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    A beginner’s guide to climbing Hellfire Gully (Bluff Knoll)

    This post is a short summary of our group’s recent attempt to scale the Hellfire Gully route, at Bluff Knoll in the Stirlings. At 265m of trad climbing over pitches, the climb is rated 14 in West Australian Rock, and would be the most significant trad route that most of us had tackled before. We managed to scale the first two pitches to the halfway mark, before assessing our progress as too slow to finish in daylight and traversing out to the tourist trail. What follows are some observations to supplement the excellent mini-guide, and may assist others in the future to climb this exciting route. Despite failing to complete the climb, this was a great experience and well worth the trip.

    The carpark for Bluff Knoll is not locked or gated, except in the event of a bushfire or other emergency. Climbers are recommended to sign in and out in the registration book (to the right, near the entry from the road).

    Allow two hours to get from carpark to the base of the climb. We had five people walking briskly the entire time, we knew exactly where to go (no backtracking or confusion) and we would have struggled to reach the base of the climb any quicker. Note that much of the approach is extremely steep, and should be taken with care. Light sandshoes are perfectly acceptable footware for the approach. Having a GPS to find the start location was quite useful. The letters“HFG” are faintly scratched into the rock at the base of the climb.

    We attempted the climb in the first week of October, being constrained to school holidays. The conditions were perfect for us on the day, though there had been some light rain at the site earlier that week. Late October or early November would probably be the best time to visit. The pitch is on the northern side and was completely exposed to sunshine from quite early on.

    Rock surface
    This varies from weathered granite, to flaky slate, to brittle ironstone. It was extremely chossy, as would be expected.

    Climbing difficulty
    Our main difficulty was in setting effective protection, to the point where climbing was almost always run out between gear placement (5-10m). The difficulty of the climb is a lot harder than the rating of 14 suggested in the guidebook and mini-guide, mainly due to the aforementioned difficulty of setting protection and run-outs. While not particularly technical, climbing is quite strenuous and sustained. Do not underestimate the effect of constant tension on your own stamina, due to always being a long way above your last protection.

    A survey of our group placed the difficulty of the first two pitches around 17/18 each. Take this line from the mini-guide to heart: “Do not attempt Hell Fire Gully or Devil’s Nose unless you are a solid grade 18 trad leader at Wilyabrup/Churchman’s”. HFG is nothing like Pink Knickers or Krackaddicition, only longer. The route is a solid 18, in our opinion (with the caveat that we only climbed halfway).

    Gear requirements
    We used a variety of small nuts, hexes and cams on the route, plus a couple of big hexes in convenient wedges. We used lots of 60 & 120mm as runners and setting up belay protection. The leader will want to be carrying a full set of stoppers, full set of hexes, 5-6 small/medium cams, 12-15 slings, plus matching quickdraws and carabiners. Ropes need to be at least 60m in length.

    Team size
    We attempted the route with two teams, a pair leading followed by a trio. In hindsight this was probably too many, with the second group needing to wait over an hour for the first group to get up pitch one. In the first team there was also only one climber capable of leading each pitch, which was extremely fatiguing on that climber. Our progress was slow to the point where we had to decide to abort the climb, having only reached the top of pitch two by lunchtime.

    Pitch one (50m)
    Starts easy and juggy. Keep to the right of the vegetated gully, but don’t stray too far to the right. Use slings to reduce rope drag. Juggy and straightforward for the most part, setting protection is surprisingly difficulty. Be aware of knocking loose rocks onto your belayer’s head. At about 35m there is an flat face (approx. 8m tall); this face is very hard to protect with any gear and it is recommended to climb to the left of it. Go straight up if you are supremely confident of your skill, or are just tired of living.

    Above and to the left of this face there is an old black abseil rope installed. About 6m above that is a large ceiling. A good place to end the first pitch and belay the second is just below the chimney to the left of this ceiling. There are a number of places to set a protected belay here. Be aware that this will be a hanging belay, and rope management will be important.

    Pitch two (35m)
    Climb up the left side of the chimney, around the vegetation. Carry on straight up the chimney. Protection is still pretty difficult to find and place, but small and medium cams might be pushed back into the parallel cracks at the back of the chimney (use runners). The crux is around the middle of the pitch, when the chimney gets pretty steep. Lots of smearing required to inch your way upward.

    Finish the pitch on the large terrace (the start of Prickle Traverse), where there are a number of boulders and trees from which to belay your partner.

