Two Towers: The Wild Sea Stacks of Tasmania

Ben Rueck and Mayan Smith-Gobat push their limits on the ephemeral and frigid sea stacks of Tasmanian
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Ben Rueck and Mayan Smith-Gobat push their limits on the ephemeral and frigid sea stacks of Tasmanian
Ben Rueck leads high above the sea on the Moai Tower in Fortescue Bay, Tasmania. Photo: Andrew Burr

Ben Rueck leads high above the sea on the Moai Tower in Fortescue Bay, Tasmania. Photo: Andrew Burr

The Maoi Tower

“I think this it!” Mayan Smith-Gobat shouted after our “90-minute” hike had turned into a three-hour slog through mud, across streams, and up hand-built steps on the coastal trails of Tasmania’s Fortescue Bay. We had finally found the small cairn that marks the abseil to the base of the Moai tower, a 110-foot-tall spindly sea stack and my first non-desert tower. Formed by high winds running through the waterway between Australia and New Zealand, this dolerite minaret sits in an area that locals call “the ditch.” Guarded by a series of abseils through loose stone and ferns, the tower sits on the endpoint of a jutting land bridge that’s ravaged by wind and waves. The blackened stone looks polished and carved, and with the Moai standing as a lone sentinel on a tennis court–size platform a mere 10 feet above sea level, there’s an overwhelming feeling of isolation in this place.

“Over here!” Mayan shouted again as photographer Andrew Burr and I blundered through thick shrubbery toward the disembodied voice. Burr and I played Marco Polo with Mayan as we navigated through the gum trees and five-foot-tall ferns. When we finally stumbled across the cairn, the hill steepened sharply, blocking our view of what was just past the small pile of stones.

“I hope this is it,” I said, dropping 200 meters of 9mm static rope, a rack of 15 draws, shoes, and a harness. I crumpled to the ground by the edge of the sea cliff, my patience weakened due to a lack of food and water. The hike through the coastal terrain had taken a bigger toll than I thought, and, dubious of the accuracy of our location, I felt my foul mood shift toward a full-blown tantrum, mirroring the storm clouds building up on the horizon.

Mayan and Ben prepare to rap down then swing over to the Totem Pole. Photo: Andrew Burr

Mayan and Ben prepare to rap down then swing over to the Totem Pole. Photo: Andrew Burr

“Look that way,” Mayan said as she pointed north through green brush toward distant waves. Curiosity pushed me toward the cliff’s edge. The forest stopped abruptly, and a canvas of sea and cliff line spread out before me. White-capped waves crashed against the stone walls 200 feet below, and a sapphire sea met a gloomy horizon, reminiscent of the overcast of the American Pacific Northwest. We stood at the edge of this primal world as Mayan fixed the static line to a tree-slung anchor and threw the rope toward the sea. Instead of a series of rappels down and then low fifth class climbing on the way out, the fixed line allowed us to do one long rappel in and one quick jumar out.

The tower first attracted the attention of climbers in August 1994 when R. Eberhart and Roger Parkyn, locals of Port Arthur, a former convict settlement 20 km from the Moai trailhead, bushwhacked to the base. Parkyn, a prolific developer and coauthor of Tasmania’s first guidebook, The Craglets of Southern Tasmania, made the first ascent of the Moai’s Sacred Site, a two-pitch 5.10a. Parkyn, later that year with Tasi climbers R. Eberhard and G. Phillips, established a series of mixed routes that navigate small overhangs on the western face of the tower, as well as a blunt arête on the northeastern corner.

Named after its similarity to ancient stone head carvings on the island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) off the coast of southeastern Chile, the Moai is a tourist attraction for travelers exploring Tasmania’s coast lines. It is located on the southeastern shore in Fortescue Bay, which is a sailor’s refuge from stormy seas, a fishing haven for locals, and a stopping point for seals swimming from Cape Hauy just south.

A catcall pierced the silence. “Finally,” Burr laughed. “That was getting brutal.” Mayan and Burr, both longtime veterans of adventure climbing, were excited to embark on our mission, and it soothed the anxiety that had been nagging at me since we reached the cairn.

