Trip Report – Dog Rocks, Mount Alexander

22 09 2009

… 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.

Rich Luke and Hayley at the base of Painless

Rich, Luke and Hayley at the base of Painless

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.

Hayley on "Painless"

Hayley on "Painless"

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.

Me on Painless

Me on Painless

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.

Me on Little Bo Peep

Me on Little Bo Peep

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…

Me after the lead fall

Me laughing after the lead fall

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.

Hayley on Little Bo Peep

Hayley on Little Bo Peep

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!

Luke on Little Bo Peep

Luke on Little Bo Peep

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.

Richard on Little Bo Peep

Richard on Little Bo Peep

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!


Trip Report – Emu Wall, The Grampians

7 09 2009

A day trip to The Grampians is not for the faint hearted. To get to any decent climb, or even a decent hike, the drive from Melbourne is over 4 hours. Up the Western Highway, through Ballarat to Ararat, then west or south-west to the rocks and national park areas. The Grampians (or Gariwerd in the indigenous language of the area) is an amazing area of compact and polished sandstone cliffs and crevasses, which according to has over over 5,000 individual climbs on it (I’m sure there are probably many, many more than this).

We left Melbourne at 5:30 am, before the birds had made coffee, and hoping to streamline the journey, Hayley and I met Luke and Richard at an all-night pub’s carpark which was on their way and we set off. We made several short stops on the way. The forecast for the day came in 3 parts: “Showers, clearing, top of 16C.”  The very first part of that forecast turned out to be the theme for the day. We drove through low clouds and showers for most of the trip up. At this point I thought I was going to be writing a “failed trip report” rather than a “trip report”!

After 3 hrs we arrived at the Grampians, stopping in Ararat  for some bakery treats and coffee, and due to my dubious navigation skills, and two very out of scale maps (excuses excuses), we drove for a further hour plus on dirt and barely sealed roads. We were very pleased when we finally found the “small clearing on the roadside 200m south of the creek” as mentioned in the crumpled printout which was to serve as our guide for the day.

The approach

The approach - Emu Wall can be seen in the background in the right image

I think at this stage given the weather, none of us were sure if we’d get any climbing in, but we decided that after such a long drive we’d better go check out the wall anyhow. Off in the distance we could see the huge shield of Emu Wall, above the Muline crag (a beautifully bright red and heavily overhanging sport crag with climbs starting at grade 26!), and this spurred us on to make the long walk in, regardless of conditions. We bush-bashed our way on our “40 minute approach” which took just under an hour, the going getting harder as we went on, the search for the “path” becoming a desperate vigil to find cairns among rubble through dense scrub and very spiky wattles and hakeas. We sang stupid songs to keep us going and Richard provided an inspiring ‘infomercial’ on ‘pose walking’ and discussed the theory of statistical variation, while Luke channelled his “Inner Animal” for the climbing ahead.

View across the Grampians in the rain

View across the Grampians in the

Finally we arrived at the base of Emu Rock. It was vertical! 150m of vertical red and grey sandstone standing out as a proud shield above the scrub and bushland. But it was still raining, and if the rock we were standing on was any indication of the rock above us, wet rock was going to be troublesome. So we had lunch.

Luke looking up at Emu Wall

Luke looking up at Emu Wall

What would you do? We’d just been travelling for 5 hrs to get here, and at this point it was clear there were a couple of things against us:

– It was continuing to rain, then clear, then rain, then clear, then rain then clear, so the friction of the rock was in question,
– Luke felt like crap
– the general consensus was that there was to be no climbing today.

Would this stop us from climbing? Not bloody likely! We were beneath one of the most juggy, vertical, high friction pieces of rock I had seen, and it would be a pity to let the trip be a waste. Richard stepped up in style so we decided to climb. In pairs Rich on lead while I cleaned up and then Luke on lead with Hayley seconding.

The 2 lines we were looking at were Patagonia, a beautiful looking 126m 3 star 16 (5.8), and Sahara, a 90m 3 star 16 (5.8), but we opted given the conditions to do a slightly shorter climb called Whipping Boy, an 80m 2 star 16 which traversed from the higher left wall to the right, then from the first belay it busted up diagonally across the vertical face to an obvious weakness at the lip. Because the climb starts uphill from the rest, the exposure is terriffic after only 10 or so metres of climbing, where the climb pulls around onto the main face of the wall and you find yourself 30+ metres from the deck!

