The Return of The Original
Calmness should have come easily. The ingredients for it were all there: The pleasant alpine flowers, the drowsy afternoon sun and the sweeping views into the heat-shimmer of the Grose Valley.
Instead, I felt edgy sitting atop the storey-high rock tower which marks the start of The Original Route up Mt Banks, just a few hours' drive from the clamour of Sydney, Australia's largest city.
Chilled by drying sweat and with my back to the view, I stared wide-eyed upon the sandstone ripple that is the first pitch of this legendary Blue Mountains climb.
Scanning the pitch up to the crumbling overhang that marks the top, there did not appear to be a decent gear placement in its 25m length. I wondered how those pioneering Sydney Rockclimbing Club members had felt more than 52 years earlier when they had looked upon the rock, as they prepared for the first ascent.
How did they feel standing there in their Dunlop Volleys, a hemp rope over a shoulder and only a vague idea and inspiration to guide them? I wished I could ask one of them. Then I remembered... I could do just that.
The rustle of bushes marked the approach of the fourth member of our party, 76-year-old Enn Truupold. Back in January of 1953 Enn stood on this spot alongside Russ Kippax, Dave Roots and Owen Llewellyn as they readied to sculpt with sweat and inspiration a 350m+ route that defies and exceeds its modest Ewbankian label of 13.
While Enn had repeated parts of The Original Route a couple of times since the first ascent, it had only been up the three pitches to the first bivvy ledge. The reason according to Enn: “It was our frightful belay system that absolutely discouraged me from repeating The Original Route beyond the first ledge.”
Now, more than half a century on, Enn was confident enough for his second ascent of the line. But before I could ask about that moment when Enn had first led the first pitch of this behemoth of Blue Mountains routes, Hayden undercut the whimsy with a simple “You head up. ” Jolted back to the here and now, I anxiously racked up, tied on and placed hands on rock.
After the long slog in from Pierce’s Pass, it felt good to be on the simple rock. That feeling was only slightly dented when, more than 10m off the deck, I still hadn’t found a decent bit of gear. Still, as Hayden assured me, this pitch was only a grade 8. The trouble was that my overawed mind configured bigger numbers.
After a little while there was a place for a number two Friend. Further on, thanks to a bit of gardening, I placed in a shallow pocket the number four Friend that Hayden had advised me against bringing, but which I’d brought along anyway. This was quickly followed by a rock-spike runner, then the top of the pitch at a squat overhang.
Tied into one of the few bolts on this route, I brought Jim and then Hayden up, followed by our packs. I was around the corner searching for the next pitch when Enn apparently danced his way up the rock as he had done as a 24-year-old in 1953.
If Enn sashayed, I struggled. Unused to climbing while carrying a pack, I attempted the “fine climbing up the nose” of pitch two described in Warwick Williams’ essential guide, Rockclimbs In The Grose Valley. Deciding that an out-of-sight thrutch up a wet corner would be easier, I downclimbed and headed up the alternative only to be filled with disgust at my early-onset cowardice. Downclimbing a second time, I headed back to the nose.
The weighty pack felt weird as I adjusted my centre of gravity to its backward pull and climbed the delicate dinnerplate holds of the second pitch. With a good first piece of gear down low and a suspect second piece at my feet, I leaned backwards to tackle a bulge when my left handhold snapped off and I began falling backwards.
Inspired by the manky gear placement not to fall, I somehow held on to a marginal crimp and regained my balance. I bellowed and for the next few seconds I doubt that the Blue Mountains have sounded bluer.
Shaken, I continued on, but only managed one more move when a foothold shattered under my left foot. After a few more seconds’ contemplation and with hysteria mounting, I moved on. As I weighted my right foothold, it too chose to obey gravity.
Paranoid and with jitterbugging legs I gingerly finished the pitch, screaming for slack before lashing myself to a handy gum tree. Oblivious to my dramas, Jim joined me soon after.
I felt a little relieved when he mentioned that the pitch had seemed particularly difficult with a pack on. Then Hayden arrived and mentioned, in his typically casual manner, that he was going to pack-haul on that pitch.
Determined to climb out of stupidity and into some luck, I headed around to a wet, muddy corner, which I decided was pitch three. In many ways the twin brother of the pitch I had abandoned earlier, this dirt-choked crack with its glistening surface actually appeared inviting.
Starting on the drier left wall, traversing right onto the wet but more positive holds of the right wall, before burying some gear in the crack, I zig-zagged my way up to the mini-chimney at the top. Pushing off a solid-looking chockstone, I accidentally kicked it and several other fist-sized boulders down onto Jim, who dodged them. At the top and once again lashed to a tree, I brought Jim up.
Hayden followed quickly and announced that he and Enn had decided to bivvy for the night on the first ledge just above us. With the clock nudging 5pm, I calculated that our current rate of three pitches in three hours would mean a very dark finish if we attempted to continue up the next five pitches to the second bivvy ledge.
