Cape Fear: Establishing New Routes on the Tasman Peninsula

Tasman Island, Tasman Peninsula
Tasman Peninsula, the edge of the world…

I can tell you neither when nor how the idea found its genesis, but establishing a new route on Precipitous Bluff has been a longstanding goal of mine. The no-frills name bluntly describes this impressive collection of dolerite columns, some rising more than 300m from the scrub to the sky. No need to beat around the bush, I suppose.

That is unless you’re talking about the approach, which certainly demands prodigious amounts of bush-beating. Located deep within Tasmania’s rugged Southwest Wilderness, PB’s vast swathes of unclimbed rock are guarded by a 3-day approach. Such an approach involves threading through gnarled shrubs, slogging through pits of mud, and finally, wading along a shallow lagoon for the better part of a day. And all this with a pair of ropes, a trad rack and enough food and equipment to survive for 10 days or so.

Precipitous Bluff, deep in the Southwest Wilderness (Photo by Bill Bettilyon of Mapio.net)

Who could I possibly convince to join me in such a foolhardy endeavour? None other than the eternally stoked and abundantly energetic Alex Mougenot, whose enthusiasm for all things steep, wide, wild and adventurous made him the perfect candidate. We schemed and planned for the majority of the year, dialling in the logistics and collecting all the beta we could find. The beginning of December found us disembarking from the Spirit of Tasmania, ready to climb.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. We always knew that December was a bit of a crapshoot and that more stable weather patterns are generally expected in February and March. It was, unfortunately, the only time we could both make available. They say you have to risk it to get the biscuit, but as it turned out, no baked goods of any sort were to be consumed at Precipitous Bluff. The mountain was soon covered in a deep blanket of snow, the result of a weather event which saw evacuations of hypothermic walkers near Cradle Mountain and unseasonable snow dumps as far north as Perisher.

PB was off the cards, but other possibilities remained. An incoming high pressure system looked set to provide a brief spell of calm, and the forecast for the Tasman Peninsula seemed promising. We switched gears to Cape Pillar – an enormous, windswept seacliff with little between it and Antarctica but sharks and iceburgs. As an alternate objective for Precipitous Bluff, it was more than worthy.

Cape Pillar, Tasman Peninsula
Looking across The Chasm toward Cape Pillar’s shorter left wall.

There is something of a mythic aura surrounding Cape Pillar, an intimidating reputation which is edified by tales of misadventure and memories of terror. It has variously been described as “one of the world’s most fearful sea cliffs” and “the scariest cliff in the known universe.” Almost without exception, early expeditions suffered some brand of mishap, whether it was severed ropes, horrific weather, severe injuries or a combination thereof. Although the approach has been largely pacified by the recent development of the Three Capes Track, the majority of challenges remain undiminished – the rock is poor, the position is committing, and the weather can be gnarly. We came to Tassie seeking big adventure, and it appeared that Cape Pillar would have no trouble delivering.

We arrived at the Fortescue Bay on the evening of Saturday 7th December 2019. The Mill Creek campsite was quite full and the prospect of shouldering a 35kg pack was infinitely more appealing than spending the night within a phalanx of drunken bogans. We packed our expedition packs with approximately 140m of static rope, 2 half ropes, a double rack up to #5 Camalot, various other climbing accoutrements, camping equipment and 5 days of food. By the end, my pack looked like the Flextrek 37,000,000,000,000 Whipsnake Edition. With these respectable loads, we hoofed our way through the beautiful twilight to Bare Knoll, our basecamp for the trip.

As far as National Park campsites go, Bare Knoll is pretty swank – it’s got a clean drop toilet with a soap dispenser and a series of tent platforms with nifty adjustable tie-downs. What it doesn’t have is fresh water, which you must obtain from nearby Munro Hut, part of the Three Capes Track. And if the campsite is swank, Holy Mother of God, the hut is off the charts. Some might view the huts as ethically questionable and there have certainly been mutterings of discontent surrounding the commodification of wilderness areas. It’s a worthy conversation, but I reckon the buildings are tasteful and the tracks encourage sustainable use. Personally, I don’t begrudge these luxury digs to those who can afford to throw $500 at them, just as long as it doesn’t exclude plebs like myself from the park (which it doesn’t).

