Sunday, October 11, 2015

Return to the North Face of Leaning Peak

Defining moments: an ascent of the north face of Leaning Peak

Evening shadows creep across Mount Maroon (in the distance) and Isolated Peak...from the summit
of Leaning Peak on Mount Barney, 2003 (Michael Meadows collection).

‘This is not where we were supposed to be,’ I thought, as four of us shivered on a cold August night in a small clearing ringed by huge boulders just below the summit of North Peak. By my calculations, we should have been back at our comfortable campsite at the bottom of the Mt Barney waterfall by now, preparing to walk back to the car. But Mt Barney has a habit of humbling you by its sheer size and majesty. A few hours earlier, Rob Hales, Wendy Steele, Katie Steele and myself had completed one of the longest multi-pitch climbing routes in Australia—the 410 metre north face of Leaning Peak—Wendy and Katie making the first female ascent and Wendy becoming the first person to have climbed both big faces on Mt Barney. As the cold wind suddenly became a lot colder, and the thought of warm clothing, food and water at our campsite 1000 metres below us became more vivid, the box of matches I always carried was suddenly worth more than its weight in gold. So we huddled there—around a fire, this time—a little less cold, a little less hungry, a little less thirsty, still very tired but perhaps secretly not wanting to be anywhere else on earth. Or maybe that was in retrospect.

Rockclimbing 1968-style: (from left) Michael Meadows, John Shera (kneeling) and Chris Meadows on the morning of the first ascent of the north face of Leaning Peak near the Catholic Bushwalkers' Hut, Lower Portals, Mount Barney (Michael Meadows collection).
I made the first ascent of the north face in 1968 with John Shera and my brother Chris. When I had mused about the possibility of repeating it—and climbing it in one day—Wendy Steele and partner Rob Hales had taken me very seriously and in August, 2003, the four of us set off on the long walk in to the bottom of the face. We started climbing in the gully used by pioneering Queensland climber Bert Salmon who was first to climb Leaning Peak in October 1932, alone. The second ascent came four years later when the first women—Lexie Wilson, Mary Hansen and Doris Goy—stood on the summit. We climbed in two ropes of two—Rob and myself, and Wendy and Katie—and Rob led off confidently on the first pitch. The rock was solid with the usual incredible Barney friction and Rob seemed to find gear placements where none was obvious. So far, the climbing was steeper and harder than I remembered—but then I was 19 on the first ascent. Back then, we wore vibram-soled bushwalking boots and, in true Alpine style, each of us carried a small pack with a foam bivvy bag, food and containers of ‘red’—raspberry cordial. On the original climb we carried 12 pitons, a dozen hemp and polyethylene slings, and a handful of mild steel carabiners. We used two brand new nylon ropes—our first.

Wendy Steele at home on the grippy second pitch of the 410 metre north face of Leaning Peak in 2003 (Michael Meadows collection).
By the time I reached Rob on the second stance, the outlook was sensational—we had climbed above a line of low northern foothills and the vista opened up dramatically. Rob, Wendy and Katie were in their element but I still felt a little intimidated—maybe it was uncertainty around my shaky legs, still recovering from the steep scramble to the start. Rob led off on the third pitch—another 60 metre runout—and a positive shout from above suggested some nice climbing ahead. And it was—some easy-angled slabs then steeper rock with adequate protection and as much exposure as you wanted. But the next pitch was even better. Rob thought it might be the best he had climbed in southeast Queensland—60 metres of solid, grippy rock shaped into water worn grooves, ideal for thoughtful jam protection and offering great holds. I had to agree. Wendy was in the groove, too, so much so that she got a gentle reminder from sister Katie to place more protection on the next pitch. We gulped down some water, a nip of ‘red’—back on the face after 35 years—and had a quick bite to eat and Rob set off up a rib above the stance. It quickly became harder than it looked from below but he powered up on loose microholds, well above the only good protection on the pitch. We suggested Wendy try the wall out to the right and she moved easily up this, catching us at the next stance, receiving yet another mild reprimand for her long unprotected runout.

