//dirt­bag dis­patches

Adventure - - Contents - Words by Derek Cheng Im­ages by Derek Cheng, Matthieu Laloup and Chris Davis

Derek Cheng takes us up the To­tum Pole

Try­ing to squeeze a right-an­gled block of rock hard enough to hold all of your weight is no triv­ial task. It de­mands a Her­culean ef­fort in an ab­surd po­si­tion - imag­ine try­ing to hold your­self on to the ad­ja­cent sides of a re­frig­er­a­tor us­ing only your hands.

Now try it while cling­ing to a mas­sive pil­lar of rock ris­ing straight out of the ocean as the wind in­vites you to re­lent to her fury and, far be­low, waves crash into the base with a force usu­ally re­served for wip­ing out en­tire armies.

The Totem Pole, in the south­east cor­ner of Tas­ma­nia, is one of the most epic set­tings for a rock climb. Roughly four me­tres wide on each side, this fa­mous tower stands de­fi­antly amid wa­tery depths that swirl in a frenzy. It is in­hos­pitable, yet mes­meris­ing.

Some­how, over the course of mil­len­nia, the pil­lars of do­lerite sur­round­ing the Totem Pole all col­lapsed. All ex­cept for this re­mark­able, sin­gle tower. The neigh­bour­ing cliff, called The Can­dle­stick, is a seam­less col­lec­tion of sim­i­lar-look­ing pil­lars, giv­ing the im­pres­sion of what the whole cliff line used to look like un­til, some­how, ev­ery­thing around the Totem Pole crum­bled into the Tas­man Sea.

"Imag­ine a match­stick,” said first as­cen­sion­ist John Ew­bank. “Scale it up a hun­dred times un­til it is 70 me­tres high and four me­tres square. Stand it alone in the sea, a sin­gle, free­stand­ing do­lerite col­umn so frag­ile to the eye one dares to hardly breathe.”

Very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion is known about the first as­cent, in 1968. As was the norm for dif­fi­cult climbs at the time, it was aid-climbed, mean­ing Ew­bank and part­ner Al­lan Keller placed climb­ing gear in­side the rock’s cracks and crevices and used them to haul them­selves up. A storm brewed as they topped out, and they ended up spend­ing the night on top, both later pro­claim­ing that they could feel the pole sway­ing in the night. In 1998, British hard-man Paul Pritchard sought a free as­cent, aim­ing to climb it with­out the use of any aid. As he ab­seiled down, a boul­der the size of a mi­crowave came loose and smashed through his skull, paralysing him. His part­ner at the time, Celia Bull, had to haul him to a ledge and run eight kilo­me­tres just to raise the alarm. Even­tu­ally, Pritchard was winched via he­li­copter from the Tote, dropped into a wait­ing boat, and rushed to hospi­tal. He sur­vived, but with lim­ited move­ment on his right side.

Pritchard re­turned in 2016 and climbed to the top of the Totem Pole. Lead­ing him up on this cathar­tic as­cent was his mate Steve Monks, who was the first to free-climb the Totem Pole in 1995 with climb­ing part­ner Si­mon Mentz. Their route be­came a mega-clas­sic but, with a dif­fi­culty grade of 25, not for the scrawny. I was far from strong enough to try it the first time I heard about the Totem Pole, but tales of awe­some tremen­dous­ness from friends who had scaled it planted a seed.

This past sum­mer was my first in Aus­tralia for years, and all climb­ing goals were a dis­tant sec­ond to the Tote. It’s a 90-minute hike to the end of Cape Huay on the Tas­man Penin­sula be­fore your first glimpse of the pole - skinny, tall, hope­lessly alone. It de­fies be­lief, re­ally, that this frail, Kate Moss-pro­por­tioned rock is still stand­ing amid un­savoury el­e­ments.

Even if you have the cheek to at­tempt the climb, just get­ting to the base is an or­deal. The in­struc­tions are straight-for­ward: ab­seil down, swing out to the Tote while still on the rope, and clip your­self into a bolted an­chor. But it’s a stom­ach-churn­ing prospect to lower your­self to­wards a wa­tery vor­tex, let alone hurl your­self from one cliff face to the next.

Ab­seil­ing down felt like be­ing swal­lowed by a gi­ant wash­ing ma­chine. A few me­tres above the sea, I stepped onto a small rock al­cove di­rectly op­po­site the base of the Tote. I turned to face the beast, some seven me­tres away, sep­a­rated by a wa­tery chasm. Every now and then, a lick of wa­ter would lash out from the sea and take a swipe. The winds, so in­nocu­ous at the top, seemed not only much stronger here, but a touch calami­tous.

Sum­mon­ing some­thing akin to courage, I turned my body side­ways, grabbed my rope for luck, and pushed off with my feet. Pa­thetic. The half-hearted ef­fort saw me gen­tly sway to­wards the Tote and re­turn placidly to the al­cove. My next at­tempt was more com­mit­ted, but my arc was too low to reach the bolts, and I swung vi­o­lently back to the op­po­site cliff.