Rich was the first on the wall, while I belayed him upward and onward. Richard made great progress, while my hands went numb in the cold. There were great hands and feet, and according to our fearless leaders there were good gear placement options.

As Rich was about 15m off the belay, we heard him yell “OH FUCK!” Our hearts jumped!

A rock the size of a toaster he had just pulled on had snapped off and was balancing on a shelf in his hand! “Is there anyone below me?” he yelled. “No you’re right!” we answered. “ROCK BELOW!” he hollered as he pulled the rock right off and we watched it fall about 50m to the rock shelves below and shatter. This was a sign to us to be extra careful when choosing holds and stances, if a fused piece of rock of that size could snap off when barely weighted, then we didn’t know what to expect but it made it all the more exciting!

Richard leading Whipping Boy

Richard leading Whipping Boy

Rich continued up the face for about 20 more metres, where he set up the belay. My hands were still frozen and I tried frantically to  warm them up. Donning my shoes and a helmet, I stepped up to the face and began climbing.

The climb started out with an easy traverse, to a point where I had to pull myself onto the wall proper. This was great! The friction was amazing, even smearing felt like standing on a good hold. There were feet aplenty, and big juggy hands, so I was pulling myself up the wall reasonably easily. But each easy move was becoming more difficult.  It was starting to wear on me.

Me on Whipping Boy

Me on Whipping Boy

I thought i was going well until I came across a nut that was quite stuck. While I struggled with my nut tool trying to loosen the stuck gear, I started to feel the old familiar pump in my forearms. I was pumping out for real!

“Bloody hell,” I thought, “this is a problem.”

I kept struggling with the nut until eventually it came free, and I started breathing again. That is until I looked down and realised I was well above the deck, on a slight overhang, and that I still had a good 10 metres to go before the belay. The juggy hands and feet gave way to more marginal feet and a crack  for hands, and I was sure I was going to pump out completely!

The only thing to do was to push on, so jamming my left hand in I started climbing again, the burn getting worse with each move, hand over hand, removing the gear hastily and just trying to keep my composure enough to keep moving.

I arrived at the belay with a pump in my arms that I’d only ever felt in the gym.

“That was cool!” I puffed as I clipped in to the belay, hoping that the next pitch was going to be a little less pumpy.

By the time Rich had lead the second pitch, Luke had started leading below me with Hayley on belay. I could hear them yelling back and forth to one another, but couldn’t hear what they were saying. They were probably singing – there’s always singing on our trips for some reason. The cold wind was drowning out their words, and I could see across the valley that the rain was coming. After about 5 minutes of drizzle, and rain that was going upward on the wind, it stopped again. It kept doing this all afternoon.

Luke leading and Hayley belaying on Whipping Boy

Luke leading and Hayley belaying on Whipping Boy

Soon I was on the wall following Rich, the pump had subsided, and I had either hit my stride and was climbing well, or this pitch was easier. Either way it was about 40m of thoroughly enjoyable climbing, stepping up onto hard seams of quartz, good feet everywhere, solid hands and a just-on-vertical incline.

This was some of the most fun I’d had on the rock ever! This sandstone was sublime! I got into my stride and quickly found myself mantling over the lip, elated I had finished the climb.

After Luke and Hayley finished their climbs, and we were all back on the ground safely, we all agreed that this was one of the best climbs we had ever done. We were only a little annoyed that the weather denied us from climbing more during the day.

With that, we set back on our way for the 1 hr walk back to the car, then the 4 hr drive back to Melbourne, with several more short stops on the way. Next time we come here, we are looking at climbing Patagonia and Sahara.

This was a great introduction to what Gariwerd (The Grampians) have to offer a climber in any style. An epic day for sure, but what a day!

Click here for more photos of the trip.

Why I love climbing pt2 – THE FEAR

1 09 2009

… or  “… oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit…”

Fear is defined as “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger and accompanied by increased autonomic activity”. The effects of fear can be physical: causing increased heart rate, profuse sweating, pupil dilation, the raising of hair on arms and neck, lack of motor skills and shaking, shortness of breath or a tightness in the chest, nausea or dizziness; or psychological: causing confusion, paralysis, and in extreme cases hallucinations. Fear is very powerful and most people would say it is an undesirable feeling to have, we spend most of our lives trying to create a world we can live in without fear.

