Return to Butterbox – after 19 years!

BUTTERBOX CANYON, MT HAY, NSW – 21 November 2020
I’ve avoided this canyon over the last 19 years, for a few reasons … you need a lead climber for the 15m climb  (to get to the top of the cliff to exit the valley), plus the older I got the more the thought of the canyon un-nerved me!  But then Shiva planned the trip, and she had a good team that I knew would be supportive and encouraging, so I decided to put aside my anxiety and jump back on the horse.

It’s not the first time I’ve done Butterbox, I’ve done it twice before.  And on another occasion after a lot of rain, we got to the “chock-stone” abseil and there was so much water going over the waterfall that you couldn’t even see the chock-stone, so we turned around and reversed the canyon.  This was in the days where you had to rely on the newspaper for a weather forecast, and to see what the weather had been on the day before! So, coming from the Central Coast, we weren’t aware that they’d had a lot of rain in the week before.

On going through Butterbox this time, I was amazed that we’d been able to reverse it, we had a climber with us, but still, how did we reverse up some of those abseils!  I do remember prussiking one, but the rest is a blur!  Mind you, I was 20 years younger!

The team consisted of Shiva (leader), Beth L, David S, Rob and Matthew C, and me!

We got an early start at 8am and followed the well-defined track. This climb down wasn’t obvious, but there was no other way. Rob showing Beth the foot holds, not that she needs any help with that she’s a superb climber!

Before long we were at our first abseil. It was at this point that a group of four young people turned up. We thought they’d overtake us, but as it turned out, at no point were they breathing down our necks (as often happens in Butterbox).

Our fearless leader Shiva, going over the first abseil. This was a two stage abseil, and everyone tried to avoid the small pool.  I stuffed up the pull down on this abseil, but luckily the group behind us released the jam for me.

We soon came to the next abseil, which David said was “awful”, he said we could probably do a different route around it but we decided to do it anyway, it wasn’t as bad as he indicated.

The small waterfall (at the top) that was a bit awkward to get over, I managed that ok but then at the bottom lost my footing and fell in the pool, luckily I’d put my wetsuit on.

A short section of boulders before the third abseil.

Beth setting up the abseil.

And Beth abseiling.

Lovely waterfall and a compulsory swim that we avoided by abseiling from the tree (above).

We got down to the rocks below the abseil, and decided that we should make it a two stage abseil, so Beth went through after I got off the rope and the rest of the group abseiled straight through this section of rocks.

Rob doing the abseil (not stopping at the rocks where Beth and I stopped). Note his wetsuit, it is 30 years old, and he’s finally decided that he might need a new one.

David at the top of the piece de resistance. A 20m abseil from some ring bolts to reach a chock-stone, and then another 20m abseil from more ring bolts whilst standing on the chock-stone. Shiva had gone down first to set up the chock-stone abseil as there’s really only space for 2 people (3 at a pinch). Also, it’s not easy landing on the chock-stone if you have short legs, and you sure don’t want to get into the hole behind it!

I couldn’t take any photos, but this is a shot David took of (possibly) Beth just before dropping down to the chock-stone.  This is the waterfall at which point we turned around many years ago, there was so much water, you couldn’t see the rock that Beth’s standing on.

The waterfall after the chock-stone is awesome, a real thrill. This is a shot of Matthew (Rob’s son) as he does the last little bit of the waterfall, before the compulsory swim.

Shiva, the last one down the waterfall.

After the waterfall and swim, there’s another drop. This is 6m and is supposed to be from a sling around a rock wedged at the top. We didn’t like that sling as you couldn’t see if it was worn or not, so we improvised with a convenient log. There was another short swim after this abseil.

And then you climbed up on a rock where you could jump the 2m into the deep pool. Was a great jump! The group behind us had finally caught up to us.

Some of us decided not to jump so set up an abseil, jumping’s not for everyone.

Rob jumping!

We got to another waterfall. David was sure that he’d walked around this in the past, but the track wasn’t obvious, so we abseiled it. When he got down to the bottom, it was obvious where the track was, his memory is legendary, doesn’t forget anything.

Beth abseiling the waterfall.

Matthew at the compulsory swim.

