In the heart of winter, on 8 July 2016, two climbers were making their precarious way up Federation Peak's North West Face. After ten hours of nerve wracking climbing that involved negotiating over 400 metres of vertical rock, Mark Savage and Mick Wright were nearing the crescendo of their epic: a slimy, overhanging roof blocked their way to the summit. The sun had sunk below the horizon long ago and in the evening twilight, two tiny headlights could be just made out on the immense north west face of the mountain. By this point, it was too late to turn around. Savage tried to climb the same route twenty four years ago, and failed miserably. This time, as he climbed through the dark, exhausted, he must have wondered, will things be different this time?
For most rock climbers, there are enough deterrents about this route to rule out a summer ascent, when conditions are relatively favourable. The rock is loose, gear placements are limited, the route description is vague and the tough alpine vegetation that hangs onto the rock face with death defying resilience creates a whole new set of problems for the climber to negotiate. To attempt to scale Federation Peak in winter, when the storms of Tasmania's notorious South West blow in with full force, and the rock face is saturated (or frozen), may appear purely idiotic. Yet, for our team of misfits, this trip was the adventure of a lifetime.
I proposed the idea in December 2015 as a far fetched plan to secure an annual adventure grant by North Face and Australian Geographic. My initial plan was to complete a ridge traverse of Tasmania, north to south, in winter. While ambition is commendable in the role of the expedition leader, this plan appeared too close to certain death to even the most intrepid outdoors people I chatted to, so I altered the plans to make the trip more alluring. What if, instead of a masochistic slog through wet slushy snow for four months, we assembled a team that was able to ascend the most aesthetic line on 'Australia's only real mountain' (Sir Edmund Hillary said), Federation Peak. To secure the adventure grant, we would shoot a documentary about the expedition, and to accomplish a world first, we'd do our attempt in winter.
The crux of assembling the team was finding the right climbers for the job. We were looking for the unique combination of climbers who were not only skilled enough to climb the route, but someone who possessed the motivation to undertake the climb in winter. We were looking for climbers with a risk and pain tolerance off the charts. It took us a bit of hunting, but we eventually found them. Mark Savage, Mick Wright, Nick Grant. They complimented the filming team, Simon Bischoff, Dan Haley and Olivia Page and myself as expedition leader.
The incredible coincidence was that Mark Savage had already attempted the route in winter 24 years previously. In 1992, as a young man with much confidence and perhaps not so much experience, he went out to Federation Peak with the idea of climbing Blade Ridge. The Tasmanian weather gods were unkind that winter; him and his buddies spent three weeks in their tents as the snow, hail, sleet and rain came down incessantly. They didn't even get a chance to get on their proposed route, and failed to summit the mountain along the usual 'walking' route, due to the conditions. On the day of them walking out, Federation Peak was visible for the first time, taunting them with its pointy spires. Perhaps it was this experience that saw Mark Savage predicting a 'less than 1% chance of successfully climbing the Blade' when I initially asked him what he thought about the trip. Nevertheless, he was on board, and with his lifetime of mountaineering experience, I knew the trip was on.
We failed to acquire the said adventure grant, but by this time, my idea has gained enough momentum that the trip was going to go ahead regardless. We were all psyched, mostly unaware of the suffering that the trip would involve.
After sending countless emails and making endless phone calls, I eventually found a sponsor for our expedition, two months out from our trip. The Bob Brown Foundation was inspired by the idea of our trip and decided that they would like to see us run this expedition and make the documentary about this adventure in the incredible wilderness of South West Tasmania. As we found out later, Bob Brown's first bushwalk in Tasmania was to Federation Peak, and that experience initiated in him a lifetime spent trying to protect the unique wilderness of Tasmania.
We undertook a recce (or 'set-up) trip in April 2016; only two weeks previously there was a fatality on the mountain. A hiker descended the wrong gully on the way back from the summit and fell to her death. While the news filled me with dread, there was no way we were altering our plans. After months of preparing the provisions and organising the recce trip, we were going in.
The aim of this recce trip was to carry in essential supplies and to scout our route and filming locations. The ardours of the walk in were numerous; the 'track' up Moss Ridge in particular with 40kg packs was heinous. I remember hanging onto tree roots, climbing up vertical mud slides, trying not to look down. If we weren't laughing from delirium, we would have all been crying. One of our volunteers, Henry Garrad broke a rib on the descent when he slipped. We were reminded of the risks of our undertaking. Regardless of the drama, the recce trip was a success. We had stashed the supplies we needed at Bechervaise Plateau, at the base of the Spire that is Federation Peak.
The expedition took place from June 25 to July 11, 2016. The story of how it all unfolded will be told in Tasmanian film maker, Simon Bischoff's mountain documentary, Winter on the Blade. Look out for the film at this and next year's mountain film festivals.
Thanks for reading,
12 March 2017