Ben Rueck climbs the Normal Route (16/5.8) on The Candlestick. Photo: Andrew Burr

Ben Rueck climbs the Normal Route (16/5.8) on The Candlestick. Photo: Andrew Burr

“See you down there!” Mayan laughed as she let the rope sing through her abseil device—she knew I hated heights. Though it was the first time either of us had been to Tasmania, she was more at ease. Born in the shadow of Mt. Cook, New Zealand, Mayan grew up near rugged mountains and a sea that were both prone to tumultuous changes in weather. At 18, she left New Zealand to push her climbing limits, and she became one of the top female climbers in the world, free climbing El Cap’s Salathe Wall (5.13b), making the first female ascent of Punks in the Gym (5.14a), new-routing in China’s Getu Valley, and hitch-hiking through Chile in search of marbled boulders. A well-rounded climber, she can adapt to fast-changing situations, which makes her the perfect partner for the unpredictable. I, on the other hand, was new to dealing with these exploits, and felt like a total gumby.

Just out of college, I worked as a substitute teacher in Grand Junction, Colorado. I had climbed a few bolted 5.14s and double-digit boulder problems, but nothing requiring patience or logistics. My rope skills were minimal, and my lead head was a work in progress. I was motivated to find calm within my paralyzing fear of heights. After 80 feet I would freeze, which was fine for sport climbing, but in adventure climbing it had become a problem. On the Diamond of Longs Peak in Colorado, I was so out of my comfort zone that I became incapacitated and couldn’t move, resulting in me short-roping Mayan 10 feet above a rusted pin. A fall would have meant a broken ankle a few hundred feet up an alpine big wall a half-dozen miles from the nearest road.

We spent the next few months practicing multi-pitch techniques so I could get a better understanding of gear and anchors, as well as become more confident and capable.

Lacing the rope through my belay device, I felt like a worm on a hook—bait for a giant squid. I moved down, and now hovering 15 feet above the stone platform, I stalled, imagining a long tentacle reaching from the waves to drag me down to the farthest depths of the ditch.

Ben Rueck enjoys the bolts on Ancient Astronaut  (5.12a), The Moai, Fortescue Bay. Photo: Andrew Burr

Ben Rueck enjoys the bolts on Ancient Astronaut (5.12a), The Moai, Fortescue Bay. Photo: Andrew Burr

Seeing my hesitation, Burr shouted, “Thar be monsters at the edge of the map!” Of course it was easy for Burr to joke while standing safely on the cliff 200 feet above the waves and creatures. I touched down on the platform 100 feet from the base of the tower where Mayan waited. The light breeze we’d felt in the forest gave way to a roaring wind that whipped against our rain jackets while the sea sprayed saltwater. Swells crested the platform and stopped six feet away from our launching point. If one giant wave swept across the platform, we’d really be meeting that squid—or whatever monster might be lurking under the surface.

The coastal exposure brought in the smell of salt and storm; drastic weather changes are common during Tasmanian spring. Our guidebook nonchalantly warned that the weather was “notoriously unpredictable.” Nicknamed the Roaring Forties, due to its location at the 40° latitude, this area’s strong westerly winds from the equator cool and drop as they travel south toward the pole. With a lack of landmass to act as a wind break, severe storms can develop and change a bright, sunny day into a miserable, cold affair.

“It’s now or never,” Mayan said, implying that the longer we waited the higher the chance we’d have to jug out in a freezing rain. She pointed to Ancient Astronaut (5.12a), our first taste of Tasmanian climbing. The tower looked thinner now, like a candle stuck into a cake. My imagination must have played a trick on me, or maybe it was the wind and the movement of the waves all around, but it looked like the tower was teetering on the edge and would eventually topple into the icy brink. I felt my confidence drop, but Mayan and I started our routine of scoping the line, organizing equipment, and playing “rock, paper, scissors” to determine who got the sharp end. A few minutes later, I tied in and ventured up my first sea stack.

The bottom 20 feet of the line was slick but offered a surprising amount of grip. Edges, cracks, and small holds lined the vertical face, and a healthy 10 feet between bolts made me dig my fingertips in just a little bit more. Muffled sounds of encouragement came from Mayan below, but the roar of the wind and sea drowned it out. My forearms flared with the first signs of an overgrip-induced flash-pump. Going for the onsight, I focused on smaller sections of climbing instead of the whole pitch. Alone, 70 feet up, and pummeled by the elements, I felt exhaustion set in, and I froze eight feet above my last bolt. Panic mounted and old insecurities surfaced.

