It was turning into a trip of high drama. Moments earlier, a rock the size of my head had come crashing down. Myself and my fellow climbers shouted at the top of our voices and watched with relief as it came thudding to a halt a couple of hundred metres beneath us. No one was hurt.
And, truth be told, it was all my fault. I have only been climbing for little more than a year, and I’d been abseiling down an adjacent face in Rockaway Gully, Tasmania, when I dislodged the rock with my foot. I’d been hoping to get a better shot of my guide John Fischer, who was about to give our climbing trip another dramatic twist. But we’ll get to that later.
I’d come to Hobart principally for the Australian Wooden Boat Festival, an event held every two years to celebrate all types of sailing vessels, from tall ships and dinghies to canoes and kayaks. The docks of the old whaling port were awash with masts and sails, and sunburnt sailors littered the harbour.
I’d rowed into town with a crew of Scots and Tasmanians aboard a traditional five-oared St Ayles skiff. We’d been part of a 10-day small sailing and rowing boat expedition from Recherche Bay in far south Tasmania to the boat festival, a distance of 100 nautical miles. By the time we arrived, we all poured into the historic Hope and Anchor Tavern on Macquarie Street to down a few well-earned ales amid the cutlasses, hagbuts and harpoons that decorate the walls, and lead the raucous mob in rowdy sea shanties.
From there, we dragged ourselves down Liverpool Street to crash at the comfortably crummy Pickled Frog Backpackers hostel, which boasts that, over the years, it’s “hosted sailors, whalers, smugglers, gold-diggers, daredevils and wanderers” (12-bed dorms from Aus$26/£14 a night). The following morning, I surveyed the litter of casualties curled up on the worn sofas of the lounge, and began to think about my other purpose in visiting Hobart: climbing.
Mount Wellington is 20 minutes from Hobart, and has 400 climbing routes tucked in the rock formations beneath its summit. One of them is a circuit called the Organ Pipes, where the dolerite rock is similar to basalt: columnar with “splitter cracks” and as grippy as rough sandpaper.
My guide was tousle-haired John Fischer, aka Crazy John, an American immigrant to Tasmania, who in 2015 made Isle of Rock, the first film about rock climbing on the island. We were going to climb Fiddlesticks on Flange Buttress, a medium grade 60m gem of a climb, executed in two pitches. I gracefully declined John’s offer to lead and instead followed his fluid and skilful upward motion, playing out rope. John also offers non-climbers an abseiling-only option opening up the roped experience to all, regardless of ability.
By the time we were halfway up, the clouds were parting, the sun was flashing a smile and the views down the Derwent and across to Bruny Island were stunning. “It is one of the better routes of its grade in the whole country,” John said. The hard bits are not too hard, the rock is extremely grippy and all I had to do was trust in the rubber of my climbing shoes. After a celebratory chat at the top, we abseiled back down to our packs.
John has a touch of the “dirtbag” about him. And that is not at all pejorative. American climber Fred “Dirtbag” Beckey (14 January 1923 – 30 October 2017) slept in cars, ate junk food, eschewed patronage and just lived to climb, claiming hundreds of first ascents. “Will belay for food” read his cardboard hitchhiking sign. John had not brought any lunch and had asked fellow climber David Tan to meet him at the summit with a cheeseburger from the urban valley below. It was eagerly anticipated, yet when David arrived he had brought no such luxuries. Instead, he rummaged around in his van like an ibis, a bird unaffectionately nicknamed the “bin-chicken”, to find a curried veggie pie – only a bit past its “sell by date” – and proffered it as an apology.
By the afternoon, John and David were scaling Albert’s Tomb, a 10-metre needle of rock which is extremely difficult to climb.
They were vying with some real life bin-chickens for a perch atop the narrow column. But John’s aim was more ambitious: to jump to the adjacent cliff-face and back, a feat he had performed years earlier. I was watching from on a nearby face, peering anxiously through my camera. David was egging him on from below.
Suddenly, John sprang forward and, somehow, his palms stuck to the coarse cliff opposite.
He climbed a little higher and then dropped like a hawk back on to the table top of the plinth. I exhaled and took my finger off the shutter button.