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Costa Blanca – Sella. And Rain.

View from the Orange House, Finestrat
View from the Orange House, Finestrat

The drive from Siurana to the Costa Blanca was indeed a long one. Due to rain and some flooding, there were numerous closures along the various freeways and highways so a certain amount of backtracking was inevitable. Whilst driving along the coast on smaller roads was probably more scenic, this also added some extra time.  Cam and I amused ourselves about alien stories on how the endless, endless, endless sea of plastic greenhouses in the Almeria coastline area came to be. Yes, these are the things you do on long roadtrips. There is a certain delirium to it when one starts to amuse themselves to while away the time. The reality of it though is not quite as amusing. It really is quite unbelievable. Hundreds of square kilometres of plastic structures.  As far as the eye can see. It certainly doesn’t make for an attractive sight and the piles of disused plastic are everywhere.  This is where the bulk of the fruit and vegetables for the UK and  elsewhere come from. It has obviously brought some prosperity to the area but the stories of underpaid migrant workers living in slum conditions abound. Compared to some of the other areas of Spain we had driven through, this did look like people having a hard time living. There were little pockets of villages that looked pretty and were trying to look after themselves but for many of the people that live here, that is probably a low priority.

The Orange House
The Orange House

By the time we reached The Orange House at Finestrat on the Costa Blanca we were well and truly worn out. The Orange House is a great set up run by climbers pretty much for climbers. Or those interested in outdoor pursuits such as hiking, mountain biking canoeing etc.While they do run organized activities for groups and those wanting some training, we were there to do our own thing. They were really helpful in providing an overview of what was on offer  and suitable climbing areas. Unfortunately the two and half days we were there were the only days that we experienced rain on our entire trip. They had been having some unpredictable weather and some flooding from there down to Malaga. This flooding was quite bad – made the news in Australia! This didn’t mean however that we didn’t get any climbing in. We just needed to make sure that we chose shorter routes reasonably close to where we were staying.  Sella looked like it was the pick of the bunch and with drizzle and sun in equal quantities, we headed off that morning, fully prepared to climb as well as fully prepared to just do some scoping around whilst getting soaked. And we received equal quantities of both!

Culo de Rino. Just before the rain ruined our fun.
Culo de Rino. Just before the rain ruined our fun.

The first day we started off on a small contained section called Culo de Rino.  Good selection of do-able grades once again. The grades seemed to feel a little harder than those we had previously climbed on.  Granted they were quite polished and we had just come from the Siurana needles experience where the friction ground your fingertips off. Or possibly, it was just one of those days and I was climbing crap. Equal measures again, of enjoyment and frustration.  A few routes under our belt and we were starting to get the hang, and slide of it.  The skies above though had other plans and the drizzle started again.  No problems, it’s only a bit of drizzle – keep climbing. By the time it came around to my turn though to lead the route, the drizzle wasn’t quite drizzle and the thought of polished rock coupled with added water wasn’t that appealing. So I wimped out. Call me a fair weather climber. As it was quite warm and we were already soaked, we decided to go for a nice stroll along the track and check out possible climbing options for the next day. On the other side, we came across just that.  Endless options. Damm the weather, damm the weather.  Having said that though, there was a group of about 6-8 english climbers there on their holiday for the week who were not fair weather climbers and were beating off the rain from their foreheads in between clipping the bolts.  My justification for them climbing and myself not, was that as they are english and they would of course be used to climbing in crappy weather and the rain.  Right? Ok, they were being hardcore and I…. well, I just wasn’t. So drenched as we were, we remained in our hardcore recce mode checking out the routes for the following day. We were hoping to get on a route called Marion which is a real area classic in the Sector Marian ( has it’s own sector name so it’s got to be a classic.)  Only a  5a, it was a 3 pitch 70 metre climb with 2 abseils included to descend.  Tomorrow’s weather would need to be suitable.  Not too much rain(yes wussing out again) or not too much sun. The list was growing as we walked along the cliff base.  What we would warm up on – when we would climb this one – then we can jump on these ones etc, etc.  Excitement. The day was set and it was starting to near grazing time for us so we headed off back to The Orange House to eat, drink sangria and be merry about the next day ahead.

Rainy days at Sella
Rainy days at Sella

And……..we awoke to drizzle and thunder murmurings.  Ever hopeful though and not wanting to wuss out over a little rain, we packed our racks.  Well, our quickdraws, rope and harness anyway. It was a bolted climb after all.  Off we drove to Sella, fingers and toes crossed and no backup plan in place.  We were going to climb.  Oh yes we were. The day appeared to be changing for the better.  The sun was out, skies were blue and the way it was warming up, we thought that Marian might end up being too exposed to the sun(noted in the guide as a suntrap.) There were a number of lovely looking routes that were in the shade and after doing some of the easier warmup routes we planned to spend the rest of the day thrashing about on those. Hmmm….best laid plans hey? Happily climbing away on the last warmup I turned to look over my shoulder. Oh dear. Black skies. We had unfortunately climbed one warmup too many and our window of opportunity was gone. There were no more days to play with. We were booked into some accommodation in El Chorro the next day. The positive side of it was that it was another reason we would need to return to Spain again. In order to climb more on the Costa Blanca.

