Here's a tale of happiness, and disappointment, of exhilaration, and (unfortunately and with all seriousness) a bit of death. There was some rock and roll too, but no sex (well, not that I knew about) and the only drugs were mild amounts of alcohol and some chocolate easter eggs.
Weeks of leafing through the Mt Arapiles guidebook (that's pronounced Arap-il-lees) and inserting little yellow bits of torn paper next to promising routes looked like being in vain as I came down with a bad head cold before it was time to head for the rock. Lucky for me, it cleared. Unluckily for Caroline, she caught it. *DAMN*. What was supposed to have been a team of four musketeers became three as poor Caroline stayed home in bed.
|After leaving a day late for the rendezvous to tend the sick, I found myself bouncing along the highways through the dusty paddocks (yes, as usual I forgot to take the Western Ring Rd. and spent ages in traffic trying to leave the city, then near the end, as usual, I missed the turnoff to Natimuk and had to get directions to the nearest "short cut" - the garage I stopped at even had little maps they were giving out to waylaid climbers (see picture)... I was the third one in half an hour) All this driving was accompanied by my singing alone in the car to the tune of the Smiths and Depeche Mode. The first half of the poem painted on the Arapiles road welcomed me as I arrived at the bustling Pines campground. I located Sophie and Greg's Marmot tent amongst the masses and set up my own accommodation as they arrived back from a climb in the late afternoon. These two are early-risers and early sleepers so after dinner and a brief chat it was time to hit the sack.|
Day 1 - The Munter Hitch Chic, Rope Drag, Scabby Knees and Squashed Toes.
After a night spent listening to the RMIT climbing club make a racket (last year it was Monash) through our earplugs, we awoke to a glorious morning like only the Wimmera can provide. The rock glowed a spectacular red-orange in the morning sun and the magpies sang their tunes. I could hardly wait until after breakfast to get out the rope. Some gear sorting ensued, then racked up we headed for the pitches of Tiptoe Ridge... a fine, simple route with "***" to recommend it as it winds its way 120 meters from bottom to top of the escarpment. According to the guidebook. "An alpine flavoured adventure that surely ranks as one of the finest routes of its grade in the world - an absolute must-do for every visitor to Arapiles"
|Left: Greg and Alan look serious. We are about to attempt this massive first pitch of Tiptoe Ridge. (a 43m pitch, graded at a whopping 3)|
Luckily, being early risers (I was an honorary early riser myself in the company of these two experts) we are the first at the climb and set up the belay ready to go. Greg disappears around the side of the ridge to whose base I am anchored and out onto the face. Some clipping and tugging later the rope is anchored up a way. OK, so it is at a ledge a bit higher than the listed belay ledge. "Does it really matter?" asks Greg sheepishly... and with another rope left dangling from my harness I head up into the sunshine. The route is breezy (and a breeze - a regular ladder in the rock) and all too soon I find myself on a ledge as Greg belays Sophie whose red-helmet appears below accompanied by a wide grin. Behind her the dusty, drought-ridden plains reach to the horizon where the deep blue peaks of the Grampians touch the pale blue of the open sky. What could be more beautiful than this?
|Right: Greg looks amused. Somewhere below is Sophie. She was initially attracted to Greg because of his pink, blue and yellow shoes and his pink rope. His white helmet had nothing to do with it.|
Pitch two - my first lead on natural pro. Here we go then. I must admit this pitch is a bit of a blur except for (i) the fact that some guy free-soloed past me (the pitch is only grade 5 after all) (ii) the last section where somehow I went to the right of the pinnacle summit instead of straight up the face. This resulted in my encounter with an overhanging couple of moves instead of a climb up the exposed crack on the more slabby face. Bugger. I look back down and think for a moment. "Go for it!" I tuck a cam into a slot as far above me as I can reach, set it, then commit to the overhanging moves which (thankfully) come smoothly, mantle, and before I know it, voila! "Safe" I'm set up on the pinnacle cap. "On belay!"
|Left: Alan looks sharp with his hoola-skirt of cams and things and his now-famous matching glasses and helmet. But where is the matching Armani Gortex jacket so beautifully modelled on Mt. Brewster? This has been swapped for a filthy ex-white t-shirt.|
Greg appears at the overhang. "What is this Alan?" "Oh yeah, sorry about that, I went a bit off route I think", I grin. Greg laughs, skirts the pinnacle summit (and thereby the fun moves - what were you thinking Greg?) and lies down on a ledge below to snooze in the sunshine and await Sophie.
