The Art of the Epic

It seems like most misguided ventures on the North East Buttress of Mt Tibrogargan turn out to be rather serious affairs, but the second ascent in 1964 was particularly intense. Ted Cais recalls the event in The Living Rock:

“Time passed, and soon it was pitch black: not a star could be seen in the inky vault above our heads. I looked down onto the Bruce Highway, where we could see the lights of cars that passed, their occupants being oblivious of the struggle we were having up on this rain swept cliff. Eventually Pat had the bolt in, and having then reached the higher bolt, he set out on the tension traverse. Groping for holds in the feeble light of the torch, he realised that he was going to come off. I heard him mumble something with the torch still in his mouth, and then he came off.”

Half a century later, Morag Stewart and I were battling that same route in an Epic of our own. In our favour, we had the benefits of modern protection, sticky rubber, total daylight and only a brief smattering of rain. Against us, we had fifty years of corrosion which had transformed the ancient bolt ladder crux into 30 metres of rusted death.

By the time we discovered the less-than-appealing hardware, it was too late to retreat. I’d already stitched up half the length of a then unknown crack before completing an unprotected traverse into no man’s land and discovering the bolt ladder. That crack turned out to be the crux on Sideshow Bob, a chossy but adequately protected 20 at a time when my hardest trad lead was a 17. The bolt ladder turned out to be an easy but terrifying aid pitch, a desperate sandbag at its modest grade of 11.

The decrepit hardware would only accept small carabiners and slings, both of which I had few. I gingerly ascended past countless hangars and gravity-defying death blocks as my rack dwindled to nothing, scavenging gear from below in order to continue questing upward. The classic Tiger’s Rule that “the leader must not fall” was my mantra. It was necessity rather than bravery that found me at the chains. Morag took a decent fall whilst seconding the traverse and was likewise required to employ large reserves of ingenuity to surmount a blank overhang before joining me at the anchor.

Sure, I’m no Joe Simpson, but The North East Buttress remains the most terrifying ascent of my entire climbing career – definitely a member of the “Once Is Enough” club. Morag maintains that she has comprehensively wiped the climb from her memory, but I would place the climb firmly into the Type 2 Fun category.

Why Type 2 and not Type 3? Even though I would never repeat this climb, or recommend that others do so, I think you can learn a lot from an Epic.

An Epic (which, as you can see, is a capitalised noun) can result from both objective and subjective hazards, although these are often so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. Is an avalanche a force of nature, or is your failure to read the terrain correctly the cause of the issue? Is rock fall an inevitability, or did you choose the wrong time of day or incorrect season? In my case, was the lack of accurate route information a large factor, or could I have been more thorough in my research?

As Reinhold Messner once said, “Mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous.” The dangers will always exist, and we must provide the diligence, resilience and discretion required for the task. To assign total blame to objective hazards is an exercise in self-deception.

That said, if you climb enough long routes, whether those are on rock, snow or ice, you’re bound to have an Epic or two. They’re something of a rite of passage, a gate through which all aspiring legends must pass. Failure to do so spells the end of one’s climbing career at best, and the end of one’s life at worst. The inevitability of such a scenario means that we should not berate ourselves for allowing such events to transpire, but rather seek the instructive benefits hidden within the chaos.

As climbers, we pride ourselves on self-sufficiency. This starts on the ground, well before the ascent. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst – you should know how to build improvised anchors with minimal gear, what to do when you drop your belay device, how to rescue an unconscious leader. These are just a few examples of the technical skills that should be in every climber’s toolbox.

You should choose your partners wisely and care for them as though your life depended on it… which it does. Often, we can be guilty of climbing with anyone who will hold our rope, but it behooves us all to think a little more clearly about the subject. Be someone in whom your partner can trust, and expect the same in return. An Epic will make or break your relationship.

Most importantly, you should hone your mental strength. You will meet fear. One should regard it as a tool rather than a hindrance. A dispassionate approach to fear will inform you as to its nature – sometimes a legitimate response to a potential threat, other times nothing more than an emotional response to stimuli which have traditionally been counter-evolutionary. Learn how to distinguish between the two and use them to inform your decisions.

The North East Buttress was a formative experience for me. I’ve since done plenty of other more serious ascents, but I’ve approached them all with a greater wealth of experience, prudence, skill and knowledge. I’m a better route finder. I’m a more thorough researcher. I’ve improved my vertical rescue skill set. My bowel control is superb.

Don’t fear the Epic. See it for what it is – the fiery crucible from which only the worthy may emerge. Rise to the challenge and don’t forget the Munter Hitch. Godspeed, you mighty stallions.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
January 2017

If you’d like to learn more about technical rope skills and rescue techniques, consult your local climbing guide company. Give a holler at Pinnacle Sports if you’re in the South East Queensland region.

If you’d like to learn more about mental training for climbing, I recommend The Rock Warrior’s Way or Espresso Lessons, both by Arno Ilgner.

Finally, a big shout out to my favourite rope partner Morag Stewart who, despite several Epics, hasn’t lost her shit on me yet…

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?