At the end of a track deep in western Tasmania there is a mountain, it's name is Frenchmans Cap. A stunning dome of white quartzite that stands 1446 mtrs high and dominates the surrounding Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. The hike to Frenchmans is an arduous 46 km round trip that usually takes 4 days to complete. The area also has the dubious honor of being one of the wettest places in Tasmania, this and the unpredictability of the weather makes a journey to this beautiful area a serious and often difficult undertaking.
Richard and myself had both been there on earlier hiking trips. We had both stared up at its 350 meter sheer face, the tallest vertical cliff in Australia and wondered if we could possibly climb its dizzying heights. With this question taunting us over the last few years, it was decided that we were both ready to make an attempt, a date was set and the training began.
After months of planning, weather forecasting and endless debates over gear, we found ourselves at a backpackers in Hobart one stormy January afternoon. I had landed an hour earlier to torrential rain and howling winds, I was quickly informed by an overexcited local that Hobart was in the middle of its wettest January ever, most of the rivers around town were flooded and the entire state was saturated. Not the ideal start to our trip! We spent the night organizing our gear and distributing the weight as evenly as possible. Even after discarding excessive luxuries our packs still weighed a hefty 32 kgs each, by far the heaviest either of us had attempted to carry on a hike.
Our plan was one of a waiting game. We had allowed ourselves 9 days for this trip,4 days for the walk in and out (we could cut this to 3 if we had to) and 5 days based at the last hut waiting for a weather window to climb. Having experience this in the New Zealand Alps a few years earlier, we learnt that the weather doesn't always receive your itinerary and having the extra time to wait out bad weather gives you the best chance of success.
We left the hostel at 6 the next morning, bought and savored what would be our last real coffee for some time and boarded the bus for the 3 hr drive to the trail head. We arrived at the car park at 11.30, checked packs, registered our trip intentions in the log book and under the strain of our overloaded packs, crossed the Franklin river and were on our way.
The first hour was spent adjusting packs every 15 minutes, getting use to the weight and preparing mentally to what we were realizing was going to be a very, very long day. At the top of Mt Mullens saddle, the rain started. we donned wet weather gear and kept moving. After another few kilometers we came to the Loddon river, this marked the start of the once dreaded 'Sodden Loddons' a button grass plain that was more often than not waterlogged and heavily eroded . I had experienced this 6 years earlier and remembered being buried to my thighs in mud, stuck and exhausted, screaming to the hiking gods for a break from the stinking quagmire. Walking for hours through those boggy, muddy trenches was something I did not want to experience again Anyone who has walked through the 'Sodden Loddons' will tell you once is more than enough.
This hell is thankfully now a thing of the pass. Dick Smith was appalled with the condition of the track when he hike through it years ago and undertook steps to have the area saved. There was now a boardwalk over most of the Loddens and a new section of trail has been built bypassing the worst of the marshland. In no small feat, Dick Smiths generous contribution and in conjunction with the Tasmanian governments ongoing work, most of the area has now been totally rehabilitated.
We made our way across the button grass plain with an honest pace and knuckled down for the climb up the newly forms Laughton's Lead trail en route to Vera hut. We arrived at the hut around 4pm, it had rained for most of the day and I was wet and exhausted. There were 5 other hikers in the hut, 4 of them heading up to Frenchmans and 1 salty old German hiker on his way back down. We all exchanged stories of the walk in with epic tales of near disastrous slips, stories of hiking the old track and hopes and goals for the trip. Dinner was made and consumed and I collapsed in my bunk, spent.
We woke early the next morning and with a good nights sleep, were eager to get moving. We packed and ate breakfast in record time and by 8am we were on the trail again heading up to Barrons pass. The pass lays high above the valley and the track to reach it rises 120 meters for every kilometer travelled on the map, with heavy packs it is a difficult and slow climb. It started to rain again and we again donned rain gear without much fuss, we had expected wet conditions today and took it in our tired strides. The walk up the pass although back breaking, was breath taking, we passed through lush myrtle forests and fern gulleys, then following the creek which cascaded beside the path, up to majestic Huon and King Billy pines clinging to the sides of the mountains. We reached the top of the pass after a few very difficult hours and were rewarded with a brief reprieve in the rain and a view west over the surrounding wilderness. We stopped for a quick break and bite to eat but all to soon the weather closed in again. The surrounding peaks looked like the dark gates of Mordor and became decidedly unfriendly. The wind stated to howl and brought with it rain and sleet. Taking this as a sign, we started moving again, Tahune hut was only a few hours in front of us and we took comfort in the fact that the worst of the walk was over.