"Do you know how to belay without a belay device? I've lost mine somewhere", a young climber-chic calls across from a climb to my left as I belay. "Sure, use a Munter hitch. Do you know how to tie one?", I reply. "Ummmmm..." comes the Munter-hitch chic's answer. "Oh great (not). Can you explain to me how to tie a Clove hitch?" I ask, "...its kind of like that except you don't cross the loops." Greg suggests she use a prussic knot. This is way too complicated for us to explain from a distance. I leave the technicalities of remote-instruction on a cliff face to Greg as I belay Sophie.
Sophie arrives with much swearing at the face of the pinnacle (she has scraped her knees... poor Sophie *GRIN*). Way-to-go-grrrrl.... she takes the crack on the exposed face route... "Did you guys go up this way?", "Ummm... no, well I went up the overhang on the side and Greg skipped the whole thing." "Cool exposure huh?" After some puffing and squeezing (feet, legs, bum, elbows and knees) into the crack she's alongside me. Greg snaps a photo from the ledge to which we now have to descend.
|Left: Sophie and Alan strike super-hero poses on the pinnacle.|
(Pitch 3, the mini-pitch). I lower a slightly apprehensive Sophie (trust me... do I look like the kind of guy who would dump a girl in the dirt?) down the back, then rap off the pinnacle and onto the ledge a few meters below.
Pitch four - "You may as well lead this one Alan"... sure, I may as well, and I do. What do I remember of this pitch? It had a good view of the pinnacle cap below. That's about it. Uneventful, exposed, smooth climbing, gorgeous weather, the best company (which could only have been better had Caroline been there too), and magnificent views. I wish I could do this every day.
Pitch five - "You may as well lead this one Alan"... sure, I may as well, and I do. What do I remember of this pitch? Rope drag. Rope drag. Rope drag. In hindsight I needed long slings. And longer slings. After hauling on the rope until the veins in my arms looked like they would explode, I set up the belay and then have to haul more until Greg makes it alongside me at the top of the climb. He has left the gear in at Sophie's request... bad move... so now the two of us have to haul the rope to belay Sophie. It isn't working. I downclimb on a prussic (Why do I always leave my funky ascender in the car when I could use it?) and pull out the gear. Sophie and the other climbers below us - the belay stations are loaded like bases in a baseball game - are getting impatient... "Are you guys drinking beer up there?"
As Sophie climbs, another young girl arrives at the large belay ledge beside us. Her dad is below. She sets up the belay, then wanders around the ledge unclipped whilst she faffs with the knots. Bad. Bad. Bad girl. Here comes Sophie! "Where are you guys?" Whoohooo, we're all up! Here ends my first lead on a multi-pitch, natural-pro, rock route. May they all be as much fun as this one.
The descent... oh yes. I forgot about that... selective memory. Our hot feet crammed into tiny rock shoes we go bush-bashing for a path back to the base of the climb. Oh boy. My toes hate me. What fun. Next time I will pack collapsible pocket Tevas. Have they been invented yet? Greg, being the legend that he is, runs back to get our stashed gear from the base of the climb.
A quick drive to Natimuk to get some ice for the beer (and an ice-cream of course) enables us to cap off the day just perfectly.
Left: Sophie at the top-out: "Any beer left for me?"
Day 2 - The day of the hex and the big stick, the hung rope and the secret billabong.
Cutting right to the chase, we set up the belay in the morning sun on the North of Mitre Rock beneath the saga which was and will be the Exodus. (Yes, it is sunny on the North faces in the Southern hemisphere but no, water doesn't go down the plug-hole in the opposite direction.) I thought this a most appropriate climb to coincide with the Jewish Passover. Greg lead the corner, up over the ledge and along the crack to the belay. I followed up whilst Sophie watched two kids whose guardian was "telling" them how to have fun.
