Abseiling

Abseiling Africa Wall and Kilimanjaro

Party: Tim Volmer, Joshua Hill and Kosta Seiler

Two weeks earlier our abseiling trip had been cut a little short by howling icy winds that made a couple of the planned drops too complex and dangerous to be worth doing. We’d still managed to abseil into Devil’s Hole, which was a blast, as well as visiting the incredibly short Whores Bed Canyon nearby, but two of the descents that really excited us — Africa Wall and Kilimanjaro — had to be postponed.

But like so many aborted parts of trips, that gnaw away at the back of your mind, these two abseils called to me with their siren song. They also proved to have a bit of a continued curse, throwing up some serious challenges that reminded us of a few lessons that at times are forgotten (in this case, check your ropes before you leave home, always check the pull down before the last person comes down, and regularly practice your prusiking, but more on all that later).

T2 looking down into Devils Hole from the chockstone (photo Joshua Hill)

So with a free weekday morning, Joshua, Kosta and I converged on Katoomba with a stack of ropes and some grand plans. These two drops were to be the start, then based on time we’d squeeze in one of the other nearby abseiling trips (or even a possible final winter canyoning trip through Empress Canyon).

We harnessed up at the car, threw the ropes on our backs, and set off down the Devils Hole track. Here we were met by a wasteland — with a six-foot-wide gash carved through the bush by NPWS rangers preparing for a hazard reduction burn. (Hopefully they come back and fix the track, otherwise I can see the serious erosion problems getting MUCH worse.)

We turned off soon after the track started dropping down the deep slot that is Devils Hole, heading to the right where we sidled the cliffs out to the chockstone which we climbed onto to admire the view down. After a few more scrambles on the small pagodas nearby and we set off to the nose where we knew our first abseil — Africa Wall — was situated.

The blown out section of my 60m Tendon static rope (photo Joshua Hill)

With a chain, bolts and even a tag containing the rope length, it was all looking very simple, so we started coiling the ropes ready to throw them down and set off. We had the first done and had moved onto my 60m Tendon rope when suddenly we came to a very dodgy section. Looking closely at it, it was as if the sheath was still intact, but the core had completely blown out inside it. There was no way we were abseiling on a rope like that, so we had to change plans.

Rather than abort the trip we decided it was a good chance to practice our SRT (single rope technique). We cut the rope where it had blown out, then tied the two halves so we could still use the full length as our pull cord. The chain anchor meant we didn’t even need to leave behind a maillon to set up a ‘biner block on the abseil rope.

No one had a lighter, so we made a small fire to melt the freshly cut ends (photo Joshua Hill)

The rest of the drop went smoothly. A nice, clean sandstone wall, dropping about 30m to a narrow nose, with impressive cliffs all round. From down here you can work out the reason for the name of the abseil — with the rock face looking (loosely) like a map of Africa.

We clambered through the scrub right out to the very nose, which offered some pretty impressive views down, before returning to the base of the abseil and following the footpad off to the side, where the next anchor was.

T2 abseiling the relatively clean Africa Wall (photo Joshua Hill)

Kilimanjaro is by far the more impressive abseil. An awkward, low start off another chain, with a short walk down a flat face and around a corner before a huge free-hanging drop into the valley below. A 45m abseil in total, in many ways it felt higher.

I was first down, and had to pause part way to sort out the ropes which were tangled in the tree tops. It didn’t take long, and soon I was landing on a mossy boulder, while the cliffs towered high above. Again the abseil’s name became obvious. Kilimanjaro is the roof of Africa, and there was a pretty impressive roof on the flat overhang high above.

Kosta admiring the view over the Megalong Valley from the nose (photo Joshua Hill)

Part way down I’d called to the others to be careful with the rope placement, given you have to go around a corner and don’t want to have the rope slide along the sharp, angled edge. They’d listened to that, and avoided that issue, but by changing the angle it had caused the chain to clamp down pretty hard on the rope right on the edge, which caused a fresh problem for us.

With Kosta and Joshua both down, and everyone feeling pretty elated by the spectacular drop, we went to retrieve the ropes. A big pull… nothing. So down the slope I went, looking for a better angle. Still nothing. Kosta joined in, for added strength. More rope stretch, but still no movement. Crap!

We fed the ropes through the trees to the side, hoping it was just the friction from the corner causing our problems, but the trees limited how far we could go, and there didn’t seem to be any difference in the pull.

Kosta prusiking back up Kilimanjaro (photo Joshua Hill)

Finally we decided we needed a new plan. The easiest would probably have been to send one person back to the car, where we had spare ropes. They could then redo the first drop and fix the second, but that was hardly the most impressive move. The truly hardcore option was a massive 45m prusik back up the single strand of rope.

Joshua volunteered, but after slowly getting a couple metres from the ground he decided it was perhaps a bit too ambitious, so he came back down and Kosta took over.

Unlike Joshua and I, Kosta had done a fair bit of prusiking recently, and his prusik cords were a more optimal length, so it was instantly a bit easier. He also decided to use a single ascender that Joshua had on his gear loops, which was also useful. We did provide a bit of assistance from the bottom, tying the rope off to the ground to provide a constant tautness and to stop him swinging around.

Pausing to throw the pull-down rope into a gap in the trees with a better angle (photo Joshua Hill)

The higher he climbed, the more impressive the feat seemed, and the more enjoyable it was to watch (not to mention to not have to be doing)!

Eventually Kosta got to the top, where he rejigged the anchor and the ‘biner block, reset the rope, had us test the pull down, then set off on the impressive abseil for a second time.

Of course it pulled cleanly this time, and we soon had the ropes coiled up and on our backs for the walk out.

Continuing to prusik up the stuck rope (photo Joshua Hill)

Back at the cars we decided that there wasn’t time for another set of abseils, so we set off to Leura for some good quality burgers and one of Joshua’s home brewed ginger beers. Both were great, and pretty undeserved given the easy day we’d had (well, the easy day two of us had had).

So what is the upshot? Africa Wall and Kilimanjaro are two great abseils, especially the second one. Combined with the two Devil’s hole abseils you end up with a really great abseil trip (four 30+ m drops, with lots of exposure and air time). Best of all, a fast group could combine them all with a trip down the nearby Boars Head abseils.

And for the more personal lessons… Always double check the condition of your ropes before you leave home (or at least before leaving the car). Double check the pull down before the last person abseils. Always carry prusiks, and know how to use them. Better yet, make some time to practice using them in case you need to in an emergency. And finally, where there is a chance that huge amounts of rope ascending may be required, take Kosta, because he made the very tiring job look ridiculously easy!

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