Happy for a reprieve from the “obvious fearsome looking route” of pitch four, I was also overjoyed to find water trickling down in a mini waterfall onto the ledge. Forsaking the purification tablet-treated Grose River swill in my water bottle, I sucked at the cold run-off and felt revived.
After some half-hearted scrub-bashing along the right side, as we looked for the original first ledge bivvy – with its walls of “paddled mud and rock” – we headed left past the base of the fourth pitch to a wide, sandy ledge that Hayden had discovered. With plenty of wood collected from around the area and as the long rays of the dying day turned the sandstone golden, we settled down in our bivvy bags for a night of food and tales of the short day’s derring-do.
Morning and the four of us rose with the sun, refreshed by sleep but sore from our rubble mattresses. By 8am we were at the bottom of the dramatic orange face and sloping corner that is unmistakably pitch four.
I was relieved when Hayden – on his fourth trip up The Original Route, including one solo journey – took the rope and led the pitch. Using the crack for protection he traversed right at the top and belayed using two bolts that he, Jim Croft and Bryden Allen had placed when they had made the first ascent of the corner crack. I climbed a direct route to the stance on our second rope while Jim seconded the pitch.
After a bit of sack-hauling Enn climbed the face on a similar direct line to the one I had followed. For the first time, I witnessed the economy of his climbing technique and mentally compared it to the vertical thuggery of my own.
With Jim and Enn belayed to a marginal chickenhead and suspect bolt Hayden offered me the rope for the overhanging, exposed pitch five. Enn commented that Russ Kippax had awarded this place a colourful nickname “On the first ascent we invented a very dodgy ‘double-jammed arsehole belay’,” Enn recalled. “Russ Kippax describes it in the SRC 50th Anniversary issue of Thrutch – ‘one thread belay, two jammed bums and some hope that (Russ) did not fall off’.”
My fear wasn’t the overhang or the exposure; it was simply the fear that the huge holds that promised safe passage would behave like their cousins and head south at my touch.
Packless, I stepped out and up and suddenly the bulge was below me. A small Friend, a slung chickenhead, another half-forgotten cam and a small runout, and then the pitch ended. Calmly Enn appeared above the bulge as he seconded. A bit of pack-hauling and Jim and then Hayden joined us.
Selecting a couple of cams to augment his minimalist rack, Hayden raced up the gentle and attractive-looking corner crack of pitch six. Jim cleaned, Enn followed and I brought up the rear. The fastest pitch we would do all day, it gave an insight into how people climbing with light packs could theoretically cover the route in a day.
A small wander around the corner to the right brought us to a small ledge in a gully and the grassy and weeping start of pitch seven. It’s here that Hayden’s confidence and experience began to show as he solo climbed the pitch and brought the rest of us up via a wet corner.
From there a short walk upwards brought us to the historical place, the second bivvy ledge. I can put it no better than the description in Warwick Williams’ guide of going “up to the bivouac bed” where a small, rusted cigar tin “contains the names of the great ones”.
Enn is a naturally quiet man but as he gazed at that precious piece of paper that bears his name and those of the other three members of the first ascent party, it was if he were momentarily gone. Perhaps he was back in 1953, when, as the piece of paper says, in a cheeky mock advertisement, Dunlop Supervolleys were the climbing boot of choice because they “stick like shit to a blanket”.
Beset by duelling cameras capturing the latest historical moment, Enn again signed the scraps of paper that comprise the logbook, as did we all. Now we were a part of history, at least in some small way, our names in a tiny tin that after 52 years is still big enough to carry the identities, poetry and banal commentary of just about everyone who has climbed this line.
After snacks and the last of our water, we set off in search of the last official pitch of the route. Hayden suggested we climb Warwick Williams’ alternative finish – a more pleasant end to the outing although comparatively new at a mere 30 years old.
At this point we donned our boots and scrub-bashed our way along a serpentine path up a ridge and then left until we came to a small, sodden overhang. Hayden once again led the way solo, belaying the rest of us up before we gained a tricky slab where he once again sprinted onwards before belaying the rest of us up to the base of pitch nine.
Hayden suggested that I should give it a go and once again I found myself racked up, tied in and heading off, this time following a hollow, detached flake.
The protection was good but I wasn’t convinced that the reverberating flake was solid. Spying a promised bolt on the headwall out to the left, I decided that it was too rusted and I was too off route to use it. Continuing upwards, I came to a small crack in the middle of the face. Looking closely I saw that it had a snakeskin draped on it. Momentarily captured by the incongruity of the shucked skin, the detaching of yet another hold beneath me brought me back to the job at hand.
A dodgy sling on the corner of the flake and another cam brought me to the top of the crumbling ledge that marked the end of the pitch.
By the time I had dismantled the belay, Hayden, Jim and Enn were already performing a roped scramble up the last bluffs barring our way to the top. We gingerly stepped around weird pipe-like formations and gritted our way up friable sandstone slabs before reaching the pinnacle that marks the Mount Banks cliff.
Handshakes, snacks and camera flashes followed before we grunted up the final hill for a photograph on the Mount Banks trig point, just as four young men had done on January 18, 1953. We, like them, had shared a most excellent adventure.