Many of us know Tasmania for one thing: The Totem Pole. It is a very sought after and coveted ascent in climbing. It consists of a thin freestanding spire of rock 4m wide that thrusts out of the raging ocean almost 65m.
The picture of the first free ascent is so famous it’s used world wide. Even non-climbers in Tasmania and Australia know what it is! The difficulties are many. It’s an extremely difficult and exposed climb. Typically when climbing, you just have to worry about weather, but just to get on “The Tote” you have to worry about the sea as well! You need so many factors to come together for a successful ascent, that you have to be damn lucky! There has to be low wind, no rain, and the temperatures have to be reasonable. The surf has to be low, as does the tide. In order to maximize our chance of success, we bought our plane tickets to coincide with low tide at noon. We planned to be in Tazmania for a full week, ready to wait out bad weather if we had to. Since Tazmania is known for bad weather and high surf, I wasn’t even sure about our chances of even getting on the route!
We flew into Hobart, picked up our rental car (they tried to rip us off, bring your internet receipt, luckily we did) and headed to a friend of a friends we had met in The Pines campground at Arapiles. John not only let us crash at his place for a few nights, but took us out climbing at Mt. Wellington the next day. It was dolerite columns, very similar to basalt, but the friction is the best I’ve ever seen in my life! You could hold onto anything! This is a good thing, since the features were few and far between sometimes. We did one 60m trad line that I think I got off route on, since it was supposed to be a classic. I ended up on chossy rock and it was much harder than rated (by the way, Tazmania is apparently known for sandbags), but I made it and Nath followed. After that, I onsighted a multipitch 24 (5.12a) sport route up an arete. By then, we were already running out of time so we took off. When I asked John what type of rock the Totem Pole was, it turned out to be DOLERITE! I was excited since I had essentially just calibrated and gotten used to the rock and the style since the Totem Pole is a multipitch 25 (5.12b) mostly bolted route up an arete!!!
That night, while crashing at John’s place, some other travelers showed up and they crashed there too. With the most amazing bit of luck, possibly ever, one of them was a beginner climber and when she found out what we planned to do the next day she asked if she could come and watch! We of course said, “Sure, do you mind taking pictures?!” We suddenly had a photographer for one of the most amazing routes on the planet!
We woke early and made the 2 hour drive to Fortescue Bay. After some preparations, we started the 2+ hour hike out to Cape Huay. It had rained on us on and off during the drive, and I just hoped it would dry enough for us to climb the route. We arrived at the end of Cape Huay and I looked down from the edge of the cliff where the trail ends, and gaped at what I saw. The Totem Pole was a tiny little finger sticking up out of the water over 100m below with waves ravaging the base of it. We started the “climber’s” hike down, which took a little while and we were finally at our destination a little before noon staring, level, with the top of our objective! Perfect! Low tide was at 12:05, the rain had dried enough, while cloudy and a little cool it was still warm enough to climb since there was very little wind. Despite what seemed to me large surges of waves slamming into the base of the Totem Pole, everything was falling into place……
Luckily, a friend from Arapiles (Derek) had let us borrow a rope so we had two for the route (you have to have at least two ropes to climb and get off the thing), and I tied one to the mainland for the rappel, grabbed all the gear, put on my harness, rain jacket, and stuffed my climbing shoes and chalk bag into the rain jacket in an attempt to keep them dry from the maelstrom of waves I was descending into. Before I left, I instructed Nathalie, “When I’m off rappel, come down QUICK, because neither of us want to be hanging down there longer than we have to!” I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was nervous. Often, there isn’t much that gets me nervous when it comes to climbing, but the Totem Pole did the trick.
To help you picture it, the Totem pole is at the end of a small peninsula of land (Cape Huay) that drops precipitously into the ocean. From the end of the Cape, the Totem Pole is squeezed between the mainland and another island formation named The Candlestick by climbers. Beyond that is another larger island that keeps extending out where the peninsula ended. The Totem Pole is right between two land masses at a pinch point in the ocean, with open ocean on either side. This means that the waves/swells come from BOTH DIRECTIONS! The rappel is roughly 190′ into this intimidating situation, and then you have to get on the thing! Near the bottom of the rappel, I ended up standing on a small ledge a little over 2 meters above the surging ocean. As the swells came through from either direction they crashed into rocks and sent spray everywhere.