We met 3 climbers coming from the other direction, they had spent 2 days up at Tahune in the rain and were heading back out to Hobart. They had abandoned any hope of climbing the mountain based on the weather reports and had left their climbing gear in Hobart, deciding instead to enjoy the hike and surrounds for its own sake. Richard and I, wet and exhausted, looked at each other and at that point and I'm sure we both wondered why we had not done the same. We wished each other safe travels and parted ways, both parties quickly disappeared into the cloud that had now enveloped the ridge.
Although a very basic structure and not much to look at, Tahune hut is set beside a stunning mountain lake from which it gets its name. Surrounded on 3 sides by steep cliffs and lush forest, the hut is well protected from the weather and a welcome retreat when it turns nasty. The hut isn't exactly well appointed, a wall of bunk beds, 2 tables and a small coal heater, that's about it. But as we descended the last corner and the hut came into view, it was a five star hotel full of every luxury we could ask for. We let out a whoop of relief, dumped our packs and entered the hut. We found it empty and being the first to arrive, took the best bunk positions. This is an important decision given the amount of time we would spend up here and cant be underestimated. Paper, rock, scissors decided the final selection and bedding was laid out. Wet gear was exchanged for dry and we went through the familiar ritual of emptying packs and storing gear. The added joy here was that the 2 liters of stove fuel and 12 kgs of food carried up, would mostly be used over the next 5 days making the hike back down much more enjoyable. With the chores done and the rain still falling, I settled into my bunk and took a well deserved rest.
I awoke a little while later to the other 2 groups joining us at the hut, they looked exactly as we had a few hours earlier and congratulations were exchanged on us all making it up here. Rod and Dan, a father and son from Melbourne, had tried to hike to Frenchmans 10 years earlier but had been driven back by snow at Barrons pass, they were back to try again for the summit. Chris and Kate were from Tasmania and had hiked much of the state already, neither had hiked Frenchmans before and were also keen to reach the summit. We all quickly settled into the simplicity of hut life, playing cards, reading, and resting. With a warm meal and several competitive games of cards played, we were all soon in bed and recouping from the days walking.
The weather was still abysmal when we woke the next day. A look out the window of the hut barely revealed the lake only 30 meters away, The summit was 400 meters somewhere above us, hidden in cloud but so temptingly close for us all. We decided that sitting around for the next 9 hrs in the hut was too much so an attempt to walk to the summit would be made. From the hut, the walking track makes its way above the lake and zigzags up the northern side of the mountain. The track is steep and rocky with a few scrambles but is the easiest way to the summit and is well marked. Rod and Dan decided against a summit attempt due to the rain still falling and thick cloud cover, they would not make it to the summit this trip and although disappointed, were happy to have reached Tahune hut this time.
Chris, Katie, Rich and myself dressed for battle said our goodbyes and headed out into the ridiculous weather. The track above the lake resembled a river and water flowed down it but we were protected from the wind by the mountain itself so we kept moving. As we made our way higher, the wind started to pick up, warning signs of what might be ahead. We rounded a small cliff and the wind slammed into us, we were no longer protected from the mountain and were hit by it's full force. It had such ferocity that the water falling down the cliff was lifted off the rock and blown back towards the sky. Both Rich and I looked at each other and had the same thought, this was getting too dangerous and a slip now would have been bad indeed. We were still 200 meters or so from the summit and the winds on top would be even worse. Caution being the better part of valor, it was decided to retreat back down to camp. On the way back down, all of us saturated and cold, we laughed at the folly of our excursion, oh well, at least we had gotten out of the hut for awhile. A pot of water was put on and hot drinks were shared.
