Our bushwalk goes bad
Our day walk in the Blue Mountains turned bad this is our story!
Our planned walk was from Wentworth Falls Station along Charles Darwin track to Wentworth Falls down the Grand Staircase and under Wentworth Falls, along National Pass to Empress Falls up to Grand Cliff top walk down Roberts Pass along Lindeman Pass to Leura to finish about 18km medium grade finished by 4-5pm
Some names have been withheld from this blog, let’s call the walker with problems Walker A
Yen and I arrived at Wentworth Falls early, sat in a café for a coffee and fruit toast, nice way to start the chilly day, temp around 10c but felt much less due to wind chill, clouds threatened and the forecast was showers but none eventuated. Walker A also arrived early and joined us for coffee, good friends and previously walked similar medium grade walks with us with little problems.
12 of us gathered outside the station for the brief of the day, we eagerly strolled to Charles Darwin Walk, yes its name after the naturalist who visited here back in 1836, down the steps and alongside Jamieson creek down several waterfalls eventually coming to the top of Wentworth Falls down my favourite descent in Australia, Grand Stairway underneath Wentworth Falls and along National Pass built into the side of the cliffs back in the early 1900’s all by hand!
Although we waited for walker A to catch up a couple of times, especially down the steep Grand Staircase this was nothing unusual as its narrow, steep and often have to give way to walkers coming up, we approached the turn off for Conservation Hut walker A dropped off the back of the group a bit but someone kept an eye out for him from time to time, we kept going on to Empress Falls which we climbed up alongside and onto Lillian’s Bridge Track a lovely trail under used by walkers, we waited for walker A and a fellow walker about 10 min again not too long a wait and he seemed OK, we walked out to Moya Lookout at the junction to Roberts Pass and settled down for lunch in the sunshine with gorgeous views. I chatted to walker A who claimed was fine no problems, knees was giving him a bit of grief but it’s all good!
This was the last opt out point next was down Roberts Pass, steep little used but manageable, I had walking poles which made life easier, at the bottom the trail flattened out before leading into Lindeman Pass a remote walking track at the foot of Sublime Point. We stopped and waited for walker A, time slipped by and we started to feel a chill, one of the group went back a short way to see if Walker A was on his way and sure enough he popped up through the foliage, again I checked and he claimed all good Dave sore knees though due to the descent, by this time we had waited 15 min and I started to have one eye on the time!
Lindeman Pass is a beautiful walking track for the avid bush walker, remote, seldom used and little maintained but that’s its appeal, we slowed our pace as the track was rough in places, fallen trees to negotiate but nothing too strenuous, no big ascents or descents just average undulations of the Blue Mountains terrain and I made sure everyone stayed together in the group, I requested Yen to walk with Walker A to encourage him. Lovely thick forest and due to recent rains creeks were flowing, with a couple to cross, rocks were slippery and needing care to negotiate.
We came to Gladstone Pass and stopped to wait for Walker A & Yen, this time 20 min Yen was walking with him so we knew they were safe but it was a long wait, both came into sight and I asked again if Walker A how his knees were and how he was feeling, knees are a bit painful replied a proud bushwalker, unfortunately he is allergic to Voltaren & Ibuprofen so Panadol it was.
I continued to lead and put Walker A just behind me, next Yen, followed by all the walkers, I kept my eye on Walker A struggling with footing due to painful knees and fitness, we had slowed at this point to about 1.5km per hour not enough to get out in daylight as no opt out points from here on. We arrived at a large cliff face and I decided to go back to Gladstone Pass to see if it was walkable out as a short cut, it was clear on the map and GPS so took another walker with me, after checking a couple of feint tracks leading into the pass, water cascading down deemed it too dangerous and returned to the group.
We continued our slow pace for another 45 min or so, time was slipping by and I really did not want 12 walkers negotiating a track as rough as this with no lighting in the dark. I was equipped with safety gear, full medical kit, head torch and spare batteries, emergency fire lighting kit, PLB etc but did not want to put any of it to use today!
Almost at the base of Sublime Point I asked everyone what they thought of walking out ahead, at first not keen on the idea and no was the reply, after another 15 min of slow walking a couple of the walkers said they would like to walk ahead and out to Leura on the same track, it was getting easier walking, sun was still up in the sky and I reckoned about 2 hours of sunlight left.
I made sure everyone knew to stay on the track and together as a group under no circumstances split up, small white markers along the trail should make it OK to stay on the track although well-worn could do with a bit of maintenance and once under Leura at Gordon Falls etc tracks are well marked to Leura Cascades, 9 of them left and went ahead.