Cape Pillar, Tasman Peninsula
Swirling waters around the iconic features of the Tasman Peninsula.

The following day, we departed Bare Knoll for the 2-hour approach to Cape Pillar. The track winds through low marshes and flowering heath before emerging dramatically at the end of the peninsula. Here, the wind screams off the ocean and the cliffs plunge hundreds of metres into roaring surf. A classic white lighthouse stands a lonesome vigil on Tasman Island, its clean, straight lines in stark contrast to the chaos of the iconic rocky outcrops – The Trident, The Blade and The Chasm.

The Chasm, Cape Pillar, Tasman Peninsula
Source: Thesarvo.com

It was the latter where our aspirations lay. The Chasm is exactly what it sounds like – a giant rift which splits Cape Pillar into two distinct walls. The right hand side (as viewed from the ocean) is the larger of the two, rising more than 300m from the ocean to the summit. The Original Route and The Cullen Route are the king lines on this epic face, and although it appeared that a prominent corner to the right of these was yet to be exploited, local knowledge revealed that it had been climbed but not yet recorded.  We therefore turned our attention to the smaller left hand side, perhaps half as tall with a series of densely vegetated terraces and slopes below.

Using the lookout, we were able to eye off most of the rock inside The Chasm. Some of the more impressive lines would involve levitating past a horrific gully of perilously stacked widowmakers, so we regretfully ignored the glorious splitters above. Eventually, we found a series of vaguely connected cracks which looked as though they might be relatively clean.

Awe Chasm, Cape Pillar, Tasman Peninsula
The author seconding Awe Chasm – Grade 18, 25m. Photo by Alex Mougenot.

This line would be our goal for the following day, as our current aim was simply reconnaissance and gear shuttling. However, I had also spotted a small pillar at the head of The Chasm that was bisected by a “perfect hands splitter”. We couldn’t resist. I abseiled over the edge and quickly realised it was actually a “perfect double-hand-stack splitter” with a steep, technical grovel off the belay. Luckily, we had bought plenty of big gear, and the route turned out to be a fairly classic offwidth pitch. Even so, I can’t imagine anybody is going to be daft enough to walk out to Cape Pillar for a wee afternoon of trench warfare, so I imagine it will fade quickly back into anonymity. For the record, we called it “Awe Chasm” and gave it a grade of 18.

Heading back to basecamp without the burden of heavy packs was something of a joy. We ate heartily and got to sleep early. The following morning saw a repeat of the approach to Cape Pillar, again without loads. When we arrived, we checked the weather and had a brief discussion on how to proceed. There was a gusty northerly blowing which knocked us around as we stood atop The Chasm. The following day, the winds were predicted to ramp up to 45-55km/hr and swing around from the southwest. I was not particularly keen on getting smacked around by a moderate gale halfway up a seacliff, so we decided to make the most of the prevailing conditions by rappelling the route to clean and fix static ropes.

Alex looking rather fetching in red as he cleans the route on rappel.

Inside The Chasm, conditions were remarkably sheltered. In addition, the rock was relatively clean with only a few death blocks sent to Davy Jones’ Locker. As such, the first static was fixed in quick order. I bought the second static down, fixing and cleaning the last pitch en route before arriving at the JFK Ledge (e.g. the grassy knoll). We’d arrived at a logical starting point for the route – any further, and the terrain deteriorates into vegetated terraces on one side and cracks too wide for us to protect on the other. We’d made excellent time, far exceeding my expectations. There was plenty of daylight left – it was time to climb.

My reluctance to tackle the climb in challenging conditions was somewhat prudent, but also symptomatic of physical and mental fatigue. At this point, I had been climbing or hiking almost every day for more than a month and was starting to feel worn out. On finding myself halfway down the “scariest cliff in the known universe”, I was deeply afraid. My fear did not have the urgency of blind panic, but felt instead like a rising tide – slow but powerful, an inexorable flood. This seems silly in retrospect, because we had most of the unknowns accounted for – the rock had been mostly cleaned and our retreat was assured by the fixed statics. Even so, the scenario felt somewhat serious, and the knowledge that an accident would have significant consequences in such remote terrain weighed heavily on my mind.