Once again we settled in for the rest of the day, Richard had brought his portable solar panel and we had fixed it to the underside of the skylight. Even with the rain continuing to fall the panel worked well which meant our phones, which were loaded with music and movies, would work for the entire trip. I, through necessity and sore arms, had rigged a harness for my phone using climbing cams and slings. With a set of headphone this was a perfect movie theater for one and I settled into my sleeping bag to watch Kung Foo Panda, the perfect pick-me-up for a rainy day!
"It's not raining and I can see Frenchmans!!" I woke suddenly to Richards excited voice. I looked up from my very warm sleeping bag and could see Rich hanging out the window looking up at the mountain. Suddenly, I was just as excited and I jumped up still in my bag and hopped over to the window. True to his word I could see the sheer wall of the Tahune face rising high above the lake. The cloud was still clinging to the mountain by cleared just enough to allow brief views of the majestic white quartz face.
Another attempt at the summit needed to be undertaken and quickly before the weather turned again. After coffee and breakfast the four of us, once again prepared for battle with the elements. Waterfalls were still falling off every part of the mountain but they were much smaller than the day before and the path had all but stopped its impression of a raging river. We retraced our steps from the day before and started to notice what was a mix of hail and snow in patches on the ground. The night had been colder than the previous but snow in January in Australia was something we hadn't expected. The track climbed higher and the cloud closed in again, swallowing all noise. The entire mountain was quiet and the silhouettes of the other three ahead of me made for an eerie sight.
We ascended the final scramble and started up the last of the track to the summit. We were out from behind the mountain now and were walking straight into the still savage winds. Not only was the wind making walking difficult but it carried with it snow and sleet that stung our faces and covered the summit. Unfortunately we were still inside the cloud and there was no view. Even though the beauty of the surrounding wilderness was hidden from us, we made the most of the summit and a spontaneous snowball fight ensued, I mean, how often do you get the chance to have a snowball fight in the middle of an Australian summer?
A few photos later and with several fingers starting to go numb, we made our way back down to the hut. Chris and Kate were heading back today and although they didn't find the spectacular views they were hoping for, they had made it to the summit and could mark the trip as a win. We said goodbye, swapped emails and watched them disappear in the mist.
Rich and I settled in for an afternoon of Karma, a favorite card game of ours.
"Blue skies!" I opened my eyes to Rich again hanging out the window. I could see a familiar pattern starting to emerge but a weather report was better than an alarm clock, I supposed. The weather had cleared dramatically and the cloud was high and broken in parts, blue sky trying desperately to break through. "Wooohooo!!" was the most intelligent reply i could think of without coffee. A survey of the Tahune face still showed water falling and a sheen of wet rock could be seen across it. Climbing today was probably out of the question today, we had been told the rock needed a day or 2 to dry out after rain and with the amount we had received over the previous days, we could see the truth in that fact. With this thought, a plan was hatched to recce the base of the cliff and find the start of our climb. A good idea in preparation for a climbing day, if the opportunity ever presented itself.
We packed essentials for the day, food, water, first aid and clothing and were out the door and trotting up the path. We left the trail at a switchback and continued up a faint track that moved left to the base of the Tahune cliff, this soon lead us to a steep ridge line that was the main access to the eastern side of the mountain. We made our way down the ridge and stood awestruck in front of the mountain, its sheer face rose impossibly high in front of us and we suddenly felt very small and alone. Excitement and fear mixed together at the thought of what we were trying to undertake. We surveyed the east side of Tahune wall, the smaller of the 2 main faces and even this was daunting and imposing. There was a route up this face which interested us both, Tierry Le Frond, it made its way up the face then moved left to the arete and followed a series of cracks up to the massive roofs above and picked its way through the weaknesses to its summit. At 150 metres, this was one of the shortest multi pitch route on the mountain and a good option if time and weather was against us.
