31/10-01/11/2014 - report - photos
Participants: Tom Brennan, Rachel Grindlay, Deborah Johnston
A general call had gone out to bushwalking clubs earlier in the week by the Bushwalkers Wilderness Rescue Squad for help from experienced bushwalkers to assist in the search for missing 21-year old walker Sevak Simonian. I suggested to Rachel that we might be able to help, and so agreed to go up on the Friday morning.
The alarm went off at 4:20am, and while we were a bit slow getting moving, we were on the road by 4:40am. With a couple of quick pit stops along the way, we arrived at Kanangra Walls car park in a cloud of dust from a few vehicles in front of us, just before 8am. Already there were other SBWers Brendon and Karl, and David Trinder and Alex Allchin arrived shortly after. Caro, as BWRS Commander was busy, so we sorted some gear out and filled in paperwork. Caro suggested that Rachel and I might be assigned to a Cave Rescue Squad (CRS) team to search the lower part of Dex Creek and then up Ti Willa Creek. This was the same area where a previously missing walker had died, and his body subsequently found in 2007.
We were introduced to Deb, from CRS, who was our team leader - "Cave 1", as we would be known for the next two days. This area was going to involve ropes and vertical gear, so we packed accordingly, trying to keep our packs as light as possible ... when you need to carry contingency overnight gear, food, two 60m ropes, 5 radios/trackers, harnesses, hardware and helmets! Thankfully, we were going to be choppered in to Dex Creek, saving a day's walk, and if we needed to bivvy, Hundred Man Cave would be en route.
The parks chopper was busy, and so after a couple of hours of waiting, the Westpac Rescue Helicopter was flown up from La Perouse, and we were the second of two bushwalker parties to be dropped in to the landing area in the swamp just west of the Dex Creek camp site. For Deb and Rachel, it was their first chopper ride ever, so it was a pretty spectacular spot for it. The other bushwalker party had spotted an unusual coloured object on the slopes of Mt Bolworra, but the helicopter was able to check it out from the air and dismissed it. Deb set up the radio and checked in, advising we would probably miss the next few while we were in the canyon, and we would almost certainly be out overnight.
We set off through the Dex Creek camp site, heading downstream, spreading out a little down the rough and scrubby banks of the upper section of creek. After a few hundred metres, the creek started dropping through boulders into more of a rainforest gorge, and the going became easier. We stopped for a brief lunch at the top of the first abseil and put on harnesses. There were three short drops in quick succession, which probably could have been walked around, though as is usual with Kanangra, this tends to involve steep scrambles on loose scree. We quickly rapped these off convenient trees. It was a bit of a walk to the main drop. The best anchor was a tree on the left, but the approach was across a loose scree gully leading over the 20m falls. Instead, we set up an extra diagonal abseil to get safely across the scree gully. This was apparently where the bushwalker in 2007 had slipped and died. We descended the main drop in two shorter abseil, only needing the one rope for each. At the bottom, Deb noticed some webbing and a belt buckle, though it was clearly quite old. We picked it up and took it with us. Deb then noticed the remains of a tent, similarly very old, and parts of a pack. I carried this down the creek to where Rachel had found another pack, as well as some items of clothing, and bits of foam bedroll. We wondered if these were from the walker that had died, though back at camp, Oberon SES suggested they might have been from two women who were airlifted out some years back. By the time we reached the Ti Willa Creek junction, we had a sleeping bag, thermarest and stuffsacks as well, all old and not related to the current search.
It was a bit early for our radio check in at the Ti Willa Creek junction, but we figured it might be the last opportunity for a while, so we set up the radio. Reception was very spotty, and we had difficulty communicating our location. It took us 40 minutes before we were able to pack up and set off again up Ti Willa Creek. The gorge was relatively easy rockhopping, with the occasional scrubby section or boulder scramble. The walls narrowed in, and we soon hit the 10m waterfall with rope hanging down that Rich had mentioned. The rope was not entirely necessary, the route up the waterfall being a steep but doable scramble. There were two more falls, but these we climbed around on scree slopes to the left (true right). Unsure of the water situation higher up, we filled up above the last of these, unnecessarily as it turned out, there being plenty of pools higher up. We climbed out after a steep boulder chute, and made our way up the ridge. I expected to hit cliffs, but we actually ended up on top of the Ti Willa Tops. Luckily we picked up a pad which led us straight to Hundred Man Cave. We again checked in from on top of the ridge. This time reception was much better, and the process was fairly quick as the sky turned orange and pink in the direction of the walls.
The next day we were up just after 6, and packed up ready for a check in at 7:30am. The wind had picked up considerably overnight. We got provisional instructions that we'd probably be picked up by heli, but to check out the upper section of Ti Willa Creek and report back at 8:30am. With limited time to search Ti Willa Creek, we split into two groups, me taking the upstream section, and Rachel and Deb downstream. We carried walkie-talkies in case anything went wrong. I exited the creek at the last creek junction, and was back at the radio at 8:30am, but the girls had a slower time of it, having to negotiate a number of drops. I had to get instructions on how to use the radio to check in! Latest instructions were to retune the air-ground radio for the parks chopper, make for Dex Creek heli landing zone and call in again. We were also advised that a fire had started near Cliff Drive at Katoomba, being fanned by the strong winds.
We packed up our stuff, and carrying the extra pack, set off to the summit of Cloudmaker. We photographed the log book just in case, and then followed the track, vague in sections, to Dex Creek. News was not so good at Dex Creek. When we checked in, we were advised that it was too windy for the chopper, and we would either have to walk back, or stay one more night. If we walked back, we could lighten packs by leaving ropes and other canyoning gear behind for the chopper to pick up later. Or if we stayed, we would be on short rations, as we only had food for lunch plus snacks. We opted to stay, and search the area around Dex Creek, which is a maze of wombat tracks in places.
About an hour into our search, and just before we were planning on heading back to camp for a bite to eat, we heard the roar of the chopper overhead. Luckily Deb was carrying the air-to-ground radio, and was able to get in touch with the chopper and confirm there had been a break in the weather, and they had come to pull us out. We rushed back to camp, retrieved our packs, and met the heli crew heading towards the campsite, including NPWS area manager Kim.
Given the windy conditions, rolling storms with lightning, and our limited food resources, we were pretty happy to be being pulled out. It's not every bushwalker that gets a birds eye view of Kanangra so we could consider ourselves pretty lucky as well. Unfortunately we hadn't found any traces of Sevak, but you have to keep in mind that you're only a small part of a large operation with many parties in the field, and many people backing them up at base. We turned the extra pack we had found over to police in case it had any relevance to the earlier searches.