Myself, Yen and Walker A enjoyed the easier track it was wider and fewer obstacles and kinder underfoot, still a slow pace, we came to the base of Sublime Point and a rock cairn, the GPS and Map both showed Copeland Pass but we were unsure of the terrain except for the contour lines which were dam close together meaning steep in places!
I asked Walker A what he thought about a short cut, not sure about time, but distance is shorter and very steep, plenty of bush bashing, pink ribbons as a marker and a rock cairn, plus the GPS, looks a bit of a path too, Yen said “Dave I am up for it, what do you think”? Walker A replied with an enthusiastic let’s do it Dave am up for it. Walker A gave a spirited enthusiastic effort during the whole walk, one of the reasons we attempted this, also up seemed better for his knees, at this point a nervous shudder went down my spine as I knew we had about 45 min of sunlight left, I was asking a tired bushwalker to go off track up a steep pass that we had no idea of the terrain except for the contour lines of a map!
At first it was fairly easy, I could see what I thought was the top and the map showed about 240m of ascent but basically a straight line up, walking around large rocks, over them and through them not too challenging, then they became bigger and so too the obstacles, our first major one about 15 min into the climb we were doing ok but Walker A needed constant encouragement. A rope hung down over an eroded boulder, difficult to get a foot hold but thankful of the rope, the angle of the rocks made it difficult for any purchase to pull/push yourself up, walker A looked at it and his face told a story, there is no way I can pull myself up that! But a bit of squirming and a hand up for walker A we all managed OK, I looked up and saw the summit thinking this should be manageable, again encouraging Walker A to keep going, he was tired, we circumvented more large boulders and clambered over others, dry leaves underfoot made it slippery at times and before we knew it another challenge before us. No rope this time, various foot holds but difficult angles squirming, pulling and Yen below pushing finally scrambled up and over, I pulled Yen up and Walker A too, a viewpoint out west showed the sun dipping below the horizon we were soon to lose light!
Then I realised the top I could see was not actually the top at all, I did not let on at this stage to anyone, but knew there was another summit up behind what I could see, at this point that shiver rolled down my spine again as I thought of a night out in the cold of the Blue Mountains.
Suddenly a message came through, mobile reception and it was a missed call, I called back and it was the 9 walkers asking where I was, after my reply they said they could not continue as its dark and cannot find their way out the track is not clear, they have already called triple zero emergency services and police are involved.
Stuck half way to the top of Sublime Point in Copeland Pass we only had one option, we forged on, three of us clambering over rocks posing as obstacles we later learned was a rock climber’s paradise, but we are bushwalkers!
Another obstacle this time looks big, 12m or so and the sun had gone, we were in twilight but the trees/rocks made it darker, this bit made me nervous as the drop behind us was quite long, a rope hung from a tree but again hard to get purchase and pull yourself up, my right shoulder was strapped after physio for a frozen shoulder so not ideal as I was supposed to be resting it.
I looked at it twice thinking how the hell am I climbing up that? I clambered up using any leverage I could, including Yen pushing from below, elbow wedged in here, bum squashed in there, knee pushing up against a rock and finally haul myself up, not a pretty sight! I again pulled Yen and Walker A up, but as backpacks were handed up to the next level, a squeeze through a hole in the cliff I dropped one of my hiking poles! Frustrated I said its OK I will go back, walker A said no leave it Dave it’s not worth it, I guess not but half hoping Yen would pop down and pick it up as I could pull her up easier than me clambering up, sure enough before anything could be done, off she dropped down to pass up the hiking pole, clambered back up before I could offer a hand then looked up at the small gap we had to squeeze through.
I donned my head torch which lit up the rocks nicely, it was hard to pick the track at times and the ribbons too the track was hard to find in the dark, Yen and I must have been full of adrenaline as neither of us were tired, poor walker A toughed it out and pushed on, I am sure if we said hey that’s enough let’s make camp he would jumped at the chance!
We stopped and gawked up at what we thought was an impenetrable steep rock face, the drop behind was long and I did not fancy this bit at all, no way around it but then we saw two grab handles/foot pegs in the dark, this made me nervous as had to grab the handles pull yourself up over a rough rounded cliff edge around a grass tree all with a long drop behind you in the dark, up through some eroded crevice with tree roots, loose dirt made it slippery but we all managed OK.
We scrambled a bit further and in the distance eventually saw a sign, phew what a relief a bloody sign. It simply said “Danger Copeland Pass”! Why was there not one at the bottom?
It seemed to flatten out a bit and was much easier a gently ascent then I saw some sort of structure and as it came into view realised it was the walkway over to Sublime Point viewing area, the relief was immense a huge shout it’s the top! We made it, Walker A was excited and we all gave a huge sigh of relief except Yen, “Oh that was so much fun let’s do it again sometime” Of course we will but in full daylight! Walker A was ecstatic with his achievement, some of the obstacles never thought he would conquer them and a great effort to get to the top.
We called for a taxi then two cars arrived, one turned out to be a police car as two policeman jumped out, the other car stopped for a minute or so then drove off, assuming was two lovers looking for a quiet spot!
I approached the policemen and asked if they were looking for the 9 walkers, advised who I was and where the 9 were but they were looking for a single female lost without mobile phone as battery dead and is lost, another party of two were out there somewhere needing to be found too.
I advised Yen and I could jump in a taxi to Leura Cascades car park walk in and guide out the 9 walkers this seemed ok by the policemen and off we went once the taxi arrived, I contacted the 9 walkers by phone who had reception but not internet so could not take coordinates and advised them of my plan. I phoned Katoomba Police station asking for an update who advised they have an inspector looking for the lost girl and three others looking for the nine and for us to wait until further news, under no circumstances enter the bush again as you may receive a fine! Frustrated but understanding we diverted the taxi to Wentworth Falls Station to collect our cars, Yen and I luckily were staying at YHA Katoomba that night so no long drive home, and waited patiently for an update from the group or police.
We drove back to Katoomba and looked for dinner, it was 21:40 everything closed except Dominos and Bamboo Box Chinese but take away only, Chicken Chow Mein with crispy noodles nice, Walker A had chicken fried rice and Yen Grandma’s Tofu we took it back to the YHA with a bottle of NZ Sauvignon Blanc for a well-earned dinner. Bugger no crispy noodles… Bamboo Box forgot to pack them, Chow Mein was bland and boring so left most of it although not really hungry even after our adventure. The next several hours (yes it was 22:20 by now) was spent sitting in our room calling the 9 walkers and Katoomba Police Station, one minute the police said have sighted the 9 and will be with them in 10 min next not located them yet still looking!
Midnight passed, it was cold down to 6c or 7c and I really wanted to walk in and guide them out, 00:40 called the Police again still not found the walkers and frustration shone through from me as I was told not to argue with the Police, I was not arguing just frustration from different advice received and still no closer to getting the 9 walkers out again, why so long they are so close to Leura Cascades only at Gordon Falls, again stated I can walk in with another bushwalker as we know where they are and we know the tracks, locate them and walk them out, we have the emergency gear too, but the stern reply came you will receive a fine if you re-enter the bush leave it to the professionals?
Whilst waiting for further updates dozed off laying on the bed in my warm room, comfortable but worried about the 9 still out there in the cold.
Another call came in from the walkers this time also messaging a screenshot of their location on Google Maps sheesh they were so close to Leura! I emailed it to the police and followed up it was received and passed onto the search party. This was the second time the same information was given. An hour later another call from the Police we have located them should be with them in 10 min! Police had driven 3 vehicles down the old sewage treatment plant track which runs from Kings Tableland to Wentworth Falls a bit of a distance away!
Finally a call from the walkers which confirmed it, Police were with them giving instructions, finally an air of relief filled the room. Walker A had crashed in our room and was also relieved and so glad all were OK, guilt streamed over his face with plenty of remorse in his conversation. We decided to pick them up at the walk out point if required and called the police station asking where they would walk out, they were being driven as three vehicles used the Old Katoomba Sewage track to get as close to them as possible, unfortunately this was a further 2 hour hike! 03:22 received a call from the 9 walkers saying they were finally at the vehicles and being driven to Wentworth Falls station where their cars were parked, relief all round.
What would I do differently?
Asses any struggling walker sooner and provide an earlier opt out point & enforce if necessary
Put struggling walker up front with me earlier to better manage situation
Never split a group, it’s better to all walk out together than to risk not getting out at all
Not push a tired or injured walk up an unknown pass through difficult terrain, shortcut or no shortcut
Ensure all walkers carry a head torch with spare batteries
Our bushwalk goes bad: Hindsight is a wonderful thing, thinking on your feet and trying to ensure everyone gets out on time to enjoy their Saturday night in a situation like this is not easy but we should have stayed together and walked out late.