Continuing along the base of the cliff we could make out other climbs, many of them way beyond our climbing experience and looking at them, we wondered how anyone was able to climb such impossible looking rock. Near the middle of the cliff we found the start to the route we were aiming for, The Sydney route, 13 pitches and 380 meters. Both Rich and I stood there slack jawed staring up at the route, we could not even see the top it was so impossibly high. Half way up it seemed to disappear completely into the bowels of the mountain and back out again. This was going to be a big undertaking and we would need to climb fast and efficient to get to the top in a single day. We took photos of the route to study back at the hut and continued to explore.
The ground was steep and loose and we made our way gingerly across the last scree slope and gained the South Col. This saddle joins Frenchmans cap to the south ridge and the Clytemnestra group of cliffs further along. We climbed onto one of the buttresses and had lunch. The views from here were breathtaking, we could see for maybe 50-60 kms to the south and east. Not a building, road or person could be seen, it was wilderness in its truest form. It was humbling to sit in the shadow of this stoic mountain. We were being allowed to share its view, knowing that no one else on earth was seeing what we were right now. This area was living, breathing, growing, without any need of us, it had flourishes for thousands of years just fine without our influence and left alone, would continue to do so. There was something profound and reassuring in that thought. We discussed the problems of the world for an hour or so, solved some of them, shrugged at others and enjoyed the peace and beauty of where we were.
Unfortunately time dictated that we should get moving, we were only a third the way around the mountain and the rest was a complete unknown. We made our way down the ridge and followed a beautiful white quartz waterfall. The recent rains filtering into the gullies and water cascaded down its pure white face. We again felt privileged, the river would stop running in a day or so and being so far from the hut, it was doubtful that many people even knew it was here and as soon as the water drained away, it would cease to exists. We reached the bottom of the cascade and made our way around several small alpine ponds, surrounding them on all sides were delicate, lush gardens. Moss covered the ground, sundews hung over the small streams and frogs could be heard everywhere. Not a blade or leaf seemed out of place and the bushes all resembled carefully pruned bonsai. The area was also filled with wild flowers and seizing their opportunity, now opened and bloomed in the warm, full sun. Paper Daisies, Rice Flowers, Iris and others I had never seen, all craned towards the sun and filled the mountain with color.
We crossed the gardens and climbed to the western col, we reached the top and found that the other side dropped at an impossible angle for some 100 metres below us, there was no way of continuing and we looked for another path to the summit. We started to climb, hoping we could find a weakness that would allow us up to the summit and across. We could see a deep shadow, half way up in the side of the cliff, knowing we wouldn't be back here anytime soon, we made our way over to explore. It was a large cave that extended some 30 metres up into the rock at an angle. It was cool inside and water seeped through the rock creating an ideal environment for ferns to grow. The ponds and gardens lay far below us and the view to them and the mountain ranges beyond them was spectacular. As good a place as any and better than most, we snacked and took a rest.
Making our way up further, we found a weakness through the cliffs and scrambled up to the summit. As it turned out, this route put us just below the summit, not too far from the walking track. We joined it and after orientating ourselves and figuring out which direction to go, made our way back down towards the hut.
Along the way we met several people heading to the summit, when they saw us with our helmets they asked us if we were the climbers?
"Umm, yeah, we had planned to climb" I asked questioningly "how did you know that?"
As it turns out, the hikers who had left the previous days had told the groups coming up of 2 climbers that had been waiting at the top hut trying to climb the mountain. The bush telegraph was alive and well and the story had exaggerated and enlarged to the stuff of legends. I believe people expected to find 2 bearded mountain men in tattered clothes, living off berries and bugs. We chatted to them awhile, probably disappointing them at how unremarkable our survival of the last 3 days had been and made our way back to the hut. We passed several more people who regarded us in the same way and it was evident that we had become minor D grade celebrities.
The hut was packed when we arrived, everyone had been waiting at Vera hut for the weather to improve and had now taken full advantage of the break to make their way to Tahune. We were greeted warming by the new groups and stories were exchanged and questioned asked by the bewildered hikers. A quick climbing presentation on gear and techniques was given to the few people that couldn't understand the hows or even why we would climb the mountain. Once we explained the basics of climbing and how all the gear worked, you could see the mystery and wonder leave their eyes and we quickly went from mountain folklore to the 2 smelly guys living in the corner of the hut.
Sometime the illusion really is better than truth.