As the rope played out in slow, steady jerks, I was alone on the stance. Wendy was climbing below me and Rob had disappeared around a steep buttress at the start of the 6th pitch. For some reason, I couldn’t get rid of a strange feeling of unease. Maybe it was concern that if something did go wrong—if there was an accident—I’d lured my friends up here to this place. And what a place! An uninhibited expanse to the north, from the now deeply-shadowed Mt Barney Creek 700 metres below, to the horizon, stretching out from ear to ear. You could almost feel the silence of the void.

Chris Meadows (left) and John Shera next morning on our bivvy ledge, 200 metres from the summit on the first ascent of the north face of Leaning Peak in 1968 (Michael Meadows collection).
It was around here that darkness had overtaken us on the first ascent in 1968. Back on that February evening, I had set off from a stance at about this height and in fading light, had hurried to climb a short overhanging corner. I came unstuck, falling a few metres onto a large ledge. With no apparent damage other than to my pride, I had climbed the corner easily the second time. Within a few minutes I had found a ledge big enough for us to sit out the night. The wind rose and had buffeted the face but our foam bivvy bags had worked superbly. It was a crystal clear evening and we could see the lights of Brisbane on the northern horizon. We had managed a few hours’ fitful sleep but next morning, my foot was so swollen I could barely fit it into my boot. It meant that leading was out of the question—and I chose not to think of the long walk out. Neither Chris nor John had led a climb before but John volunteered and for the next two hours, he carefully picked his way through the last 60 metres of steep rock—the most difficult climbing on the face. We stood on the summit of Leaning Peak at 11.00 am—24 hours after we’d started.

Rob Hales leads out on the second last pitch in the late afternoon sunshine (Michael Meadows collection).
These thoughts raced through my head as Rob signalled he had reached a belay stance, again with a few centimetres of rope to spare—one pitch to go. Around the buttress the climbing was superb, the protection dwindling as the climbing became harder and the rock quality deteriorated. Out to my left I could see what looked like a thick hawser hanging from a piton on a steep wall. We had left a peg and sling behind somewhere around here on the first ascent but this rope looked like it could be used to moor a cruise ship! It was after 5.00 by the time I reached Rob. The mental energy he had been expending all day must be taking its toll. He knew what the climb meant to me and without hesitation offered me the lead. It was a generous and thoughtful gesture but my mind was not in the right place—not this time. He had done a superb job in finding a new route up the face and I couldn’t take the last pitch away from him, even if I’d felt up to it. And 30 minutes later as I followed the snaking purple line of kernmantel, I was glad I hadn’t had a sudden rush of blood and taken him up on the offer. A difficult wall on small holds, then a tricky move past a pile of loose boulders, ready to avalanche onto Wendy and Katie directly below. A delicate balance move out left, then back across the corner. One step away, Rob sat almost hidden in low shrubs with his characteristic optimistic grin but this time, with a look of deep satisfaction. I squeezed his shoulder before scrambling up the last few metres to the summit ridge. It was 6.00 o’clock. I watched the colours changing as the sun sank lower. It was a magnificent place and I thought of my brother Chris who was on our first eventful climb here. If he was still alive, he might have been part of this adventure, too. I know he would have been in his element. I felt a shiver and wondered whether he was here after all.

Katie Steele in her element on the north face route with long shadows gathering.
She and sister Wendy made the historic first female and first all-female ascent of the face (Michael Meadows collection).
For me, and I know for many others, climbing is defined by a complex array of experiences—physical and spiritual. Central to it all are people: close friends, partners—and the bond that links us when we share an experience. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, all these elements come together to create something memorable—something that is much more powerful than the sum of the parts. And I’ve been lucky enough to experience this twice on the same climb.

The writer: Michael Meadows began climbing in the mid-1960s and drifted away 10 years later, pursuing a career as a journalist and later as a university lecturer. His reawakening came at the 30th anniversary of the discovery of Frog Buttress in 1998 when he climbed his first route for 20 years. Now he prefers climbing with good friends on quality, multi-pitch routes that capture the essence of the experience. He is completing a book about the origins of climbing in Queensland. Chris Meadows took his own life in 1991.

[Note: This article was first published in Rock, Summer 2006, 36-39]


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