I prepared myself for what I had to do: run (barefoot), leap across the gap between the mainland and the Totem Pole swinging on the rope I had just rappelled in on, take a nut with the head pushed down, and try to hook it on the head of a bolt that had been placed on the Totem Pole by climbers. If I missed, I would swing back violently into the wall behind me. I prepared the nut, clipped to a long sling attached to my harness, and sprinted across the small ledge leaping for all I was worth! As the gap between me and the Totem Pole closed, I quickly realized how hard this would be. Right at the apex of my swing, the bolt was barely in reach and I only had one attempt at catching it with my small wire before flying back into the rocks behind me. I reached, I hoped, and I missed! As quickly as I could, I turned around and prepared for impact before attempting to absorb all that swinging energy with my bare feet on rocks. Ouch! I swung back to the ledge and stared at my objective again, a tiny little bolt around 15′ away.
I steeled myself for another attempt. Still staring at the bolt, ignoring all else, I ran and jumped as hard as I could… BOOM! A wave came in right as I was swinging and exploded around me soaking my legs with its spray. I stayed focused, but again my attempt to hook the bolt was a miserable failure. I slammed back into the wall behind me feet first again and realized this really wasn’t going to be easy. I swung again and again, and eventually on my sixth or seventh try I hooked the head of the bolt with my little wire and I suddenly realized I was a sitting duck for those surges below! The rock was wet almost 2m above my head, and each wave that crashed into the base from the left side of the Totem Pole would be having it’s way with me. Luckily, I had my shoes and chalk bag hidden in my rain jacket….
I quickly started working on creating a redundant anchor. I had a carrot hanger for the 2nd bolt, and I quickly put it on and clipped myself into it. The 2nd bolt I clipped was rusted and bent over from over use and metal fatigue. Then I realized that I couldn’t get a proper hanger on the first, good bolt since I was already hanging off it with a wire. That problem quickly solved itself when the wire (pulled straight out since I still had tension on the rappel line) blew off the bolt sending me onto the crappy second bolt. It wasn’t much of a fall onto that lower bolt, but it scared the hell out of me! Suddenly I was hanging off of a single crappy bolt and the rappel line, and if that crappy piece of metal decided to go, then I’d be swinging rather violently back into the wall behind me, AGAIN! As quickly as I could, I got a hanger on the first bolt and clipped back into it! Then, I took myself off rappel and it was time for Nathalie to come down as the waves smashed into the wall beneath me. The whole time, the explosions from the waves seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. Either the waves were getting bigger throughout the day, or the tide had turned and was rising beneath my feet. Maybe both?
As Nath decended, I turned my attention to the waves careening into the base of the Totem Pole. While intimidating as hell, I quickly realized that I’d never seen water that blue in my life! It was amazing! Most water has a blue-green look, but this was BLUE!
I started scanning the line I would be climbing above me, and realized that not only was it wet and difficult, but it was also far to the first carrot bolt! It was at least 10′ before the next bolt, but at least there was a tiny dripping wet crack above and to the left in the direction of the bolt.
Nath came down and we situated ourselves on the tiny cramped hanging belay, and I unclipped from the anchor to start climbing. Looking down, I realized that if I fell from even a little ways up, that would put me not only in the ocean with quite a bit of metal attached to me, but I’d be attached by a rope to hold me in the spot where the waves were slamming into the rock! Oh yeah, did I mention that those cold waters have Great White sharks? With the rock so wet and the danger so high, I decided to go the safe way, and I placed two pieces of gear in the crack up left and hung on them while I put my climbing shoes and chalk bag on, which had managed to stay dry. The shoes weren’t dry long though, since the rock was soaked. I pulled up on the pieces of gear until I could at least reach something dry with my hands, and I chalked up and started climbing. The first 10′ were the most intimidating I started smearing my feet on tiny wet holds while pulling strenuous lieback moves in order to reach the bolt above, and even after my feet were on drier territory the shoes were still wet underneath. I kept going until I could place a hanger and a clip into the first lead bolt on the route. I looked up and it was going to be a battle to the ledge above. There are few holds, and few bolts as well. I climbed as quick as I could, feeling guilty hearing every wave that slammed into the base knowing that Nathalie was being soaked by them. There was only so much I could do though, since I was climbing 5.12a with no warmup and the protection was spaced enough that I had to take it seriously and methodically to make sure I didn’t go for any frequent flyer miles. Luckily, Nathalie had a huge grin on her face every time I looked down! What a trooper!