So, El Chorro? I hear you say. Yes, a little more climbing heaven in the famous El Chorro area in the Malaga region. A long drive ahead….

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Lleida and Siurana, Spain

St.Llorenc de Montgai

So I didn’t get to add my next instalment whilst on holiday.  You know how it is. Wake up, eat breakfast, go climbing, eat lunch, have a nana nap, sorry, siesta, go climbing, eat dinner, drink sangria. Upload some photos for home and plan to write your next instalment the following evening.  Shame though that this was a continuing theme.  Shame for the next instalment obviously, not for the climbing, eating schedule.  There were also occasions where I inserted gallery gawking instead of the climbing.  I called these rest days except that there really was no rest happening.  Wore me out more than the climbing I reckon.

The last promise was to write of my adventures in Lleida and Siurana.

From Montserrat, it is a couple of hours to  where we had decided to set up hostel in the Lleida region. Dot on the map said Cubells. As we drove up the highway over the hill the hostel shone its best roadhouse sign.  Almost like it was just out of an american road trip movie….except in Spanish. Hostel Roma.
It was in fact the only roadhouse. Which as we discovered later, meant that it got very busy and very noisy both in the evening dinnertime and at morning breakfast.  The spanish are energetic and passionate talkers. Having only minimal Spanish in my vocabulary I really wasn’t able to decipher what they were talking about most of the time.  Whatever it was though, they often seemed to disagree wholeheartedly with each other one minute and  then…disagree wholeheartedly with each other the next. All part of the charm of travelling on the road in Spain.

Camarasa. Marcant Estil sector

Wanting to engage in, and experience climbing situations quite unlike we have in Australia and especially Victoria, we thought we would throw ourselves into it and hit the roadside crag experience –  Camarasa and the Marcant Estil sector  When I say roadside, that’s exactly what I mean. Drive along the road. Stop. Get out of car. Take a few steps. Climb. As you would imagine, being limestone and ridiculously accessible, there was an issue with polished holds from so much climbing traffic. Being my first time on limestone, it was a little disconcerting putting a foot in a sloping polished pocket but like everything you get the hang of it. Despite this, I did enjoy the climbs at Camarasa. We were looking at climbing most things in the 6a/a+ region but wanted a few lower grades to warm up on.  There was a decent enough selection of 5’s on offer to keep lower grade climbers happy for a bit. The climbing was interesting. Although the lower tier cliffs are only around the 25m mark, some would vary quite markedly. Starting off with technical balancy moves, moving into an overhung crank, you could then find yourself moving up a slab with one finger pockets and small pinch grips. We managed to get about 6 climbs in before the heat of day pushed us off.  What I could imagine with this crag was climbers visiting it to do a couple of laps before heading off to work for the day and equally the same at night. That I could definitely get to like! There is a huge range of climbs also in the upper tiers that range from a 5 min to 25 min walk.

Cubells from the approach

The namesake crag of where we were staying, Cubells, was one of the first cliffs developed in the Lleida region and since the hordes have moved onto newer pastures to develop, it was a great opportunity to jump on some rock that didn’t suffer so much from the Mr Sheen effect.  We had a great time at this cliff despite the heat of the sun. We started quite early as there was no real shade. Friction was perfect and we had the whole place to ourselves. Again a cliff to suit all with climbs starting from 5’s.

Cubells. Sectors For Fred & Foradat

In the downtime – when clever Spaniards have their siestas, Cam and I took advantage of our air conditioned car and visited some of those cliffs where the big boys and girls play.  Just to look.  Just to dream. Oliana. Cova de Gran Santa Linya.

Oliana
Cova Gran de Santa Linya

Siurana, whilst close to Lleida, is in the Tarragona region.  But like Lleida, an endless stream of rock. We were staying at the Siurana Camping which is owned and run by climber Toni Arbones and his family. We stayed in one of the self catering bungalows which was great but there are a variety of accommodation options, from the bungalows to just beds.  Communal kitchen, as well as a cafe which serves a pretty mean Paella.  Perfect for an end to a great climbing day.  Siurana had it’s own version of Camarasa.  Not so much on the side of the road, more like to the side of the summit carpark.

Can Melafots. Siurana

Can Melafots. Walk in time. 0 minutes. Afternoon sun. Grade range from 5 up to about 8a. Good selection of climbs in the 6-7 region. Perfect when you only have a couple of days there. Of course being so accessible it did look a bit polished. We once again did a recce of the area so that we were well prepared the next day when we finally hit rock. As it goes, we didn’t end up climbing at Can Melafots as the next mornings climbs on another tier down, had us experience more polish on a couple of climbs.  We decided to hunt for a more out of the way cliff for the afternoon in order to get some friction. After lunch, we headed into the little hilltop town of Siurana for a wander before at last collapsing like a local come the afternoon heat.

