Five members and a guest set off from the end of Somme Avenue, Wentworth Falls at 9.45. We followed the firetrail to the end and then headed NW before dropping into Franks Creek with a 14m abseil using an existing anchor at Katoomba 577697. From here we followed the very scrubby and congested creek for some distance before it became worthy of the name of canyon around 582701. Since there is a track right along the ridge to the south of Franks Creek it might be more rewarding to enter lower down.
The creek now enters Ashcroft Ravine proper, which is a pleasant but unspectacular canyon. We emerged from a big boulder choke in the ravine at 12.15 and had a snack break. A few minutes later, as we approached the only compulsory swim on the whole trip, one of the party slipped at the bottom of a climb-down and injured their calf. Our casualty bravely completed the swim, but afterwards, despite experiments with painkillers and strapping, they proved unable to proceed (the injury eventually proved to be a torn muscle). It was decided that there was no practical way to get our casualty down the canyon and up the climb out, and that we would need to call the police rescue squad.
Two members of the party headed downstream looking for the closest point at which a helicopter extraction would be practical, which proved to be only another hundred meters or so, to the junction of Ashcroft Ravine and Wentworth Creek. The casualty was able to get there with some assistance. We then assessed the situation and split into two parties, the three fastest members heading out of the canyon to make cellphone contact with the emergency services, and the remaining two staying to care for the casualty using the club Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) to signal their location. We had two sets of maps and navigation equipment, and two trained first-aiders, so splitting the party was straightforward. Those left behind were given the lion’s share of the food and some spare thermals. At 14.10 we activated the PLB and the fast party set off down the canyon.
From here our story splits in two:
1. The Casualty Care Party
We built a fireplace and got a good fire going, and later rigged a survival blanket between the trees to keep a bit of drizzle off. From then on there wasn’t much to do but tell stories and discuss what to do in a helicopter extraction. At 17.30 we heard a helicopter. We put our helmets back on and packed everything into the backpacks, then closed them as tightly as possible and tied the straps up to stop them flapping. We also moved the orange survival blanket onto a large rock in the middle of the creek as a visual signal. The helicopter did a high pass and it was clear it had seen us, so we extinguished the fire, or so we thought. The helicopter then returned to winch down the paramedic. If you haven’t experienced helicopter downdraft, it is very strong – the trees whip about like in a gale and quite large pieces of dead wood on the ground fly about, along with leaves and dust, of course. Even the smallest of our three backpacks was blown away. When the embers of the extinguished fire felt the downdraft they reignited like a blast furnace and we had a rush to fill water bottles and extinguish it again. It is also extremely noisy. When the helicopter lifted off the paramedic explained that low cloud was coming in and they could only do one more pass, so two of us would have to walk out. We confirmed we were good to do that, and that we had food, navigation gear and a second PLB. We then switched off the club PLB and got out of the downdraft zone before the helicopter came back. Our casualty was whisked away into the skies, and at 17.59 everything was silent again, which seemed very odd after all the noise and commotion, and we set off down the canyon.
2. The Walking Out For Help Party
We walked downstream, and found the exit gully about 45 minutes after splitting up, did the climb and at about 15.15 were able to call 000. The PLB signal had not been picked up yet. We then picked up the track along the ridge between the exit gully and Franks Creek and were back at the cars at 16.15. The trip leader talked to the police officer in charge of the operation, who joined us at the carpark a few minutes later. After contacting the club officer responsible for the PLB, and the emergency contacts for the people left in the canyon, the trip leader was with the police rescue squad heading into the canyon when they heard the helicopter. They soon learned that the casualty was on the way to the hospital while the others were walking out. The trip leader went back down the track to the top of the climb out from the exit gully, and stayed there until shortly before nightfall, whistling and coo-eeing. Returning to the carpark they called the officer in charge to explain that the remaining two people had not walked out yet. The officer suggested waiting until next morning. As the party in the canyon has a second PLB with them and had not activated it there was no real cause for concern.
Next morning the trip leader, having slept in their car, met the officer in charge in the carpark a little after 08.00. After some discussion and phone calls, the remaining two canyoners were seen walking up the by now well-worn firetrail, arriving at 09.10
3. The Tale of Two Canyoners
We made much slower time down Wentworth Creek canyon than the walking out party, partly because we were being very risk averse. It took us until 19.15 – and hour and a quarter – to reach the bottom of the exit gully. Wentworth Creek has some impressive sections of gorge, and on quite a grand scale, but no real constriction and nothing requiring a swim. Some sections are also quite scrubby and there is some scrambling over boulder chokes. By the time we set off up the exit gully we were seriously contemplating running out of light, so we filled up on water in case there was none where we needed to spend the night.
We must just have missed the trip leader and their whistles and coo-ees. We reached the climb, required to bypass a waterfall, and got half way up before abandoning the attempt a little before 20.00, on the grounds that it was now fully dark and we did not know what was still to come. We did a short abseil back down, leaving the rope in place as a belay for the morning. There was a small but commodious cave on the other side of the gully, and plenty of glowworms under all the ledges to keep us entertained. With a good fire, a survival blanket, and wetsuits as mattresses, we were surprisingly comfortable. Food was also not a problem – we still had chocolate and muesli bars left when we reached the cars! In the morning light the climb looked much more straightforward – a scramble using roots as handholds. We were soon at the top, the first place we had been able to get a GPS fix since the Ashcroft Ravine junction, placing the climb at 600703. Heading to the top of the ridge we found the track and made our way back at a gentle pace.
The officer in charge declared the situation over, and confirmed that the safety arrangements for the trip had been all good and our trip leader’s decisions correct. After many thanks to him and his colleagues we headed into Wentworth Falls for a serious breakfast.