Storms are the great enemy of canyoners, turning the relatively safe and accessible sport into a potentially life-threatening trap. As such, it was a disappointing start to a three-day weekend of adventures run by the Australian National University Mountaineering Club (ANUMC) when the forecast was for thunderstorms.
The enormous annual Blue Mountains Extravaganza, the BME, brings fifty ANUMCers from Canberra into the mountains for three days of climbing, canyoning and bushwalking. The Canyoning Officer Gabriela – who uses her German accent to brilliant effect in intimidating otherwise careless people into respectful treatment of borrowed club gear – had proposed a day in the apparently spectacular Claustral Canyon. However, this canyon is entered through a narrow opening, and Gab’s commitment to safety meant that the plan had to be changed.
Thus, our group of six set off for Malaita Wall.
Malaita Wall, along with Malaita Point, is a multi-pitch abseil down into the valley below Katoomba. It was a short walk from the cars parked at Eaglehawk Lookout (since the slightly closer carpark was full) to the track, and then a short walk through the scrub from there… to nothingness.
The mist, hung thickly as the cobwebs on the abandoned bikes at the ANU campus, had engulfed the view. All we could see was the edge of the cliff, and the chain, attached to which we would abseil into the white abyss.
I’d previously canyoned with Gab in the South Wolgan area of the Blue Mountains, and practiced mountaineering skills with her on the Main Range, so I knew that she was all efficiency. And, sure enough, she and her co-leader Koen had soon set the anchor, with a make-shift rope protector of foam. Then, Koen descended into the heavy cloud.
I was next, and I looked back up to my fellow intrepid canyoners, whose faces did not fill me with hope…
… and then I leaned off the edge of the world and began lowering myself down. The 45 metre abseil was actually very straightforward, and I could soon see Koen, standing on the natural rock ledge half way down the mammoth wall. The fall of the rope brought me slightly to the left of this ledge, but it was simple enough to get across, and I was soon bellowing “Off Rope!” up the vertical face.
Across the gulf, down another series of abseils, there came other similar shouts. Turns out that there was an Army Training exercise being done down Malaita Point, and when Gab joined us on the ledge she tutted about their excessive calls, and the danger of them holding the rope in front of them with their spare hand. Of course, the emphasis on safety in the club isn’t just for fun – only a few months earlier, a woman had become entangled in the rope while abseiling in this area, and when her boyfriend had tried to rescue her, he had instead fallen to his death. Apparently she had called out for hours until she was heard and rescued, not exactly a pleasant experience.
We pulled down the rope, and – still standing on the ledge – set up the new abseil to complete the rest of the vertical wall.
We abseiled this 28 metre length easily enough too, especially since we were using the older, slower rope, which was easier for the girl using a figure eight belay device instead of an ATC. Although new to the club she was an experienced abseiler, but her hands had definitely become quite warm on the 45 metre section on the new rope!
It was a mere minute’s stroll of horizontal before we came to the next vertical. This one was anchored from trees, and half way down the 35 metre abseil turned into a nice overhang.
There was limited safe ground under the overhang, and we were all a little careful as we set up the next 31 metre abseil.
The final abseil could be done in two parts, but Gab’s faff-free preference was for a single 45 metre abseil, with an unusual amount of almost horizontal walking in the middle. Koen descended first, and we chatted loudly enough that we missed his off-rope call. Still, we all made it down in good time, and after stowing the abseiling gear we wandered down the rest of the goat track… to the main tourist path.
It was vaguely surreal, stepping out of a five-pitch abseil onto a track crowded with the smell of perfume, the fake click of smartphone cameras, the tourists peering at information boards while walking on boards and stairs. Of course, we joined them in watching the Katoomba Scenic Railway ascend – after all, it is the steepest functioning fernicular railway in the world.
Rather than catch it ourselves, we lunched at a waterfall, contemplating the possibility of abseiling down it. This continued to distract our thoughts from the steep ascent, until we were back to the cars.
Since it was still early, we drove on to Empress Canyon.
Empress is one of the most popular canyons in the Blue Mountains, with commercial groups, clubs and unassociated canyoners enjoying the very accessible and easy trip. At the suggestion of the two new ANUMCers, who had been there before, we tagged on the upper section of Empress to the usual run. It was a hot day to be walking into the canyon wetsuits, and we lounged in the water for a time before we entered the canyon.
The upper section provided a wonderful 4 metre jump that made the extra distance worthwhile.
We reached Lillian’s Glen, the start of the lower section, signed the book there and continued on. The lower section provided small swims, small slides and small jumps, the highlight being crawling down with the water underneath a rock. The final abseil down a waterfall was actually free, but since we’d assumed that it would be busy we’d not brought abseiling gear, and climbed back up the canyon instead. Miraculously, we had managed to avoid meeting any other groups!
Less miraculously, there had not been a single storm that day. Still, we had done the right thing, and played it safe. Besides, there were still two more days of Blue Mountains Extravaganza to go!
Photos of the trip, on Flickr.
For a different perspective on the same trip, check out Nick’s account.
For a shorter description of Malaita, see Oz Ultimate.
Oz Ultimate also describe Empress Canyon.
And as do Immortal Outdoors!