The Grampians (And Arapiles)

published in ROCK magazine, Sept 2012

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An epic scream signaled a fall of gargantuan proportions, and I locked off and braced myself. But nothing happened. I looked up and saw Bec nearing the end of the wildly exposed hand-traverse, high up on the Eureka Wall, in the heart of Australia’s Grampians range. There was terror in her eyes, but she was as stable as a mountain goat in a flat pasture. From the bushes next to her – the same ones she’d been vigorously ripping up, moments before – a possum frantically scurried out and started sprinting down the traverse, its eyes leaping from its skull in utter terror. I resisted the urge to sling it as it raced past me towards safer pastures.

Bec completed the traverse, now free of all critters, and I started seconding – a heel-hook here, a toe-pull there. Halfway across, I had one of those moments; an acute awareness of climbing awesomeness, jugging across above nothing but an overhanging wall – and not just any wall. Many a climber has drooled at the charcoal and orange-streaked wall of Greek philosophy, tucked away in the Southern Grampians, and its twin pleasures of Archimedes’ Principle and Pythagoras’ Theorem, both grade 26 test-pieces.

These walls were the main drawcard for me. As a Kiwi, a pilgrimage to Arapiles is all too popular. But having visited three times already, a few outings to the Grampians was definitely a priority – the other-worldly glow of Taipan, the grandness of Eureka.

It was on Archimedes’ that I became accustomed with the vocal styles of Andy Reeve. Whenever the UK climber was anything between mildly unsettled to the brink of death, he started a monologue that frequently featured the words “balls”, “tits” and “bollocks,” sometimes altogether. “Balls, tits, bollocks,” he’d spit as he neared the last of the crimpy sections that follow the charcoal scar up the middle of the wall. “I can’t find anywhere for this wire,” he’d say in between stuffing it into his mouth and fiddling it into all kinds of terrible placements. He’d eventually give up and run it out to the arete, and then to the rappel chains with a boyish grin on his face, basking in the glow of a successful onsight.

At Bundaleer, also in the Grampians, Andy was again preoccupied with parts of the human anatomy as he attempted the Ogive (28), a ridiculously sublime crack through the roof of the Throne Room. This time, his monologue began as soon as he hit the first move, making him contort his body into unnaturally awkward positions. At one point, his legs splayed either side with his arse crouching down as if to avoid detection, he quipped: “The only thing this position is good for is shitting. Bollocks.”

But if there’s one thing Arapiles has over the Grampians, it’s weather consistency. It was on the unspectacularly named Grey/Green wall in the Stapleton Amphitheatre where I became familiar with the on-and-off rain typical of the Grampians. Some karmic forces were in the air. The rains ceased as I climbed the roof and hand traverse, some 80 metres above the valley floor, and then through the off-width to the juggy, glorious overhang. But every time Bec started seconding, the rains returned.

It was only once we had topped out that fairness was restored: indiscriminately crap weather. It poured down on us both, heavily, and with darkness fast approaching, we were in for an epic descent. There was the dodgy wet slab to traverse to get to the first rappel station. Then the complete failure to find the second rappel station in the dark, and having to build, tie in to, and rappel off a trad anchor. Then the rope that got stuck, meaning we had to climb up in the dark and wet to free it. Twice. And when we finally found relief on touching solid ground, it quickly evaporated when we couldn’t find the track out.

We had hoped to find our friends at the bottom who had called to us while we were stuck in the middle of the wall. But due to temporary brain damage, they thought we’d called out not from the wall, but from the carpark, and had walked out. And when they didn’t find us at the carpark, they just went back to the campsite anyway. Only when they were confronted with our absence at camp did it occur to them that we might still be on the wall.

But return they did. We stayed put on the edge of a three-metre drop, waiting for them to walk up the track and reveal its whereabouts.  And when they were close to us, practically right in front of us, it became hilariously apparent that we were only two metres from the track.

 

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Every time Arapiles comes into view, it awakens the very essence of your climbing soul. Nowhere else on the planet do you get as excited about the prospect of living in the dirt, eating dirt with every meal, and not showering for weeks on end.

The autumn/winter season of 2012 was not one where peaceful silence reigned. Birdcalls, wolf howls and monkey cries regularly shattered the silent halo of the Central Gully.

Such antics had many uses, including a show of strength and a sign that we weren’t intimidated by climbs such as the fearsome bulging crack Wizard of Ice, the world’s hardest grade 20, or the badass off-width Electra (19), first climbed in the 1960s in the rain and with minimal protection (making it a modern day grade 21+).

Electra’s first crux is a smooth, flaring crack that can only be surmounted by a series of karate-style chops, accompanied by karate-style cries of “hayeeeeeeeee-yaaaaah!” The off-width comes next, which can be hugged and chicken-winged, leading to a juggy and steep headwall to the top. The days that follow will be hindered by off-width-itis, tender inner thighs from using them as a vice, and sore pecks from chicken-winging.

