… or “I hope I learn from my mistakes” … also “Far from Painless at Dog Rocks”
For me, climbing is about challenges and overcoming them, facing up to fears, and achieving things beyond your expectations. But sometimes we learn lessons we never thought were on the cards, and learn something about ourselves in the process.
While this trip was a bit of both, what I learned from the day’s experiences was key.
Mount Alexander is about an hour and a half from Melbourne along the Calder Highway. Hardly a mountain, it overlooks the Harcourt Valley with its acres of apples and pears. Skirting around the summit it is ringed by a series boulder outcroppings. Dog rocks is one of the largest, and has a very short walk in.
Consisting of rough granite, this was the location of my first ever onsight climb in February this year, so I was already familiar with some of the climbs on offer. But it was Luke who stepped forward and suggested we “warm up” on a climb called “Painless”. It turned out to be anything but.
The guide called it an 18/20 (5.10a/c), and looking up at it I could see why. It was only 10m high but the face was just under vertical and offered little in the way of hands and feet. This is the sort of climb I might call “near my upper limits”.
Luke was first up with Rich on belay. The climb involved mantling up onto a ramp, then gingerly forking up the wall to a wide bridge to the left, moving steadily up on thin feet and small crystals. The guidebook said to “be careful on the undercling flake”, but it was nowhere to be seen. It would have been very helpful, but it had met its use-by, the scar still evident on the face. I wouldn’t have liked to be the poor sap that pulled that one off, or the belayer below! For the most part the hands were extremely thin, and called for full crimping to stay on, and extreme trust in feet. He managed to send it, but it looked like hard work! Luke came down complaining that his fingers hurt, and that his right arm had pumped out.
Next on the wall was Richard, while I belayed. “Whose idea was this for the first climb of the day?” he asked, as halfway up he was hugging his finger under his armpits in pain, complaining I’d short-roped him (sorry Rich!) He gained the top, but not before badmouthing Luke for his choice of “Painless” for a first climb, and set up belay. Hayley tied into the middle of the rope and began up. She had been sitting at the base for the better part of an hour, and this “warm-up” was difficult, but she managed to hit the top eventually after trying a few moves a few times… and nearly getting ‘botanical’ in an overhanging tree. Then it was my turn. I tied into the end of the rope and mantled up onto the ramp.
Man the rock was COLD! And sharp too! From down below I had no idea that the crystals and crimpy flakes the others had used were this thin! After a botched attempt at the start, I got on the wall proper and cranked. Pushing my fingers HARD in to the features of the rock in full crimp, and scuttling my feet up inch by inch I managed to hit the top too.
Looking at my white bloodless fingers with their ends smashed flat and square, I was glad I hadn’t volunteered to lead this climb, it was a tough one! I hope to come back to this wall and lead it one day. I’m sure it’s not completely out of my reach (maybe).
After this we headed down the hill, and Hayley and I took advantage of the chance to lead some trad. Both of our mentors were here, and there were some reasonably low grade climbs. We split up into pairs, Hayley with Luke and Rich with me. The climb itself wasn’t difficult or hard, but that’s a good thing, I wanted to be able to concentrate on placing gear, not cranking! It was great, both Luke and Rich were gracious trainers, and showed us how to set up a belay at the top also!
The day had warmed up somewhat, so we decided to up the ante a bit, and try something a bit harder.
“Little Bo Peep” is a 10m near vertical slab of rock with a sharp arête on the left hand side, with 2 bolts and a double-bolt belay at the top. It’s graded at 21 (5.11a) and it lives up to it every bit.
Despite being quite a short climb, this arête offered up more than its share of problems in the forms of almost no feet at all, and the fact that you have to layback the whole height.
We ground clipped the first bolt, and I was first on rope. I was feeling a bit shaky, and this was pretty intimidating. I kept thinking, “gotta get feet, gotta get feet” but every time I did find feet, it was like trying to stand vertically on sandpaper.
I managed to clip the second bolt and was moving on through, hand over hand up the arête. I was starting to feel quite good, when…
Before I knew it, I was upsidedown, vertically, my back flat against the rock, feet pointing straight up and my arms flailing beside me. The guys below gasped, “Are you alright?” as the blood rushed to my head. After a couple of seconds we started laughing after we all realised I was OK.
I worked out that, as I was falling, my right heel hooked on the first draw below me and flipped me before I even knew I was off! I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, but thanks to the quick thinking of my belayer Rich, I landed softly and was unhurt except for a minor rope burn to the ankle. I’m trying to patent “The Upside-Down Starfish Move”.
Looking back, I should have pushed away from the wall as soon as I felt I was falling to prevent my ankle catching, only I didn’t realise I was off until too late. And I will wear a helmet next time.
After I lowered down it was Hayley’s turn. She was looking really good, climbed above the second draw almost to the third and then “POP” she was off! With a somewhat more graceful fall than mine previously, she was back below the second bolt. This was hard work! She tried again and again, and was making progress, then popped off each time. Eventually she was whipped, and so lowered down.
Both Rich and Luke had tried to conquer Little Bo Peep on numerous occasions previously, and were determined to take it down this time. Luke was looking really strong, grasping the arete with both hands and cranking hard, while keeping his feet steady. He managed to clip the third bolt and clip in, looking solid, and continued to move up. The lip was within reach and he lunged upward, gained a hand on a bad sloper, swung up his other hand to a worse sloper, and grunted as he pulled himself upward. He was there at the top! He was going to make this!
Then he was off, dropping below the second bolt, his arms both completely pumped.
Rich was just as unsuccessful with his first attempt. I had another crack, but was off the wall from only slightly higher than I had been before. Rich took one final run on Little Bo Peep, he had that look of determination and we thought he was going to make it clean but was denied glory once he made it past the third bolt.
That was it. We had been officially shut down by Little Bo Peep.
For Hayley and I, this was the first time we had been denied by this climb, but for Rich and Luke, this was a old nemesis of theirs, so the defeat was doubly sour. We’d be back. We will conquer!… one day.
Despite the difficulty we experienced in the climbs, and the shut-downs, I walked away form this trip feeling amazingly good. I was happy I had climbed a 20 outdoor, happy the guys had taken the time to instruct us in trad leading, and happy my skull didn’t crack on a razor sharp piece of granite on my lead fall. We also spotted some other sweet climbs to put on our tick-list for the next trip here. This is what climbing is about!