Climbing The Moai

Rock climbing can be one of the most exhilarating of all adventures,  but the process requires several administrative steps: selecting the vertical cliff, drooling over photographs, planning the logistics doing the routes.

Our enthusiasm mounted early as we made plans to climb one of Tasmania’s unique and beautiful rock towers protruding from the sea. Our climbing team heading to the Tasman Peninsula was made up of two Canadian and two Australian climbers We aimed to climb it in a “clean” style: we  would use removable fall protection equipment such as metal “nuts” and spring-loaded “cams”, while causing minimal damage to the rock. The most famous of Tasmania’s coastal spires is Cape Huay’s Totem Pole, but there are countless other rock towers with such names as the Candlestick, the Pole Dancer and the Moai.

The Moai is located at Fortescue Bay, a twenty kilometre drive from Port Arthur and a ninety minute hike on the Waterfall Valley track. There are three different established technical rock climbing routes on the Moai: Sacred Site (Australian Grade 18), Burning Spear (Grade 22) and Ancient Astronaut (Grade 24). Sacred Site is the classic route and consequently the most climbed.

We read about the route before heading out along the trail. Sacred Site begins with easy climbing to a ledge  above a dolerite slab. The next 20 metres consist of jamming your hands and fingers into narrow cracks and gingerly moving feet up a dihedral to another stance. The route continues up thin cracks via a thought-provoking flake. At this point, the sense of exposure is heightened, as the climb gets increasingly vertical and frothing waves crash below. It is then a mere five metres to the small square summit.

The approach to the climb consisted of a ninety minute bush walk along the east coast of the Tasman Peninsula  during a humid, cloudy day. From Fortescue Bay, we soldiered along first to Canoe Bay, then to Bivouac Bay. The trail followed the Pacific Ocean coast line closely , climbing over tiny hills and ducking under the welcome shade of the gum trees. We were on the lookout for the rock cairns marking the climber’s trail/wallaby track. When we found it, we followed it to the cliff’s edge.

Standing high above the Moai, we smiled widely at the prospect of climbing the beautiful grey tower. With two quick abseils, we descended the 70 metre cliff. At the bottom, a massive black dolerite shelf connected the stunning Moai to the coastal shore. The goal was to climb the 35 metre route named Sacred Site, on the north side of the tower.

Once arriving at the base we unloaded our backpacks, organised our equipment: ropes, carabiners, spring-loaded camming devices, slings, harnesses, helmets, sunscreen, water and bottles. We racked up and began climbing up Sacred Site. As the visitors- us two Canadians would be the first pair to climb. Although the rock was solid, the tower seemed to sway. But it was an illusion created by the waves crashing below, with water rising and dropping.

The buffeting winds did not help us cling to the rock, yet the climbing itself was fluid and fun. The vertical cracks in the stone held our spring-loaded camming devices securely, offering us a measure of protection if we fell. The triangular metal nuts slotted tightly in the bottle-neck shaped features of the rock, and to reduce the friction of the rope trailing its way up the rock beneath me, we used several nylon slings to help position the rope in a straight line.

I reached the “thought-provoking” flake- it provoked thoughts of gravity. At this point, high above the ocean, I encountered an old rusted piton, a metal spike which previous climbers had hammered in as a secure anchor, eons ago.

My partner yelled up to me : “Don’t trust the piton!”, and I gingerly climbed above the flake.

With only five metres to the blocky summit, the backs of my fingers and hands were rubbed raw from the abrasive dolerite. I kept climbing, aware of the  sense of gravity and the crashing of the waves, and reached the summit.

As I sat up on the top of the tower and belayed up my partner, a tourist boat sped past by. A pod of twenty dolphins were jumping, flopping and surfing the waves around it. I controlled the rope attached to my partner as she began to climb up the route.   When she made it to the ledge below the rusted piton, she was sweating from the exertion and the sun’s heat. “Have a rest…”, I cajoled. After five minutes she began continuing up the Moai again, this time with a few louder grunts– but no falls. Soon enough, she reached the summit ledge and secured herself into the belay anchors.

We looked out over the Tasman Sea and along the speckey coastal cliffs. The experience of the technical ascent of this  free standing tower made the view of the Pacific just a wee bit crisper.

It was an easy abseil back to the base for a a well-deserved lunch of dried fruit and a drink of water. As we ate lunch, we watched the Australian pair make their way up the Moai. They hooted with glee as they got to the summit and performed the obligatory summit photo shoot.

We still had to retrace our steps, which involved scrambling up loose rocky gullies and tying into the rope again to climb two pitches up the cliffs above the Moai. We then walked the hour and a half back to Fortescue Bay. The day’s expedition had begun at 9 AM and finished by 5 PM.  We all agreed that it was much better than any day at the office. The hike totalled twelve km on a well-maintained coastal track.

Of all that Tasmania  offered us on our travels, we felt the summit of the majestic Moai was the most impressive. The stunning vistas of the sea, the grey dolerite rock and the surrounding Australian bush made for a stunning day in the wilderness. The team was successful in its attempt to use clean protection for its climb and to “leave no trace”.  And, finally, the last stage in the climbers’ process is reliving the adventure through sharing stories and pictures with others such as you.

Editor’s note- James and his companions were in for a longer day than they expected. Their climb took place on the same day as the Dunalley-Tasman bushfires in early 2013, and they would be trapped on the Tasman Peninsula late into the night awaiting an evacuation by boat.