It was decided over dinner that we wouldn't attempt the Sydney route, the original climb we wanted to do. At 380 metres it was probably too big an undertaking given the stability of the weather and we weren't properly equipped if we had to spend the night out on the cliff. A smaller climb seemed the smarter choice so it was decided that Tierry le fronde was our target for the next day. At 150 metres and only 5 pitches, it would give us an idea of what we were in for and we could escape back to the ground much easier and quicker if something went wrong.
We racked gear, sorted ropes and headed for bed.
This morning we were both up early hanging out the window. It looked good. We both had big grins on our faces and we inhaled breakfast and coffee. We geared up and with well wishes from the hikers in the hut, most still in bed, we headed up the track. The higher we climbed, the more emotions started stirring within me. Its always a strange feeling for me, heading to the start of an unknown climb, excitement, calm logic, trepidation, flashes of dread and lots of nervous energy. All these feeling rose and fell as we made our way over the saddle and descended to the base of Tierry le Fronde. There was wind swirling around from the backside of the mountain but it didn't feel too strong so Rich tied in and started up the steep, vegetated gully. Protection was sparse at best and a bit of creative gardening was needed to find any good (good enough) placements. Rich climbed past a small overhang and disappeared above it. The rope kept moving so I fed it out. Like a fisherman who cant see whats there, but knows what the different tensions in the line means, belaying your partner blind is definitely an art and something we had become quite practiced in. The line went still after 40 or so metres had been let out, I knew Rich had reached the base of the cliff and waited for Rich to build an anchor. Ten minutes went by and suddenly I felt 3 tugs on the rope, this meant that he was safe and ready for me to climb. I yelled out to him but received no reply. That was odd, he wasn't THAT far above me. Knowing the signals we had worked out on our many climbs I knew he was ready and I started to climb, sure enough the slack was taken in. I was definitely on belay and I climbed to join him above.
As I pulled around the roof I realized what had happened, the wind was howling around the side of the mountain, we had been protected from most of it until now. I could see Rich about 15 metres above me but he didn't look to happy. With every step higher the wind grew more ferocious. When I did reach him we were both being battered back and forth by the powerful gusts. We both looked at each other then up the face, it was even more exposed than where we currently were. The thought of delicate climbing and sparse protection in this wind would leave the safety margins rather thin. It was decided to abandon any attempt at climbing, it was just too dangerous, we were almost being blown over and we were standing on a flat platform, it just wasn't worth the risk. A sling was tied to a nearby rock and we repelled back to the ground. A few obscenities were let loose, dejected shakes of the heads and with slumped shoulders we looped the ropes back up and trudged our way back to the hut. The trip back was filled with "what ifs" and whether we should have tried anyway. Self doubt and disappointment all made for a miserable walk back down.
Thankfully there was no one back at the hut and we didnt have to hide our disappointment. We dumped the gear and made some lunch. After a rest and a bit of hindsight, we realized we had made the right decision but it didn't help that much. I decided to try and make something of the day and wanted to hike out to Irenabyss, a campsite used by kayakers on the Franklin. It was a 16 km round trip with a drop of 1000 metres to the river, a bit of hard hiking was exactly what I needed to shake off the disappointment. I set off around 1pm with some basic supplies and headed down to the Franklin. Along the way I met 2 people hiking the other way, they had rafted down the Franklin in inflatable kayaks and were hiking out from Irenabyss back down the Frenchmans track, we chatted about it for awhile with me bombarding them with questions, I wished them well and we parted ways. Thinking of this for awhile the idea planted itself, I was already making plans for a future trip.
The trip along the northern ridge is exposed and spectacular. The views were amazing and the dejection of the morning started to fade. I could see all the way to Mt Ossa and over to Macquarie harbor. The wind was cold and fierce but in spite of this I was working up a sweat and kept moving down the ridge towards the river.