    Prickle Traverse
    This is a straightforward and easy route back to the tourist track, in the event that you cannot proceed up the last four pitches. Just hug the buttress, and head up-slope when you reach the shallow gully with a stream in the middle. From where the track is joined, it is about 700m to the summit.

    #111372 Reply

    done it several times, Devil’s nose anyway. Never found it chossy, or even lose. Grade wasn’t that hard except for a slightly overhanging recess on second pitch. Gear was ok. Sure you were on the route? Some parties start too far to the right. 17/18 for the first pitches sounds like the one on the east edge of the NorthWest bay (welsh git?).

    #111394 Reply

    I’m almost certain that we were on the route based upon finding the scratched initials “HFG” at the base, plus I remember that slight overhang on the second pitch. Also, one of our members had gone up previously with another party. I may have strayed a bit far right up the first pitch, but it matched the description in the mini-guide pretty closely.

    May look to getting a trad superstar along to alternate with, next time.

    #111398 Reply

    Its sounds familiar, there is definitely a blackened rope threaded through rock at the first belay ledge. If you’re unsure, below is a picture of HFG pitch 2 taken from below the belay ledge in Dec last year. Does it look familiar? I also climbed HFG on the 2nd Oct and found fresh orange peel on pitch 1 and 2. Was it your’s? I thought that pitch two was worth a grade 16 however I think the protection is fine and mostly bomber. I remember running it out a bit at the top of pitch 2 but that was more deliberate. Also a fortnight there was a bit of water seepage at the start of pitch 2. I hope this clarifies any doubt.

    #111404 Reply

    We climbed on the 7th, so the peel wasn’t ours! Clearly, it was a busy couple of weeks at Hellfire Gully! Yes, that shot up pitch two looks completely familiar.

    Here’s a picture of myself leading the first pitch:
    HFG pitch 1

    And a shot I took from the top of that pitch, looking downwards after I’ve set up the belay:
    Top of pitch 1

    #111408 Reply

    Yeh, the big tree about 10m from the base of pitch 1 is a dead giveaway and I compared your photos to others of mine and you’re definitely on the right route. Pity you didn’t have the time to climb the rest of it, pitches 5 and 6 are really good and worth going back for.

    #111415 Reply

    I also think the third and fourth pitches are slightly harder than the 14 grade. Maybe they are 16’s as well? Does this route need and updated grade, because it is a little worrying that the given grade may attract some inexperienced climbers. Any route on Bluff Knoll is serious, regardless of the grade.

    #111417 Reply

    I personally that that the difficulty of the route should be increased. We certainly didn’t approach this climb casually (we spent a number of sessions at Churchmans Brook climbing different routes, practising trad techniques, undertook training for self-rescue and emergency response, etc), but we were caught quite off-guard by the difficulty. Everyone was able to climb the pitches, but we took stock at the top of the second and decided to call it quits while we were still enjoying ourselves.

    Obviously grading is a subjective thing, but I feel like we wouldn’t have been as surprised if the rating was 16/17.

    #111419 Reply

    I agree that the grade should be increased. Inevitably, any long multi-pitch trad route is going to be established by highly experienced, skilled and strong climbers. These climbers are going to be able to give accurate grades in the 20s, but they might not be sensitive any more to grades in the teens, because they all seem easy. For myself, I’m perfectly comfortable leading a sport climb at grade 17. I have no problem leading trad at grade 14. But I’d be cautious about leading trad at grade 17, the more so if the route is quite run out and there are questions about the quality of the rock. That puts me in the range where the grade of Hellfire Gully is important. We decided we could do it based on the low grade, and the belief that there was enough of a buffer between our skill level and the difficulty of the climbing. We completed 2 pitches safely, but it was certainly harder than we were expecting, and as much as anything it was that disparity that put us off attempting the next pitches. Surely the whole point of a grade is to let you know what to expect before you set out on a climb. After you’ve climbed it, the grade is irrelevant.
    For Hellfire Gully, 14 is wrong. 16 maybe if that’s the consensus, but in my opinion there are a couple of sections on pitch 2 at least that warrant a 17.
    Anyway, we’ll be back next year, better prepared.

