Polly had unsuccessfully attempted the Freycinet Sea Level Traverse twice previously, so this time she was determined to succeed. All she needed to complete the challenging route along the bottom of The Hazards was a crew of courageous women and some decent gear. Polly gathered her crew and the Osprey Adventure Grant provided the gear – now it was up to them.
Have you ever wanted something so badly you don’t even know why you want it? You lose track of the process, you stop being in the present and focus on the feeling of achievement and accomplishment, not thinking of the steps you need to (or force friends to) take just to ‘tick something off’. Well that’s what the Freycinet Sea Level Traverse became to me. It’s not particularly famous, or well known for its amazing moves or strenuous fight. In fact, most people’s reactions when they heard of this trip were ‘why? Of all the epic adventures in Tasmania why are you doing that?’
Some climbs stay with you because it was your absolute limit and you pushed through. Others because the sequence of moves fit so well with your body that you feel at one with the rock and nature. Some because you feel brave and bold. The sea-level traverse is none of those things.
The Start Of An (un)Healthy Obsession
I can’t explain my obsession with this climb – if you can even call it that; often it’s saved as a sight-seeing ‘walk’ on a rest day. Perhaps the obsession was manifested as it’s the first time I’ve experienced a proper sense of adventure. I felt totally alone in the exquisite Tasmanian paradise served with a dangerous side of true wilderness. My previous ‘adventures’ have been well-bolted Blue Mountains sports routes. Perhaps it was because the first attempt was just after I had handed in my Phd following a pretty stressful accumulation, amalgamated with being in Tasmania for the first time and truly feeling a sense of understanding of the landscape and surroundings after four dusty mainland years.
I had attempted the Sea Level Traverse twice previously and again, when people heard of this, it made them question even more why I was attempting it again. For most people who have completed it, the general consensus seems to be that once was one time too many! Due to inexperience and weather conditions on previous attempts, I never finished. So, this time, feeling physically and mentally stronger, more experienced in trad climbing, in a team of girls (everyone knows girls can work together to achieve anything) I felt confident that we could do it. Plus, the tried and tested third time lucky charm, basically meant this was a shoo in.
Third Time’s A Charm (Right!?!)
I optimistically thought that the stressful start (nearly missing the flight, having to buy extra baggage and messing up the car booking) to the adventure would mean we had all the bad luck out the way and done with.
We spent the night before the traverse at the beautiful national park campground at Richardson beach, meticulously packing our bags, fuelled by one of Belle’s (many) amazing camp meals, testing the dry bags carrying all our gear, making flasks of tea (not nearly enough) in preparation for the early start. Kate, Elisa and I were nervous but calculated and excited.
Morning (not warning) alarms went off. Waking was easy – I hardly slept, apparently needlessly worrying that my tossing and turning was disturbing the others sleep – they slept fine. We started the walk with the delicious taste of the early start of adventure, the sun starting to slowly illuminate the dawn sky in a multitude of blues dawning into purples and pinks and oranges, the smell of the cold night sky warming in unison with our anticipation of the task ahead.
As the yellow sliver of light broke above the horizon, I placed my first piece of gear. I moved through the horizontal chimney and my body and the day began to awaken. By the time the sun had fully risen we had all been ‘reborn’ through the chimney. Spirts were high, we were making good time. We felt safe and confident and ready for anything the Sea Level Traverse could throw at us.
Half-way Through And Feeling Great
We continued on, commenting how amazingly beautiful this was and how lucky we were to be experiencing it. We felt totally insignificant in the grand scheme of nature, traversing completely isolated awe-inspiring rock with the ocean sparkling in the brilliant sun on our left with vast features of rock growing into untouchable bush to our right. I optimistically text Belle whilst we had signal letting her know we were fine and were almost half way. The scientist in me now knows this tempting fate was our complete and utter undoing.
Fast forward seven hours, I was wondering where the hell the time had gone, spirits were low and the morning felt like several moons ago. Usually, when climbing, you push through being scared and you come out fine the other side, your body screaming with endorphins, drunkenly thinking that was so fucking cool!!!! Never before have I pushed myself through something and thought ‘that was utterly stupid’. Let alone having to perch precariously on the flattest bit of slab I could find 60m above sea level with no protection, watching people I cared about attempt the same thing, trying to think positive whilst simultaneously trying to figure out how I would help someone if they cheese grated down the rock and fell off the drop into what I only hoped was water, but could potentially be leg breaking boulders or worse.
