Climbing Karinyarra: a cautionary tale
I wrote this for a Rock Magazine article a few years ago about climbing in Central Australia.
Viewed from a distance, the wedge-shaped Karinyarra massif resembles the sinking Titanic. The scree slopes like the waves beating against the boat, and the cliffline like the broken hull. Racking up to climb on the prow of this great ship, we liked these romantic images. They kept our mind off the fact it was 200m of towering choss. Definitely not the next Arapiles, but an impressive mountain in a proud position in the middle of the desert.
Several years ago I made my first enquiries about climbing this remote Central Australian peak. Japaljarri, a Warlpiri man and Aboriginal Owner for the site, told me many people had negotiated the long scramble to the summit from the western side. In the old days, men had climbed to sing love songs from a stone platform on the summit. He had not heard of anyone attempting to climb the eastern face. Why would I want to do that? ‘Too dangerous’, he said. I showed him some back issues of Rock and laid out some of my gear. Convinced of my ability and somewhat amused at my enthusiasm, he granted me permission to attempt the climb.
Before leaving, Jangala, a young man, told us about the strong ‘love magic’ associated with Karinyarra and warned that if we climb it, any shirts we wore would possess this love magic! We now had all the inspiration we needed for the long walk in. After walking for miles over sandhills and through mulga scrub, passing through a pack of camels, we reached the base of the cliff in the afternoon and climbed two pitches before retreating in darkness.
A month later, Dave and I stood at the base of the prow. At that point, it is almost possible to look down both sides of the mountain. On a clear day we could have seen Yuendumu and Papunya in the distance. We paused to reflect. It was October, and it was hot.
We discovered we had left all but two litres of water behind with the cached pack on the walk in. But, the day had already got off to a bad start. Having left the sunscreen at home, we had found some red ochre in the car to cover our white bodies from the sun. We were also a little concerned about that love magic. So, it was with some irony that we had taken off our shirts and painted ourselves for battle with the elements.
The mountain rises 550m above the plain; and the cliffline begins about half-way up. So, the exposure from the first pitch was fantastic. With the wind blowing hard, we imagined ourselves climbing on the prow of that great ship. We were surprised to find sections of solid sandstone. The second pitch was particularly good and involved a traverse into a crack that was clean enough to accept protection we felt reasonably happy with. However, on the third pitch Dave had to take a diagonal route to lessen the risk of taking me out with the inevitable falling rocks. We sat at the base of the fourth pitch looking up at a mass of delicately perched refridgerator-sized boulders of conglomerate sandstone. While not technically difficult, it looked very fragile and almost devoid of anything other than token pro.
We sat for a while, looking out over the plain to the north. The white explorer, Colonel Warburton travelled through here in 1872 and, in the typical style of conquering hero, renamed the mountain ‘Central Mt Wedge’, because he thought it resembled a slice of cheese. Sitting halfway up the cliff, it certainly did, though well past its use-by date. Ironically, most Warlpiri today refer to Karinyarra as ‘Mt Wedge’. We consoled ourselves with the fact that Warburton had not actually climbed the mountain, marking in his diary: ‘The hill was too formidable for me to ascend’.
I stretched the rope through a series of large boulders on a ledge and continued delicately up through very loose country. I was relieved when Dave and the rope arrived intact and he continued on a somewhat contrived attempt to find an interesting path through the choss. A scramble to the summit followed where unusual weather conditions obscured our view. Having run out of water halfway up the cliff, with youthful fervour we celebrated the climb with two small bottles of Baileys.
We had planned to make the long walk off the back of the mountain. However, I managed to convince Dave it would be quicker and more interesting if we abseiled down the large cleft that split the southern face. After three 50m abseils we pulled up 8m off the ground with nowhere to go. Feeling quite dehydrated, Dave soloed a difficult traverse and convinced me to follow.
Walking down the slope to retrieve our pack, we could just make out the car in the distance. I sighted a line to it, hoping we would reach it before dark. Excited by the prospect of reaching water, we walked to where we expected the pack to be. Somewhat confused and increasingly dehydrated, we realised we had been mistaken. With the light fading, I put the climbing gear down and climbed a large boulder from which I could see the pack across several gullies lying next to a rock. I moved quickly, arriving to find nothing. In my haste, I had left the climbing gear behind. We had now lost all our gear except for the rope Dave carried.
Feeling quite foolish, I called out to Dave. We spent 10 minutes finding each other in the dark. We were both very dehydrated and obviously lacked the required acumen to continue the search. I was beginning to get dizzy and my lips were cracked. We decided to head to the car.
We walked for what seemed hours, through mulga scrub and rocky spinifex, using the dark outline of the mountain in the distance as a reference point. Frustrated and unable to find the car and concerned I would soon blackout from dehydration, we stopped. I lay on a pile of rocks and fell asleep using the rope as a pillow. When the moon rose some time later, we discovered we were lying on the track the car had made through the spinifex!
Two weeks later, I returned and soon located the equipment. It concerned me how the dehydration and effort of climbing had distorted our ability to locate the gear. Even with experience and preparation, things can very easily go wrong climbing in remote areas. I also don’t recommend celebrating climbs with bottles of Baileys before descending.
Sometime later, I remembered Jangala’s warning about that love magic. It seems to have had little effect on me. Sadly, however, Dave got bitten and seldom frequents the cliffs of his childhood, preferring instead the horizontal adventures of adult life.
I have climbed Karinyarra a number of times since. On one occasion, my partner and I reached the summit to find an open case of flashing electrical equipment. As we sat and contemplated what it was and how it got in such a remote location, a helicopter moved towards us and eventually landed nearby. A slightly disheveled man ran to the case, completely ignoring our attempts at communication, before returning to the helicopter and literally, flying off into the sunset. We never did find out what that was all about.