09/05/2014 - report - photos
Participants: Tom Brennan
After hearing varying reports of their condition, I had been wanting for a while to check out the chains on Carlon Head (Mansons Ladders). I was going to be up in the mountains for the weekend, so left on Friday morning with my mountain bike in the car.
It was a still, fine, cool autumn day in the mountains. I don't go out to Glenraphael Drive that often, but the road seems to be in worse condition every time I drive it. Friday was no exception. It's OK to the bottom of the hill, but deteriorates pretty badly past there. At least the deepest potholes tend to be as wide as a car, so not so much of a problem. I do wonder how some of the small 2wd cars make it out to the Golden Stairs (or further).
There were a couple of cyclists at the car park who had just returned from the fire tower. I jumped on my bike and headed off, the first time I had been on a mountain bike for about a year. The hills were a lot more work than the last time I had ridden the fire trail in 2007. I had also been a bit ill for the past few months, so I partly blame that! The fire trail itself also seemed very loose, and I reckoned I would have struggled to ride up the steeper hills regardless. Or perhaps I was just a better mountain biker in 2007?!
In any case, it's pretty easy going once past the second narrow neck. Flat riding on good quality fire trail for about 4km to the fire tower. There is a new (well, last 5 years) toilet at Bushwalkers Hill on the south side of the clearing.
I abandoned my bike behind a bush on the western edge of the clearing, and set off down what appeared to be the track. It petered out after a hundred metres or so. I figured that my trackfinding ability was a bit lacking (my wife Rachel usually does the routefinding, while I do the navigating), so I searched around nearby, with no luck. I then thought that maybe the track was getting so little use that it was overgrowing. I pulled out my map to have a look, which indicated that the ridge to follow may be further south. It probably would have been useful to have a compass (tied to my other map case in the car) and the Jenolan map (also in the car), but I didn't really expect to need a map at all! After a couple more attempts, I headed back to the clearing and followed the clearing edge around to the south. After following one more false lead, I spotted a bright yellow sign in the bush not far away. Bingo! The track actually leaves from the very southern edge of the clearing, behind the toilet. Once I had that, it was pretty easy going out to Carlon Head. The track is definitely indistinct in places, but not hard to follow or pick up again when you lose it.
There was another NPWS warning sign near the top of the first pitch. It says: "Warning! The historic bolts, chains and handholds on the Carlons (sic) Head Track are unsafe. Do not use for abseiling or rockclimbing. Remote area. Steep rugged terrain."
I checked out the chains, and carefully climbed down the several short drops that make up the top cliffline. With a little bit of spare time, I skirted around under the cliffs to the south on the ledge. Interestingly, after a bit of a wander, I found a couple of other places that it looked like you could easily walk up through the cliffline. Probably not much use given you still need to ascend the bottom two cliff bands, but you never know. I think that the top cliff would actually be the most difficult if the chains were removed.
For the middle cliffline, I decided to abseil so I could check things out more easily. I had brought a couple of 20m ropes - one was more than enough to reach the bottom from the very top. The middle cliffline consists of a ramp leading down to the left, of about 7m, followed by a vertical wall, also of about 7m.
There is a variety of rusty ironwork on the ramp, most of it fairly suspect. The chain looks relatively new and reliable, but the other bits are broken off or wobbly. There are also cut steps on this section, and if you are climbing from the bottom, the ramp section is pretty easy going.
The vertical wall has three rungs near the top, and two spikes, the lowest of which is about half height. There were two more rungs nearer the bottom last time I had visited. These had been wobbly, and were now gone. A man I met in the car park afterwards said that one of them was lying in the dirt at the bottom of the pitch. The spikes seem pretty solid, if rusty, but the rungs I would say are a bit iffy.
I wandered down the ridge to the final chain, and climbed down this. It looked quite exposed from the top, but it's only really the top few metres that are tricky. This is by far the easiest of the pitches. I climbed back up without using the chain. It's not particularly hard. There were another couple of yellow NPWS warning signs.
Returning to the middle cliff, I climbed up using the chain. There are some good handholds and footholds in the rock (some natural, some cut), and the only spot I felt that I had to really weight the chain was a couple of metres below the top of the wall where there is a big gap between footholds. I tried to avoid putting too much weight on the rungs - they looked somewhat suspect.
Interestingly the top cliff is probably the most difficult, though as it consists of three short "steps", it feels less exposed. Without the spikes and chains I'm not sure I'd be able to climb it.
While I am not surprised that the NPWS has put up the warning signs, I'm guessing that they haven't actually tested the bolts, chains or handholds. I'm no expert, but the bolts and chains look in fairly good condition other than some rust on the chains where they run over the ironstone edges. It's hard to tell if they have been replaced in the past 7 years. From comparing photos, they look in very similar condition. The spikes are rusty, but seem superficially solid. It's always hard to tell what that sort of ironwork is like inside the rock. The rungs feel like they move, and I wouldn't be surprised if more of them are gone in the near future.
Back at the top, I left behind the great views and headed back to the bike. The return trip was a bit of a slog, so I stopped for views in a few places along the way. A good afternoon.