We are sat in the van at Castle Hill; it’s raining, and the cloud is low, enveloping the surrounding snow-capped peaks. It’s a spectacular setting to go bouldering, people told us this, but it’s something I would strongly advise seeing yourself; no words, or pictures can do it justice.
So whilst I sip on my tea and listen to the pitter-patter of rain I have time to contemplate the last two months that Mina and I have spent ‘Down Under’. We have wanted to do a trip to Australia and New Zealand for the last 3 years but never quite got round to it but finally July 12th 2016 arrived and we were off. This would be the second longest trip that we had been on together, just surpassed by a 3-month road trip around the States in 2012. This length of trip sounds great, and it is, but there are definitely positives and negatives to being away from home for this long. On the positive side it gives you time; time to explore, time to really get to know an area and the people that call it home and enough time to not get too stressed about climbing those all important rock climbs. On the down side I think that after 4-6 weeks we/I start to lose our/my edge, not only physically but also mentally. On paper going climbing everyday sounds brilliant but it’s hard to maintain motivation to push yourself all the time. I have found this more on this trip than ever before; at first I tried to fight it, to push through but this lead to frustration and disappointment, in the end I just accepted this fluctuating motivation and did what made me happy on a day-to-day basis.
So, lets start at the beginning, after all is there a better place to begin?! The Grampians have always been on my list of places to visit, mainly due to the fact that it is home to Klem Loskot’s Ammagamma (V13); since the first time I saw footage of it I knew I wanted to, no, had to climb it at some point in my life. I have this lifetime tick list of boulders in my head, that obviously gets added to but Ammagamma was one of the original problems on the list, along with others like Karma, The Ace, Black Lung and Vecchia Leone. So, on our second day in the Grampians, Mina and I traipsed up the steep hill into the low lying cloud and howling wind to get a glimpse of the Holy Grail of Northern Grampians bouldering. Sadly it was wet but my taste buds had been tantalised; it was lower than I had expected but much steeper, the holds were bigger but so were the moves, I was excited with anticipation of getting to try it at some point within our trip.
Unfortunately it was another two weeks before I managed to get back up there as the low cloud clung to the hillside and left Ammagamma invisible to the eye. Instead I proceeded to do some mileage and get used to the rock and style of climbing in the area. The rock in the Grampians is incredibly diverse; from the spider web rock at Mount Fox, to the almost grit-like areas around Halls Gap to the Rocklands style quartzite of the Northern areas. And then there is the smooth, bullet hard rock of Araplies too! I was blown away by the variety and I really think it is the area’s biggest boast. On the down side I was slightly disappointed with the depth in quality across the grades in most areas, for me personally I saw very few boulders below V10/7C+, not including the Halls Gap areas, that I wanted to climb. This meant that the mileage part of the trip was over pretty quickly, not a bad thing as it forced me to get involved with projecting, which is something that I often struggle with when visiting a new area.
So what was on the list project wise? Well there was a lot but the big three boulders I wanted to climb were, as mentioned above, Ammagamma, Cherry Picking (V13) and On the Beach (V13). Each problem, in my eyes, is world class: the history of Ammagamma, the situation of Cherry Picking and the movement of On the Beach.
Due to the poor weather during the first two weeks On the Beach was the first to be erased from my list; it pretty much stays dry in all conditions meaning I could try it when everything else was piss wet. The movement on this problem really is very good, maybe even the full package and it sits in pride of place amongst the Trackside boulders and below the mighty Taipan Wall. The day I topped out I didn’t think it was possible; after being at Araplies all morning and into the early afternoon we arrived at the problem only to find it damper than I had seen it before. A temperature spike and no wind had meant condensation had formed on the rock overnight and not really shifted. I was frustrated as two days earlier I had done the climb in two halves and knew I just needed some good conditions. Sadly today wasn’t to be the day but I pushed on regardless and I am glad I did. After an hour or two of frustration and poor attempts I figured out some crucial beta; a way of holding the crux hold and the body position required to release my toe hooks from the back and campus in to match. A little later just before the sun disappeared for the day I topped out this brilliant boulder with a smile on my face and an apology to Mina for being a grump earlier in the session.
