Trip Report – Mount Buffalo Epic

26 01 2010


Climbing is all about adventure, and getting out in the wilderness to experience the world in a very real sense. Somehow the combination of being out in the wilds and challenging oneself can make the whole experience much more meaningful, and definitely more memorable. And sometimes, when the best laid plans go out the window, and you find yourself in situations where you have to draw on inner strengths you never knew you had, the memories can become etched in your brain. I think this will be one of those adventures.

Chapter 1 – The Pintel and Other Stories

Mount Buffalo is just stunning. Up in the high plains of the Victorian Alps, The Buffalo Plateau is a massive expanse of boulders and rock tors which expands over 31,000 hectares. In 2003 and 2006, bushfires ripped through the area leaving much of the park’s oldgrowth Snowgums looking like white bones, skeletons of the past forest. In recent years though, the park’s plants and wildlife have made an immense recovery, and the undergrowth is thick with vegetation, in some places so much so that to traverse this wilderness either takes extreme willpower or a big machete (but i only had some nail clippers)!

View over some of Mount Buffalo's rock gardens - Photo Hayley Franklin

View over some of Mount Buffalo's rock gardens - Photo Hayley Franklin

We arrived at the top of the mountain at 4:30pm with the intention of getting in some climbing before dark. The crew was our usual bunch, Richard (the General…), Luke, Hayley and I. The heat of the day was not so bad on The Plateau, about 10 to 15 degrees cooler than in the valley where we were camping, but a lot of the rock had been in the sun all day, so we wanted to find some faces in the shade. We eventually settled on a climb called The Pintel, a grade 16 (5.8) 3 pitch trad route right up the tallest point on the mountain, a peak called The Horn.

The Horn - Mount Buffalo

The Horn - Mount Buffalo

This was an awesome climb. We rapped off the lookout, much to the bemusement of sightseeing tourists, straight off the edge for 80 or so metres. We decided to climb in pairs, so I teamed up with Luke, and Hayley and Richard were the other team. Luke and I abseilled to the bottom of the first pitch, while Hayley and Rich made their way to the Pintel Left Hand Variant, which was the second pitch of the climb.

Rich was leading off from the first belay point, Hayley on belay, while Luke started at the very bottom, while I belayed. The first pitch of The Pintel is a pretty easy hand-crack which makes its way up towards a roof. Luke made easy work of this, placing a cam or a hex every few metres. It was on a decent gradient, not so steep, so progress was quick. Meanwhile, Rich had set off on the second pitch, The Pintel Left Hand Variant, which from my viewpoint 25 metres below, looked like it was going to be a challenge.

Richard and Hayley at the base of The Pintel Variant

Richard and Hayley at the base of The Pintel Left Hand Variant

I heard a couple of grunts and groans from above, as Rich made his way up the first few placements.  At one point, near the top, he yelled, “I’m gonna make it!” Luke yelled back to Rich encouragingly “Famous last words, Rich!” and chuckled.

Rich was soon at the top, and Hayley seconded, while Luke set up at the first belay point. I missed seeing Hayley’s ascent as I was already climbing. I quickly made my way up the crack of the first pitch, hand and foot jamming, collecting the gear as I went. The only thing that made it a bit sketchy was the fact that there was a fair bit of vegetation in this crack, and my feet would slip occasionally.

Once at the top Luke tied me in, and I was belaying him on the 2nd pitch. It was only now that I could see what was in store for us both. The Pintel LH Variant was a long fingercrack under a metre thick flake, forming a corner into the main face of the climb. It started on a slow but gradual upward curve, the flake getting thinner as it rose, but the crack widening to hand sized. I could see Luke, as he ascended, placing gear into the crack, small cams, medium cams, and medium nuts. There was very little for his left foot to stand on while he did this, so a lot of his balance depended on his left hand jammed deep under the lip of the crack.

Soon he was out of my sight, and i heard similar noises from him that I’d heard Rich making earlier. I was starting to get a little nervous. If both Rich AND Luke had trouble on this, I was screwed!

