Dirbag Dispatches: Australia’s climbing meccas

Published in Adventure NZ Magazine, Oct/Nov 2018

Words and photos by Derek Cheng

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An epic scream signalled a fall of gargantuan proportions, and I braced myself for the rope to come tight. But nothing happened. I looked up and saw my climbing partner Bec nearing the end of the wildly exposed hand-traverse of Darwin’s Theory, grade 18, high up on 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 ripping up, moments before – a possum scurried out and started sprinting down the traverse, its eyes leaping from its skull in terror. I watched, paralysed by the unexpected sight, as it raced past me towards safer pastures.

Bec completed the traverse, now free of all critters, and I started following. Halfway across, a burst of climbing awesomeness struck me as I moved across the 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 Grampians, with its twin pleasures of Archimedes’ Principle and Pythagoras’ Theorem, both grade 26 test-pieces.

Archimedes follows a streak up the sheer face that is a shade darker and more ominous than the others. The face is speckled with small edges, forcing your fingertips into a state of severe stress for almost all of its spectacular 50 metres. I had been here years before, too weak to try it myself, but had watched a friend style his way to the top with what looked like less effort than a yawn. 

This time, I was ready. Stronger. Full of confidence and swagger. But a particular sense of dread arises when, partway up a route, you know you can hang on for only so much longer. There’s a half-second where you seem to float – harmlessly, in suspended animation – before gravity takes hold and yanks you Earth-wards. 

Each move on Archimedes is do-able, but doing them all on top of each other requires a wealth of finger endurance that I simply lacked. The wall spat me off when I was only about halfway up, and then proceeded to do the same to each of the five climbers in our party. A day-long procession of huge plummets.

Pythagoras, while the same difficulty grade, is a completely different style that demands the leg-flexibility of a young frog. The crux involves a slick, steep corner – featureless except for a couple of micro-edges – in which you thrust yourself skywards while pushing the boundaries of the laws of friction. Our party left with nothing but all-around failure, but this merely emboldened our wills to return another day.

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The Grampians is, in general, a destination for the serious climber. This enormous sandstone mountain range is home to several famous walls, including Australia’s most famous: Taipan. This radiant, orange and black-streaked glow of gloriousness is visible from hundreds of miles away. The 50m-high wall of scoops, runnels and edges is immaculately overhanging, notorious for spaced protection and long whippers, and has predictably difficult grades that begin at 25. 

The local dirtbags occupy Camp Sandy, less a camping area than a sandy space among bushes by a dirt road. No water. No fires. No toilet. It is so empty that my friend Clinton, who didn’t want to lose the kitchen area he had set up for the season, hid his pots and pans and utensils in a plastic bin in the ground and dug them up – like buried treasure – when he returned the following season.

Despite the lack of amenities, these dirtbags are driven. They hike to Taipan at daybreak to maximise their chances in cool, sticky conditions. Rest days involve using beeswax, superglue and filing tools to smooth any fragile skin. Some watch videos of themselves to help memorise moves. And they don’t waste energy trying their projects in hot, humid conditions; once the sun hits, they trudge back to Sandy for an afternoon of stretching and thoughtful discussion about how best to position your body for that particular move.

An hour west, the vibe is very different in The Pines, the main campsite at the base of the sandstone monolith Mount Arapiles. Known as the climbing Mecca to visit when you feel like taking a break from climbing, the crew here have a sloth-like demeanour. Despite being surrounded by world class climbs, they wake late, move slowly, and doze in hammocks or spend time sorting and preparing dumpster food. The unspoken commandments include:

– Thou shalt not start climbing before the holy hour (noon-ish).

– Thou shalt make and eat pancakes, or French toast, or both, every rest day.

– Thou shalt dumpster dive at every opportunity. The Aldi supermarket in nearby town Horsham is the Pines’ largest source of bacon, sausages and expired desserts. All whole chickens and legs of lamb shall be spit-roasted over the fire. 

– Thou shalt, if a police car pulls over while you’re hitch-hiking, respond by asking for a ride.

– Thou shalt dispose of partially-full gas canisters by standing them upright on a bed of embers, taking appropriate cover, and watching them explode.

The dirtbag ethos here has existed for decades, when climbers first moved in for months at a time, spending barely anything at all. A friend once told me that he spent $100 in four months; he cooked over fires, hitch-hiked everywhere, worked on the nearby organic farm in exchange for vegetables, and dumpster dived religiously. The back of the old guidebook had a classic letter from Australian social services informing an unnamed climber that moving to The Pines was not synonymous with actively seeking work.

The climbs in Arapiles, when you do eventually get to them, are as spectacular as they are memorable. The cliffs are three kilometres long and 150 metres high, and feature bullet-hard sandstone with varied and technical climbing. Almost all routes are traditional climbs, a particularly stressful discipline where you place your own protection in the rock as you climb.

It is perhaps most famous for having a plethora of amazing climbs at beginner grades that often involve an easy move over stomach-emptying exposure. There’s the grade 11 climb, Agamemnon, where you stem from one wall to another above 40m of air. Or the grade 8, Siren, where you step over a 50m-deep gap onto a slabby wall. Or the grade 14, Muldoon, that leans steeper and steeper until it is overhanging, though the holds are so enormous that fun is unavoidable.  

But there are grades of all ranges, too, and every evening the stories of the day’s events are told over nightly fires and communal dinners. There’s the climber who cried out, “Help! I don’t know how to climb roofs” while in the middle of Kachoong (21), an epic roof climb so named because of the sound the rope makes if you fall. There’s the girl who screamed at her belayer in protest at being pulled up a climb, and then proceeded to yell “pull me up, pull me up!” on the next climb. There’s the guy who cried out “it’s a nightmare!” from deep inside the awkward chimney section of The Reaper (22).

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Yet the climbing is only part of the formula that makes this place the world’s best crag. There’s a common bond through a love of climbing, and an unspoken acceptance that everyone is worthy and welcome. Despite the complete spectrum of climbing abilities, there is no competition or clash of egos. Everyone encourages the person working on Punks in the Gym, the world’s first grade 32, but there is no shortage of cheering for the newbie whose highlight of the day was a bomber gear placement.

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 perfect, radiant sandstone. There is such a strong, homely feeling that the mere thought of leaving this insulated utopian bubble becomes an unimaginable horror.

It had been several years in between visiting Arapiles, but when I returned this year, the mere sight of the cliffs in the distance was enough to provoke stabs of nostalgia and the unearthing of a deep longing. This time, as a more accomplished climber, I spent my first day free-soloing a number of long, easy classics. 

In the evening, after another sublime sunset from the top of the Watchtower faces, I rolled into the Pines to the familiar sight of a large fire and a group of dirtbags surrounded by the day’s bounty of dumpster food. I revelled in the warmth of the flames, tuned in to the stories of the day, and thought to myself, “This is the good life.”


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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