    #111423 Reply

    As a reference point, Ninja’s Nuptials at Lesmurdie Falls is a grade 14 trad climb. I would say this grade is accurate. It’s way easier than Hellfire Gully.
    Krakaddiction at Barrington Quarry is grade 16. It’s also easier than Hellfire Gully (and far easier to protect).
    Other than Churchman’s, can anyone recommend other areas around Perth to get more exposure trad climbing?

    #111428 Reply

    There’s a lot of grade inflation. 14 is a respectable grade. It’s fairly hard. Expectations are influenced a lot by the gyms where easier climbs are chronicly overgraded. It getts into the guidebooks, every new issue some of the numbers go up a bit. Comparing with easier climbs at Churchmans, 14 isn’t too far out. In interests of keeping grades aligned with the rest of the country it would be interesting to hear comments from anyone who’s done both HG and say The Bard or other well known moderate east coast climbs.

    #111433 Reply

    The point about grade inflation is certainly acknowledged, and reasonable. I’d make one counterpoint, however: would you honestly grade Pink Knickers (13) at Churchman’s one grade lower than either of the first two pitches on HFG? Disregarding the other four pitches (which I haven’t climbed), both those pitches are significantly longer, more difficult, and harder to protect than PK. By that measure, they ought to be graded a little higher. They were both closer to Could Have Been Better (16) at Churchman’s, IMO.

    #111458 Reply

    Great story and post. Keep up the good work and keep trying these routes.

    HFG is certainly only 14. Coercion is 17. HFG compares well to other 14s around Australia…. Maybe you were off route.

    #111470 Reply

    Well yes, the first pitch of HG is considerably easier than PK. The first time I was dragged up it the leader soloed the pitch before I got to the base. The second pitch is about a grade harder than PK except for the overhung move. Maybe it could go up a grade. Still for long climbs it can be fitness not technical difficulty that makes it hard.

    #111483 Reply

    Thanks, all, for all the great feedback. It’s all good grist for the mill. We’re definitely going to get back to HFG early next year. It’s on the personal shortlist, now.

    #112668 Reply
    Mike Smith

    I occasionally drop into the Forum and see what’s happening in my old stomping ground. It was the ‘Best of Days’ with untold acres of unclimbed rock to play on.
    I hope you’ll allow me a few words on HFG.
    The first ascent escaped me – I didn’t arrive until ’73, though I did do Devil’s Nose with Mac and Dave James, The Dark Tower and several other new climbs on Bluff Knoll.
    A grade 14 was the equivalent of a ‘Very Severe’ in the UK, which is where almost all of us came from. Anyone climbing a VS in those days was considered one of the hard men. Pro was mostly hex nuts with a few assorted home-made wedges on wire.
    We all carried an assortment of pegs and a hammer, which is why we successfully managed to protect the climbs on Bluff Knoll so well.
    Boots were the decidedly unsticky PAs.
    We seldom attempted a climb on BK in teams of more than 2, so our times were the best they could be. To take 5 on any climb of 1000ft is just asking to be benighted.
    Many of us had climbed big rock faces in Scotland and the Alps before making it to OZ, so efficient rope work was second nature.
    Sure, I can’t remember individual moves this far on, but I have a pretty good recollection of all the climbs I did in the Stirling’s and many were harder than HFG. It was considered a ‘beginners’ route on BK. Safe, easy to route find and well protected.
    My guess is that it was and still is well graded at VS – 14.
    It would be a good apprenticeship for any budding ‘Bluff Knoll’ climber. Just don’t take the kitchen sink with you.

    #150032 Reply

    After this failed attempt described above, we went back recently for another try and sent the thing fairly easily in the end. In case this info is useful to anyone, the main things we did differently this time were:
    i) prepare better – we more or less gave up sport climbing and did lots more trad up to grade 19 at Churchman’s, various quarries, Darlington boulders, and really worked on our proficiency with gear placement, anchor building and rope handling. Seems obvious, I suppose, perhaps because it is, but then you don’t always know what you don’t know.
    ii) take fewer people – there were 3 of us this time, which turned out to be a good number. Leading 2 pitches and following on 4 made the whole thing quite relaxed, and didn’t slow us down much at all. It also meant you usually had someone to talk to at the top or bottom of the pitch.
    That’s it really.
    Ross Weiter’s topo is still the best guide to the climb, though I’d make a few notes: we got plenty of use out of a #3 C4 cam, we used a lot of hexes in bomber placements all over the place (I think that’s all I used on pitch 2), and the bush-bashing on the approach is not light, goddammit.
    Anyway, it’s a terrific route to get you started on long, multi-pitch trad climbing and we’ll be back for a go at Devil’s Nose some time. I’d still argue that pitches 2 and 3 (and maybe 4) are more like 15 than 14, but not too strenuously.
    Anyone got a topo for Coercion?