I heard Luke yell “You’re on belay Marty!”, so I dismantled the belay station, and stood up gingerly to see this climb properly. This looked like it was going to be difficult. The first move off the deck involved some high-stepping, pulling up onto the crack and stemming out my left foot onto a 2mm edge, trying to find some sense of balance. Then upward toward a break right in the flake as it thinned. I slowly edged my feet up, removing gear as I reached it. Thankfully, the crack was wide enough to fit my hand into.

The next thing I knew, the crack tapered out to nothing… Luke had placed 2 very small wires in the end of the crack, then it disappeared completely! Looking up I couldn’t really see any good holds, and hardly any edges for my feet. Looked like this was going to be a slabby finish. I find slabbing to be the most challenging part of climbing, mostly because I spend too much time in the gym, so whenever I’m presented with a slab, I get a little nervous.

I stopped and collected my thoughts, before committing to the moves, and then noticed that the rock just above me was covered in irregular features, mini tufas, sharp edges and the crack even seemed to reappear. Moving slowly I stepped up and took hold of one of the tufas, and a couple of moves later, I was at the top!

“Woo! That was great!” I exclaimed, Luke and I exchanging a high-five as he gathered up the remaining rope. “That was great!”

The sun was beginning to set by this point, and I’d had my fill of climbing for the day, so I made my way up the last easy pitch on top-rope, while Rich and Luke were preparing to tackle Peroxide Blonde (20***, 5.10c) on top-rope also.

Luke was first, and he made his way up the arête with ease, laying back off his left hand and finding feet where he could. He was up in minutes, making it all look too easy.

Luke on Peroxide Blonde top-roped

Luke on Peroxide Blonde top-roped

Rich followed up, luke belaying from the lookout and he was at the top just as the sun was setting. The bogong moths were out in force that evening, and kestrels swooped down from the sky to grab a meal in the sunset. It was a brilliant end to the day.

Hayley in the Sunset

Hayley in the Sunset

Chapter 2 – The Descent

The plan was simple.

Wake up at around 6am, drive to the Hump, abseil off and start climbing. We’d be done by midday hopefully so the sun wouldn’t be too harsh. The Initiation (18, 5.10a) is on the 150m west-facing wall, so the sun would reach that wall in the early afternoon. By all accounts, this climb was meant to be a mega classic, 80+ metres in 4 pitches of varied climbing, including slabbing, hand-jamming, layback flakes, traversing and bridging. Sounds great!

We arrived at the carpark a little after 8. The walk-in was meant to be about 40 mins on well maintained tracks, so we were hoping to be on the wall and climbing by 9ish. And this is where we found our first stumbling point. The secondary track leading off the main track was quite hard to find. The undergrowth here was very thick, the track appearing and disappearing underfoot as we went. Eventually we found what we thought was the top of the climb. Looking out from this vantage point was breathtaking! The valley below dropped away steeply to a field of boulders and skeletal snow-gums spreading away as far as the eye could see.

Luke atop the abseil chains

Luke atop the abseil chains

We had some trouble locating the abseil chains. We looked around for half an hour, finally finding them on the front of a large capstone that overlooked the valley. So, stashing all our packs, except mine, we worked out that the descent would involve a 2-tiered abseil, one by one on doubled-up 60m ropes. Each of us would descend the first part, and all meet up clipped in to the rap-chains halfway down the face.

So with that, Rich (our trusted Captain, General) tied the ‘european death knot’ and went first over the edge, then Hayley, then Luke. I was last to descend. I threaded  the ropes through my belay device, double and triple-checking that I had them also threaded through my locking carabiner, and that it was locked off. Nerve-wracking stuff. one false move, or incorrectly threading my belay device, and I’d go cartwheeling down past the other three without time enough to say goodbye, and be smashed on the rocks 150m below us. (very dramatic!)

Moving over the edge, the going was slow. Twin ropes make for immense drag on the belay device, so it was all I could do to push my way downward. I could see below me the other three, connected to the wall by a mess of slings, ropes and quickdraws, about 20 metres down. It wasn’t until I arrived at this rap point that I realised what we were staking our lives on.