Siurana 8 km sign

Once awoken from our nana naps, sorry, siesta, we headed down past the popular cliffs to find a friction crag.  We were not disappointed.  I think we stumbled upon a cliff which was in the early stages of some development.  New bolts, new rocks, needles for friction and very little traffic appeared to have come its way. We had a fun afternoon on climbs nothing harder than 6a. After dodging a few small pebbles that seemed to be falling regularly, we then gazed around us and saw a selection of broken rock pieces. We were right.  It hadn’t seem much traffic. We at once felt warm and fuzzy that we were engaged in community service.  Helping to clean the cliff from useless, loose rock. Ensuring that others after us could climb in peace.  Despite the falling rock (I like to call it adventure), it was once again a great session.  So the day tally ended up:. 6 morning climbs. 1 visit to local village and summit area. 1 nana nap. 6 afternoon climbs. Sangria. Yay! The next day it was time to head off. Siurana was unfortunately, a very brief stop on our climbing journey.  I like to think of it as just a taster.  There will most definitely be a return trip!

View from Can Melafots. Siurana

Excitement was already building for the next stop. Costa Blanca.

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Koh Yao Noi, Stepping Back in Time

Steve Holloway and Bus on the way back from Grateful Wall, Koh Yao Noi.

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since I first climbed in Thailand. Of course back in 1992 Phra-Nang was nothing like it is today. Tonsai was completely undeveloped with just a few rough huts set back in the jungle. Railay had a bunch of basic bungalow systems and it was only the Dusit Rayavadee that was regarded as upmarket (in 1993 we watched Mick Jagger and his entourage arrive by helicopter). Karen and I spent our very first night in Thailand at Sand Sea Bungalows, which, for less than two dollars, provided us with an open bamboo hut that could easily have featured in the movie Apocalypse Now. On nearby Phra-Nang Beach, King and Tex were dragging hapless beginners up The Money Maker (6a+, 18) for 30 baht ($1) a pop and we were busy cranking It’s a Boy 7b (25-26) through the spectacular Princess Cave (and which is now quite rightly closed to climbing). Over the next few years I wrote a small guide to Phra-Nang for Wild Publications (in Australia) and my articles and photographs appeared in a variety of magazines including Climbing, Rock and Ice, Rock, Outdoor Australia and Action Asia. Combined with the efforts of a small group of other climbers (such as Sam Lightner) it wasn’t long before Thailand was seen for what it truly was, that is one of the most remarkable climbing destinations on earth.

Sunrise at 6am. Koyao Resort on Koh Yao Noi.

Of course all this came at a price. These days climbing at Railay and Tonsai during the peak season can be uncomfortably crowded. Popular cliffs such as the Keep, Fire Wall or Monkey World are often packed and it’s not uncommon to have to wait in queue. Tonsai Wall and Dums Kitchen are overflowing with muscular brown torsos, writhing tattoos, jostling guides and some of the most polished routes you’ll ever have the misfortune to slip off. As for 123 Wall at Railay East, do yourself a favour and get there early (well before 7am) and make sure your off your climb and heading for breakfast by 8.30am. After that it will be wall to wall chaos.

HD Wall (facing) and Big Tree Wall profile. Koh Yao Noi.

So is there anywhere in Thailand that you can still climb and avoid the crowds? Indeed there is. Koh Yao Noi is an island about an hours long-tail ride west of Railay Beach and is situated smack bang in the middle of Phang-Nga Bay. Koh Yao Noi means Small Long Island and its southern (larger) neighbor is called Koh Yao Yai (or Big Long Island). The two islands are separated by a narrow channel. Koh Yao Noi is home to about 4000 people, mainly Muslim, most of whom earn their living by fishing, farming and agriculture. Unlike nearby Phuket, Koh Yao Noi is a very quiet place and is more like the Thailand I remember from 20 years ago. There are no glitzy resorts, no traffic, no nightclubs and no crowds. Here the locals are much more relaxed, friendly and with smiles as wide as an Andaman sunrise.

The Climbing

There are about ten cliffs currently under development, all of which are located on the northern tip of Koh Yao Noi and its nearby islands. The area has been developed mainly by Mark Miner (and his mates Drew Spalding, Justin Day etc) who co-runs (with his wife, Heather) the Mountain Shop in Tha Khao village. These guys have put in one hell of a lot of hard work, having spent a small fortune in bolts and glue. There are currently about 160 climbs. Most are single pitch but there are some that reach four pitches. Almost all of the routes are protected with titanium bolts combined with Hilti RE-500 glue. To be honest the climbing isn’t anywhere near as convenient as Phra-Nang as all of the crags on Koh Yao Noi require some form of transport to reach them (either by boat or by scooter). Forget about cliffs towering above white sandy beaches, here on Koh Yao Noi the cliffs rise from either the jungle or directly from the sea. The payoff is that you will enjoy some superb climbing, no crowds and barely a polished hold in sight. Here is a quick overview of three of the better cliffs on Koh Yao Noi.

 Grateful Wall

This remarkable orange and gray cliff is arguably one of the best ‘more moderate’ crags in Thailand. Grateful Wall hangs over the sea, which means it requires a boat to reach it. A bamboo ladder provides access to a narrow ledge that runs the length of the cliff about 10m above the water. Grateful Wall is also blessed with shade all day. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Romano Frosio, owner of La Luna Pizzeria on Wharf Rat 6b (20), Grateful Wall.

