We spent about 2 weeks in the Grampians/Arapiles. It was RAD.
Mt. Arapiles is relatively small, but highly compact. In terms of scale, it may help Californians to think of Lover’s Leap. A few main formations with multipitch routes, some harder single-pitch routes, and some boulders strewn about the base. In terms of surroundings, rock type, and climbing style, Lover’s Leap would be a very poor comparison, as both the Arapiles and Grampians poke out of some very flat countryside.
The Grampians is much larger, spanning 50 miles north to south and perhaps 35 miles on the other axis. The rock is quite noticeably different to that of the Arapiles, invoking the beautifully textured, well-featured, bullet-hard sandstone of the American Southeast. Trad climbers are probably better off at the Arapiles; boulderers will want to head to the Grampians.
The two areas are roughly an hour’s drive from each other, although that could be longer if you’re going to the southern Grampians. In between is the town of Natimuk, a one-pub no-gas-station town of about 600 people. Clearly, there are non-climbers who live there, but not many.
We spent the bulk of our time staying at the lovely Natimuk home of Chris Glastonbury, his wife Ashlee Hendy, and their adorable 15-month old daughter Ella. Chris grew up in Townsville, and we met at the various home-wall climbing nights during my 2006 study abroad term. At the time, I was eagerly heading out to Harvey’s Marbles with Steve Baskerville, getting my first taste of boulder development, while Chris was focused on putting up new routes at nearby Frederick’s Peak. When Chris was putting together the first comprehensive guidebook to Townsville climbing a few years back, he reached out to me for any information and photos I could share. We hadn’t known each other well in 2006, but our email exchanges made it clear that neither of us had lost the fire for climbing-related explorations. When he mentioned a spare room in Natimuk while we were planning our Australia vacation, I called his bluff.
Climbing Bans in the Gramps
Many climbers will be familiar with the most famous roof problem in the world, The Wheel of Life (it’s the reason every long linkup seemingly must be called “Wheel of _”). Many climbers will have also heard that Parks Victoria brought the hammer down and closed ALL of the Grampians to climbing, due to impacts on cultural resources. After performing “assessments,” Parks Vic and the Aboriginal land owners have reopened certain areas, while others remain closed. The Southern Grampians were off limits to us, as was Hollow Mountain Cave. The left side of Taipan Wall is accessible, but much of it remains closed, including the notoriously awesome route Groove Train.
The area closures were not altogether negatively impactful for our Grampians experience. There was plenty of open stuff for us to shred ourselves on, and the closures act like a deterrent for traveling climbers. As a result, we would often have classic boulders, and even entire areas, all to ourselves. Since our visit was so short, it was actually quite refreshing to have an otherwise bewildering array of options narrowed down for us.
Getting Obsessed with Ammagamma
If Hollow Mountain Cave had been open, I probably would’ve spent a fair amount of time in there trying to climb the various segments that make up Wheel of Life, especially the famous gaston sequence that the climb finishes on. Instead, I decided to give Ammagamma a look, as it’s the other problem in the Gramps that I had always thought looked incredible. Also, while leafing through the Grampians guidebook at Volcanic Rock Gym, the legendary Justin Ridgely suggested I give it a rip, and I always take recommendations from fellow 6+ footers.
On our first day, Vikki and I took the guidebook and a couple of beers and power-hiked up to Ammagamma’s home, the Citadel. It looked incredible. So, too, does the Taipan Wall, which is so big and orange that it’s visible from the Arapiles, roughly 32 miles away as the emu flies. (Actually, emus don’t fly. They’re like marsupial ostriches [emus also aren’t marsupials].)
On my first day trying AG, I managed the “stand start” in a couple of tries. It’s a pretty awesome problem in itself. Then I tried the rest of the moves, all of which I managed to do on my first attempt, except for the big move. I didn’t expect to do the big move, especially after a week of eating and drinking our way across New South Wales from Sydney, but I was very psyched to return to it, as it is the perfect hard project for me: big moves on good holds, and not a single crimp.