I reached Irenabyss and found a peaceful spot on the banks of the Franklin, I sat here for what seemed like hours and recharged my soul. The river here is remote a beautiful, there was no one around and listening to the tannin stained water flowing over the rapids was soothing and peaceful. Unfortunately the walk back up to Tahune hut was anything but and the 1000 metre climb back up from the river almost killed me! I reached the hut by 8pm, staggered in the door, mumbled pleasantries to the new influx of hikers and collapsed in my bunk. I was woken sometime later to Rich shaking me, he had made dinner while I slept and with appreciation, I hovered it down. We talked while we ate and decided that the next day was our last chance to climb, it was our final day up here and with another weather system moving in, it was going to be tomorrow or never. It was decided to try to get to the top regardless, the weather looked good and we had nothing to lose. With a new enthusiasm and probably a little desperation, we sorted gear one last time and tried to sleep.
This was it, the best weather we had seen so far. The wind was still and the cloud light. The hikers in the hut wished us well and we marched up the track for the last time. We were soon standing at the bottom of the cliff, we felt excited and with the weather looking so good were keen to get things started. I lead the access pitch and with yesterdays beta, was soon at the top and bringing Richard up. He racked the gear on his harness and took off up the rock, the real climb had begun. About 25 metres up I saw him hesitate and stop moving. We had started a little too far right and he had 2 choices, traverse left over a rather blank section or keep climbing the crack and hope for a better traverse higher up. Always one for crack climbing, Richards preferred style he kept heading straight up, yelling warnings to me when he found a piece of rock that was loose and precariously balanced. He kept climbing and stopped under a roof. "you have to go left" I yelled, "the belay is directly to your left!" Due to the remoteness of the climbs here, the route are not as obvious and we were making it up as we went along. Rich inched his way under the roof and I could see by his body language he wasn't happy about it. A few nervous meters later he was through and standing on the arete. "I've found the belay!!" he screamed down, more grateful relief than factual statement. I started to climb and soon found myself at the same loose rock Rich had warned me about, a piece the size of a door was rocking back and forth and was the only thing to hold onto, I delicately moved past it trying to put as little pressure on it as I could, adventure climbing indeed! I reach the roof after another 10 delicate metres and saw what Rich had balked at. The traverse under the roof was about 4 metres long with a very narrow, finger tip crack between the wall and the roof and the shoes were merely smeared against the smooth rock. I looked over to rich and he knowingly smiled "Its all there bud, but take it easy" I took out the cam he had placed at the start and made my way across, only the very tips of my fingers were making contact with the crack, feet almost slipping on every move and I eased my way across and joined Rich congratulating him on a great lead.
The first pitch had taken longer than expected so we swapped gear and headed straight up the arete which was easier climbing with much better weaknesses in the rock to place protection and clip the rope in. Rich kept calling out the rope length so I knew where the belay was suppose to be. At 20 metres it was nowhere to be found, no obvious stance or weakness in the rock, I decided to keep climbing as I was enjoying the pitch and still had 40 metres of rope. I took a crack system to the right and followed it up, there wasn't as much protection here but the climbing wasn't too hard so I kept going. At 30 meters I reached a roof, there was a nut stuck in the crack above it and although it looked like it had been there for several years, I clipped it. I managed a cam in the crack below the roof and although not great, it was nice to have it! "take rich!" I yelled, meaning for him to pull the rope in so I could hang on it to inspect the roof and how to climb over it. Looking at the nut, it was starting to rust on the wire and looked wedged for all eternity, someone had obviously fallen trying to get over the roof and I did not want to be the second. I reached as high over the roof as possible, found a small hold and with feet smearing on the wall below pulled myself up and out as far as I could go. I pulled my hand to my chest and with my free hand groped in a wide arch above me for the next hold. There was nothing, I searched every inch of rock but it was completely smooth. I took a deep slow breath, trying to ignore the burning in my right arm as started to loose strength, my left foot skidded of the wall adrenaline shot through me and i clamped onto my one good hold for all I had, I got my foot back on the wall, felt one last time for a hold and and yelled to Rich to take again. With 70 metres of empty space, 2 dodgy pieces protecting me and 10 metres to my last piece, retreat was the smart option and I wasn't about to try that roof again. I settled myself and waited for the metallic taste in my mouth to subside. I very delicately down climbed 15 metres and moved around a fin of rock into another crack system. I looked up and could see the route description we had read laid out perfectly above me. I let out a little curse, maybe a little louder than little and started the process all over again. A few meters up I found an old rusty piton, an iron spike that you would hammered into a crack and clipped the rope to. It looked as if a would disintegrate in a soft breeze and reminded me of a Cadbury Flake chocolate bar Although useless I was sure this was an original piece put up by the first people to climb this route. I was on the correct route and passing this small piece of climbing history I felt humbled at the fortitude of the climbers that first came here back in 1962. I reached what looked like a good belay and set up my anchor, I clipped into it and called safe to Rich. Somehow I had missed the 2nd belay and had climbed pitches 2 and 3 together. 50 metres of the most character building climbing i had ever experienced. As Rich made his way up I looked around and took in our surrounds for the first time, the view was breathtaking, I was perched on a rock about 2 by 3 feet wide on the edge of the arete and could see for perhaps 80 kms across half the horizon. I could see Mt Ossa in the furthest distance and on the other side, Straun and the Southern ocean. Rich joined me soon enough and it was was turn to give congratulation. We both laughed in relief and acknowledgement and swapped gear for another pitch.
