Aah, now this was a classic day out. With Wilbus Magicbus, Gorgeous George, and a questionable forecast of cold drizzle we were on the road at the bright hour of 6 AM.
(While also known as Mt Hay canyon, it’s actually next to Butterbox Point, and not really near either Mt Hay or Mt Hay Creek, so I think I prefer this name.)
We made it to Leura and the Mt Hay road in good time, and with a reasonable amount of coffee. Last time we tried to drive down this road, both the cars got bogged. These shenanigans were not to be repeated: it seems to have been graded since, and the Forrester was having loads of fun, even through the slightly precarious cliff traverse beneath the Pinnacles.
The Sydney region was still in the grip of a cold front just past, with recent rain, thick cloud cover, drizzle, and a chilly maximum of 15°C. However, with a small, fit, competent crew and suitable 4WD vehicle available, nothing short of a severe storm warning was going to stop me.
The Mt Hay trailhead is really a wonderful spot, in the middle of a rolling heathland and a surprisingly long way into the wilderness. Mt Bell, Mt Tomah, and Mt Banks are readily identifiable over the other side of Grose gorge.
We all decided to suit up in the parking lot as the walk-in looked short. The ‘swamp’ mentioned in the track notes turned out to actually be a swamp! Wading knee deep in mud through reeds, it was positively Tasmanian. We skirted along the top of the first cliff, found the pass, and were soon making our way down beautiful creeks towards the canyon.
There were many little drops in the creek itself. Many of which could be down-climbed or skirted in dryer weather if you were so inclined, but we had fun with a couple of warm-up abseils. George down-climbed a tall and swaying tree at one point, while me and Willis went down the short cord I’d brought as a second rope.
Soon we were in the main creek, with the walls on either side getting nice and high. We did the cold 20m entrance swim, and came to the optional water jump. This jump is big (around 10m) and there is not a lot of room for error in the landing. After the others abseiled down on the cord and did not like the look of the pool, I chickened out, and re-rigged the cord as a biner block with girth-hitched slings and prussiks to pull it down. I also got to use my Hydrobot in single-rope high-friction mode, making it the most creative bit of ropework I’ve done in a canyon yet I think.
(I later found out, that the water jump I’d chickened out of is where Scotty dislocated his shoulder, thus resulting in one of Steve Hare’s more famous epics. Don’t do a big water jump while wearing a pack!)
After a squeezy climb-down into the canyon proper, the main 40m drop loomed. This is a very steep, deep slot that curves around out of sight, making the abseils committing. The majority of it has actually been downclimbed apparently! Anyway, it’s a classic two-pitch abseil, with the halfway point on a chockstone suspended above the main flow of water.
On the second pitch, you can go either under the chockstone for a better rope pulldown, or continue over the top to stay further out of the water flow. We chose to go over, as the water felt a bit high. The game of “Keep Sam’s dynamic climbing rope dry!” was massively and inevitably lost at this point.
The water in the next couple of pools was pretty damn cold. The wetsuits were welcome. After a tricky climbdown or two and swim, we reached the final compulsory water jump as the canyon opens out into a huge pool. After we all jumped and swum to the other side, we congratulated each other and had lunch.
After the canyon widens out, there’s more pleasant creek walking with huge walls on either side. It’s very impressive. Plus, some of the pools had upwards of 10 yabbies in them, they were everywhere! And a few were absolutely gigantic.
After the final abseil down a short bench, I began looking for the exit track. I followed a faint pad that went steeply up to the right immediately after the abseil. We followed this up to the cliffline, then down and left as it began skirting the cliff in yo-yo fashion.
A walking pass through the gigantic cliff above us seemed unlikely at this point. But we kept rounding the cliff and the track began heading uphill. We came into a small gully and soon we were scrambling up a 45° scrubby slope. I packed my wetsuit away, and soon the rising slope had taken us all the way past the first sandstone layer to the halfway ledge.
Now began the fun part. We headed to the right along the halfway ledge, beginning a giant zig-zag back in the direction we had come, except with the cliff below us getting bigger and bigger. Soon the full 100m height of the lower cliffline was dizzyingly obvious below.
At this point, the ledge suddenly narrowed to a mere meter in width, covered in nothing but loose shale and sloping eeeever so slightly towards the abyss. Awesome! “Guys, this is SKETCHY” declared George. My legs started the old exposure trembles as Willis began breathing heavily.
Carefully placing each foot ahead of the other and clutching the overhanging wall, we made our way to the ‘safety’ of a cave formed by a very wide, low overhang. I took off my pack and pushed it ahead as I crawled. Finally, we emerged to a nice ledge on the other side with a tree and, joy of joys, a bolt.
We fumbled around a bit as I took out the rope and quickdraws (at least they were still dry, yes!). Willis taped a cut on his hand, we retrieved a plastic bottle someone had abandoned in the cave, and I explained the climbing system we’d be using to George.
I found the middle of the rope, and tied a butterfly knot, which George clipped into with two opposed lockers. I tied into the sharp end, while Willis tied into the tail end. With Willis belaying (he’d seconded me before), I led up the climb. First there’s a short bulge to a big ledge, then a short square corner to the finish ledge. Though not hard, it’s a bit cruxy, and the others did feel the need to pull on the draws. The final corner especially requires a bit of finesse to make it look easy.
It’s safely bolted, but I wouldn’t call it excessive. It would be easy to aid up. There’s 4 carrots with fixed hangers for pro, with each belay having a bolt plus the option of a tree for backing up if you’re paranoid. The ledges are pretty big though, I didn’t feel the need. Unfortunately, the ring at the top belay isn’t recessed and could be moving slightly.
Anyway, the fun isn’t quite over yet. After you scramble up the ledge at the top of the climb, you skirt around into a steep, 45 – 50° gully. Climbing up this is a heavily-eroded, finest Western Arthurs-style 3rd/4th class mud ‘trail’. Fun for the whole family! Finally, you reach a tiny saddle, with an excellent lookout to the right, and the final uphill slog through beautiful heath on the left.
This is the Butterbox Pass: an utterly brilliant piece of routefinding.
We were back to the car by what, 3pm? We just got ahead of the worst of the Sydney traffic. A fine and challenging canyon with a bit of everything: beautiful creek, abseils, down-climbs, water jumps, and a brilliant 5th class exit.