little sucker managed to grab hold to her bum as she clung several metres above the ground, then sneakily crawl up her back under her shirt. T1 and Saul, having seen the landing, had to come up with a quick story for why they were roaring laughing, letting Sky get to a safer spot before telling her to check under her shirt where the parasite was just getting settled in.
Once at the top we saw a small gully just to the south which looked like a promising alternative to the rock climb, but being short on time we didn’t examine it further and began pushing through the thick, trackless scrub this part of Narrowneck is known for.
This part was probably the slowest, toughest 800m of the trip, and by the time we reached the fire trail (within metres of it dropping down to the true neck) we could have kissed it.
We made quick time towards Fools Paradise, heading off to the right into a side gully that flowed down to our destination: Mitchells Creek. A short way down the slope, in a section of particularly thick undergrowth, Kosta and Sky decided they were going to bail on the rest of the trip and simply head back along the firetrail.
The rest of us pressed on, following the creek down until the point where Mitchells Creek plunges down a waterfall into a pretty, almost canyon-like section between two impenetrable cliff walls. It was at this point things started to go seriously awry.
I was relying on the topographic maps and somewhat vague descriptions included in The passes of Narrow Neck, an otherwise wonderful book put together by the Bush Clubs’ Michael Keats and Brian Fox. While much of the information is brilliant, they had unfortunately done this pass from the bottom, which is much simpler. The several hundred metres of unbroken cliffline can only be passed by climbing down a coachwood tree with a dozen metal spikes nailed into it; a tree which is easy to spot from the bottom but very tough from above.
While the notes said the tree, which is actually the most vital part of the pass, was on the western side, the route marked on the topographic map showed the completely opposite. Unfortunately it would take us a few hours to confirm that fact.
After our first failed foray on the western side of the creek (as per the notes) we could see a storm front blowing over, so decided it was an opportune time for lunch, finding a nice overhang. In the time it took to cook up some noodles it had gone from sunshine to heavy rain. We chuckled at the thought of Kosta and Sky walking in this, but assumed they’d pause in one of the small overhangs along the route. Unfortunately they’d stopped for lunch earlier, and were walking again by the time the heavens opened.
When the rain passed we decided to try again, this time following the route marked on the map, which distinctly showed it following a ledge between two cliffs on the eastern side of Mitchells Creek, past a small side creek then down a break in the cliffs. While the side creek had a pretty waterfall, and we happily drank the fresh, clear water, all we discovered were some interesting rock climbing areas (along with a rockclimbers pass which would shorten the whole journey). In fact, the cliff below us only grew taller and more impenetrable.
Finally, after much cursing of the map and the authors, we decided to completely disregard it, move back to the western side of the creek and see what we could find. It was slow going and we kept being rebuffed by cliffs that at times allowed you to get tantalisingly close to getting down. At several points we could have done a simple abseil, but I was determined to find the actual pass.
Finally, with the time approaching 5pm, I made one last attempt down a series of casurina covered ledges, past where I thought it could conceivably be. The loose needles made the simple route seem a little dodgier, and I was considering turning back until I saw what looked like signs of previous foot traffic. Sure enough, a short distance further along the ledge and there was obvious signs of wear leading to a large coachwood tree. This was it!
The others quickly joined me, and we raced down the spikes into what is a beautiful little grotto, with a pretty creek and fern-covered cliffs on all sides. It was so much more lush and green that the area just metres above. Knowing time was short we abandoned our plans for Black Billy Head and headed north through the bush.
Suddenly we spotted a flash of white through the trees. Thinking we must be imagining things we approached and discovered a wonderful little farm, completely isolated from the world. Enjoying the break from the scrub we crossed the fence and walked through the open grassy paddock. The owner came out, alerted by their dog, but waved us on once they realised we were just some nutty bushwalkers desperate for a shortcut.
From here it was a solid firetrail bash. With twilight not far off we race along to the junction with the Six Foot Track before again turning off just on dark along the track to Devils Hole. This is by far the easiest pass in this part of the mountains, and was a pleasant treat after a long day, although the dark did lead us to stray onto a narrow ledge at some point (one which I have no recollection of seeing in daylight!).
At the top Bjorn raced ahead with car keys while the rest of us moved at a more subdued pace. At the top of Glenraphael Drive I decided I was done, sitting down to wait for the others. In no time Bjorn was back and we raced into Katoomba desperate for a feed.
Unfortunately it was almost 10pm, and just about everything was shut, so we dived into the pizza place just before closing time. The staff seemed a little bemused as we took out Volleys off, freeing several leeches, before sitting outside to eat. Best of all was some rather amusing local entertainment in the form of a middle-aged woman in a dressing gown who first beat on the shop door then abused us when she realised she’d arrived after closing.
We headed home to rest our sore bodies, excited by an incredible day of exploration that had taken us through three amazing and very different passes, not to mention an incredible mix of landscapes and plant communities. Best of all there were now just two passes left on my to do list, which will definitely be a priority this winter.