    #150034 Reply

    You’re always embarrassed by the silly things you say and do in your youth, amiright? Reading back over my report above after our second (successful) visit, I might summarise it thus: confident sports climber gets his ass kicked by significant trad route.

    With an extra years-worth of trad experience and a leaner climbing party, the route was actually pretty straightforward. I contend that pitch two probably rates a 15 due to some significant runouts, but protection is ample and the holds and footing are excellent all the way. Pitch three was the most fun, and the “airy 10m traverse” at the start of pitch five was also a highlight. Necky lead, Kym!

    One thing I found was that the description of the final pitch (six) was a little hard to reconcile. I think that we ended up in the right spot. It was fun, regardless.

    With a party of three, we took 1.5h on the walk in, 8h on the climb, and 1h for the walk down. We used a pair of ~9.2mm ropes, which was a big help in cutting down the drag. We took a kitchen sink-worth of gear and used pretty much all of it at least once. Leave the micro-wires at home, but you can use almost anything to protect this route. Alpine quickdraws (on 600mm slings) were much more useful than sporting draws, and I’d recommend a max of 12-14 (we carried upwards of 20, way too many).

    #150962 Reply
    Brian Harrison-Lever

    Mike Adams and I made the first ascent of Hell Fire Gully in October, 1968 NOT 1975 as stated in several accounts of this route. The day started out as an exploration of the main Bluff Knoll face, and ended with a notable and now oft repeated direct-line base to summit route. Equipment in those days was – what should I say …… economical perhaps? One 120′ length of twisted nylon rope, a few tape slings, couple of Karabiners and two pitons (posh!). Harnesses hadn’t put in appearance in those days, but we had progressed from simply tying the end of the climbing rope around one’s middle – hemp waist-lengths were ‘state-of-the-art’ then. We did each have piton hammers. These were use for ‘gardening’ mainly, clearing lose rock and soil from holds. Mike, in the lead most of the way, seemed to revel in showering my head with rubbish plus the occasional clump of Stirling Range protected flora. Run-outs on that route were often a full rope’s length without protection of any kind between belays, ‘there just wasn’t anything to hang a sling on’! A tad ridiculous thinking back on it now, but that was Edward Whymper’s technique, and climbing with Adams in 1968. We reached the summit after approx 8 hours, including the walk in from the car-park to the start – not a bad time considering we did the lot wearing heavy Vibram-soled climbing boots – our methods were what would now be termed, ‘traditional’, or ‘don’t fall off’ and….. we didn’t!

    Brian Harrison-Lever
    Launceston Tasmania
    DEC 2014

    #150964 Reply

    So….30m run-outs up an unknown route, with a couple of slings and pitons and a nylon rope. Plus 1960’s era shoes. Trad climbing, indeed. Hats off, you mad bastards. Thanks for blazing the trail for the rest of we dilettantes.

    #150998 Reply
    John boy

    Hey kym I have a copy of coercion for ya.it’s a hand drawn toppo I swiped from Ron masters dad complete with the no reverse traverse and shale band.give it to you when your down next for crackfest.

    #151056 Reply

    Hi John boy,

    there are at least two Kyms on here, and I suspect you’re thinking of the other one. I’d love that topo though, if the offer still stands. What’s crackfest anyway?

    #151060 Reply
    John boy

    Ooops my bad.sorry.offer stands just need a postal address and I will send it.crackfest is a annual gathering of Albany locals he’ll bent on removing as much skin from there hands,knees and ankles as possible on stellar cracks I’m 45 but my dad says I should grow up and stop hanging off rocks how wrong can one man be

    #151077 Reply

    Nothing to apologise for. I’m 44 myself and I’ve got no plans to grow up anytime soon if that means staying off of rocks. Skin grows back anyway.

    My address is Kym Campbell, 32A Urch Rd, Kalamunda 6076. Thanks for the offer, I really appreciate it.

    #151078 Reply

    I looking to head out and giving this a crack sometime soon.

    Any idea what gear you took ? I’ve got access to a lot of gear so the issue I can see is taking far too much.
    Or even a list of what’s not needed.

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