Then we turned a corner and were rewarded with the most beautiful illuminated piece of rock I’ve ever seen; pictures don’t do justice to the brilliant burnt orange, bleached yellows and auburn reds that were flowing down the wall. My heart was once again lifted………..
This Traverse Is No Joke!
Till we reached base of this masterpiece and realised there was no way to cross it. The sun was going down over Mount Parson. Our only option was to attempt a 500m swim in open ocean with all our gear and no idea what would welcome us the other side (hopefully not sharks on the way).
Spirts were at an all time low. The group was dividing. Panic was gently wrapping her slight but resilient fingers around our ability to think clearly and calmly. We were on slab. Right by the ocean’s currently calm but ominous edge. The tide was on the turn, the sun going down. We were wearing all our warm clothes, with minimal water and food left. The possibility of spending the night, having no way of letting Belle know we were safe but not coming home, was becoming a very likely possibility (having told her four hours in, several hours ago we were almost half way, with the instructions the previous night of ‘if you haven’t heard by dark that we are on our way we are probably in trouble).
Panic was gently wrapping her slight but resilient fingers around our ability to think clearly and calmly.
The longer we anticipated decisions the stronger panic subtly infiltrated, weakening our sense of safety and bravery, giving way to more erratic thoughts. Eventually we decided to bush bash upwards to get higher and somewhere secure to try and get a vantage, basically for lack of a better plan and for needing to act rather than deliberate, rather than allowing panic to tighten her hold.
This turned into a very difficult two hours of bush bashing in silence, unable to see each other through the thickness of bush, with the odd grunt reply to check we were still all within the same vicinity. Slowly I realised we weren’t going to be able to cross the flow stone, instead our best bet was to get high and try and navigate off the top of this mountain with the very poor topographic map we had. I was feeling defeated but the objective to not be on front page of the Coles Bay times (‘Female climbers needed rescuing’) spurred me through this isolated time. I knew we needed to get high and take stock of our options. I had a new goal – get to a space where we could be comfortable hunkering down for the night and potentially letting Belle know we were safe and to not worry the authorities. After a while I was able to realise that the embarrassment of not completing the traverse and a slight worry that I might have two less friends after this expedition being my biggest worries meant that panic was loosening her grip.
Once made it to the top of Mount Parson, scratched and shredded to pieces being feasted on by mosquitos, we felt safe enough to allow ourselves a carabiner scoop – much to Kate’s disgust – each of peanut butter and jam from the emergency zip log bag. The sugar kicked in. We started talking, with hints of smiles and laughter and found a path and were welcomed with a glorious view……
……..and a route back to Sleepy Bay.
So Was It Third Time Lucky?
In the end I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Ironically, even though I was initially more focused on achieving this irrational goal than the on the experience, the act of not completing it forced me to stop, take a check and live in the present moment. I realised that actually it was beautiful – the act but also the outcome.
I think ‘growing up’ climbing in safe environments, having never before been competent enough to be a leader, always taking other expertise and boldness for granted meant that I didn’t have the true adventure spirt that some of the great heroes, ‘real climbers’ and previous Sea Level Traverse completers have installed in their inner core (through experience, necessity, personality or the perfect combination of those). When I knew we were safe and I let myself really take everything in, I realised how gorgeous everything was, how lucky we were to be in this place, even though we hadn’t intended to be in that exact location (on top of Mount Parson), by god I was glad we were. First and foremost because everyone was safe and still (semi) talking to each other, but secondly because it was truly breathtaking.
In the end I wouldn’t have done anything differently.
Over the next few days we had to time to reflect on this mission. The weather drove us on to the Tasman Peninsula. We were lucky enough to be able to do the Moai (which was a test in its own unique sense).
But as I was watching Kate seconding up the route Elisa had just put up, waiting to come up myself, the sea to the ocean side of the sea stack was wild, turbulent, swirling and dangerous compared to the silky calm predictable flow of the water on the land side. I realised that perhaps I’m not a ‘proper climber’ but I knew which side I would jump into in an instant.
Osprey Adventure Grant Winners