What if I fall and break my leg? Will the bolts hold if I whip?

“You got this,” Mayan’s voice carried up from below. Her positive nature brought me back to the agreement we’d made a few minutes earlier. If I was unable to complete the tower in one pitch, we could do it in two. Forearms flaring, I wanted to stop and bring Mayan up, but if I was going to grow as a climber, wasn’t this the time to do it?

Ben Rueck finishes the first pitch of The Free Route (5.12b) on the Totem Pole, with the Candlestick on the left and the mainland on the right. Photo: Andrew Burr

Ben Rueck finishes the first pitch of The Free Route (5.12b) on the Totem Pole, with the Candlestick on the left and the mainland on the right. Photo: Andrew Burr

Packing a bag with the static lines, cams, and slings required for adventure climbing and hiking miles into uncharted territory was unlike carrying a harness and draws on the five-minute approaches of Rifle Mountain Park. I was used to overcrowded crags filled with beta-spraying locals, but here I was, clutched to the side of the tower with only one other soul in reach. I pushed through the pain and latched onto each hold like it would be my last. With one final beached-whale move, I flopped onto the summit out of breath.

Maybe this is what I’d been missing for all these years being purely focused on bouldering and sport grades, I thought. The adventure of climbing, self-discovery, and nature isn’t purely about a number tagged to a route, but the experience and growth from overcoming personal boundaries. A deeper trust between partners is necessary. All the joy and accomplishment of climbing are shared, as well as the failure.

The weather mostly held for the rest of the day with only small bursts of rain, but the winds still raged and the waves still crashed, creating a rhythmic soundtrack for sending Sacred Site (5.10a) and Burning Spear (5.11c) over the next few hours. Our spirits were high on the long walk back, but the real reason we’d come to Tasmania—an onsight of the Free Route (5.12b) on the most famous sea stack in the world, the Totem Pole—was yet to come. I wanted the first pitch, and I was ready. —Ben Rueck

The Totem Pole

Ben attempting to stick the swing over to the Totem Pole. Photo: Andrew Burr

Ben attempting to stick the swing over to the Totem Pole. Photo: Andrew Burr

Ben swung from the end of the rope, leaving me stranded on a tiny outcrop a few feet above the churning Tasman Sea, clipped to a single rusted bolt. I felt alone in the dim chasm and at the mercy of nature’s raw power. The ropes we had rappelled down were anchored 200 feet above me on the mainland, and now Ben was pulling it across the gap to get to the base of the Totem Pole. His fingertips brushed the sides of the slim tower, but with everything slippery from saltwater, he couldn’t get any purchase on the rock. As quickly as he swung out, his body came hurtling back. Cursing, he crashed into the wall next to me, and I worried that he had hurt himself but welcomed the brief security of his closeness. Moments later he was gone again, and I pushed away the fear of something going wrong. Getting back out from this position with an injured partner was inconceivable. 

The waves receded, and I thought for a split-second about how we could have almost scurried across the barnacled rocks, but the ebb and flow was too unpredictable. The idea of being tossed against the rocks by a wave or thrown into the cold ocean made me cringe. I had always been scared of the sea, and when these fears resurfaced, I nestled deeper into my jacket, unable to do anything but hope for the best. Ben swung out again.

“Fuck!” he yelled as his fingers slid off the Tote and he braced himself for the inevitable thud into the wall. A few more attempts and he figured out the right angle and height to generate more momentum. He latched onto the wet rock. His mouth opened wide with joy, but the thundering waves stifled his cries coming from 10 feet away. I struggled to keep the coils of rope out of the water while the cold splashes nipped at me. I stood on my little pedestal, and Ben started to climb.

Shaking through the first few moves, Ben battled slippery holds and numb hands, while I huddled at the belay, nervously yelling words of encouragement. Coming from New Zealand, I grew up with the Tote on my back doorstep and dreamed of onsighting it, but I had procrastinated because I was scared of failing.

Despite achieving some of my biggest goals in climbing over the last few years, I felt unprepared and intimidated by this tower’s iconic history. Now I was here and the pressure to perform was overpowering. I hoped desperately that Ben and I could achieve this goal together.

