A couple of years ago I found myself sitting around a stranger’s campfire in Spring Creek, Colorado. We had been mountain biking all day and they had spent their day climbing. As we chatted around the fire that night, our accents quickly gave us away as Aussies. At that time I was not a climber, but I was doing my best to follow what they were talking about. When they found out I didn’t know about Mt Arapiles, they were astounded. At that time I didn’t even know there was much rock climbing in Australia, let alone famous, world class destinations.
“You’re from Melbourne and you’ve never climbed at Arapiles.” scolded one of the climbers.
“No.” I replied sheepishly.
“How about the Grampians? Blue Mountains?”
“No. No.” I looked at my feet.
They looked at each other incredulously, and then proceeded to tell me how they dreamed of traveling there and what they had heard it was like. I remember listening to them and thinking, ‘Wow, maybe I should check this out when I get back home’. Ironically, my mountain biking travels had already taken me to places like the Stawamus Chief, Moab, Zion, Monument Valley and Leavenworth. All places well known for their climbing. Seeing these cliffs and mountains has always excited something in me. Now the thought of climbing to the top of those desert towers or moving up striking crack lines really inspired me in a fresh way. I resolved to learn how to climb when I returned home.
A short time after landing in Melbourne, it was time to move to Bendigo, to start my degree in outdoor education. By now I had bought a harness and shoes and had been going to the climbing gym near home. But I really didn’t know how people made the transition from gym to outdoors, aside from paying for a course, which strangely, hadn’t even occurred to me.
I was excited to get started on my degree. As an added bonus, in week nine of first semester, we were scheduled for a four day climbing trip to Mt Arapiles. However, I couldn’t wait that long. When in the first week of uni I overheard a second year student talking about going climbing, I promptly went over, introduced myself, and invited myself along. I went on two trips with him and then garnered the confidence to invite myself along on other peoples trips. I made new friends with some members of the dirtbag community. These are climbers who live in the campground for months on end, living as cheaply as possible, just to climb everyday. They generously taught me to lead trad, and by the time our first uni trip to Arapiles came around, I had already made several trips out there and was well and truly hooked.
By the end of the year I had been to Arapiles a dozen times as well as trips to The Grampians, Frog Buttress, Mt Buffalo, Point Perpendicular and Nowra, almost all of Eastern Australia’s major climbing destinations. I was hooked, I sold one of my bikes to fund a trad rack and instigated or jumped on any trip I could.
Mt Arapiles or Djurite as it is called by the indigenous Australians, is a special place. A striking prow of orange and grey sandstone amidst a flat sea of the Wimmera plain. It is some of the hardest rock in the world, with cracks that beg to swallow wires and chicken heads that allow you to climb 100m and take nothing but slings. In short it is a trad climbers paradise. I also love the climbing culture here. If you arrive alone you can soon find people to climb with. Living simply, climbing all day until you are exhausted or the light fades, and then returning to camp to trade stories of your day with like minded people. Every trip it became a little more familiar and a little more comfortable, until pulling into the Pines campground feels like pulling into the driveway at home.
Many times while climbing in NZ, I felt myself wishing I was home, climbing the familiar solid sandstone of Arapiles. Especially when I was hiking for hours, or breaking off holds. One time, I watched as the lobes of my cam sank into some form of chossy NZ mudstone. As I yanked on it, I began to recite Dorothy’s mantra, ‘There’s no place like home’, if only to distract me from images of cams being ripped from the soft rock. Like those climbers around the fire in Colorado, I too began to spout glorious praise about the far superior Australian rock to anyone who would listen.
So now I’m back in Melbourne, waiting on my Japanese work visa and I have just enough free time to pay Arapiles another visit. Driving west my mind is occupied with grand plans of breaking through to the next level of my climbing. I had compiled a mental tick list of Arapiles classics like Wizard of Ice (20), Tarantula (19), Eurydice (18) and I was feeling strong.
It was funny then, how in five days, I didn’t manage to get on any one of these climbs. Just like returning home and kicking off your shoes and pouring a drink, when I finally arrived at the Pines campground, I began to relax. Suddenly, my all-important tick list, didn’t seem so important. Gazing up at the ancient ocher-red sandstone walls, the sense of urgency melted away. These cliffs have been there for millions of years. There certainly wasn’t any rush.
On this trip, I hooked up with my friend Dan and his brother Tom. After months away from Australia it was good just to hang out. We lazed about camp, bumbled up easy multipitch classics, did some night climbing to escape the heat of the day, and generally had a rather cruisey and enjoyable time. On the one day my motivation really fired up, I ended up getting so sunburned, dehydrated and sweaty in the glaring sun, that I could barely stay on a grade 15 hand crack. Let alone the grade 18 offwidth, that I’d been intending to climb.
All too soon it was time to return to home and begin packing up my life again. Even though I was a little disappointed that this hadn’t been my breakthrough trip, I know that there will be other days spent exploring these cliffs. I headed east to Melbourne, to new adventures, all the while thinking about returning to Arapiles again one day.