There are currently ten routes here, ranging from 6a (17) to 7a (24). Every route is an absolute pocket-pulling classic of between 25m and 60m. Bring along a 70m rope to be safe (and tie a knot in the end of the rope). Standout climbs include Candyman (6b, 20), New Speedway Boogie 6c+ (23), Monkey and the Engineer 6b+ (21) and Franklins Tower 6a+ (19). The two pitch Fire on the Mountain is also well worth ticking, if only to experience the trouser-filling exposure and exquisite moves on the final 6c (22) pitch.

Signpost in the jungle, just so you don’t get lost.

The Mitt

This steep white wall looks vaguely like the side of a collapsing wedding cake, rising straight out of the jungle and literally dripping with massive stalactites. The Mitt has around 30 climbs ranging from 6a to 7c. Here you will be confronted with the most concentrated collection of harder routes on Koh Yao Noi. Most climbs require at least a 60m rope with some routes requiring 70m and 80m ropes. Remember to tie a knot in the end of your rope.

Amanda Holloway bridging on Daddy Long Legs 6b (20), the Mitt.

Of the easier routes Daddy Long Legs (6b, 20) is a standout classic. The route overhangs 8m in 25m as you swing from stalactite to stalactite. Watch out for nearby Black Widow, which is a sandbag at 6c! Spiderman 6c+ (23) is a 30m endurance marathon at the grade. You have to approach the Mitt via a very rough 30min scooter ride up the spine of the island to the Paradise Koh Yao Resort. From the resort it is a 15min walk up through the jungle. To avoid the scooter ride (which can be dangerous in wet weather) you should consider renting a long-tail boat for the day.

Amanda and Karen at the base of the Mitt.

Big Tree Wall

In some ways this is Koh Yao Noi’s answer to Thaiwand Wall over at Railay. True, Big Tree Wall isn’t quite as impressive, but what it does have is a dozen or so mega-classic routes of between two and four pitches at grades that are generally more ‘tickable’ for the majority of climbers. Big Tree Wall is accessed as for the Mitt and requires a 25min jungle walk. You can also approach Big Tree Wall from the sea via a long-tail boat, which is generally much quicker and easier.

Upmarket Koyao Resort, Koh Yao Noi.

Accommodation

There are plenty of bungalows and resorts on the island, most of which are concentrated along the southeastern coast. A lot of climbers seem to stay at Namtok Bungalows, which charge between 450 and 1300 baht ($15 and $43) per night. For those looking for a bit more comfort you could check out Lom Lae Beach Resort or Sabai Corner Bungalows. For the last two seasons Karen and I have stayed at the rather more upmarket Koyao Island Resort, which (like many resorts) have good deals before the start of high season on 01 November. Rooms here are upwards of 5500 baht ($180) per night.

Hanging the gear out to dry. Koyao Resort, Koh Yao Noi.

Tips

Get yourself a Thai sim card for your phone. We have had great results with the local carrier AIS, which has a surprisingly good service throughout the Andaman islands including Phra-Nang and Koh Yao Noi. You can purchase a 3G sim card from the arrivals hall at Bangkok Airport and top it up at any Seven Eleven or Mini Mart. I usually go for a 669 baht ($22) card which allows for 1GB of internet data as well as plenty of free local calls. If you just want local phone calls (no internet) then purchase a sim card from any Seven Eleven or Mini Mart. Note that there are different sizes of sim cards depending upon your smart phone model.

Fill her up. Scooters at the gas station, Koh Yao Noi.

Rent a scooter for your entire stay on the island. Scooters cost around 200 – 300 baht ($7 to $10) per day. You will need a scooter to access some of the crags (if you don’t decide to rent a long-tail) and you will need it to get to cafes, restaurants and visit nearby villages.

Some of the best cliffs are accessible only via a long-tail boat. The daily rental of a long-tail will set you back about 1800 baht (about $60) per day. The Mountain Shop can arrange everything and will also help organise other climbers that may want to share the cost.

The Koh Yao Noi Rock Climbing guide is available only from the Mountain Shop. To be honest I’ve so far been unable to purchase a copy as they always seem to be out of print. Luckily, during my last two visits to the island, I’ve been able to borrow a copy (on both occasions we left a donation for the use of the guide, which will go towards more titanium bolts and glue). If you’re heading over this season I’d suggest dropping the folks at the Mountain Shop an email and asking if the guide is currently available. If you have the King Climbers Thailand Route Guide Book then you at least have the descriptions for The Mitt and for Grateful Wall.

Replaced carabiners showing signs of advanced wear.

Take a few spare ‘leaver biners’ and slings. Quite a few of the lower-offs at Koh Yao Noi are just opposing carabiners, many which are showing signs of advanced wear. Do the right thing and replace any biners or slings when necessary.

Restaurants

There are lots of cafes and restaurants on the island. A few of the better places that I’ve eaten include La Luna Pizzeria (the owner, Romano, is a climber and his pizzas and pastas are simply amazing), Je T’aime restaurant (sort of a Thai, French and Danish fusion!), Good View Restaurant (great sunsets, tasty Thai seafood) and the Para Bar (super Thai food, fantastic atmosphere).

