Fear and lawyer vine; the illusion of cedar valley
After descending the golden stairs a thousand times, I was intrigued by the mystery of "the only other pass on the eastern side of narrowneck". Walls pass seems almost legendary, the 10m exposed wall perched above the untouched beautiful wilderness of cedar valley which while thousands of people brush every year along the ruined castle track, few actually ever venture down there and as I found out, there's a good reason for that.
The party (only myself and my friend Nicholai) assembled at the locked gate on narrowneck at a brisk 7am. A fairly early start for most walks but I always err on the side of caution for tracks I haven't been on before. The walk along narrowneck was nice, road walks are usually dull but the lovely views, early morning frost and surprisingly large variety of fungi next to the track made it quite enjoyable, at 8am we were at the base of the fire tower and decided to take a look at Tom Brennans track notes while having a nice morning toilet break after the speedy walking. We successfully find the old fire trail (a left just past the turn off to the firetower) and continue along it until we find the foot pad near the cliff. The footpad was a bit indistinct and split and converged several times but it's exactly what I expected from the trip. We came across many cairns which was interesting as I had no idea where they led, perhaps abseiling routes? We eventually came across the unmistakable huge cairn signalling the turnoff to walls pass and made our way down to the steep slope to the pass itself.
The top of walls pass is in the running for the best morning tea spot in the mountains. Glorious views from katoomba to burragarong make it a lovely spot to survey the land and decide that rucksack point would make for a fun bushwalk. After a quick meal we inspected the chain and the descent itself and holy *&%$#!. I'm a fan of scrambles but exposed drops like this aren't my cup of tea, I immediately started reconsidering this whole trip but Nicholai comforted me by volunteering to go first. The descent is split into 3 parts, first is a practically vertical face of about 2-3 metres but full of footholds so is definitely the easiest part of the descent. The second part starts when you reach the first ledge and find out that there's an overhang to the next part. This makes it quite awkward but we found a nice foothold on the right (if facing the cliff) that lets you sort of swing down and grab the next part of the chain. Letting go of the first chain to grab the second one is terrifying. The third and final part of the descent is the final drop to the bottom which isn't too difficult but I slipped on which was scary but thanks to my titanium grip, all that happened was a bit of a swing across the face. The pass itself is spectacular and the chain is a big help but it's no joke. A fall from the top or even half way down would seriously injure you if not be fatal, the only thing stopping that from happening is your grip on the chain. I would not recommend this walk if you're scared of heights or exposed faces. Both safely at the bottom we traversed along the cliff until we were under cedar head proper which is just lovely with grand views up narrowneck and across to ruined castle. We also saw what looked like a huge cave underneath one of the waterfalls on narrowneck, anyone know what that is?
So here's where things went really really bad. Although the vast majority of my walks are on paths or footpads, I'm no stranger to offtrack walking. The problem is, everytime I've done an offtrack walk, I've been a follower, not the leader and like a lot of people, if I'm not in front I'm not really navigating on a local scale, I'm just thinking of the next landmark. I didn't think this would be an issue as the footpad up the top was easy to follow and there was a clear track to cedar head but from here? if there's a track, I didn't find it. This is where our average speed dramatically dropped. The track notes said that dropping into the gully to the south was easier than going over the head so that's exactly what we did but continual 5-10m drops practically forced us higher on the ridge. Looking at other peoples GPX data (scroll down) I still don't know where to go, it looks like they must've found a pass down the small clifflines somewhere. At some point you're forced off the ridge and the drops you've been avoiding come rushing to meet you. Scrambling which could be better described as falling or sliding was our primary method of getting down, I found the routes by looking for evidence of other people, things like snapped branches, footsprints, evidence of someones foot slipping, things like that. After the majority of the scrambles were over, it was just one long bushbash down the hill.
