Wolgan Valley Climbing (or how Bjorn again almost died…)

It would take more than Anzac day falling in the middle of the week this year to deny us a long weekend, and in fact it just allowed for a 5 day long weekend. With so many days up our sleeves we headed out on the long drive to the spectacular Wolgan Valley.

Wolgan Valley from half way up Old Baldy

Depending on how the weather held out we would climb as much as possible or go canyoning if the sky broke. The  climbing in ‘the Valley’ is characterised by being equal parts spectacular and remote, invariably involving a schlep to get to the crag and with the climbs then being ‘old school tradventures’.

To get some feel for the experience see here. ‘Fever’ will be sure to get your hands sweating.

Mic (white helmet) climbing ‘Cactus’, amazing Wolgan solitude and exposure. Tradventure at its best!
Bjorn ‘jamming away to the hearts of millions’ on Sizzler.

After 3 days of incredibly climbing at a few of the classic crags, 1 rest day (of persistent rain) and a previous false start on the washed out day Mic and I decided to give one of the classic lines on Old Baldy a crack. It would be our last day in the Valley and due to the shortening daylight hours of autumn would require a fast ascent.

We chose the middle of the three classic crack lines up the upper face, ‘Excalibur’  and linked this with Secret Swinger on the lower cliff lines for the most direct route. Over the day we would gain almost 200 meters in 6 pitches (running 2&3 and 3&4 together to save some time). Even with our early rise and being at the base of the first pitch before 8 we still felt the pressure of benightment and made great time on the lower cliffs.

It was here that we made our first mistake, opting to share a single jacket (to be worn by the belayer) to save weight. Though my fingers were numb after climbing the first pitch I made this call from the first belay because I could see the sun approaching across the valley floor, incorrectly assuming it would reach all the way to the face of Old Baldy. Whilst strapped into my hanging belay on pitch 6, without the jumper and absolutely freezing my arse off, I again comforted myself by watching the suns rays in the valley far below, though by this stage I was under no disillusion as to the warmth the sun would be providing me that day.

Old Baldy from the Coke Ovens

With the exception of the numbing cold wind, the climb passed without major incident and was really quite spectacular! It was on the descent that things turned frighteningly sour!

The glorious peak of Old Baldy. the guide book does describe this appropriately before remarking ‘you made it with daylight?’

I am first going to run through what we did, then what we think we should have done differently.

So we’d made it to the top shortly before dark, (big plus!) but pretty low on energy after having spent over 6 hours on the face at the mercy of the (absolutely merciless) freezing wind. We quickly downed some more water, ate our lunches and discussed our decent options.

  1. We could either walk down via a series of gullies at the end of the face (in total over 5 kms) or abseil in multiple stages with the upper face having a purpose installed anchor at half way. The walk would have meant cold — with certain benightment — and pain as we had only the climbing shoes we’d been in for hours or our bare feet, and uncertainty — with the route also being somewhat unclear with no formed track for long sections. By the way we love the Wolgan because of exactly all these lacking conveniences/defacements. The only argument for the walk was the certainty of not getting stuck on the cold windy face if the ropes got stuck on the pull down. This was a major concern but in the end we went for it.
  2. We lap coiled the ropes and threw them over the edge in to the arms of the soaring wind. It seemed to have all gone relatively well and the proponent of abseiling went down first.
  3. Now at this point one of the ends of the rope got stuck off to the right and a little below the hanging anchor (maybe 5 m straight line). This was seen as a manageable complication and blissfully unaware, the second descended, whilst the first tried to flick the rope free. By the time we were together at the anchor the other tail was also stuck in the same proximity. In fact it was strung tight so the second could only barely make it to the anchor.
  4. Here we thankfully didn’t make an additional super massive error and undo the second from the rope. Else the rope would have flung off out of reach and it would have been game over. We would have had to wait out the night/days/nights until someone came looking for two frozen sacks of stupid hanging a few hundred meters off the valley floor in the eternal shade.
  5. After some discussion and hard thinking (hard as in hard truth rather than hard maths problem) we decided to send the abseil advocate-r across to free the ends on prussiks (or specifically triblocks).
  6. Once they had freed the fails they were now in for a large swing potential, off the seconds belay device that was still holding the rope over to the anchor. Thankfully it turned out that a bit lower there was an okay little ledge to climb back along. For this the second put them on belay so the belayed could focus on the climbing.
  7. Once returned a very very large sigh of relief was heard from all involved and the pull down thankfully went (unexpectedly) smoothly. The following 4 abseils all went smoothly in the rapidly darkening evening.