Getting There

You can reach either Manoh or Tha Khao Piers (both on Koh Yao Noi) via speed boat directly from Tha Lane Pier on the mainland, which will cost you about 250 baht ($8). A taxi between Krabi and Tha Lane Pier will cost you about 800 baht ($27). Boats also leave from Ao Nang (near Railay), which can be more convenient for climbers. This trip via speed boat will take about 50min and cost you maybe 500 baht ($17). The most convenient option though (if you’re coming from Railay) is to simply rent your own long-tail boat for 4000 baht ($130), which will take you directly to Tha Khao Pier on Koh Yao Noi.

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Barcelona and Montserrat

Having promised to write some blog posts for Open Spaces during my travels, I thought it was about time I did. Otherwise it will end up like all the postcards one promises to send, where your loved ones receive them after you have returned. Come to think of it…postcards??

So where was I? Oh, that’s right. Sunny Spain. Cameron and I have planned a 5 week adventure to Spain and Morocco, traveling to see the sights and climbing whenever we can at key climbing areas.

After a quick two day stop in London to catch up with friends, we flew to Barcelona for a 3 day, 4 night city visit. Long before Spain was a climbing destination for me, it was a must visit soul feed of Gaudi and artistic interests. Can’t say I was disappointed. A buzzing city full of visual delights, the only downfall was having to share those wondrous Gaudi spaces with others. We were lucky that we missed queues but to find an empty corner without other human content was not the easiest. Still there were moments where I lost myself in the fantastical organic swirls, whorls and spirals of nature inspired shapes that Antoni Gaudi is so famous for. After a few evenings of tapas and Sangria, we finished off our visit with a trip two hours out of Barcelona to visit the Salvador Dali gallery/museum/theatre. Too many people in large groups took away much of the enjoyment with many of the visitors appearing to just be moving around the gallery rather than observing any of the work. Possibly just a stop on their tour program or maybe overwhelmed by the a mount of people and quantity of works on display. Still, regardless of whether or not you are a Dali fan, the sense and theatre of Dali was definitely tangible.

Time to head out of the city and away from the cultural activities and indulge in some fresh air and….climbing.

Montserrat. Only a 50 minute drive from Barcelona and one is completely surrounded by, in awe of and inspired by the endless rock. Spending the rest of the day scoping out the area and planning our two day attack on suitable climbs, we aimed to start on a few shorter routes on day one and then finish with a long multi-pitch on the Gorro Frigi day two.

The first day didn’t quite go as planned, but all for the better anyway. We came across an area close to one of the walking tracks that looked like it had some shorter routes that we could climb. We only had a couple of topos to the Montserrat area and this wasn’t one of them. Anyway, long story short – 6 pitches later we topped out. So much for the short route. Fantastic! The next day dawned, and by hook or by crook I was determined to get on Badalona on the Gorro Frigi. As we didn’t want to build up our leg muscles too much by climbing the steep stairs for 45 mins in order to access the route (we were in sport climber mode after all) we chose to cough up the dosh and ride up in style via the funicular. Good choice I say.

Badalona was an awesome day out. I loved the unique experience that Montserrat provides with its wild conglomerate rock. So many choices of what embedded rock or pebble to grab. Will it be good, will it hold, will I have to yell out “below”? One thing I can say for certain is that when climbing at Montserrat, pack your helmet.

Two packed days at Montserrat and it was time to move on to new rock pastures. Lleida and Siurana. More on that next installment.

 

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Mike Graham; a Day at Arapiles (1980)

California-based climber Mike Graham first visited Arapiles in 1980. He and his partner, Wendy, flew into Melbourne and stayed at my parents house in Lilydale. I think it was a relief for my parents to see that I actually had some ‘normal’ friends rather than the weird riff-raff that usually crashed on our lounge room floor.

Mike was a member of the legendary Stonemasters, a group of talented southern Californian climbers that included the likes of John Yablonski, Tobin Sorenson, John Long, Rick Accomazzo and John Bachar. At Arapiles Mike and Wendy immediately fitted in really well with the locals, who, in the fashion of the Stonemasters, were busy rewriting the history of Australian climbing.

I shot these photographs of Mike leading an early ascent (in 1980) of No Exit (25, 5.12a). I remember that day really well because both Kevin Lindorff and I also led the pitch. Mike, Kevin and I took turns in belaying each other. Peter von Gaza, another visiting US climber was also with us. Kevin and I had both previously led No Exit and Kevin had also seconded Kim Carrigan when he added the superb second pitch.

No Exit was put up by Chris Peisker in May 1979 and it quickly became a classic test-piece. The first clip is a really crappy dowel thingy, a style of bolt that was quite popular in the US at the time. Some thin bouldery moves lead into a flaring bottomless crack, which quickly relents. At the top of the crack, and just when you figured No Exit was in the bag, a desperate mantel does its best to ruin your day. This final awkward move has seen more than a few climbers come unstuck. Interestingly, it’s the grade 23 second pitch which I reckon is the real standout. Unfortunately it doesn’t get done all that often, which is a shame.

Notice the cool harness that Mike is wearing. It was made by Chouinard Equipment and is constructed out of a single length of white webbing. I can’t remember its official name but it was actually a great bit of kit. I went through at least three of these units. It was one of the first real harnesses developed for rockclimbers (as opposed to the Troll Whillans Harness which was used by rockclimbers but was in fact designed for high altitude mountaineering.