If any­one above was yelling en­cour­age­ment, I was obliv­i­ous, my ears hear­ing only the seething of the sea. I launched again and again un­til … suc­cess! I clipped my­self into one of the bolts and was soon se­cure. My climb­ing part­ner Chris, a tall man with un­ri­valled chin struc­ture, ab­seiled down to join me, and we pre­pared for bat­tle.

But the first sec­tion was sop­ping wet, forc­ing Chris to aid­climb the first few me­tres be­fore free-climb­ing, fi­ness­ing his way higher with grace and com­po­sure. As he neared the half­way ledge, a mas­sive wave surged for­ward and sat­u­rated me as I be­layed.

Chris soon put me on be­lay, and I pulled onto the rock. A se­ries of side-pulls weaved a path higher to a small stance. From there, the holds nar­rowed to al­low only fin­ger-tips. Fo­cus. Breathe. A high foot. An­other fin­ger-tip edge. A short se­quence of hard moves, and then a hold that swal­lowed my whole hand. Glo­ri­ous! What was even more glo­ri­ous was the be­lay plat­form. Some­how, a third of the way up, a gi­ant ledge had man­i­fested, large enough for a slum­ber party.

Now it was my lead, and I gazed up at the in­tim­i­dat­ing fi­nal pitch - a 40m-long saga up the arete. This was a grade that I rarely on­sight - mean­ing to climb cleanly on the first at­tempt - and I couldn’t help but no­tice that an airy space had ma­te­ri­alised in my gut. The first move was bold -a hard, off-bal­ance pull off the plat­form with­out the se­cu­rity of a safety bolt. The rock steep­ened above, with holds ei­ther side of the arete. At one point, I glanced down to the tur­bu­lent wa­ters be­low. What a po­si­tion!

A few bolts higher, a ten­ta­tive tra­verse to the left spat me off. I pulled back on, but the next move, a long, hard pull from small nub­bins in the rock, sent me fly­ing again. About half­way up, I came to the real crux of the pitch. Holds van­ished as I moved to the arete, and soon I was com­press­ing the right-an­gled cor­ner, cling­ing to the re­frig­er­a­tor, push­ing my skin against the rock wher­ever pos­si­ble to max­imise fric­tion. I slapped my right hand up higher on flat, smooth rock, but couldn’t hang on through sheer force of will alone. More air­time.

Af­ter fail­ing at the crux a few times, I asked Chris to lower me back to the ledge so I could of­fer him the lead. If suc­cess­ful, he could on­sight the whole climb.

Now be­lay­ing, I watched Chris make short work of the be­gin­ning, span the tra­verse with his enor­mous wing­span, and then push through the crux on the arete. Such a class act. To­wards the top, he an­gled left to an over­hang, and then back right to a stance near the top, an­nounc­ing his glee with a cry of de­light.

"Ab­seil­ing down felt like be­ing swal­lowed by a gi­ant wash­ing ma­chine."

He put me on be­lay and I started fol­low­ing. My arms were tired, but I re­mem­bered the moves I had fal­tered on pre­vi­ously. It wasn’t un­til the re­frig­er­a­tor move that I hes­i­tated, slapped my hand up the arete again, and then pinged off. But af­ter dan­gling on the rope, I man­aged to paste my foot higher on the rock and step up to a ra­zor’s edge for my fin­ger­tips. Tech­ni­cal, bal­ancy moves awaited me higher. The move­ment near the top was spec­tac­u­lar: del­i­cate climb­ing in an ar­rest­ing po­si­tion. Soon I joined Chris, and then led the fi­nal 5m block to reach the sum­mit. I raised my arms in sheer joy and, to my merry sur­prise, a huge roar came from over my left shoul­der. I turned to see a crowd of cheer­ing on­look­ers at a view­ing plat­form at the top of the hik­ing track. There was one more chap­ter of the ad­ven­ture still be­fore us. Get­ting back to the main­land re­quires a sec­ond rope and some trick­ery to set up a Ty­rolean Tra­verse. When set up, a taut rope leads from the top of the Tote to a block of rock on the main­land, about 12 me­tres away. In the fi­nal test of your abil­ity to shun self-preser­va­tion in­stincts, you clip your­self to the rope via your har­ness and lit­er­ally step off the top of the Tote. It is much eas­ier to say than do, much like forc­ing your­self to step off a bungy plat­form. When I fi­nally com­mit­ted, my heart beat surged as my body plunged to the mid­dle of the sag­ging rope, 70m above the sea. From there, I gath­ered my com­po­sure and pulled my­self to the other side. When Chris joined me, we weren’t quite ready for our day to end. We found a sunny spot and just sat, star­ing at the wild coast­line, bask­ing in the mo­ment. Some­times you climb beau­ti­ful struc­tures, but the climb it­self is sub-par. Other times you climb grand routes, but the set­ting is un­der­whelm­ing. But the Totem Pole de­liv­ers both: a unique fea­ture of un­ri­valled beauty and a climb that is sim­ply sen­sa­tional. The ex­pec­ta­tions were im­pos­si­bly high in the first place, but the ex­pe­ri­ence matched the rep­u­ta­tion. A sub­lime ad­ven­ture of the high­est or­der.

Derek Cheng can't help but ex­press some pure joy as he climbs the fi­nal pitch to the top of The Totem Pole, the shadow of which looms in the back­ground

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