Luke pulling rope through on the hanging rappel

Luke pulling rope through on the hanging rap point

Two 5mm bolts, connected by a stainless steel chain, fixed into the face. Who knows how long they’d been there, how deep they go into the rock, how secure the surrounding rock is, or how much weight they could take? All four of us, clipped into these 2 points of steel, still a good 40+ metres from where we wanted to be, and well over 100 metres from the base of the cliff. Rich said jokingly “oh I don’t like the looks of those bolts! we’re putting a quarter of a tonne on those things!” We all laughed, but secretly we were all filled with trepidation.  Luke said ‘nobody move’ as Hayley took him deadly serious and told everyone not to move…

We hung there like bats, trying not to weight the bolts too much, as Rich and Luke pulled the ropes through from the top, threading it back down for the remainder of the decent.  Rich rapped the rest of the way down, then Hayley then Luke. “First on, first off” was the rule of the day. Eventually after mucking about with the ropes, cleaning up the remaining gear, I made my way to the bottom and, with a sigh of relief, unclipped from the rope, happy to have my feet on the relative safety of the rock ledge on which we were all now perched.

Chapter 3 – The Initiation

I waited well over an hour before I started climbing. The first pitch was a 14m fingercrack with limited feet placements, the crack arching slowly rightwards as the flake it was behind thickened to a 15cm ledge above. The sun was already peeking over the face. I looked at my watch. It was already 11am and none of us had climbed yet. (We were not going to finish this climb in the shade.)

The first pitch of The Initiation was the most difficult. Graded 18, it involved a committing pull-on move, followed by working your way up a thick flake, maybe 10cm…

(interuption…guest blogger Hayley Franklin has taken over the airwaves to tell it like it really happened!)

Luke stepped out onto a boulder (quite exposed) to make the first move onto the slab of The Initiation and steadily worked his way up the grade 18 pitch of the climb, finding placements in the narrow crack until he reached the first belay point.   As intimidating as it was from the ledge, Rich tied me in to warm up in the sun before I set off.

Hayley + Rich in the sun

Hayley + Rich in the sun

After finally convincing myself to commit to the first move onto the wall I worked my way up the crack, not long after my left calf was on fire as I collected Luke’s gear and made my way to the first belay ( a smallish but welcomed ledge on an angle).  Luke tied me in and Richard set off below as Luke and I tried to be efficient with re-racking while balancing on the belay ledge.  After we organised ourselves we realised that the sun might catch up to us and bake us onto the wall like pear slugs in the sun, so Luke set off on the second pitch. As I belayed Luke, Rich made his way up but I was not quite in a position to follow up the second pitch as Rich arrived at the ledge – so he waited patiently (like a gentleman) and precariously (….i imagined the pain in his left calf) until Luke yelled ‘Safe’ and I could make room for Rich.

Hayley on the first pitch of The Initiation

Hayley on the first pitch of The Initiation

The second pitch was just lovely – a great hand crack traverse with friendly feet which was a welcome relief.  Luke and I shared some water and sang a little disco tune while we listened to the sound of howling wild dogs (or maybe dingoes) somewhere in the expansive wilderness below.

Luke and I were not sure where the third pitch went so yelled to Rich and Marty (who had the guide in his backpack),  for some direction – the wind carried away every second word but Luke confidently made his way up the continuation of the handcrack and over a small overhanging flake. As I belayed I loved every second of being out here – so beautiful.  Luke kept moving and I lost sight of him but the rope kept feeding and he finally found the bolts which secured a traverse.   I could hear Luke telling to me that he was at the chimney which ‘had to be’ to next pitch according to our wind swept instructions.

I set off on the third pitch, removing Luke’s gear and heading upwards finally to a rest point to see the bolted traverse – time had passed and we were in full sun although the breeze was lovely and I was still climbing in my jumper (I was hot but I mainly kept my jumper on to protect myself from the granity crystals! – i have delicate skin – haha!).  The traverse was quite exposed (i thought) and after making my way across I could finally see the smiling face of my belaying brother – and a bit of a hairy down climb before reaching a grassy belay ledge.