Our third pitch, forth in the description, traversed directly left of the belay for 6 meters, up for 15 then back right for 6 to the next belay. Rich would end up directly above me via a rope stretching and roundabout way. He delicately made his way across the rock which was thin on hold and protection. He balanced his way across and disappeared up the rock. I kept feeding rope out and held ready when it stopped moving. 20 minutes later Rich called out from what seemed like a few meters above me, he was safe and ready for me to climb. I started across the traverse and gave Rich some silent recognition, another thin and difficult traverse. I climbed the chimney and reached another roof, to the other side of it Rich was smiling "Enjoy this one!" was his only comment. I started my way across hanging precariously of the edge out into space. "Have a look below" Rich said with amusement, I looked below and could see the ground some 100 meters direct below me. "Ok, that's pretty wild!" I replied as I locked into the anchor for safety. We sat here for awhile and enjoyed some lunch, we only had one pitch to go with plenty of daylight left and we took photos and relaxed awhile. Again we discussed the problems of the world but came no closer to solving them.
The next pitch was mine and was directly above us. There were 2 crack systems to choose from, the left seemed to be the cleanest line with the right being slightly overhung and loose. We had found enough excitement on this climb so I opted for the left side. I set off up the crack and before long found myself hanging onto a door size piece of rock that rocked menacingly, I gentle climbed past it to the next section, again it rocked back and forth, and another. 8 meters of the most unstable rock Ive ever come across, Frenchmans cap was not going to give up its prize without a fight. I finally found some good rock, clipped the rope to a good cam and moved up under another roof. This was another bold traverse and I set a cam near the start and started across, hanging off my arms again, I shuffled across with my feet just managing to find security. It was too precarious to place gear so I kept moving hoping to find a good spot. About 4 metres along I saw a good size crack above me and hoping I had judged the size correctly, grabbed a cam and threw it as deep as I could. It stuck perfectly and I reached up and clipped the rope. "Yeeeeoooowwwww!!!" I yelled with joy and screamed to Rich "You'll love this! Another easy traverse!" his reply a sardonic "yeah, right!" I reached over a small roof and hauled myself up onto the ledge above. I started to move up again but the rope drag was horrendous, it wasn't worth struggling for the last 20 meters so I set up another belay and called for Rich to climb. He soon popped over the roof shaking his head at the traverse he had just finished, If nothing else today, we were building character! Excitement started to take us, we were only 20 or so meters from the top, we took photos and swapped gear for the last time. Rich took off and before long I heard a loud whoop over the valley. "CLIMB WHEN READY!" he sung out and I was soon at the top with him, the biggest smiles on our faces and the pure joy of achieving our goal. We took more photos, yelled thanks and loving sentiments to the mountain, coiled the ropes and made our way back towards camp. We felt as though we were floating down the mountain, the joy of even getting on the rock after that much weather was amazing, to get to the top of the climb was beyond anything I had felt before. We had been tested every step of the way but had persevered and helped each other when things got tough. We got back to the hut and needed to celebrate, unfortunately we had drunk our Scotch waiting out the rainy weather and all we had left was blue Gatorade and chocolate, it didn't matter, it was a celebration and that horrible Gatorade tasted like chilled champagne. We cooked a huge meal and talked for hours about every part of the climb. Before long exhaustion overtook me and I went to bed worn out, relaxed and content.
