NORTHERN WOLLEMI CANYONING – 25 – 26 November 2017
Well, those would be famous last words! We had an amazing day on Saturday doing Greenup/Midwinter – no issues and we arrived back at Ray’s right on 6pm (as planned). Sunday was a whole different ballgame – a trip of epic proportions!
Taking advantage of being in the Northern Wollemi for the MSS AGM and Christmas party, I decided not to waste a weekend of canyoning so planned Greenup/Midwinter on the Saturday and convinced Rod to go with us to do Fergies on the Sunday.
Joining me for Greenup/Midwinter were Jeff and the girls, Heather R, Beth L, Cathi H-H and Anna O-B. We set off from Ray’s house at 7.30 am and we had a tight schedule.
It’s a relatively straight forward exit from Midwinter, basically following the creek up to a flat grassy area and then up to the fire trail. Midwinter’s a great canyon, it just goes and goes and goes, very sporty with lots of climbs and dark constricted sections.
On Sunday, there were only four of us for Fergies, Rod, Heather R, Alan G and myself. In hindsight, it was good that there were only the four of us! This would be Alan’s first canyon with MSS and Rod had given it a good sales job (the question now is will he ever canyon with us again).
Based on Rod’s recollection (having done it a year or so ago), it was only supposed to be a short day – definitely shorter than Greenup/Midwinter, I left Jeff at Ray’s so that he could pack up, have a rest and be ready for my return around 4pm for the long 4.5 hour drive back to the Central Coast.
We left Ray’s at around 9am – it would have been better if we’d left earlier!
So, another 30 minutes and we’re at the locked gate and walking down the fire trail. Rod indicated where we should peel off and head into the bush looking for Cirque D’Soleil pass, took a bit of looking and sidling along to find it but eventually we were at the spot that we both recognised.
We were headed for a gully on the left, and we came to a junction and both Rod and I assumed that this was our gully, taking the left fork and heading upstream. If I’d bothered to take a look at our map, I would have realised that we were still going up our unnamed canyon stream, it was only when I got to an impassable waterfall, that I recognised it as the final abseil in the canyon. So, we turned around and retraced our steps, probably set us back another 30 minutes.
And this is where things went hideously pear shaped. I’d walked/waded further on to set up the next abseil and then I heard the words no-one ever wants to hear “I’m stuck”. Rod was in the key-hole with his legs dangling and wedged into the slot, caught up by either his harness or his prussic loops/carabineer, we couldn’t figure out (or see) what was caught.
Fortunately he was in a spot that we could climb up a little way to maybe give him some assistance. We tried everything but nothing worked or helped. At least with a stuck rope you can just leave it behind and cut your losses, but we weren’t going to be able to do that with Rod.
At this stage I’m seriously considering using the PLB. I asked Rod if he was ready for me to set it off, “not just yet” was his answer, but I truly couldn’t see how he’d be able to release himself from whatever was holding him in place .
The problem with setting off the PLB was that I’d have to walk out to the end of the canyon, find an open spot where it would get reception and set it off (probably high up on a cliff and for that I’d have to get to our exit route) and then walk back to the vehicles and call up emergency services to tell them that the problem wasn’t where the PLB was, but over in the creek. All this would take hours, and Rod (and someone else) would be left in the canyon. For the three of us down in the water, hypothermia was becoming a very real possibility, we were all shivering despite having on thermals.
Almost at the moment I was about to make the Big Decision and start walking out, Rod dropped his helmet and it landed in a crevice and he was able to get his foot up onto it and wriggle himself around, dislodging the prussic loops/carabineer and he was on his way down to us at the bottom.
Fortunately, there were no more abseils, just some scrambling over rocks, and this is where I came to grief. I held onto a very dodgy piece of tree and it broke, and I fell a couple of metres. When you are tired that’s when you make poor decisions, and this was certainly one of them. Fortunately, I fell on my backpack which had a 40m rope in it, so it “sort of” cushioned the fall. My helmet should be replaced now (hit my head), have heaps of bruises and a swollen wrist, plus later on in the evening it felt like I’d also torn a muscle! However, once I got over the shock, I was back up, avoiding that ledge! Then I discovered that my water-bottle was sporting a big dent and my GPS screen had been punctured, GPS working but wouldn’t function when icons pressed … not good! But at least I had a photocopy of the map, albeit a little damp and some running ink!
As my GPS was stuffed and I’d left my compass back in the car (after all Rod was navigating! will never do that again), we had to get ourselves back to the fire trail by dead-reckoning, basically it was keep going up hill to the high point and then drop down to the road. Still, it was very scrubby, scratchy and slow going.
We were all back at the locked gate and cars at 8.30pm and fortunately Heather’s mobile service provider is Telstra and so she had reception. We were able to call Ray (and Jeff) and let them know that we were out “safely”. Then it was the 1.5 hour drive back to Ray’s, mostly on dirt road, dodging wallabies.
Predictably Ray and Jeff by 6pm were thinking that “something had happened”, and then by 8, they knew that definitely we’d had a problem. Jeff suspected that I’d have a PLB with me, but wasn’t sure. So, all in all, they had a couple of hours knowing that something was wrong, but not being able to do anything about it!
I encouraged everyone to spend the night at Ray’s (Jeff and I would drive home together but the others were all solo in their cars), but in the end only Rod decided to stay. Jeff and I didn’t get back to the Coast until 2am.
So, lessons learned …
- I may be getting too old for this s*%t!
- Always have an additional strong man along on a trip, one’s not enough if he’s the one in trouble, fortunately we had Alan.
- Have everyone carry Hydrolyte (or sachets of salt), I’d left mine at home and Jeff had left his on the car seat for me to take but forgot to tell me. We could have used extra Hydrolyte for Rod.
- Always carry matches and a torch (both Heather and I had them). Make sure the rest of the group have them too.
- Hindsight is always 20/20, but if I ever find myself in a situation like this again, when we have a bit of time up our sleeves, rather than each of us have in our own minds solutions, take the time to sit down (figuratively) and brainstorm.
Everyone seems to have gotten over the “trip from hell”, Heather’s provided us with some medical information on “harness hang syndrome” so we know now that this wouldn’t have been a problem for Rod. We’ve suggested to our training person in MSS that some practical rescue scenarios would be a good idea, and knot practice as I was the only one who could tie the alpine butterfly and I was too short to get it up high enough.
Alan has suggested that someone also carry a wire saw, we could have cut a log for Rod to stand on (maybe) … he’s asked for a more extreme canyon next time (lol)! Good to know that he’ll be back for another one and I haven’t “burned” him.
I am battered and bruised (you wouldn’t believe how many bruises I’ve got). Will take me a few weeks to get over the experience. Will I go back to Fergies? Not sure, part of me wants to see if it really is a short day (technically it should be!)!
Thanks Rod, Heather and Alan for going with me, and for your support!