Luke and I looked at the chimney, about a 3m chimney shimmy to a chockstone – how to protect this? As Luke discussed tactics he tied me in perched on a boulder in the shrinking shade.  Luke placed a couple of pieces within reach so he didn’t go sliding off the mountain and moved up to the chockstone, tried a sling, tried again and then wedged a cam under the chockstone and against one side of the chimney – Luke moved up, tangled himself by turning around and then untangled himself somehow without falling and swore at himself for his ballet moves!!!  and off he disappeared into the crack.  The rope kept feeding as Rich arrived at the belay point – saying how ridiculous the down climb was!  Luke was away, after a short while the rope stopped moving… and I yelled out to him….no response…the rope was moving as I yelled again…Luke replied “I think I’m stuck…” in a giggled voice.

oh…what happens if someone gets stuck?  oh….’

The rope kept moving as Luke made his way further – “this is horrendous” came echoing out of the chimney filling me with no great desire to follow!…and then eventually…”safe!”

Off I set.  Rich coached me up to the first chockstone and into the fissure i went.  Luke shouted that I might want to put all my gear on my sides.  I looked into the crack and edged my way along, drop off below, crack of sky above.  As I moved through, the width reduced in the middle, i kept moving until I REALLY THOUGHT I WAS STUCK!

(We resume our commentary by Martin Pribble here…)

Half way up the third pitch, the climb took a sharp right turn, to a traverse across a smooth slab, protected by 3 bolts. I am not the world’s best slab climber at the best of times, but the struggle I’d had getting up the first pitch had my nerves all shot, and my self-confidence was shaky. “Remember, bum over feet!” Rich yelled across to me.

Looking across to the large belay ledge where Rich was standing, I could just see Hayley’s feet disappear up a dark chimney. I made my way down the quite scary and unprotectable angled terrain, probably a drop of 4 metres, down to the belay point below.

I heard Hayley’s voice coming out of the darkness that lay ahead, “I think I’M STUCK!” I looked across at Rich. He was laughing.

This pitch looked odd. A 1.5 metre wide chimney, which closed up to about 60 centimetres after a metre or so. It was about 15 m high with chockstones hanging here and there through it. The first move was a chimney move up 3 metres to a mantle onto a pointy chockstone. The walls of the crack were covered with thick lichen and moss. Looked tricky, and we were all running out of energy. It was 4:30 by the time Hayley had made it out the other end of the chasm. Hayley had left all the gear placed on this pitch to help speed us through it. I could hear Hayley and Luke giggling like schoolgirls on the other side of the fissure.

Then it was Rich’s turn to lead this pitch. He pressed his back against the left wall while inching his feet up the right. I had him on belay, although he would surely hit the deck if he fell. I  moved myself into the best possible position, right underneath him, so if he DID fall, he’d at least fall on me and not on the pointy rocks below. After numerous unsuccessful attempts at attaining the first chockstone, Rich decided it was time for some aid-climbing. “This is shit!” he said angrily.

He hooked a sling through one of the quickdraws which was jammed under the first chockstone, hooked his foot into it and mantled successfully up. He was exhausted, the single move had sapped all his energy, and he took several minutes to recover.

After resting, he made his way into the crack, moving from one chockstone to the next, clipping the rope and squeezing between the ever-narrowing opening between the rock faces. Soon he was out of my sight. I could hear him grunting and groaning, the occasional expletive making it’s way from the darkness.

Then “LUKE! WHAT AM I MEANT TO DO HERE?!” he yelled up to the other party.



I kept feeding rope from below, but then it stopped. “You right Rich?” I yelled into the crack.

No answer.

Luke yelled to him from above “How you finding it Rich?”

“FUUUUUUUUCK OFFFFFF!!!!!!” Rich was angry! He’d spent at least 40 minutes in the darkness. Peering into the crack, I could just see his feet about 20 metres ahead, and 8 metres off the bottom of the chasm. His feet were touching both walls! With a groan, I saw his feet starting to move up again. Then he was out of sight completely.

The rope started moving again, and I knew he had made it out the other end. Peals of laughter were coming from Hayley and Luke on the other side, but not a peep could be heard from Rich.

I was dreading this. I was last in, so I knew it could be done, but even still this looked horrendous!

Well, no point in hanging around! I had to go through there, there was no other choice. I quickly dismantled the belay, while the rope came tight from the other end. “THAT’S ME!” I yelled through to Rich.