A few days later, I spent a session trying the big move. In every video I’d seen, people would adjust their left hand in the pocket to be more side-pulling, so as to more easily hold the swing. I was hoping not to do that, since it felt easier to get the distance if I was just down-pulling, and it would save me the trouble (and fatigue) of having to do a weird adjustment. Then a bloke named Ryan Holmes showed up, and we recognized each other from his time as an exchange student at UCSB in 2008. He started trying the move, and gave me the idea to stack the front 3 fingers in the pocket as a sidepull. The second or third time I tried it, I stuck the big move! Of course, by that time I was pretty knackered, so I spent my last body dollars trying to get a feel for the weird adjustment I’d have to do in the pocket, and then it was time to head back to Chris and Ashlee’s.
My third session was a bit of a disappointment, as I kept having trouble getting the left hand to adjust its way into the weird side-pulling finger-stack position. After a decent number of attempts, fatigue and frustration began to set in. Vikki, who had awesomely, generously, wonderfully been supporting this folly by hiking a big pad up the calf-destroying hike, suggested I might grab the pocket with a finger stack initially, rather than with a normal 3-finger pocket grip. This was a brilliant insight that I hadn’t considered, and though I was too tired to make much use of the advice, I had renewed optimism for the next session, which, due to our travel schedule, would also be the last.
On our last Gramps day, we humped our stuff up the familiar track (or trail, in American). I was feeling extra good because I’d rested for 2 days, and because I’d ironed out all the kinks to my sequence by disposing of a few foot moves and dialing in the body positions.
I was pretty confident I’d send Ammagamma if I could just manage the big move. So I tried the move in isolation a few times, and raked a knuckle on my right hand against the rock that the boulder sits on. It wasn’t particularly painful, but it was one of those deep abrasions that just wouldn’t stop oozing blood. My climbing tape was quite uselessly sitting on the floor of Chris and Ashlee’s guest bedroom, but I do happen to carry a lighter in my chalk bucket, and I was able to cauterize the wound and stop the bleeding by burning the end of a stick and pressing the glowing part into the hole in my knuckle. Kinda gross, definitely painful, and, thankfully, effective.
After that mini-drama, I sat down and started trying from the beginning. The first couple of tries were promising, and it appeared that Vikki’s suggestion of grabbing the pocket with a finger stack was the way to go. Then I had a very good try, but couldn’t quite hold the swing. I looked at my left index finger and saw that I’d managed to split the skin on the side of it, not deeply enough to cause bleeding but more than enough to prevent me from doing the move. There was simply no way my finger would stay in the right place, as the outer layers of skin were only going to detach further from each other, and the layers underneath. I felt a bit like Dave Graham in that clip from Hueco Tanks, eyeing a split fingertip and saying “That is why I won’t do Terremer this year.” Of all the reasons I thought I might not do Ammagamma, a bizarre side-split wasn’t one I’d imagined.
Cauterizing wasn’t going to work on this one, and my tape hadn’t magically appeared. We thought of running off to find other climbers and see if any of them had tape, but instead I sat down to see if I might be able to do the big move using pinky, ring, and middle fingers. And to my surprise, I could! Even better, it was more comfortable than stacking the front three fingers. So I was back in business.
A few more tries, and I was starting to get quite tired. And though I had another pretty close attempt, which would normally call for me resting a while and trying at least once more, I was also starting to feel my right knee getting sore from the hard heel-hooking. Coupled with a brief moment of lightheadedness, it seemed like the likelihood of injury was surpassing the likelihood of success. It was time to pack it up.
Was I sad that I didn’t do Ammagamma? It was a bit disappointing, yes. But it’s also two grades harder than anything I’ve ever done, and the little moments of victory–sticking the big move, feeling ultra-solid on the stand start–felt better than sending something below my limit. The best part of the whole experience was feeling utterly obsessed with a short sequence of climbing, something I haven’t felt in a very long time. I hope I get back to it soon, but even if I never try it again, just the beauty of the boulder, the holds, the movement, even the 45 minute uphill approach are gifts that I’ll cherish.
Adelaide, then Townsville
We stopped by our friends Michael and Jen’s place in Adelaide, where they graciously put us up for two nights and one incredibly stormy day. And then it was time to fly to Townsville, to check in on my old friend Steve Baskerville, and his lovely family. That’ll be for another post…