We spent the afternoon bouldering in Central Gully. I took a few pics of Mike doing Guillotine (V3) on the block right of Pebble Wall. I think Mike really enjoyed the technical nature of Arapiles and it seemed to suit his strong ethical nature, which formed the basis for much of his climbing.

Mike later teamed up with Mark Moorhead and in May 1980 he led the first ascent of Ride Like the Wind (25, 5.12b), one of Araples’ now classic bold wall-climbs. Mike returned the following year to lead the first ascent of Breezin’ (24, 5.11d) another bold on-sight effort.

In 1982 Mike created Gramicci Products, a climbing, surfing and lifestyle apparel brand set in Southern California. He is also credited with designing the first collapsible portaledge, which he sold under the Gramicci label in the early 1980’s.

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The Mattress Backs of Taipan

We were walking down the trail from Taipan Wall when Michael abruptly stopped, dropped to his knee and pointed excitedly into the trees. I crouched down next to him and after a few moments I could make out something moving in the boulders. Two small faces, beanies pulled down over their tiny ears, large brown eyes scanning the rocks above them. My heart skipped a beat as I realised we were seeing a pair of elusive marsupial mattress backs (Matterbackious dynocranker).

Like most people I’d only ever seen mattress backs in the gym, playing with themselves in dark corners, swinging by their arms and waiting for feed time. Of course I’d heard their distinctive vocal calls and even stumbled upon their empty caves, but seeing them in the wild was a first for me. Here in the Australian bush mattress backs were once an endangered species, but are now thought to be increasing in numbers. Easily identifiable by the large mattress which they carry on their backs and the woolen beanies they wear on even the hottest of days, mattress backs are among our most elusive and secretive creatures.

What makes this species so unusual, however, is the elaborate rock dance that they periodically perform. Experts believe the rock dance is some form of complex mating ritual. The male, usually the shorter and stockier of the species, steps carefully onto the rock, twists his body into a variety of contorted positions and then, after just a few brief seconds, falls heavily onto the mattress below. These rock dances must require a great deal of effort as the male then rolls over and falls asleep.

Interestingly, if a female of the species is within sight, the male will immediately get up, shake his hands and step back on the rock. This process is repeated many times in a row. The female pretends not to notice the dancing male as she checks her Facebook account, applies her lip balm or changes the wallpaper on her iPhone for the umpteenth time that day. Her tactic appears to be designed to enrage the male mattress back who launches himself into ever more contorted positions accompanied by loud grunting. If there is still no reaction by the female (who may be playing Angry Birds by this stage) the almost exhausted male mattress back will resort to stripping to the waist in a final desperate bid for attention. Observers who have been lucky enough to have witnessed this part of the ritual have reported that after adjusting her Prana pants the female pulls on to the rock and imitates the same dance moves. This results in a sudden wave of interest among the nearby males who all stride forward with outstretched arms, the palms of their trembling hands just millimetres away from the female’s buttocks. As she dances her moves the males all yell in delight, crowding around her in a sort of group-sex rugby scrum. Eventually she collapses onto the mattress and the males all start wailing and pointing at the rock in apparent despair. This highly sex-charged atmosphere now triggers the males to pull on their beanies and launch themselves in a mad frenzy at the rock.

Occasionally a female will begin her rock dance and actually reach the top of the boulder, at which point all the males immediately lose interest in her, fall silent, put on their shirts and walk off in various directions to brood by themselves. The female then retires back to her mattress where she posts her ascent on Facebook.

Unlike other marsupials, mattress backs, both male and female, carry their pouches on their backs. These pouches are filled with a white substance, which they use to daub across the rock to mark their territory. Males also use urine to mark their territory, a habit that females rarely seem to do.

A sub species, the bearded mattress back (Matted dynocranker) can also be occasionally seen. This sub-species tends to be less energetic than their clean-shaven tribal brethren and are usually physically larger and more bombastic. Their rock dance ritual is also much less complex and only lasts for a second or two, after which they spend the rest of the day sitting on their mattresses, softly grunting to themselves.

Lone mattress backs are another enigma. Almost only ever spotted accompanied by a tripod and Go-Pro camera, it appears that lone mattress backs can only perform their complex rock dance routines when videoing themselves. Zoologists originally considered that lone mattress backs were a separate sub-species (lone mattress backs tend to be balding and wear glasses) but now believe that they are the result of a serious psychological impairment, having an inability to perform when observed by other members of their tribe.

And so it was that after a minute or so the two mattress backs noticed our presence and quickly vanished into the boulders. Michael and I walked over to where they had been sitting. All the tell-tale signs were there. A couple of old worn toothbrushes, bits of finger tape and some daubs of chalk on the rock. The acrid smell of urine indicated that we had just witnessed two young males at play with each other. We felt very lucky indeed to have seen these mattress backs in their natural habitat. I even stepped in a mattress back stool. Now how cool was that?

 

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Southern Gothic Vol2: Acropolis & Geryon

February 1983 and Chris Baxter, Miles Martin (UK), Dave Moss, Russ Clune (USA) and I spent a couple of weeks climbing at Mt Geryon and the Acropolis in Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park. It was one of those rare trips where everything came together like clockwork. Even the weather – notoriously fickle in Tasmania – turned into two solid weeks of unrelenting sunshine with hardly a sparrow’s fart to blemish the sky. It was as if the weather Gods had gone on holiday and left the world in a fair-weather limbo. Every day we kept expecting rain and snow so we raced around, keen as cut snakes to get as much climbing done as possible.