Hayley yelled “There’s no way you can wear your backpack through there”. Luke added “You’ll have to tie it onto the rope about a metre in front of you, and kick it through!” OH GREAT!

I thought I’d try a different approach. Instead of back on one wall, and feet on the other, I bridged across between the wider section, and moved up into the thinner part, my hands just reaching over the pointy chockstone. Heaving, I mantled on, and had to reach back over the stone to collect the cam wedged underneath.

“That wasn’t so hard,” I told myself with false confidence.

The next few moves were OK, just pushing against both walls, and moving form one chockstone to the next. I noticed as I went, there was blood on some of the sharper crystals of granite. Not a good sign.

Then the walls closed in.

It couldn’t have been more than 20cm wide at the narrowest point, opening up above and below, and dropping away beneath about 8 metres or so. It wouldn’t matter if I had slipped, there was no way I’d fall, but I did fear being wedged in there and spending the rest of my days as a human chockstone! I attempted to move forward.


I managed to back out of the gap, unable to look where I was going as I couldn’t turn my head around. Try again (Note to self: A peaked cap under a helmet in a confined space is a no-no).

STUCK! I was panicking! “FUCKING HELL THIS IS SHIT! I HATE THIS!” I yelled.

I could hear the other three laughing on the other side. Hayley yelled to me “JUST PRETEND YOUR A STUCK NUT, AND WORK YOUR WAY OUT!”  They all laughed at this, but I was in no mood for fun. This was like a nightmare, being stuck between a mountain and a giant boulder, with no way out but forward.

At this point I was so over this pitch, that I just committed and PUSHED.

I was through. I was THROUGH!

“FUUUUUUUUCK!” I yelled in relief. “I HATE CLIMBING! THAT WAS SHIT! FUCK THAT!” To which Rich replied “I wouldn’t call that climbing…”

It was 6pm by the time I made it out of that hellhole in the side of the mountain. I was scratched and bruised, as was everyone else, they were in good spirits, but I was broken. I’d only spent 20 minutes on that pitch, but it seemed like an hour.

Chapter 4 – Realisation on The Real Initiation (or Outrageous Incompetence)

It wasn’t until we’d packed up and walked 40 minutes down to the car that we checked the guidebook to see what it said about that last pitch. We all agreed, the 4th pitch was an awful way to end a “classic” climb, who in their right mind would finish a climb like that? Luke and Hayley mused that it might have been an “in-joke” among climbers, a kind of trial-by-fire which you had to pass in order to be “Initiated”.

In the guide it said of the 4th pitch “DO NOT make your way down to the grassy ledge below.” Instead it said to go up onto the LARGE chockstone and climb the beautiful handcrack to the top. (WE’D GONE THE WRONG WAY!)

Expletives were thrown around, mostly aimed at Luke for taking us up what was possibly the worst pitch of climbing ANY of us had encountered. Hayley and Luke both found this hilarious (must be some weird genetic quirk in the Franklin DNA).

We laughed that Luke had made a First Ascent, and therefore could name the climb. “I’ll call it The REAL Initiation!”

Rich answered, “No Luke, I’d call it Outrageous Incompetence!”

Epilogue – What we’ve learned

1. You should always know what you’re climbing yourself by studying the guide before your start.

2. If it looks like you shouldn’t climb it and you don’t want to climb it, then don’t climb it. (someone else must have climbed this route before but perhaps would rather pretend it never happened…)

3. Luke learnt that adventure climbing is fun!

4. Richard learnt that he has a new benchmark for incompetence

5. Marty learnt he was claustrophobic

6. Hayley learnt that small spaces are hilarious once you have made it out, even if you are missing some skin

7. Hayley and Luke calculated that we climbed at 16 metres an hour

8. Luke wondered why people like to climb chimneys for fun and also that he would like 6 mini jam donuts

9. Rich learnt that his sunscreen was not ‘non-ghosting’ however lasts for 10 hours and makes him better looking.

Future report: Richard’s Driving Dossiers : (or why 4wds should not be allowed on the road) and other assorted conversations that take place on long drives