I am not a particularly strong climber, but I like to think that my mind control is above average. Following a short appraisal of the variables, I was able to accept the risk and acknowledge the fear, using it to guide my movement rather than arrest it. We began the climb, and even when Alex pulled a rock the size of a small child from the initial crack, it failed to shake my newfound calm.

After this initial excitement, we found the first pitch to be in fair condition, structurally speaking. The climbing itself was sensational – a marathon handcrack with a touch of overhang and a few thin moves for added spice. The flaky interior of the crack was continually sloughing off, but it accepted bomber cam placements.

Unfortunately, these placements were so consistent in size that Alex needed to lower off a piece in order to reclaim gear to use higher up. He was a bit bummed about this, as it meant he didn’t “send” the pitch… but that’s sport climbing malarkey, and when you look at the risk/benefit analysis of running it out by 10-15m for the sake of purity, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the end, all the moves went free and repeat ascensionists are encouraged to carry triples (or even quadruples) in #1-3 Camalots if they wish to send the pitch clean.

Cape Pillar, Tasman Peninsula
Topping out on the excellent first pitch. Photo by Alex Mougenot.

The second pitch is a wandering affair which climbs across the top of some broken pillars to connect crack systems. A killer layback off the belay leads to one of the weirdest moves I’ve ever done – an armbar-highstep combo. With this dispatched, a stack of loose blocks provides a tentative pedestal from which to place some gear up high, followed by an improbable step out onto an awesomely exposed arête. From here, the natural line proceeds easily but boldly upward into a corner. Care must be taken as the rock is less-than-ideal, the gear is non-existent, and the fall potential is somewhat serious. Despite these circumstances, and in contrast to my earlier misgivings, I felt remarkably calm and in complete control.

Cape Pillar, Tasman Peninsula
Alex tests some suspicious rock near the end of Pitch 2.

Below the final pitch, a small ledge offers a belay stance that is comfortable but poorly positioned in regard to rockfall. Above, a dagger of rock hangs like the Sword of Damocles, but it proved remarkably solid and resisted attempts at dislodgement. Passing this feature is the last of the technical difficulties on the stellar third pitch, an interweaving crack system which offers surprisingly secure jams on highly suspicious rock. Whenever things begin to feel tricky, an unseen hold or footjam seems to materialise, amounting to a long, cruisy pitch that leads all the way to the summit.

Alex played a wee ditty on his tin whistle at the top of the route which we called “Captain C-Bomb and the Mulleteers”. Details can be found on theCrag.com, but the short format is this – 120m, 3 pitches graded 20, 16 and 18 respectively. It’s certainly not the most epic route at Cape Pillar, and the rock is far from excellent, but it still offers big adventure and some surpisingly high-quality movement.

Such routes are valuable for the lessons we can learn from them, and for me, the big takeaway was this – unfamiliarity causes anxiety, even if such anxiety is essentially unwarranted. Establishing a new route in a location as remote and alien as a Tassie seacliff felt well outside of my comfort zone, but having the opportunity to work through the difficulties and make a pragmatic analysis of real vs perceived risk was an excellent experience.

Cape Pillar, Tasman Peninsula

The opportunity exists to extend the route further toward sea level, though it seems unlikely that a line can be forced from ocean to summit. In the event of a repeat ascent, climbers are more than welcome to tackle the long offwidth that may possibly link the route to the lower grassy ledge from which Numbered Days and Big Daddy begin. To this end, we recommend carrying a much larger supply of wide gear and using similar tactics to clean the route on abseil. Another possibility is a series of broken pillars further around to the left, in which case we recommend taking a machete, a trowel, a sturdy helmet and a wheelbarrow to haul your massive balls in.

Big thanks to Alex Mougenot for his boundless enthusiasm and for sharing the mental and physical loads of this epic adventure. Also, a huge shoutout to the members of the Tassie climbing community who provided the support and beta that made this trip possible – Simon Bischoff, John Fischer, Hannah Poon and Claudio Trefny, and all the other legends we met along the way! We thank you for the supplies and the good vibes.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
January 2020

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?

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