 

Mt Gould

I took this photo from the top of the Acropolis looking south to Mt Gould and the Guardians. An amazing part of the world.

Black waters lap the towers of stone,
blood squeezed from forest and high moor.
For this is a place where giants roam,
The Acropolis, Geryon and the Minotaur.

 

Home Sweet Home

The bivvy cave at the foot of Mt Geryon. This wild spot has long been used as a climbing base for the big adventure routes on the 350 metre-high East Face of Mt Geryon. It is also conveniently situated not far from the Acropolis North Face, our main objective.

 

Things of Stone and Wood

The original wooden plaques inside the cave, apparently carved by climbing legend Roland Pauligk (inventor of the RP) in February 1967.

 

Man with a Mission

Chris Baxter, our intrepid leader. This photo was taken at the top of Old Wave Heroes (21), which Chris and I had climbed early in the trip.

 

Black Man’s Country

We did a handful of new routes on the Acropolis North Face, the best of which were two single-pitch climbs called Astro Boy (24) and Black Man’s Country (25). The top photo, taken by Chris Baxter, shows me approaching the final hard moves on Black Man’s Country (25) during the first ascent. Dave Moss looks on. It probably wouldn’t rate as grade 25 these days but Russ and I both agreed at the time that it would have been graded 5.12a in Yosemite Valley. These days small cams and improved shoe design really helps on these thin sustained crack problems.

The other two photos show Russ Clune repeating Black Man’s Country (25) immediately after I led it. I’m on the belay and Russ is powering through the technical final moves. The top of the corner crack really narrows down and the leader is confined to thin finger-jamming and tips lay-backing with feet on little more than smears.

Russ is wearing a pair of EBs (we called them bubble boots). These babies had all the stickyness of ice-cream lids and with more toe room than a pair of clown shoes. In one of the photos you can see a wooden wedge belonging to the Gates of Eden (18M1). The wild position on the upper reaches of this superb wall are absolutely breathtaking.

 

Astro Boy

Russ Clune seconding me up the first ascent of Astro Boy (24). This incredible long jamming corner was my personal highlight of the trip. The climbing was sustained, clean and technically perfect. It reminded me of some of those long crack pitches in Yosemite Valley and was named in recognition of the big stemming Enduro Corner on Astroman.

 

The Gates of Eden

Russ Clune seconding the last crack pitch of Gates of Eden (18M1). You can see a couple of wooden wedges that had probably been used as direct aid during its first ascent many years previously. I remember clipping the old tatty cord and keeping on jamming. I can’t remember the grade of this last pitch but I suspect it must have been fairly straightforward (maybe only 18 or so).

 

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Southern Gothic Vol1: Acropolis & Geryon

In February 1983, Chris Baxter, Miles Martin, Dave Moss, Russ Clune and I spent a couple of weeks climbing at Mt Geryon and the Acropolis in Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park. I was 24 years-old at the time and the campaign to save the Franklin blockade was at its height. Upon arrival in Hobart, and with my rucksack on my back, I walked out of the airport terminal to be immediately approached by tall heavy-set man. He placed his hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear “You wouldn’t be headin’ to the dam would ya?” I blinked. “I mean”, he continued, “you could get hurt down there and we wouldn’t want to see a young lad like you getting hurt now, would we?” It seemed that everyone arriving at the airport (and who vaguely looked like commo greenies) were getting a gentle reminder about what was best for their health when it came to fighting for the Franklin River. I concluded that a bunch of Hydro Electric Commission workers were earning a little overtime. Welcome to Tasmania.

 

Settling in

The bivvy cave at the foot of the East Face of Mt Geryon. Chris Baxter was the only one of our group who had visited this spot previously and made sure he arrived first to score the best spot. Unfortunately he was greeted by a wombat that had the audacity to have chosen his proposed bunk as its final resting place. Chris spent the next two hours tossing rotten wombat down the slopes while we did all the real work like collect drinking water and make dinner. Here Chris is firmly ensconced in his sleeping bag, the peace sign his way of forgiving us all for daring to covet his prized location. Russ Clune and Dave Moss look relaxed in the knowledge that despite the rough ground they at least had a roof of sorts over their heads. As for Miles and myself, well we didn’t fare so well, having to bivvy outside of the bivvy cave, directly below the 350m East Face of Mt Geryon and exposed to the constant threat of falling rocks.

 

Southern Gothic

The Acropolis North Face as seen from near the bivvy cave below the East Face of Geryon. It’s strange but over the years I always had, for some reason, thought of the Acropolis as much steeper and more impressive than it really was. Looking back now I realize that much of the central section of the wall is quite broken. Over the eight days we were at the bivvy cave I think we only managed five or six new climbs in the area. Two of them (Miles From Nowhere, 21 and Old Wave Heroes, 21) took full-length lines up the North Face.