Greg and I walked back around the crag, then I lead the Exodus towards the blue sky and the sun which was starting to bake us. It was just like wandering in the desert for 40 years. Sophie followed. She was not impressed with one of my hex placements. She was down there trying to get out the hex which, immediately after I slung it through a crack, fell down deeply, even more firmly wedged and a bomber anchor... but darn near impossible to extract. After what seemed like an eternity (waiting for FedEx to deliver the Ten Commandments?)... "Try pull it at 1 o'clock, then 2 o'clock, then 3 o'clock, then..." "Shut up Greg I can't go at 3 o'clock, the rock is in the way" "Can you tug on it with the sling? Why can't you just use the nut tool to hit it?" "The nut tool isn't long enough, the sling is no use for anything. I am trying." Oops, sorry Sophie, I knew that one would be a pain to get out. At least it would hold if I took a fall!
Sophie gave up on the hex, tied it off to a sling wrapped around a horn and continued to the belay. Once again I was short of slings... they were in Greg's pack or in the car, but they were not with me. The belay became an amusing affair with Sophie tied in via a 30cm runner attached directly to a threaded hex. She could hardly move but after some gymnastics I set up a rappel and headed back down the climb to retrieve my $40 (gear is expensive in Oz) hex and Greg's quickdraw which I neglected to mention to him was also in the crack attached to the hex. After a brief amount of fiddling I failed to budge the hex either. "Well what did you expect?", I imagined hearing Sophie laugh. (Incidentally, it is a good time in this little saga to note that the guidebook specifically mentions that the route "swallows protection" - I bet they didn't mean it quite so literally.)
Apart from lazing in the baking sun, Greg had found me a 3 foot length of gum-tree which he tied to one end of the rope. I pulled this up to my tied-off stance (wish I had a photo), broke off an (almost) straight section and, some time later... I have "re-found" my hex. I abseilled down to the bottom, feeling somewhat the worse for having perched on a hot rock face in the Australian sun for the last hour or so.
Sophie had thoughtfully carted my approach shoes to the top of the climb. I arrived at the bottom of the climb. Why didn't I put them on before I came down? Good question. I don't know the answer. Sophie asked if she should toss the rope down. I shouted "Yes". My mistake. The rope ended up stuck about 20 meters off the deck with Greg and I hauling on it to no avail. *GRIN* Greg was not impressed (his mind had been frying in the sun whilst the saga unfolded) but, with a tug from some distance the rope came free.
"How do I get down from here?" Sophie shouted down at us... "Just walk off the top etc. etc. etc. etc." Sophie seems to be a bit directionally challenged. The sun must really be getting to everybody.
At last we are set to go and eat Matzah to celebrate the Exodus. A bit further around the wall is Passover but the grade is a bit steep for us to lead and the sun is wiping us out. Time for a shady snack, to listen to the buzzing flies, and to chat to the Munter Hitch chic and her underwear-designing climbing partner who arrive to share our gnarled tree.
|Above: Sophie belays Alan as he sets off on the (foreshortened) Exodus. Sophie is unaware that soon Alan will place the fateful hex.|
After a snack we head for the shady South of Mitre Rock to visit an old friend of mine climbed with Caroline (presently home feeling grumpy) exactly one year ago... The Mitre (14). Time to set up a top rope... I solo a grade 4 - whoopee-do what a hero. I feel embarrassed as some (kinda cute) people are learning to climb on it - and set up a top rope further along the cliff before rapping off. Greg has set himself up on a rock to snooze and offer words of advice from afar to Sophie. Sophie then powers up the climb like a rock-goddess. OK, well that's a bit of an exaggeration. After Sophie has had a shot on the rope I give the climb a go. I take time out to sprinkle water from an aerial rockpool (mistakenly and amusingly called a billabong by a foreign climber) onto my belayer - being certain I have a good stance so that she can't drop me in the dust. "Alan's Throne" has been waiting for me the whole year (and probably a number of millennia before that). It now has a small patch of grass to soften it... it looks inviting but instead of taking a seat I head for the top and call to be lowered.
Then its Greg's turn. Being 6-foot something he is at a distinct advantage and manages to get a hold of stuff it takes Sophie and I (giants at 5 foot 6) two moves to reach. Q: How tall is the perfect climber? A: Two inches taller. Greg climbs on to glory and to confirm that I have really left an Easter egg at the top of the climb for Sophie.
Sophie has another shot at the climb... I step under an overhang above the belay rock... her efforts to pay me back for getting her wet are in vain. She climbs on to glory. There is no Easter egg. Where could it have gone?