David on the abseil. I actually got off on a ledge and tried sliding down but then at the last moment decided it wasn’t a good idea, by which time it was too late, managed it ok, but I should have abseiled it.

We had lunch in the sun to warm up (well, I warmed up I was getting cold), and take off our wetsuits as, whilst there was one more abseil, there were no more swims. After lunch there was a faint track that we followed, and then a boulder field to get to the abseil.

Rob on the final abseil.

Straight after the final abseil, you start walking up a gully to access the cliff-line.  Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem, but with the bushfires last season, all the tree canopy was gone and we were walking in full sun with very little shade, and it was HOT.  We took lots of rest to get to the cliff-line, with many water stops.

Shiva walking around on the ledge (past Beth sitting in the shade). Shiva would then crawl under a small overhang to get to where the climb started and she’d then climb up to set a belay in place.

I don’t know how high up we are from the base of the cliff, but it’s very exposed, I sat down in the shade and didn’t move – the exposure is daunting, many people freak out on this part of the trip, and it amazes me that commercial companies take beginner canyoners through this canyon!

David and Beth dragged all our packs through the small overhang, and then one at a time we crawled through to the 1m ledge where you had to stand before the climb. As soon as I got there, Beth locked me into a bolt so that I was secure, as long as I’m tied onto something I’m ok, but I still didn’t look down!

Once Shiva was up the top and safe, Beth went up. It’s apparently a grade 11 climb (15m), and I’ve done it before, but frankly I was surprised that the start was almost vertical, I recalled that it was a gradual slope. Well, it is gradual once you get past this spot!

Me looking up at Beth and thinking “what am I doing here?” Beth made it look so easy. On her way up, Beth put in place a few slings for me to use on the last bit which made it so much easier (than the last time I did this).

I’m up the top now, was so glad to finally be at the top and tied off.  Actually, whilst yes I was freaked out, with the slings in place it wasn’t all that hard! In this pic, Shiva is belaying David up to the mid-way ledge where he will help with the pack haul to get all the heavy back-packs up to the top.

Shiva and Beth hauling packs, it’s not as scary as it looks, they are both on safety lines – nice big bolts on the cliff-face.

David at the top!

Once we were all up, we then traversed around on the cliff-face to another gully.  The gully was actually harder (and more dangerous) than the climb as it was quite eroded and there were lots of loose rocks.

David making his way up the last section of the gully.

Walking up the final section out of the valley. Note the rock-slip in the middle of the photo. The canyon itself is now below us, at one point when walking up we could hear the waterfall. Before the fires, this would have been a lovely walk out.

Rob, finally coming up over the last rock to the top of the plateau. Good timing for us a thunderstorm was rolling in.

On the walk out, we found many of these flowers. I wasn’t sure what they were, I’ve seen Christmas Bells in the wild before, but these didn’t look like them. Turns out that these are called Mountain Christmas Bells (Blandfordia cunnnghammi), not to be confused with Coastal Christmas Bells (Blandordia nobillis), thank you John Gray for sorting this out for me!

We got back to the cars at around 5.30pm, a sold 8 1/2 hour day and we were all stuffed (well, apart from Matthew!).  Thanks so much Shiva for putting the trip on the MSS calendar and for your encouragement, and thanks to the rest of the team for your support.  Was a great day and I’m so pleased that I put aside my anxiety and did the trip.  Will I go back … probably not, it’s a big day and that walk out at the moment without any shade is punishing!

Snakes:  We saw two small brown snakes (hatchlings), and then Shiva saw a third one, but by this time, she was so hot and bothered from the walk out that she didn’t even cry out (as she did when she spotted something with legs!).


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4 Responses to Return to Butterbox – after 19 years!

  1. Jenny Hughes says:

    WOW. Butterbox was my fav canyon. It was great to see it again. It was an exhausting canyon trip when I was 30. You never cease to amaze me M!

    • marilyn says:

      Can’t say it’s my favourite, but was definitely up there and so pleased I got to do it again, so many canyons, so little time!

  2. Kathy Leslie says:

    You are certifiably insane! Just looking at the photos of the heights made me nauseous,!! Fascinating scenery though!

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