“What are you climbing?” asked a surprised bush walker eyeing off the climbing rack jangling on my backpack. A 60-metre rope hung from the pack borne by my climbing partner, Garry.
“We’re doing Bunny Bucket Buttress,” I replied, flicking a finger northward.
“I know the one,” he said. “That’s an … interesting way to get there.”
His incredulity was justified: Garry and I had just passed the towering eucalypts of Blue Gum Forest and were literally miles away from any crag. But by now, we had gotten used to strange looks and off-hand remarks.
You see, Bunny Bucket is a hugely popular 270-metre. multi-pitch sports climb (Grade 18) on the north side of the prehistoric Grose Valley, deep in the upper Blue Mountains of NSW. The usual approach is to abseil in from an exposed ledge just east of Pierces Pass.
We were on a different mission, however: a walk-in, climb-out traverse of the valley that would require some 12km of trail walking, one kilometre of bush-bashing through unknown terrain up a 30-degree incline to the base of a cliff. There we would spend the night, climbing Bunny Bucket the next day, camping gear and all, before walking back to the car. Alpinism-lite, I called it.
Combining a strenuous walk with a serious climb led my partner Jane, not to mention my Mum, to question our weekend-warrior sanity. So did Garry, to be honest, though an earlier promise had bound him to this adventure.
Falling in Love with the Mountains
I still remember the first time I ever set eyes on the Blue Mountains’ dense eucalypts forests and sandstone cliffs: we were in Leura, at a lookout above the Jamison Valley. A couple of years later, I walked to the base of Bridal Veil Falls at Govetts Leap. After the steep descent, my girlfriend and I lay together on a flat boulder, staring up at the swirling mist of falling water.
It would be more than 10 years before I finally made it to the bottom of the Grose Valley – with my dad on an overnight hike to Blue Gum Forest. Finally, Garry and I would abseil from the cliffs at Pierces Pass to climb the West Face of the Mirrorball, an epic adventure that both scarred and inspired us.
The point of these recollections is that there are many ways and mindsets through which to approach a wilderness like the Blue Mountains. Part of this traverse’s allure was to link them all up, and to challenge myself in ways that would have seemed impossible when I first looked out over the Jamison Valley.
The Shaky Descent to Junction Rock
As the leader, I had planned every step of this mini-expedition, right down to weighing every packed item and tabulating it in a spreadsheet (total base pack weight was 6,174 grams, excluding water and climbing rack, in case you were wondering). And Garry and I had trained hard. In fact, I had never trained so hard in my life.
Jittery legs took me by surprise then as we left Govetts Leap lookout. Even when we had passed the almost-vertical steps and muddy path that hug the cliff below, the sensation remained. Maybe it was the fact of launching straight into a steep descent or maybe it was residual nervousness over what lay ahead…
One Kilometre of Pain
As the Grose River started to swing west towards its source, the imperious cliffs of the valley’s north side came into view. I had never seen them from this angle before. Though I was almost skipping along the track by this stage, the unforgiving slopes that lay beneath seemed insurmountable in parts, the tree cover split here and there by near-vertical sandstone outcrops.
After a while, I started to pick out features of the rock faces I had studied so many times: the unmistakeable, wand-like pinnacle of the Mirrorball next to which we hoped to camp; the darker ironstone face of Bunny Bucket’s 70-metre headwall, stepped in from the lower cliff.
By 5pm we were directly south of the Mirrorball. Stocked up on water, we crossed at a sandy beach where large boulders broke the river into small cascades. As the water mule with the heavier pack, I lagged behind Garry as he picked his way through the knee-high scrub. It was hard, sweaty going but definitely not as bad as feared. After a constant battle with a variety of prickly ground cover, the forest started to thin out. The cliffs, glowing orange in evening light, shone through the branches.
What I had hoped would be a big enough camp site for our tarp turned out to be two narrow patches of dirt on a slight angle, snug up against the cliff: good enough for a separate bivvy each, but only just. The godsend, however, was a large pool beneath a soak a couple of hundred metres’ scramble away, its surface completely still in the silence of sunset. Warmed by early summer sun, the rock radiated heat all night and we slept comfortably.