However, people do undertake activities which create and feed on this fear as a form of leisure. This might stem from living in an overregulated, overprotective society, or it might be something more primal than that. I once heard it said that if, every day on your walk to work there was a 50/50 chance you’d be eaten by a lion, then you would be a much happier person every day you weren’t eaten. Makes sense doesn’t it? You’d stop sweating the small stuff and get on with oyur life thankful that you were still here.

Because of a lack of “real” risks in our lives, we actively create dangerous situations and seek situations causing fear. Skydiving, rollercoasters, fast cars, horror films, video games, and literature can all illicit this feeling, some are safe, while others incorporate real physical risk if done wrong or something goes awry. Rock climbing is one of these activities, and has its own inherent and real-life risks.

I often times read comments from rock climbers saying “I wish I didn’t get so scared” or “I hate the fear of climbing.” And fair enough too, climbing can be damn scary, and for perfectly good reasons: the real and present danger of falling to your grizzly demise and being dashed to pieces on the rocks below. Yes I say, that is a very good thing to be scared of.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m no expert in the field of fear, nor of climbing, but the universal truths in climbing seem apparent whenever reading stories of others’ climbs, whether they be big-wall multi-pitch routes in Patagonia, or bouldering in Black Hill. I’ve had moments where I wasn’t 1.5 metres off the deck with a tenuous foothold, and felt more fear than the situation warranted.

The fear in climbing comes in many forms and from many different sources. There’s fear from anticipation of an unknown or intimidating climb (“Ooh that climb looks really scary from the ground!”) , fear from uncertainty as to what to do next (“Oh shit, what do I do now?”), fear of the unknown (“What if I get to that really good jug up there and it’s rubbish?”), and life-preserving fear in a difficult situation (“… feet slipping… feet slipping… FEET SLIPPING!”) to name just a few. Some fears are rational, some irrational, but your mind doesn’t know the difference between the two. To your mind, fear all stems from stimulus from a real situation of peril, so to your brain and psyche all fear is REAL.

There’s no point in me writing an article about how to cope with fear while climbing, just do a Google search and you’ll find more techniques for this than you’ll need. We all have techniques to deal with fear, deep breathing, singing, counting, checking and double checking, but in the end it’s what works for you that matters to you. For me, far from being something to avoid, fear is an active and necessary part of climbing, a part I have come to love on some level, but still loathe as I go through the motions, the sickening feeling of dread, the paralysing, gripping, gut-wrenching sensations. So I’m going to put this forward:

If it wasn’t for the fear, rock climbing wouldn’t have nearly as much appeal.

What do you think? Can you imagine climbing without it? Would you still climb?

I have read that a climber becomes more aware of the possible dangers and more familiar with the feelings associated with the trepidation of a climbing situation, a they can learn to overcome these fears, and give them less sway on the situation. As an absolute beginner climber I remember being petrified  of simply lifting myself more than a couple of metres from the ground on something that was well within my limits and in the relative safety of a climbing gym, and it took some time to simply become used to the sensation of being off the ground and in an unfamiliar situation. I had a similar feeling of fear the first time I flew in an aeroplane, or the first time I rode a bike unaided. But all these fears abated once the sensations of climbing became more and more familiar.

I could go on and on about how fear is part of our daily lives, via the influences of religion, media, work, deadlines, family, the law, terrorists, bees, spiders, zombies, whatever the fears may be. But what I love about the fear associated with climbing is it IS real, as real as a fear can be. We purposely place ourselves in precarious, even potentially life threatening situations as climbers. And why? Well I can’t speak for everybody, but for me, it’s the conquering of fear that gets me coming back for more. Sometimes I smash through the fear, other times I am whipped and walk away with my tail between my legs, but that self-same fear is the one I might smash to pieces the next time I climb. Some days after a climb, I feel shaken enough that I swear I will never do it again, but find myself wishing for more only a matter of days later. Do I have an addictive personality? Definitely. Am I crazy? Probably! But since we all have within us a need to seek fear at times, are we all just a little crazy?

The quote from Franklin D Roosevelt in 1933 “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” holds true in most situations. But in climbing we actively seek that fear, take it on on its own terms, and hopefully, are triumphant over it. And triumph over fear is triumph over the self, and in some way this is what we all strive for, betterment of self.

It is this voluntary immersion into fear, and the possible outcome of conquering and being triumphant over fear, that makes fear one of my favourite things about climbing.

see also “Why I love climbing pt1”