We had earned a sleep in and we both lazed about in our bunks until the late hour of 9. I was looking forward to the walk today back to Vera. Firstly, it was almost all downhill. Secondly, with most of our fuel and food gone , the packs felt like day packs against the memory of the hike in.
We eventually got up and spent the next few hours packing gear and cleaning the hut. We were the only ones left up here and it felt as if I was saying goodbye to a friend. This little hut had kept us warm and dry the whole trip and it was hard to leave it. In way of thanks we striped the hut out and cleaned it from top to bottom, it looked fresh and clean and hopefully the next group would do the same.
After much procrastination, packs were shouldered and we started the walk out of Tahune lake and across the ridge. The weather was calm and we could still see in all directions. We walked in the shadow of the Tahune face for the first hour and there were many stops to pick out the features we had climbed the day before. Lunch was taken at Rawsons pass and unlike the walk in, Frenchmans Cap was in full view. This last gift from the mountain was relished and with lunch done and a last look we descended the track down to Vera hut.
The last day, the last hike, we would be sitting in the Derwent pub by 7 having a beer. With that thought Rich and I charged through the day. I couldn't decide if we were in better condition than when we started, still running on adrenalin or if it was the loss of 10 kgs from the packs. Either way we made great time and were back at the car park by midday.
Unfortunately our bus wasn't due to arrive until 6 that night but in the friendly style that is Tasmania, someone soon pulled up and offered us a lift to Derwent bridge. We jumped in and thanked them profusly, there we could relax by the fire and wait for the bus to catch up with us. The gentleman who was our chauffeur was an old yachty from Straun. Reg had lived in Tasmania all his life and had sailed every part of it. As it happened, Reg was meeting friends the next day at the hotel and was more than happy to join us for a few ales and a yarn.
I phoned through to the bus company telling them our situation and a laugh came through from the other end. I was told that it happened all the time, to enjoy a beer and the bus would pick us up there at 7. With that sorted I ordered the biggest steak on the menu and the bartender even shouted us a jug of beer after hearing the story of our adventure. The locals started pouring into the pub and before long we were playing pool, singing bad jukebox songs and spilling more than a few drinks.
Soon enough the bus pulled into the car park and we dragged ourselves away from the now lively pub. The packs were thrown into the bottom of the bus and after negotiating our way onto the bus, collapsed into the cushioned seats and fell asleep. The bus pulled into Hobart around 11pm and we stumbled up the road to the backpackers. After a very long, hot shower I changed into clean clothes and laid my head down for a minute, the only thing I remember is pulling the blanket up over me at some point in the night.
I was up early, feeling better for a good sleep and at the airport by 7. The queue for check-in was long and I felt a little uncomfortable being surrounded by so many people, I could hear several of them complaining about the wait and I suddenly wanted to be back up on the mountain. An elderly woman behind me asked where I had been and I told her of the last 10 days. She smiled politely and offered "well dear, at least your out of there now" I didn't know how to explain to her how that was the exact opposite to how I felt. Eventually checked in was achieved and after the monotony of the security checks I bought my first real coffee in a week and waited to board.
I sat there reflecting on the trip and what we had both gone through over the last week. We had both been pushed to our limits, both physically and emotionally. We had helped each other keep moving on that soul crushing walk in. Both fought to control our fears on the climb, struggled with the boredom and frustration of the weather and spent days stuck in a small cabin. Not only had we made it through this adventure, we had made it through laughing and smiling for most of it. There is growth in struggle and I believe we were both stronger for it, both as individuals and as friends.
As I walked down the jetway to the plane I started laughing, Richards parting question still rang in my ears "so, come back next year for that Sydney route?"
Who was I kidding, I was already forgetting about the bad bit. Of course I'd be coming back!