This is where the majority of our time was spent. We were at the base of walls pass at around 10am but we were near cedar creek at 3-4pm. Just a full slog down the hill, sometimes finding something that kind of looked like a footpad but disappeared fairly quickly or something mentioned in other peoples trip reports but had a million possible ways out. It wasn't that enjoyable but it was fine. I just saw it as good offtrack practice. What came next though was easily my worst experience bushwalking and the main reason I'll probably never do this bushwalk again. We were around MGA489596 and the track notes said something along the lines of "The pass into the creek isn't obvious but it's accessed via a small gully to the south of the ridge". Along the ridge we saw a cairn and thought "excellent! This must be the turnoff to the pass, no problem" and off we went down into the obvious gully and continued along it to the creek. Except there was one small problem. We could see the creek, but we were also on the edge of a cliff a solid 30m above it. A fall that would no doubt be fatal. So we did the sensible thing and planted ourselves down, got out the topo, the gps, and the track notes and figured out exactly where this pass should be and if we can't find it, what could be an alternative route. We consulted the track notes and figured out that yes, we were in a gully south of the ridge and yes we were about 100m downstream from the junction (the next point on the track notes) so the pass should be right here. But.... it wasn't. There were also no obvious alternative routes since cedar creek is more like a canyon. We walked south to the other gullys but they were the same with no entry to the creek
It's winter and we're in a valley so time was ticking. I read stories of groups getting stuck down here overnight and I realized that very quickly I might join the ranks of the walkers that had to get rescued due to poor navigation. This is when panic started to set in but I did my best to stay calm. The line in tracknotes that said "the pass isn't that obvious from above" stuck with me. Maybe we were in the right spot but we just missed it. So we went back to the gully and walked right to the edge and to the left was... well it looked like it could be something but it was very iffy and iffy + 30m drop is not a combo you want to be stuck with but with not a lot of other options, we head along it and quickly came to an overhanh with sand underneath that had faint bootprints and also paw prints. This gave us hope that this was the way and we kept going. Now I cant understate how awful this route is. The are sections where the ground is soft and sloped, there are no handholds and one slip will end your life. The night when I got home I couldn't fall asleep as I was in a state of stress at just how close to death I was. We continued to traverse along until we came to.... a gully. Not just any gully but a small gully that was south of a ridge which the topo doesn't show. Also a gully that seemed to go down to the creek. This was our optimism boost and Nicholai headed down first to find another fatal drop. Bugger. What I found though was evidence that someone else had come through here and had gone further to the north so we followed that way and eventually came across evidence of someone sliding down on their butt which as it turns out was where the rest of the pass was. "Not obvious from above" is an understatement. Once you know where it is, it's easy to find but if you don't know, you're stranded on the west side. The way we went is a possible route but you can skip all the dangerous traversing by just walking along the top of the ridge to the the gully where you can scramble down which is almost certainly what the track notes were referring to rather than the gully we were in before.
Cedar creek itself is gorgeous but with not a lot of time we were only down there for few minutes while we scouted for a route out. The climb up was fine. On a normal day it wouldn't have been great as it was thick with lawyer vine and steep as sticks but after what we had just gone through, I couldn't care less about the scratches on my hands and the pain in my calves. We didn't want to go to ruined castle and instead wanted to finish at cedar gap to avoid the extra climbing but my advice to anyone doing this walk is to just go to ruined castle. The ridge leading up to it is open and any attempts to go south or north will result in heavy bushbashing, lawyer vine handcuffs and ironically enough, extra climbing. Reaching the ruined castle track was an amazing feeling, the feeling that you're actually going to go home and not die is amazing. The walk back was quick and lovely and got some use out of my headtorch.
If anyones reading this whos thinking about doing the walk, my recommendation is only do it if
a) you're going with someone who's done it before
b) you're experienced in off track walking
I don't know if there is a footpad going down and judging from the differences between my route and someone elses route, there quite possibly could be.
fun walk, wont ever do it again unless I have the likes of dave noble leading the group.