Vertical bush-bashing. Runouts. Rusty bolts. Roof chimneying. Benightment. Sleep-walking… Alex Mougenot and Liam Boyle battled all these and more on a recent 22 hour epic on the East Face of Mt Barney.
At 4:30 am on Sunday 23rd July 2017, Liam and I headed for the rarely repeated East Face Route of the East Peak of Mt Barney. A combination of the lack of written information on the route and its long relentless uphill approach means that it doesn’t see much love, but to me, that adds to the appeal. The element of the unknown, the anticipation of having to dig deep, and the fact that you’re off the beaten track – those are the ingredients to a good adventure. That being said, 4 hours of hiking had me wondering how many routes we could have finished at Frog Buttress.
To start the day off on a good note, when replacing my head torch batteries, I found that the AAAs I had were mis-manufactured to be a couple of millimetres short. Is that even a thing? Nevertheless, we trudged on. The stunning sunrise caught up with us as we rapped in and scrambled up to the foot of the East Face Route. It had been our goal for about a year and a half and we were excited, albeit more than a little nervous. It was 9:30 am, and we were expecting to be back in the carpark by 8pm. Little did we know that our predicted finish time would see us still battling for the summit.
The first two pitches went by easily, with a lonely old carrot at the second belay letting us know that we were on route, even though the tree belay had gone. With a steep gully dropping off below you, the original guide was spot on in saying that “One already feels the exposure“.
The third and fourth pitches were a bit tricky to follow, as both tree belays were long gone as well. Liam weaved his way in and out of the chimney and fought through hell-sent prickly bushes, seeking tree belays that would never appear. It was a mentally taxing pitch. He found himself out of the chimney on the right hand face with few placements, and even fewer ideas as to where the hell the route actually went.
“I don’t know what to do, man”, he called out to me. I could hear the stress in his voice.
Still, he climbed on and did really well to keep his composure, linking the two pitches and finding an okay…ish semi-hanging belay atop the fourth pitch. When I reached Liam at the belay, the weight of the stress caught up with him and came out in the form of tears. It dawned on me that even though we had been climbing together for years, this route – the East Face Route, of all things – was his second trad multi-pitch… ever.
Here, we had to make the call, and I left it to him. It was 1pm. We had 5 hours of light between us and sunset, and 6 pitches and 175 m of unknown terrain between us and the summit… It was either leave gear and rap off, perform a sketchy traverse over to the bolts on The Governor (a neighbouring sport multi-pitch) or go for the summit. Liam took a moment to think and then looked up. Behind his puffy eyes, the fire for adventure burned. We were gonna go for it.
The next pitch offered some beautiful slab climbing with good gear, curving back left towards the chimney and an ancient bolted belay. What a pitch of chossy class! The classiness far outweighs the choss, and if badass roof chimneying is your thing, then you should consider getting your butt up there… Think of Arapiles’ Lamplighter, but looser, with poorer gear, harder and a hell of a lot more exposed. I don’t know of any climbs with moves like this in all of Queensland.
Without spoiling too much, I will just say that I was scared. The moves felt bouldery and harder than the apparent 17 grade, and only getting harder with each hold that came off in my hands. The original guide came with instructions to lasso a rotten tree above, followed by a humble suggestion that it is “not advisable“. The ‘new’ guide gives much more detail in telling us to “climb the overhang by any means“. Our means was karate kicking a shrub out right and mantling onto it.
Here I regained my breath and continued up through Pitch 7 and sat back on the tree belay just as the sun was setting. It was then that we realised that we had left one head torch in a bag on the SE Ridge… Crap.
From then on, I (the leader) got the head torch and the seconder battled blindly through a mixture of climbing, vertical bush-bashing and things that go so much against the modern free-climbing ethic that they could be considered sacrilege. Oh well. It was dark. No one could see. The new moon didn’t help … prick.
At times Liam used the light on his phone to memorise holds and key clumps of grass. We grew to love the vertical bush-bashing, and it was a good chance to perfect our grass-climbing technique now that the local grass-climbing gym had closed down. Between the vegetation, there were some awesome chimney sections in those upper pitches. One of them was this tight, wet, three-walled chute, which was closed off by matted grass on the fourth wall. It felt much like chimneying up a garbage chute. Awesome!
Finally, we topped out at 9:30 pm, greeted by a frosty wind. We had numb toes, blood on our hands, grass and dirt in every possible crevice and, above all, big grins on our faces.
We did it!
Our high spirits were definitely aided by the snake lollies we chewed, the sugary goodness washing away thoughts of the oncoming five hour descent. Trudging on, we found our way to the ridge without too much trouble. Once the scrambling ended, the weight of the day set in. We stumbled over each other, delirious with fatigue. We also ticked off two more firsts: falling asleep while standing up and falling asleep while walking. At one point we found some abandoned cans of soup. The first mouthful was glorious. By the fourth, my tastebuds realised that it tasted like cold vomit. Ah well … we were hungry.
After a few naps, 5 hours of stumbling, a few rolled ankles and 40% of phone battery (my head torch had long since become useless), we arrived at the carpark at 2:30 am. Here, the tray of Liam’s ute embraced our spent bodies. We were too far gone to notice the 1.5°C night.
Hell. Yeah. What an adventure.
The curious thing about these types of adventures is that, despite the general misery, they turn out to be positive experiences when they’re done and dusted. It’s not just the “thank God we’re alive” feeling… you also feel mentally cleansed from having engaged in such intense focus. It’s a form of meditation which helps you detach from the world, from the stresses of work and the drama of everyday life.
Then comes the pride of having pushed your boundaries and capabilities – “Holy crap. We actually did that!”. This feeling broadens your horizons, and as it subsides, it is replaced by a yearning for more. You begin to look to the next adventure through new eyes. Yesterday’s mountains are today’s hills. 15m runouts are just sections of “spaced pro”. Your body feels stronger, your balls feel bigger… but not as big as your inflated ego.
That’s when you look at what’s next and you go for it – only to wonder again why the hell you get yourself in these situations.