I worked my way up and up, and eventually found myself past the last bolt on easier territory. I placed a cam in a small crack since it was a long ways to the ledge, still, and when I was finally standing on top of the 2m ledge I let out a whoop of joy! I had done it, I’d conquered the scary, mentally demanding first pitch of the route with no falls at all! I quickly clipped myself into the bolts and pitons at the ledge, and looked down to yell, “Off belay!” Just as I was finished yelling the biggest wave so far slammed into the base and kicked up a spray so violent that I saw Nathalie disappear in the froth. When the white fell back into the ocean, there she was, the hood of her jacket pulled off from her head by the weight of water that had just landed in it! It was time to get her out of there! I hauled up rope as quick as I could until it was tight, threw it through my belay device and she was off the belay and on her way to join me. She did spectacularly, pulling all the moves of the pitch, except she just wasn’t ready to try 5.12a without warmup. Her forearms “flashpumped” and she had trouble hanging on and had to rest occasionally on the way up.
Once we were on the ledge, I knew we were through the hardest part mentally, and that we would get to the top, so I was excited! However, I was on the other hand I was anxious. I had just climbed the first pitch “onsight” which meant climbing it without falling first try. It’s the purest, most rewarding way to climb something. I still had a chance to onsight the Totem Pole! I haven’t met anyone who has done it, including climbers who are better than I am. Looming above was 40m of wicked hard sustained climbing on the thinnest of holds with a grade of 25 (5.12b).
With the mix of excitement and anxiousness, I started up the pitch hoping that I could pull it off onsight! As I worked my way up the pitch, I realized that it was going to be a long protracted battle. I wanted to take it slow, rest where I could, and make sure I didn’t fall. The pitch was amazing, simply perfect. Climbing an endless corner for move after move up a square pillar 4m across balanced in the blue, blue ocean… I slowly unlocked every sequence, and difficulty. When I got tired, I pulled harder. When I ran out of holds, I judged it right and dynoed for the next hold far away, hoping it was good, and it was. When I couldn’t hold on any longer, there would be a small 2″ foothold to take some weight off my hand so I could rest. I committed myself to climbing without hesitation when I was far above gear, and I slowly unlocked the puzzle over the course of the next hour or so, on one of the greatest climbs I’ve ever done. Toward the top, I was using my core muscles so much that my abs ached from helping my hands and feet work together efficiently. As I topped out on the final ledge, I could barely believe it! I had onsighted the Totem Pole! It was one of my biggest goals of the entire climbing trip and I had done it! I sat down and clipped in, and just enjoyed sitting on the top of such a beautiful ocean spire while I prepared to bring Nath up behind me.
This pitch was graded 23 in the guidebooks, so I hadn’t realized it would be quite so hard for her. Nath had never climbed a 25 before (this is the true grade, I found out, after talking to many others and looking at the grade everywhere but a Tasmanian climbing guide) and again the lack of warmup that day took its toll. In addition, the holds were spaced in such a way that it would have been extremely difficult for her to link certain features with her 5’1″ frame. Reach is definitely a factor on the Totem Pole. She climbed the first half splendidly, but as she reached the more difficult sections (where I had to jump between holds because they were too far apart) she had more trouble. Eventually she made it to the top, taking about as long as I did on my ascent of the 40m pitch, and we were both sitting on the top ledge together!
There was a final 3m summit block that I quickly lead up, for some pictures, and down lead. Peter Croft says, “Summits matter” and in this case I had to agree. It was pretty spectacular up there, and I felt impelled to strike the official PullHarder pose.
After this, we had to start working on getting OFF the thing! The whole time Nathalie was climbing, she had the rope we had rappelled off the mainland attached to her. Before we had climbed, I had explained how important it was to her and how under now circumstances could she drop it, so it was attached to her with two locking carabiners. Now, the rope made a huge “U” between us on the summit of the Totem Pole, and the anchor back on the mainland. I pulled it tight, like a tightrope but with more slack, and tied it to two bolts on the summit of the Totem Pole. After I did this, I clipped into the rope and jumped off the edge of the Totem Pole to dangle 60m above the raging ocean below. I pulled myself hand over hand out to the middle and just hung there a while since I’d rarely be in such a spectacular position in my entire life. Once I was satisfied, I continued on to the mainland to set it up so Nath could do the same and we could get the ropes back. Nath was terrified to hop off the Totem Pole with so much air under her heels, but once she did, she immediately loved it. I showed her how to flip upside down and pull yourself to the other side efficiently, and we were back on the mainland having completed our first “Tyrolean Traverse” ever!
Cassia, the traveler/photographer who came out with us, even threw on a harness and went out to touch the Totem Pole and come back!
With that, we packed up. It was getting dark, quick, and I had no idea that a 2 pitch 65m climb could take that long! I hadn’t even brought headlamps out with us. Luckily, we had a full moon to walk back to the car with, and so we started the 3 hour slow moonlight walk back riding the high of success from our amazing, beautiful day!