I repeat the climb, pull down the anchors and meet the others back at the car. Our beer is cold and waiting (thanks guys for having the presence of mind to remember it) thanks to the wonders of the Coolgardie Safe principle... an old Australian bushman's trick for keeping stuff chilled without ice.
After dinner a walk up the main gully and a boulder-top vantage point reveals the near full moon over the Wimmera plains. The Milky Way is a sparkling overhead river.
Day 3 - The day a little girl on a pink bicycle refused an easter egg, the Nude Balloon Dance and the Peanut climb.
The Munter Hitch chic had, in thanking us for assistance with all manner of advice about Munter hitches and for loaning her a belay device, also given us some large Easter eggs (she worked at the Cadbury's factory I think). I like chocolate but couldn't resist the opportunity to pass my good fortune on to a little girl who had been riding past our tents every morning on her pink bicycle. The response was "No thankyou. I have eaten too many eggs already." I was stunned. What is the world coming to when little girls refuse chocolate eggs from scruffy unwashed strangers? *SIGH* Sophie found a home for the egg... another little girl who'd been wearing pink bunny ears all weekend in anticipation.
Onto the Nude Balloon Dance. This is a climb. It is not a performance we gave... although apparently Anton from Monash Bushwalking Club climbed the thing in naught but his harness, shoes and balloons. I am yet to see the photographic evidence... I am not sure I want to (No offence Anton, but I can think of folks I'd rather see climbing this one naked!) Anyway... due to Greg's generosity, or the fact that he didn't realize I was practicing until later, I lead the Dance also. The first section was a bit trickier than I anticipated... "kept me thinking" as the guide promised. This is typical for Arapiles. Those who cut their teeth elsewhere are apparently quite surprised at the exposure and vertical nature of the climbs right through from the basic lines up to the major events. Well, that comes across well on this web page because it makes me sound a better climber than I am.
As I have become (more) busy lately, Greg has kindly offered to finish the report for me in his "spare" time between compiles. He writes:
<Greg's lame bit starts here... (Greg's words, not mine. AD)>
Alan finally made his first Nude Balloon Dance move. It's sometimes funny how it takes twice as long to protect a pitch as it does to climb it. Not that I minded much since at least we were in the shade today. Alan soon belayed Sophie to the ledge, and I finally awoke and then climbed to join them. The views from Mitre Rock (shady side) were spectacular. I snuggled into a corner and resumed my slumber as Alan happily lead the final pitch which should probably be described as a "doddle". Great views though, and nice climbing, so we weren't really complaining. We chatted to some Scottish lad who came up to join us via another route.
After another fine lunch, we headed back up for some top roping on steeper terrain. We ended up on Prelate, a short grade 17, with a cool pull-up onto a peanut shaped rock, which Alan dubbed "the peanut climb". The cool thing about this climb is that we could get some close-up photos from a nearby ledge, and of course hang off "the peanut" and dream that we were pulling over the top of Kachoong, an over-photographed overhanging 21.
Prelate (17), The Peanut Climb: this trilogy (photographed by Greg) shows me (Alan) pretending I can climb.
The top rope does wonders for the confidence... just don't ask me to lead this one until next year.
Alan was in fine form, and with the mandatory grunts and groans (usually heard after a night of curry and beer), he pulled his way over the top. Nice climbing Alan! Four days of climbing (and beer drinking) left Soph and Greg with a challenge for another day. We staggered back to the car and drove back to Melbourne.
And so ended a fine Easter weekend at Mount Arapiles, Australia's premiere rock climbing venue.
Our next question is - when are we going back?
<Greg's bit ends here. Thanks Greg!>
After a drink and another ice-cream in Natimuk, I sped down the highway towards Melbourne through the golden fields. Some miles after I narrowly missed colliding with a friend's car due to the setting sun shining directly in my eyes via my rear-vision mirror, an ambulance heading towards Arapiles screamed passed me, its lights flashing. "Oh. Oh." I found out later that Christopher Mann (a Queensland cyclist) had peeled off a lead, ripping his protection and taking a 20m ground fall. He did not survive. That is very sad. Whilst I didn't know Chris, I wish his family and friends well. Loss of life, especially in a sport undertaken for pleasure, is tragic indeed.