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.