I have always been drawn to routes with aesthetic appeal, and The Barney Couloir is certainly not lacking in this regard. In the right light, this proud feature can be seen from almost anywhere in the Scenic Rim. The rising sickle crack cuts the base of Leaning Peak from the broader Mt Barney massif, an alluring visage for any aspiring adventure climber.
And yet, The Barney Couloir has seen remarkably few ascents. Although not particularly steep and given a modest grade of 17, the route has a reputation of infamy. The remote location is more than enough to keep most punters away, and whispers of poor rock and horrific runouts have conspired to keep the remainder at bay. As a result, there is very little information to be found on the route, although a few vague notes can be found in Rob Rankin’s Secrets of the Scenic Rim.
“The route at first is straightforward with the difficulty increasing towards the top, as it should be on all great climbs!” quoth the Rankin. “There is poor protection on the difficult sections.”
The addition of similar beta came from some folks who are perhaps the only other party to have made an ascent this decade. They offered a few choice soundbites such as “It was totally fucked” and “I wouldn’t recommend it” but also allowed that the Couloir is “A fantastic adventure”. And such was the limit of our knowledge.
Given everything we’d heard, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t intimidated by the Couloir’s formidable reputation. Frankly, I was scared. But I had faith in my skills and judgement as an adventure climber, and a complete willingness to bail if push came to shove. More importantly, I knew that I could trust my climbing partner, the one and only Alex Mougenot. Our shared experience in serious terrain, as well as his conviction in the endeavour, gave me the encouragement I needed to move ahead.
And so, in the wee hours of Sunday 18th August 2019, we arrived at the Lower Portals Carpark in Mt Barney National Park. We had two 8.5mm half ropes, a single rack to #3 with doubles in microcams, a lucky purple hex, two Lost Arrow pitons for emergency purposes, and a hammer. Unfortunately, what we didn’t have were Alex’s hiking shoes. This minor plot twist saw us driving back to Mt Barney Lodge to retrieve them, as well as my pronouncement that should we become benighted, Alex was entirely to blame.
With this small embuggerance behind us, we set forth a little before 6am. Dawn found us near the Lower Portals, and a small knoll offered a view of Leaning Peak looking rather fetching in red. We rock-hopped to Barney Waterfall and ascended the ridge to the Moonlight Slabs, cutting ever upwards and rightwards. Eventually, we found ourselves at the base of the Couloir, having lost some time to a few scrubby detours. All told, the approach took about 3 hours.
We poured the rocks and sticks out of our shoes before racking up and preparing for the ascent. From below, the opening pitches looked quite benign, and we thought that perhaps we could scramble some 100m or so to a vegetated corner where the route began to steepen. This belief was short-lived. I’d forgotten from our previous ascent of Leaning Peak’s North Face that the slabs were deceptive, both steeper and longer than they appear from below.
After maybe 50m, we realised the folly of our ways. A small bulge marked the point at which we’d be soloing rather than scrambling, and we decided that it was an unacceptable risk to continue onward unroped. Making use of a convenient crack, Alex built an anchor and put me on belay. I performed an insecure friction stem coupled with a long reach for a poor crimp before thanking the rope profusely. The remainder of the pitch was easy but essentially unprotectable, ending in a bird’s nest belay with a bomber tree for an anchor.
On second, Alex found an ancient piton which was entirely rusted out, but the equally ancient carabiner clipped to it was in perfect working order. That’s some quality workmanship right there! He arrived at the belay and preceded to take the sharp end, soon disappearing from sight. The terrain was similar to the first pitch, although with rock quality and protection slowly improving. Swapping leads again, I took the third pitch and found so many excellent gear placements that I felt as though I was cheating. Things were looking up!
But no sooner had we commented on our good fortune than the terrain began to steepen and the rock developed the consistency of kitty litter. An old piton marked the way through a grotty corner, surprisingly bomber after all these years. The same could not be said for the holds, however, which crumbled to the touch and disappeared into the void below. Here, the Barney Couloir began to live up to its reputation.
Taking great care and using vocabulary that would make a sailor blush, Alex located the useable holds – some subtle but positive, others large but friable, and still others located only after exfoliating the upper layer of choss. Slowly, he crawled through the ugly corner, even slinging a small clump of dirt and grass in quiet desperation. It took a great deal of time and many soft cooing noises from his supportive belayer, but the difficulties were eventually bested.
It was my turn to lead, and while the rock quality took a merciful turn for the better, protection was hard to come by. I quested upward on classy slab with positive edges and abundant friction, all the while looking for weaknesses that rarely appeared. All told, I placed perhaps 5 pieces of gear in about 70m, and only 3 of those were worth a damn. This was significantly more protection than was found in some of the lower segments, however the angle was quite a lot steeper and some of the moves were slightly committing. It was very serious terrain, but I felt calm, collected, almost weightless.
As the angle began to back off, I spotted a rotten chockstone with some disintegrating tat slung around it. Having just placed a bomber #3 Camalot, but lacking the gear to make a solid anchor, I decided to pass this suspicious belay. Instead, I continued upward into a band of trees, occasionally slinging one for good measure. With the danger of a massive fall now behind us, we were able to simul-climb the last 30m or so, arriving at a mighty she-oak which became the terminus of the route. After high-fives and summit selfies, we descended via North-Isolated Saddle, dipping into the creekline and crossing the open forest to finish before sundown. We’d spend 5:20 on route and a further 2:30 on descent, and with breaks, this totaled just shy of 12 hours for the entire mission.
I can now understand exactly what the previous ascensionists meant – The Barney Couloir is totally fucked and I wouldn’t recommend it, and at the same time, it’s a fantastic adventure. It’s not a line for the faint of heart, but for those with a depth and breadth of experience in old school adventure routes, it’s a stern testpiece and a memorable outing. Given the respect it deserves, the Barney Couloir is a truly rewarding climb. Or, as Alex said in his four word contribution to this report, “It was sick, bruh.”
Big thanks to Alex Mougenot for partnering me on the route, as well as Tom Cramer and Henk Morgans for the beta and Morag Stewart for being the responsible adult at home.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.