 

Old Wave Heroes

Chris took this image of me leading one of the pitches about halfway up Old Wave Heroes (21). I remember getting a bit frustrated because Chris kept wanting to traverse out of the main line to easier ground. All I could see were these splitter cracks shooting skyward and nothing was going to tempt me away from them. Luckily I led most if not all of the pitches (my memory is a bit hazy). Overall the climbing was really good and much more interesting than I’d expected, especially the final few pitches which took a great line through the upper walls.

 

New Country For Old Men

I took this photo of Chris seconding one of the excellent middle pitches on Old Wave Heroes (21). It’s strange that Chris is not wearing his helmet as he normally wouldn’t climb without one. Considering the fairly serious nature of the Acropolis and its almost alpine nature I’m sure Chris must have forgotten it back at the bivvy cave.

 

Darkness Beckons

Just below the steep upper head-wall we reached a large belay ledge. I took this pic of Chris with the shadowed East Face of Mt Geryon lurking menacingly in the background. The whole place reminded me of the Dolomites in Italy, which I’d visited a couple of years earlier. By this stage Chris was climbing really well, the route was coming together nicely, the weather was perfect and we only had a single long pitch to go. One of the things I always loved about Chris was the enduring enthusiasm and excitement he had for climbing new routes. By the time we reached the top of the Acropolis the sun was low in the sky but Chris was a happy man indeed. But then again, he was going to be sleeping safely in the bivvy cave and I was going to be outside, wondering if I was going to live through the night.

 

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Falcons Lookout Trail Improvements

Last December Glenn Tempest wrote a blog (Problems with Falcons Lookout and Ironbark Gorge Carpark) commenting on the awful state of the walkers/climbers trail into Falcons Lookout at Werribee Gorge State Park. This trail is one of the most heavily used in Victoria and can see anything up to 60 people use it a day. Since then Parks Victoria have gone some way to fixing the issue. The works were not quite finished when we were there on Sunday but there is already a welcome improvement. However, despite these works, using pine boards in this manner is only really a temporary measure. In a couple of years time the boards will have almost certainly collapsed and we will again be faced with the same issues of erosion and user safety. Glenn pointed out in his original blog that “it may be simpler, cheaper and quicker to realign this section of the trail down the spur 20m or so to the west, then cut it back to the point at where the original trail reaches the bottom of the gully.”. In the long term this is probably true, but Parks Victoria is cash-strapped (see Glenn Tempest’s Parks Victoria: Death by a Thousand Cuts) and probably can’t afford the cost of these works. Looks like we will have to put up with band-aid measures for a long time to come.

Update May 2013
Looks like Parks Victoria have recently added more timber to the steps. Once again an improvement.

CameraZOOM-20130519164237672

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Pincushion, Tremadog 1982

In 1982 Chris Baxter and I had been guests of the BMC (British Mountaineering Council) at the Buxton Conference. After all the excitement of the conference and long hours (spent mainly in the pub) it was something of a relief to load up our hire car and head off for a couple of weeks climbing in North Wales and the Lake District. Joining us was local resident Dennis Kemp and one of Chris’s old Plas y Brenin instructing buddies, Miles Martin. We arrived at the Tremadog carpark on a rare perfect Welsh summers day and we were pleased that Eric Jones (owner of the famous Eric’s Cafe) came out to meet us and point us towards a few of the crags great climbs. We climbed a bunch of classics that day that included Vector E2 5c (21), Falcon E2 5b (20), Silly Arete E3 5c (21) and Vulcan E4 6a (23). However, it was the first route we did that I remember most vividly, possibly because it was the only climb on which I took any photographs.

PincushionE2 5c (21) is one of Tremadog’s most popular outings. It follows a subtle line up through a series of smooth slabs and overlaps and offers an amazing variety of moves on close to perfect grey stone. In truth the only thing I remember about Pincushion was the warmth of the sun and me pulling through the overlap on the second pitch (photo below). Maybe this was the crux.

The other thing I remember was Dennis smiling at me when I took his photograph. It was a good day. Here is the Rockfax description of Pincushion.

*** Pincushion  E2 5c 58m (190 feet)
A route of contrasts – it has roofs, slabs and cracks, wide bits, thin bits and blank bits.
1) 4a, 12m. Climb up grooves and easy rock to a tree at the base of a wide chimney.
2) 6a (sic), 40m. Climb the chimney to the roof then make a testing move left across the slab. Pull up over the roof then climb a crack until a short distance below a roof. Move right to another crack and then right again at another roof to a final crack.
FA. P.Davies, M.Harris, R.Chorley (aid) 1956, FFA. H.Barber 1973

Looking at the photographs I can see that I led the second pitch using double ropes. When I look at the images of Dennis following that pitch he is on a single rope. This probably means that either Chris or Martin followed the pitch first (and carried my camera up). The cam just above Dennis is an original ‘Friend’, one of three that I purchased off its inventor, Ray Jardine, in 1979 from the back of his van in Yosemite Valley. I used these cams until the late 90s.

Dennis died at the age of 67 in an accident after climbing Birdman of Alcatraz (23) at Mt Arapiles in Australia. Chris died in 2010 after a long illness.

Click on these images for larger sizes. Most of these images appear in my Climbers Portraits & History collection on my SmugMug site here. These images cover my personal climbing experiences stretching from 1975 to the present and is an ongoing project.