Thursday, 16 October 2014

Outback in two movements - Moonarie

Moonarie in hand-jam major

Neil has been trying to get me to go to Moonarie for about 15 years.  Part of the problem is that from Sydney, it's about twice as long a trip as getting to Araps.  Instead of 13 hrs you are looking at approx 18, before you find yourself trundling through a rutted track on the eastern edge of Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges, to a dusty campsite that would be home for the next week.  Despite it being the premiere crag of South Australia, and peak season, we were the only inhabitants.  The cliff loomed to the west, but it takes a good 40 to 50 min of uphill trudge to gain the 400 meters of elevation to get there.  Fortunately, most of the heavy lifting is done on the first day, lugging hardware, ropes and paraphernalia up to "top  camp", the only bit of bivyable flat rock at the junction of the two main sections of cliff; Checkers wall to the left and the Flying Buttress and Ramparts to the right.  A water tank, which collects a seep, is not far away, so not even water needs to be carted up the hill on a daily basis, just lunch and a few swigs worth of aqua for the journey.

To say Moonarie is an adventure cliff is an understatement.  Most of the lines follow cracks, with the easier the grade the greater the potential for catastrophe.  If you fall on the easier stuff you are going to hit something.  Rescue would not be trivial, but Neil had an EPIRB in tow just in case.  The Leader Does Not Fall, was far preferable to having to hit a button.

After basking in sun at top camp that first morning, we got the ball rolling with a 3 star big easy, Nervine (12, 3 pitches).  Pine Crack (19, 2 pitches) was next, and whilst Neil thought the hardest move was getting off the deck, I struggled with the jamming section in the middle and took a rest.  The following ramp was also not trivial, so my confidence was a little shaken by the time I reached the belay.  Neil kindly tackled the gymnastic overhang of the second pitch (also 19) which, again, he did in fine style.  To finish the day and settle nerves I lead the pleasant corner pitch of Thor (16).  We ditched ropes and racks at top camp and plodded home.  

Nervine (12)

Neil, spreading'em on Pine Crack (19)
Another party, Nige and Bev on Pine Crack

 Nice rock on Thor (16)

Our second day started chilling in the shade on a couple of single pitchers: Vortex (17), which I thought pretty full-on, given awkward gear placements; then Neil ticked the neighbouring Buckets (19), essentially a sports route with 4 bolts in 25 meters.  Given the lure of more fixed hangers, Neil then embarked on the single pitch of Toblerone (20).  The only problem, however, was that moves to the highly placed first bolt were strenuous and poorly protected.  After some hemming and hawing he backed off and escaped into the corner.  I came up on second.  Neil wedged a tape knot into a constriction, allowing our escape.  

 Neil on The Buckets (19)

We finished the day at the far RH side of the cliff to gawk at the jewel in the Moonarie crown, the Great Wall, a beautiful steepening orange marvel, 50 meters high and 100 meters wide.  Not even Araps has anything that quite matches it.  It's easiest weakness is the LHS arête, Outside Chance (16), which was a joy to lead.  Good gear and position on perfect rock.  For the second pitch Neil led Buckleys (17), which boasts quite a bit more punch for the extra grade.  As we trundled back to camp I could feel that pretty much every muscle in my body was now sore, to the extent that my recently acquired tendinitis in my left elbow no longer stood out.  We decide that the following day would be a "rest day", and that we'd restrict climbing to one of the 3-star big easies.  

 The Great Wall

Outside Chance (16)

Day 3 was a hot one, and the obvious choice was The Flying Buttress route (5 pitches, three at 15), straight up the guts of the buttress itself (Moonarie's answer to The Bard).  It's gargoyle blockiness kept the central line in shade.  Like with many of the routes here, pitch lengths didn't quite match the descriptions, but it turned out to be a pleasant ramble none the less.  That said, if ever there was a climb you didn't want to take a tumble on, this was it.  In the afternoon we trundled into Hawker to update supplies of water, ice, and beer.

 The Flying Buttress (15)
somewhere high on pitch 4

The sign marks the narrow descent scramble
We weren't the only ones at the cliff.  Around camp wandered kangas, emus and sheep.  On the daily hike in our movements were perused from on high by various possies of goats.  Much like a clichéd western, they held the high ground whilst we plodded up through the gullies.  Random bleatings rung out through the day.  One of the lower cliff lines , Goat Crag is so named in homage, with most of the routes themed appropriately - conjuring route names kept us amused during afternoon beers; we thought  "Goat on a Rope ", "In Goat we Trust", and the more modern "Stop the Goats" were obvious oversights.