Finally back at camp we reheated and then inhaled some extremely delicious (in my memory particularly) falafel, bean left overs for dinner, packed up camp and drove home over the early ours of the morning. Your own bed never looked so good!

Now then, what did we learn?!? In the same order as above;

  1. It was probably the right call to attempt the abseil as we had enough rope to be able to make it to the halfway ledge even if one rope got stuck on the pull down.
  2. Critically we should have taken the time to empty the backpack of our climbing gear, put this on our harnesses and abseiled with the rope in the pack. One of us had this thought, knew how to, had previously used the technique but when push came to shove let the other throw the rope because he was too tired to press the point. BIG MISTAKE!
  3. The first down should have made sure the tails were free before letting the second descend. This would have in this case required staying on rope and going past the anchor to the trouble spot, then prussiking back up. Doing this would have made it clear even through the horrible wind that he was still on rope, and would have greatly reduced the swing potential (read potential for slicing rope on ironstone ledges during swing).
  4. Pretty glad we didn’t top it all off (better said end it) with losing the rope many meters out of reach!
  5. The second should have gone across. Again this would have significantly reduced the rope cutting swing potential. This didn’t happen because the second had been hesitant to commit to the abseil (and was not thinking straight). Still when you’re committed you’re committed and need to deal with it better.
  6. We got lucky to have that ledge. The abseil route is not a climb in itself and an impossible to protect face so we were entirely at the rock/chances mercy.
  7. We could have dealt with only one rope (that would have had to have been left behind) to get to the half way ledge and then do 70% of the walk down. This was my original major concern with the wind, but thankfully no more (major) complications arose…

Fundamentally we are reminded of how important it is to have contingency plans in place both personally on the trip but also with someone else at home! Who knows how long it would take dangling on the face of Old Baldy like a Christmas decoration before some distant relative went looking for the bodies by then surely an unpleasant site: like Christmas decorations at Easter. In this specific case we were lucky to have the rest of the climbing party that had left earlier that day and knew our plans, and importantly had a much better understanding of what time they were expecting a call and when to call for help.

Touchdown, back at the base.

By the time I looked over my photos later in the week all bad vibes had worn off and I again wondered why I ever climb anywhere else? And as long as one remembers that ‘Adventure is absolute misery looked back upon with great fondness’ and that ‘good judgment is learnt through mistakes’ I am looking forward to many more adventures in ‘the Valley’.

P.S. The title is a reference to this trip, and of course the infamous ABBA cover band.

One Reply to “Wolgan Valley Climbing (or how Bjorn again almost died…)”

  1. I rappelled in the Army with a Swiss Seat without problems, and enjoyed it every year, EXCEPT once. We finished our routine rappeling, and the Rappel Masters asked for volunteers to try optional Australian Rappelling. I said I was interested, but didn’t think I had the necessary hand and upper body strength, Showed him I had small hands with a size 4 ring finger and size 2 pinkie ring finger, 5’3 3/4 and weighed nearly 135. Rappel Master said didn’t make a difference. Told me to brake with right hand, holding rope at left hip, upper arm and elbow hugging torso. Over the edge and down I went, kept falling to right side when tried to control descent, ending up upside down in a Fireman Belay, suspended, could not get my legs back on wall, head and body completely inverted, slamming wall, belay rope super tight beneath ribs pulling toward my inverted head, lowered to ground.
    Brain addled, breathless (literally), rested a few minutes, regained my composure, tried again with same response, this time someone shouting “put her down she’s blue, she’s turning black…”, then the lights went out. Came to trying to get up up unsuccessfully, then thrown over someone’s shoulder and dumped gently in front seat of someone’s car, and driven back to quarters. Big deep circumferential bruise beneath the lower edge of my rib cage, painful to breathe or touch or move there, sat in warm bathtub shallow breathing until ran out of warm water, wondering if the belay rope had injured my aorta. Had to go on profile for PT for weeks until could breathe deeply and move about again. Years later I wonder what actually went down that day, my stomach is somewhat displaced on MRI
    and the sphincter between my esophagus and stomach is wide open with severe esophageal erosion from stomach acid, requiring lifelong medication wondering if it’s a coincidence or a Fireman’s
    Belay injury.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *