Third Bird by Lyle Closs

(Cast your mind back to autumn 1972…I wasn’t even a twinkle in my father’s eye, but on the Organ pipes, some studenty types were busy creating a classic dolerite route….this is the first ascent account of the route I did with Keith McQueen on the weekend – the route is a real cracker! Domhnall)

I am pounding at the keyboard. My fingers flail in the air between words. I am immersed in Astral Weeks. A chaotic jumble of semi-comprehensible prose batters out of my senses onto the paper.
The door bursts open. Ian Lewis wants to climb. I want anything else but. It is chilly, grey – Hobart and autumn glooming. He stands in the doorway of my bare, rented student room and looks at me with amused annoyance, his eyes half closed. "Get your arse out. Come on, it’s time we did that line."
I am hardly awake. "F***ing hell mate. It’s cold!"
"F*** it, get your arse out of here. It’s not f***ing cold." These are our articulate years. He walks in and starts shoving nuts and slings into my old pack. "Christ almighty. Come on."
I moan and push the rickety table aside, start to haul warmer clothes on and pull on my Blundstone elastic sided boots. Wishing for something else, something beyond the close walls of Tasmania. I throw my PAs at Ian – he shoves them in after the climbing gear. Jeff Burgess grins from the door.
"You want to climb! Get out of the f***ing car!" Lew abuses us. We clamber out of Jeff’s dad’s old FB Holden. The salmon pink car has been painted using an old vacuum cleaner spray paint attachment. Jeff scrounged the home-made leather seat belts when his dad installed modern nylon belts, and made us leather climbing gear belts to go with our two inch wide waistbands. We slouch up the dirt and boulder track behind Ian, up to the walkers track under the Organ Pipes. Hands shoved into pockets against the cold breeze. The herb-like smell that comes from I know not which plant clings to my senses. The re-growth still struggles five years after the bestial bushfires of ’67 when the sky turned to Hades and the mountain’s green paradise had turned to skeletal shapes and blistered rock. There was, as usual, no-one else on the cliff.
We stop on the track to admire the line. A narrow spear of shadow – 100 metres straight up.
It’s cold, so the leader’s hands are warmed by the adrenalin of the sharp end, but the second’s hands suck cold from the stone, the mind less engaged because of the security of the rope above. I lead the first pitch, up and around the small overhang. Ian leads the second, up the clean crack to a small ledge below the overhanging off-width. Below us, enjoyable climbing. Not enough to test fear.
I struggle up into the off-width. It pushes me out when I want to go up. There’s a jug on the lip, but it leads nowhere. I struggle back down, grunting, annoyed. Ian takes the rope from me, and is soon immersed in the crack, a powerhouse of determination. I shiver on the belay. Somewhere down below Jeff sits on a rock, watching. Somehow Ian grinds up and through the off-width, and soon grins from the ledge above. I shudder and head into the rock again, but at the off-width my hands have become clubs and I make the mistake of grabbing the hold outside the crack, can’t get back in and I’m swinging in space. Grab the rock, haul, Ian hauls, grunts and I am standing on holds again, fingers in armpits. Half unfrozen, I climb up to the belay, then fingers in armpits again and I growl and yelp as the blood jerks back into my fingers’ veins.
The air seems warmer as I lead above Lew, on small holds, almost face climbing. A small hold breaks and I swing briefly from the jammed knuckle of the little finger of my left hand. Exhilaration swamps me as the sun half-shines through the clouds and makes the weathered dolerite a warm orange. The stone’s surface that fabulous dolerite friction that needs no chalk. Out on the face of the world, with moves hard enough to work the mind and muscles to a slow lilt of careful movement…it takes the spirit closer to the soul. I belay in warmer air at the top of the climb and lean over to watch Ian climb up. His slow grin saying how much he was enjoying the climb, the day. Two crows skimmed by the crag lower down. "Hey Lew – two black birds." He looked out at them and nodded. "Three black birds is bad luck isn’t it?" I called down. He shrugged. Seconds later a third crow sailed effortlessly past us. "Hey Lew!" He looked up. I pointed out at the gliding bird. "Third bird!" He shook his head and returned to the grace and ease of the pitch, a delicious comparison to the grunt of the overhang below. Such a time we had. Such a day, before our separate times of madness. A climb’s perfection clawed and clasped from cold Tasmanian days. So many days, and so few. On such days the rock is warm or the nevé firm, and the air hints of something beyond. Something almost reached. Almost.


About dreapadoir

Emergency Physician, author of Emergency Medicine blog, photographer at
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