Ben moved up the rock, placing a few pieces of gear, and I could see his body relax and get into the flow of climbing. As his confidence grew, so did my excitement. During the long belay, my mind drifted to the ridiculousness of our position—an isolated nine-foot-wide pinnacle that rises directly out of the Tasman Sea off the tip of Cape Hauy, one of Tasmania’s southernmost peninsulas. This slender finger of basalt has survived the constant weathering from wind, waves, and rain, and the fact that it still stands makes it one of the most sought-after goals for climbers and photographers. This unlikely tower offers a challenge unlike any other, not because of the technical difficulty, but because of the wild location.

Australian John Ewbank first aid climbed the Totem Pole in 1968. Ewbank was known for his intimidating routes all over Australia, many of which are rarely repeated. The first free ascent came in 1995 when Steve Monks, Simon Mentz, Jane Wilkinson, and Simon Carter established the Free Route (5.12b) on the more compact side of the tower. Another notable free-climbing attempt occurred three years later by the Briton Pritchard—an attempt that was cut short before a single move was made. Paul dislodged a microwave-size block from the peninsula’s mainland while rappelling to inspect the route. The rock struck him on the head and nearly killed him, and his girlfriend and partner Celia Bull hauled the nearly unconscious Pritchard to the ledge halfway up and then ran back through the wilderness for help. The accident left Pritchard paralyzed on one side with speech and memory difficulties. Lynn Hill missed becoming the first to onsight the line when a hold broke during her attempt a few years later, allowing the Australian Monique Forestier to claim the prize in 2003.

Towers on towers on towers! Climbing The Finger of Blame (23/5.11b), Cape Raoul. Photo: Andrew Burr

Towers on towers on towers! Climbing The Finger of Blame (23/5.11b), Cape Raoul. Photo: Andrew Burr

Ben slowly climbed out of the shaded constriction and into the light, where more space between the mainland’s walls on both sides provided an open feeling for the climber, while I stayed down in this strange world where human-like groans and screeches came from the water moving through gaps in the rocks. Waves churned around the tower inches from my feet, and the tide pushing seaweed to and fro had a hypnotizing effect. Several meters past this spire is the Candlestick, another tower that’s twice the height of the Tote and more than 10 times the width. Cold air blows from the Antarctic and funnels between these two minarets, right where I stood. Shivering uncontrollably, I lost track of time and space, becoming painfully aware that we were in one of the most exposed locations possible. We were committed. The only way off was via the summit.

After more than 30 minutes, the rope—my only physical connection to the world—tugged and brought me back to my situation. A faint cry came drifting down.

“Oh, yeah!” Ben shouted. “Off belay!”

The rope snaked upward as Ben took in the slack, and when it came tight on my harness, I forced my numb limbs to move and climb to his highpoint. I felt nothing as I tried to find purchase on the slippery holds with fingers that were clumsy with cold. The dark rock’s features were rounded and sculpted. There were no crisp edges or distinct cracks, and it was sparsely bolted with very few places for natural protection, making the climbing feel tenuous and committing. I was thankful for the rope above me.

Rueck points at an echnida burrowing into the ground and defending itself with its spikes. Photo: Andrew Burr

Rueck points at an echnida burrowing into the ground and defending itself with its spikes. Photo: Andrew Burr

“Nice one, Ben! You cruised that!” I shouted as I neared the ledge where he stood. Though El Cap is almost 15 times the height of the Tote, on the sides of Yosemite’s monolith, I felt protected by the valley floor itself. Here, surrounded by violent waters, I was an unstable leaf at the mercy of the elements.

With unfeeling hands and a few feet of rock on either side, I began the second pitch arête, wondering how this needle of rock still stood. The wind, the water, the width—it all seemed so improbable. Soon I was absorbed in the moment—perfect edges, big reaches, and precise footwork—everything flowed as I read the movement and my body and mind adapted. The climbing consumed my focus. I forgot the wind and cold, enjoying every move. I was surprised when I pulled the last moves onto the summit.

As I belayed Ben up, the tower started vibrating. I had heard of this—people say you can feel it move—but I hadn’t believed them. I knew it was slender, but a chunk of solid rock moving seemed unlikely. Standing on top, I shuddered at the thought of how easily it could fall over.

