Totem Pole – Fortescue, Australia - Atlas Obscura
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Fortescue, Australia

Totem Pole

Many rock climbers have come to conquer this slender sea stack, with various degrees of success.  

The Totem Pole is a dolerite sea cliff that rises up from Fortescue Bay in Tasman National Park, Tasmania. The skinny stack is famous among rock climbers, and was the site of one near-fatal accident.

At some point, quite possibly in the not too distant future, the Totem Pole will collapse into the sea. The 213-feet-tall pillar has a diameter of just 13 feet, and its base is continually battered by waves. Looking at it, it’s a surprise it still stands at all.

Despite the imminent threat of collapse, the Totem Pole has attracted rock climbers for more than half a century. The first successful ascent was by the English-born Australian rock climber John Ewbank, a man whose various first ascents are part of rock climbing history. He braved the notoriously tricky stack in 1968, battling against the slippery surface and high winds to become the first climber to reach the top of the Totem Pole. His path up the stack is still known as the Ewbank Route.

Apart from Ewbank’s pioneering ascent, the most famous story surrounding the Totem Pole is the near-fatal attempt by Paul Pritchard. Pritchard was one of the leading British climbers during the 1980s and 1990s, with a reputation for climbing some of the most difficult routes in the U.K. and beyond.

Pritchard flew out to Tasmania in 1998 to tackle the Totem Pole with his then-girlfriend and fellow climber Celia Bull. It was Friday, February 13th when they arrived at the base of the sea stack, and the day was certainly unlucky for Pritchard. While scouting a potential free route from the base of the stack, his rope caught a rock which fell about 30 feet onto his head.

His partner Celia managed to get him upright in climbing slings before hauling him almost 100 feet up to a ledge, which took about three hours. She then had to climb to the top of a nearby cliff before running five miles to Fortescue Bay to get help.

The rescue team arrived after about 10 hours. One of the crew managed to carry Pritchard, who was in critical condition, on a winch to a rescue boat. He was taken to the Royal Hobart Hospital where he underwent six hours of brain surgery. He survived the surgery and spent four weeks in the hospital. The injury, however, left him with hemiplegia, paralyzing the right side of his body and causing problems with his speech and memory.

Pritchard didn’t let his condition keep him from further adventures. In the years since the accident he has rafted the Franklin River, triked across Tibet to the Mount Everest base camp, and climbed Kilimanjaro—albeit now with the help of a team of fellow adventurers. And in 2016 he returned to the Totem Pole, completing the ascent of the sea stack that almost killed him 18 years previously.

Know Before You Go

The Totem Pole is located in Fortescue Bay in Tasman National Park near Port Arthur, Tasmania. It’s about a 1.5-hour walk from the car park at Fortesque Bay to Cap Huay Lookout along a well-marked trail. Only experienced and well-prepared climbers should attempt the ascent.

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