The Final Push
Climbing is an exercise in risk management on the one hand and complete trust in your climbing partner on the other. Looking back on video footage later, I could see a slight shake in Garry’s hand as he tied in to the rope at the base of Bunny Bucket Buttress. In the moment, I failed to pick up on his mood, brought on by the memory of our first attempt to free climb the route: a physically brutal day that had destroyed Garry’s immune system for two weeks.
“We should just haul the packs up the crux roof section,” he said, testily, voicing his major concern – carrying a heavy pack up the very same climb.
“Maybe,” I replied, half-annoyed at this premature admission of defeat. “Why don’t we make the call when we get there?”
The roof in question sits just below the ironstone headwall, with huge exposure, about 150 metres into the climb. To my mind, the delicate traverse required to reach its lip represents the scariest, if not hardest, move of the entire climb. I had also suffered excruciating cramp half-way across on our first attempt.
But for me, the mental battle was over: we had bush-bashed up the unknown terrain that I had agonised over topo maps and Google satellite photos. For Garry, the hard part was just beginning. Either way, we were committed now, and had to trust in each other and our preparation.
Beneath the Roof
The first few pitches, up a technical but less-than-vertical slab, were a breeze, even though nerves got the better of Garry on the first tenuous moves of the climb. Normally a strong climber, he had to hang from the first clip while he refocused. Before long, we were scrambling up the easy mid-section of the route, a 30-40-degree slope, interrupted by the odd boulder.
We had made great time and stopped to refuel. Ahead of us lay only the roof section and the headwall. With 150 metres of climbing under the belt, Garry’s confidence had returned and we agreed to climb with packs as planned.
A party from QUT’s Outdoors Club caught up with us, so we let them go first. I watched intently as the leader, Joe, stepped tentatively across the traverse, before hurriedly clipping in. He shook out his arms briefly before pushing up and around the lip of the roof, letting out a holler as his left hand hit a big jug.
My turn to lead came soon enough. A few deep breaths and I was up the wall, easily getting to the hard move at the end where I felt fear for the first time that day.
“Move your foot to the left!” Garry shouted.
“Shut up!” I yelled back.
I didn’t feel secure but had committed to the move; I didn’t want any distractions. I got the quickdraw in and clipped the rope. Only then did I look down. My left foot was centimetres from a large edge that would have supported most of my bodyweight.
“Oh,” I shouted down sheepishly. “I see what you mean.”
It didn’t matter: I had made the clip. I pulled over the lip, pumped but exultant.
“You’ve got this,” I told myself, forearms burning, as I worked my way up the beautifully featured wall. “Place your feet. Just keep it together.”
The view from the headwall’s ledge is spectacular and one reserved for climbers alone. The valley narrows down to the Grose River’s thin gap between the trees, hundreds of metres below. Another ironstone cliff face rises just to the west, its dark stone riddled with jagged edges and pockets, offering a sense of enclosure despite the massive drop. Today, a day-moon floated in the blue above it like a sentinel.
Garry joined me soon enough, having executed the traverse to perfection, and pushed up the final 40 metres of the headwall – fun climbing with awesome exposure, nothing but 200m of air beneath us. I felt in absolute control as I seconded the route, then pushed on to the final, easy pitch without resting. It was only at that moment that I knew we had the expedition in the bag.
We weren’t done yet: Garry’s feet were killing and we still had a long, hot walk back to the car when we reached the top. Nonetheless, the moment required acknowledgement. I smiled and slapped the rock, giddy with a sense of accomplishment 12 months in the making. I turned back to look at Garry, my partner and my friend, perched on a narrow ledge, above a backdrop of sun-lit forest and zig-zagging cliff-lines: the Grose Valley, a landscape we had pieced together and stitched into ourselves. The traverse was complete.
James Stuart climbs, hikes and canyons as much as he can, and blogs about it at www.thelifeoutdoors.com.au. He’s also got a full-length collection of poems to his name: Anonymous Folk Songs (Vagabond Press). He lives in Sydney with his partner, daughter and two guinea pigs.