Thursday, 23 July 2009

Federation Peak - Part 10

[part 10 of a 15 part series describing an ascent of Tasmania's Federation Peak]

10) The Direct Ascent

Direct Ascent of Federation Peak, Thursday February 7th, 1991

The tower of Federation is made of quartzite, an ancient sedimentary rock that’s been baked and tilted and contorted into a quartz-rich metamorphic marvel. Tough, grey, and shot through with cross veins and clots of pure white quartz, walkers and climbers find it strong but abrasive. I’d met this rasping quality first hand during six days of scrambling in the nearby Western Arthur Range. On that trip my white-gold wedding band was given a newly-brushed look, albeit a shoddy one.

The Direct Ascent zigzags up near-vertical quartzite by way of fissures and minor gullies that have been gouged and plucked out of by the action of ice. There has been minimal human reshaping of the hard-to-mark rock, and this combines with the numerous dead-end fissures and false leads to make route finding difficult. Not all of the ice action dates back to the Ice Ages. Ice and snow can hit this peak at any time of the year. Its closeness to the Southern Ocean places it in the direct path of cool and moist air, which rises and cools further on meeting these obstacles. Hail, sleet and snow often result.

But today the wind is fetching in from further afield, and for the moment it’s mild and dry. And although we can hear and feel it, Jim’s wind prediction is so far holding out. Other faces of the peak are bearing the brunt, with only flurries ruffling this section. That’s just as well, because we’re having enough difficulty finding foot and hand holds and a tenable route without also being buffeted by wind. Jim is behind me as I lead up the first gully or two, but the pair of us are soon at a loss for a way ahead. Bill and the Doc join us and we each scan the rock wall for the route. The other three wait nervously below us, possibly losing what little confidence we may have managed to instill into them.

For rock climbers there are sure to be other options here, but for bushwalkers like us, there’s only the one ascent route. We keep searching for it, our anxiety heading in the direction of panic. Then Bill calls out that he’s seen a cairn above him. He checks it out, then calls us up. We’ve been looking straight above us, but Bill has found that the route traverses to the right, crossing a horribly steep bulge of rock before again disappearing upwards.

We decide to deploy our length of rope. I suspect this is more about allaying the fears of the inexperienced – and possibly justifying Jim bothering to bring it – than it’s about safety. None of us really knows about knots or belaying, and Bill jokes that he thought a karabiner was a West Indian head covering. Yes, in my twenties I had done a little climbing, and had even abseiled down the huge vertical cliffs on Sydney Harbour’s North Head. But that was more about blind trust than skill. Also it involved going down not up, and it was with an experienced leader/climber.

Anyway, whatever the shortcomings of our strategy, we get out the rope and Bill takes it up to look for something suitable to secure it to. Jim and I follow, choosing to ignore the rope and trust the rock. I’m concentrating too much on my own climbing to notice whether anyone actually uses the so-called safety line. There’s one particular spot which is a bit of stretch for me, but which Jim, a shorter man, finds quite difficult. After a long nervous look at it, I reach across a shoulder of rock. It offers scant handholds. Before I have any sense of security for my hands I have to extend one foot across and down in search of what can only be described as a tenuous foothold. Jim follows close behind, stabbing his right foot out two or three times and making some inarticulate semi-panic noises before I reach back and physically guide it into the appropriate spot. Margaret comes up behind in time to support his other foot, and with a final grunt he wobbles across to my side. We shuffle along far enough for Marg to follow. I notice we’re all breathing shallowly, quickly, but we press on after Bill before panic can freeze us to this particularly inhospitable spot. Indecision, even thinking itself, seem to be enemies here.

But I also start to find a certain rhythm to ascending, and that it pays to move with that. Hand up, grip, breathe, heave, foot up, test, rest, breathe, push off, reach again. Under this regime I’m surprised to find fear and uncertainty settling like compliant dogs. While they’re sleeping, I keep climbing until I hear an unexpected whoop of joy from Bill. He’s just out of view over a small rise, but he must have got a view of the top. We heave up over the last knob to see a grinning, wind-blown Bill gesturing wildly towards the top. It looks to be only an easy 100 metres away.
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