Another badass line, The Reaper (22), is a steep diagonal crack that splits the perfect orange faces of the Central Gully walls. It was perhaps not the best choice as a first onsight attempt at the grade for Canberra climber Lazaar Bodor, who took several hours trying to negotiate the crux. Hint: Crying out “It’s a nightmare” does nothing to unlock the puzzle, although it’s reminiscent of Bec’s adventure on the famous roof Kachoong (21), where, paralysed with fear in the middle of the roof, she called out: “Help! I don’t know how to climb roofs!” And then she peeled off.

Even gentle-looking climbs at Arapiles can hide a sting. Tasmanian climber Danger Darren found that experience counted for little on Brolga (16) when, having climbed it several times in recent years, he went slightly off-route and cut loose four metres above his protection. It was a memorable sight to behold: two small feet dangling in mid-air on the Watchtower’s most famous slab, while Darren screamed with suitable doses of melodrama, “I’m going to die!”

But the memorable lines and magnificent climbing are only part of the formula that make this place the world’s best crag. There’s something in the air. There’s a common bond through a love of climbing, and an unspoken acceptance that everyone is worthy and welcome. And despite the complete spectrum of climbing abilities – a result of the world-class lines at every level – there is no competition or clash of egos. It’s an insulated utopian bubble that feeds off a vibe of love, support and sense of community. Nowhere else will you find a stronger validation of a lifestyle of working as little as possible, living in a tent and waking up every day to the glow of perfect sandstone.

And while everyone waits with anticipation for the first female to climb Punks in the Gym (32), there is no shortage of interest in or encouragement for the boulderer who crushes V6 but is only just learning to deal with the mental mind-fuck of trad-leading – or the newbie whose highlight of the day was placing a bomber cam.

But mainly the magic of Arapiles is in the characters that change every season, but who are unforgettable and stay with you long after you leave. Such as the inimitable Ellie ‘swear-a-lot’ Meads, whose tolerance of alcohol was sorely tested when, one evening, she was found half asleep sitting on a log with her foot and boot ankle-deep in a bucket of sangria. Ellie, whose gullibility became legendary when she was told that Auto Da Fe (21) was too dangerous and was going to be closed by chipping off all the holds to make it unclimbable. She replied with rabid indignation: “That’s fucking bullshit, man. They should just put a warning sign on that shit!” She later clarified that the sign should read “Warning: Onsight or death.”

Or like Freddie Warne, who found some benefit to looking like a bum when he went penniless to the wrong side of Melbourne and was only bailed out when a friend of a friend managed to locate him, having been told to look for the “homeless guy”.

And thanks to Camp Chef, named so after the three cooks who were the heart and soul of communal eating in the Pines campsite, there were never any dull culinary moments. We arrived expecting to live off raw onions and two-minute noodles. But we regularly feasted on legs of lamb and whole chickens, spit-roasted over the fire, curries and freshly-made naan, poached chicken and congee and chocolate fondue. And every rest day, French toast or pancakes. Or both.

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Itching to get to the Grampians, a quartet of Pines locals walked into the Avis outlet in Horsham, leaving with a brand new Toyota Orion that had only clocked 1000 clicks. Three minutes later, we were back in the Avis office, having been party to an incident where the car’s rear had suffered great stress and had, in fact, collapsed into itself in a manner commonly described as a dent.

You would think that scruffy dirtbags, including a Chinaman from New Zealand, in the same clothes and with a distinctive odour would be strong identifying characteristics. But when we returned to Avis a few weeks later, for a second stint in theGrampians, we were dealt with by a man clearly suffering from cerebral flatulence.

Andy and I had a little chuckle when he asked us if we wanted to buy extra insurance to lower the excess in the case of an accident. Of course we didn’t.

“Well,” the Avis man said, “I hope you have better luck than these other jokers who were in here a few weeks ago. They hadn’t left the shop for five minutes before getting into an accident! They were very similar to you guys, actually,” he said, pointing his finger at us. “Climbers from all over, a guy from the UK and a Chinaman from New Zealand.”

How many Chinese New Zealanders can there be in this particular postal district? We grinned politely. He grinned politely back, and then slowly relinquished the keys to us.

Soon we were back in the Grampians, topping out on Taipan wall on a sunny afternoon, having unlocked the unlikely sequences that lead to the top of Dance of Life (24M1) – a climb that has a sublime start on an arete high above oblivion, before following a series of scoops to the final, thin headwall to the top.

It was the third Taipan top-out for Andy, his first being an almost blind ascent of Serpentine (29), that perfect line up the proudest part of the wall. With other climbers working the route all day, it wasn’t until after 5pm that he managed to get on the line. He pushed his way through the series of bouldery moves to rest positions, but towards the top, realised he was running out of daylight. Having overcome the red-point crux, he could now only see the chalked up holds, while his feet smeared away blindly – but he topped out victoriously, virtually in the dark, to a series of wolf howls from spectators below (who also couldn’t really see anything).

By far the most testicularly challenging part of the route was the descent – a 25m whipper onto the top bolt after the belayer had paid out a suitable amount of victory slack. A triumphant Andy, just before he took the leap, was believed to have gulped and muttered: “Balls, tits, bollocks.”

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About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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