Bummer of a birthmark

Bird wise, the campsite was super, with the usual assortment of  species one might expect in an inland cypress landscape - red capped robin, weebill, spiny-cheeked and brown headed HE, striated pardalote, yellow rumpled thornbill, whiteface, Horsfields-bronze and black-eared cuckoo, and the enthusiastic rufous whistler.  An unfamiliar but sweet call turned out be a new tick altogether; southern scrub robin.  Up at the cliff the white-eared HE of the lowland scrub was replaced by the spectacular but poorly named grey-fronted.  Another first for me were the Little Woodswallows,  which surfed the cliff eddies along with welcome swallows and fairy martins.  At the top of the crag the stunted vegetation was flooded with the feeble pees of black HE.  Raptor wise, the odd wedgey or kestrel would show.  The other notable tick was Shy Heathren on call, but he was too quick for me to capture on film.

 eggs on legs  

  red capped robin

 rufous whistler

 grey-fronted HE (aka mega-plumed or bubble bird) 
 spiney cheeked HE showing his hipster lamb chops

Day 4 started with the classic Pogoda route up the middle of Checkers Wall (15 going on 17,  4 pitches).  On the third pitch the obvious RH line turned out to be a little more committing than I was expecting with tricky gear in strenuous positions.  Turns out we'd taken a more direct line than that proposed by the guidebook.  Although body and headspace were weary, Neil had us trudging back to the Great Wall so I could have a crack at the 3 star mega classic, Downwind of Angels (19).  It didn't disappoint.  Perfect rock, gear and moves for the 40 meter first pitch. I had to talk myself through fatigue in several of the jamming difficulties as the climb tilted back, but I was thrilled to reach the belay of probably the best pitch at the grade I've ever climbed.  Worth the drive all by itself!  Neil pushed through the short second pitch (also 19 and involving the J word), before we retreated for beer.

Checkers Wall, with the Pogoda in the middle
 Neil on the Pogoda flake

 Downwind of Angels (19), pitch one 

Three nuts and a cam at the belay 

Day 5 started with some sport routes on Checkers wall: Mr Ordinary (21), which was actually really good apart from my inability to tick it onsight without resting on the last bolt; and Better Out Than In (18), which seemed to culminate in a single ring, which we weren't entirely happy with.

Mr Ordinary (21)
Better out than in (18)

Buoyed by a solid start, Neil was keen to jump on a wall route he ticked 15 years ago, The Endless Pitch (23).  Neil was probably climbing better back in the day as this time he ran into difficulty about a third of the way up, culminating in a bit of a hang and a whip, before bailing into the corner.   The corner itself was a 3-star classic, Miles from Nowhere (18), so we opted to keep going.  The second pitch (18), had me grovel through a cruxy jam section, before easier ground blasted up the remainder of a terrific corner.  The last pitch was Neil's (16) and involved launching into an improbable bottomless chimney - improbable because Neil could barely squeeze into it.  It took about 10 min of convulsive thrutching for his entire body to be consumed.  It wasn’t over.  After exiting the first chimney, a second chimney loomed, and halfway up this one's gaze eventually settles face to face with a mummified goat, which must have fallen in.  It had perfect dentition.  At the beer debrief Neil concluded that Moonarie was not the place to be pushing grades, and we both acknowledged that more than just trips to the gym would be requisite before another visit.

 Never Ending Pitch (23) 
  Miles From Nowhere (18), second pitch 

Our 6th straight climbing day on the trot loomed and we started with Asimov, with two pitches at 16.  The first was a joy to lead but the second pitch looked an entirely different kettle of goat; through some "meaty" territory, which Neil correctly interpreted as meaning lumpy and poorly protected.  So much so that after having a good look he backed off and found a corner system to the RHS, which we finished up. There was time enough for one last pitch, with Moondance (15) getting the nod.  I found the middle section quite spartan gear wise despite looking featured enough from the ground.  The biggest climb of the day, however, was cleaning out top camp and lugging it all back down the hill.

Asimov (16)

Moondance (15)

By this stage some climbers from the UK, Nige and Bev, had also been at Moonarie for a few days.  As Neil and I downed a beer at the tents, we worried about their progress on a route up the side of the Flying Buttress, following their movements through my birdwatching scope.  We were fairly sure they'd bail with shadows lengthening fast, but unbelievably they pressed on.  We knew they hadn't been down the descent gully before, which is tricksy enough by day, so I resigned myself to running up the track one last time with a pair of AYUP LEDs to help them down.  I complicated things further just before leaving camp, by treading on my specs and breaking them properly this time, although at least the lenses were intact.  Fortunately Nige and Bev were well into the descent gully by the time I got to them, so potential epic avoided.  

Next morning we packed up, ice-blocked at Hawker, then headed south to the Clare Valley, where Neil sniffed, sipped and spoke a different language, culminating in a box of this and that to be shipped back to Sydney.  We rolled into Adelaide just after 4, checked into a hotel, and I was lucky enough to find a magician at the local chapter of OPSM just before closing, who conjured some hipster Frankenspecs by fitting my lenses into some junk frames they weren't designed for, even finding one arm that matched.  A weeks outback birding without specs would have been a disaster.  Thus concluded the first part of my adventure.  Thanks Neil for introducing me to such an amazing cliff, and for the camaraderie, cooking and laughs we had along the way.  The following day Neil flew out and Anita flew in, whence our Strezelecki adventure would begin.

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