Finally, Ben pulled over the lip and we embraced, teetering on the top 65 meters above the water. The clouds parted, and the sun bathed Ben and I in soft light. I forgot the instability as we stood on the split boulder that marks the summit. Talking excitedly about the route and absorbing this shared moment, we both knew that all too soon it would be on to the next goal. The ocean, now far below us, crashed harmlessly. The wind no longer threatened. With our goal achieved, we could relax and enjoy this environment. I felt relief wash over me. For this moment, this world of wind and sea was ours. —Mayan Smith-Gobat

Mayan Smith-Gobat onsights the Free Route (5.12b) on the Totem Pole. Photo: Andrew Burr

Mayan Smith-Gobat onsights the Free Route (5.12b) on the Totem Pole. Photo: Andrew Burr

Tasmania Beta

Getting there and getting around

Fly from Australia (Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane) to Hobart in the south or Launceston in the north. You can also take a ferry (The Spirit of Tasmania, about 8 hours) to Devonport, also in the north, which allows cars onboard. Either way, you’ll need a car once there. “Tassie is actually a bit bigger than it looks,” local climber Tony McKenny says. “Having said that, the distances are relatively short, by Aussie/U.S. standards, anyway.”

When to go

December through April (the Southern Hemisphere’s summer and early autumn). Winter is cold and wet, and spring is too windy. The west is generally rainy, while the east is drier and warmer. “Tasmania is notorious for its fickle weather, and it sits in the middle of the Roaring Forties [wind system], so expect changeable weather any time of year,” advises Jon Nermut, founder of thesarvo.com, a must-visit site for info on all Tasmanian mountain sports.

Where to stay

Each crag has its own camping and hut information, but Freycinet and Tasman peninsulas have idyllic campgrounds at Whitewater Wall and Fortescue Bay, respectively. Camper vans are popular and easy to rent. Camping is difficult around major cities, so stay in any of the several backpacker hostels when in Launceston or Hobart.

Where to climb

“Mt. Wellington and surrounding area in the south; Ben Lomond and Bare Rock in the north; Frenchmans Cap, the Tyndals, and Federation Peak in the west; Tasman Peninsula (Totem Pole, the Moai, Wedding Cake) in the southeast; Mt. Roland in the Northwest,” McKenny recommends. “And Freycinet Peninsula in the east; it’s the most popular area and has the Star Factory and lovely granite sea cliff climbs. There are a number of long easier climbs here as well, something Tassie is rather short of, actually.” You’ll find over 3,500 routes on thesarvo.com. Locals recommend Climb Tasmania: Selected Best Climbs, by Gerry Narkowicz, which also maps certain road trips around the island. Another option is to hire a guide, particularly if you want to tackle something very technical, access or climbing-wise. Check out the Tasmanian Climbing Instructors Association for a list of qualified guides.

What and where to eat

Ben enjoys a fisherman’s cone filled with fried seafood in Doo Town. Photo: Andrew Burr

Ben enjoys a fisherman’s cone filled with fried seafood in Doo Town. Photo: Andrew Burr

“Fresh seafood and any local produce are worth a try,” Nermut says. “Wander around the docks of Salamanca in Hobart to find any number of good restaurants, bars, and cafes.”

Tasmanian food is tasty, but expensive. Warns McKenny: “The food and wine trails in the south, east, and north can drown the best of intentions regarding fitness and erode all ambition to climb!”

Best rest day

With more than a third of its land protected in national parks or World Heritage areas, Tasmania has no shortage of outdoor adventure options beyond climbing. “Diving, surfing, hiking, mountain biking, sailing, kayaking, rafting, and fishing are all good,” Nermut says. “MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart is probably the cultural highlight.”

Remember to bring

“A partner. It can be frustratingly difficult for visitors to find climbing partners in Tas,” Nermut says. The population is only about half a million people, and the climbing community is active but small.

Insider tips

The summer is busy, so book flights, ferries, and campsites as far in advance as possible. “Be prepared to change your plans to follow the best weather,” Nermut adds. “In general, head for the opposite end of the island from where the wind is blowing. That is, if it’s blowing westerly, head for the east coast (Freycinet); if it’s blowing from the south, head to the northern crags. It’s only a couple hours’ drive from one end to the other.”