July moved into August and with this the weather took a turn for the better; the cloud I had come to associate with the Grampians had lifted and I don’t think we saw a drop of rain for at least a week! It was time to commence the slog up to Citadel to try Ammagamma. This problem really comes down to one move: a big throw off a painful pocket to a glorious right hand slopey rail. The two start moves make the throw a little trickier and the end is V8, so if you know what you’re doing you probably should be ok. Famous last words! I managed to drop after the big move three times!! Frustrated? Yes but also pleased that I knew I could do this fabled boulder problem. And sure enough on my second go next session I managed to stick the big move, and this time not mess about. I had imagined climbing this problem so many times over the years that standing atop felt quite surreal. I didn’t whoop or yell to begin with, I just enjoyed silent contemplation whilst a grin spread, slowly, across my face and then I whooped, I think!
And so there was one, probably the finest one to be honest. Situated at Buandik overlooking a beautiful waterfall Cherry Picking is about as perfect as a boulder problem can be. Six moves in total, well actually more but after those six dropping it would be almost impossible, a perfect starting jug at head height and a last move crux followed by a juggy romp to the top of this huge lump of rock. The climbing is powerful and dynamic and I knew it would suit me well. I actually had a brief play on it in my first week with an American friend but I could barely hold on, as my skin was so sore and sweaty. Two weeks later I slogged up the steep hill hoping that it would be ok to try on my own. After a tentative first go I got through to last move seven times in that session, never quite managing to latch the final hold. A few days later and this time with Mina in tow I was back under the boulder. Conditions were nowhere near what they had been on my last session but I still felt positive I’d get it done. I had watched a few videos and noticed that most people were jumping off a different foothold for the crux move. I had lay in bed at night going over and over this move and I knew that I could latch it, in fact I had visualised it so many times that I felt I had practically done it! However I managed to get to the last move a further three times with still no success, it felt closer with this different foothold but my falls were wilder, and my left heel was starting to hurt from hitting the slab as I landed. It then decided to rain! Luckily not for long but the water started to make it’s way down the crack lines and onto the face of the problem. The jug romp being wet would be fine but not the section below. I impatiently decided to have a go before it got any wetter, and once again I was at the final move preparing to plummet down onto the slab, only this time I managed to stick the move with my front two fingers and control a vicious swing with a good donkey kick of the wall, readjust the hold and enjoy a wet jug romp to the top!
The big three were done! And all in a two-week period!
After completing my main objectives for the trip I definitely started to struggle with motivation to try hard boulders. I had fallen off the last move of Mana (V13) twice but couldn’t summon the umph to go and try it again, as it hurt my skin and the wall basks in the sun all day long. One problem that I did manage to try just hard enough on was The Last Resort at Mount Fox. This was originally given V12 and I thought it looked like it would suit my style of climbing; I managed to fall off the last move on my flash and proceeded to fall there for another 4 sessions, can you see a pattern occurring here?! When I did finally stick the move from the bottom it was relief rather than elation that coursed through me; it was definitely time to leave the harder climbing and just enjoy myself for the last two weeks. The Last Resort was by far the hardest boulder I climbed whilst in Australia and after speaking to others I think V13 is probably more realistic.
So the last few weeks turned into just going out and doing as much or as little as I wished to each day. The areas around Halls Gap are perfect for this and I think they contain the better easier problems in the Grampians. The rock has similar features to Fontainebleau or the South East in the States but with a bit more texture, almost like gritstone. We’d meet up for coffee in the morning and then head out to play on the boulders, in fact it was probably the most relaxed few weeks I have ever had on a climbing trip and I really enjoyed it.
I also reacquainted myself with going high on the brilliant Eagles Nest (V8), Obelisk (V6) and White Shadow (E6 6B). The latter of these is probably one of the best lines in the Grampians; a perfect 12 metre arête that sits above Bellfield Lake near Halls Gap. For those gritstone aficionados amongst you imagine End of the Affair but much better!
And that brings the Australia part of our trip to an end, except for a few days spent in Melbourne and on the Peninsula indulging in food, food and more food!
I know over the last few years there has been some mixed reviews on the bouldering in the Grampians and I can see why. My first impressions actually weren’t great; yes there are some world-class boulder problems but I think overall there is a lack of quality throughout the grade range making it not nearly as good for those climbers who operate below V10. However the longer I spent there and the more exploring I did I started to see many more positives. The variety of rock in such a small area makes for interesting and varied climbing and there is potential for so much more to be developed but most of all the people we met and the enthusiasm they had for the area and showing you what it had to offer was motivating and infectious. A big thanks to Damo, Simon, Cliff, Chook and Nat.