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The First Ascent of Blimp

At the end of the academic year 1968 at RMIT, I looked for a new outdoor activity, so I met Fred Langenhorst and Rein Kamar from the bushwalking club in the college café.

‘Hi Bruno, would you like to do a rock climbing course with us?’

‘Yeah, I would like that.’

Chris Dewhirst. Photo Bruno Zielke.

The introductory course with the Victorian Climbing Club immediately fired up my passion. Being athletically built, ex-sprinter, skilled in gymnastics and a natural risk taker, I quickly progressed to the more difficult climbs. A determined newcomer usually attracts the attention of the establishment, so I was picked to climb with Chris Dewhirst. He was one of the elite ‘hardmen’. Chris was a tall, wiry Englishman, very intelligent and with a sharp wit. He sometimes beat me at chess, and on the rock face he was the master and I, aged twenty seven, was the apprentice. He laughed a lot and had a-nothing-is-impossible attitude. Thirty years later, he successfully flew two balloons over Mount Everest.

 

 

Bruno belaying Chris Dewhirst. Photo Zielke Collection.
Chris Dewhirst attempting Blimp. Photo Bruno Zielke.
Chris Dewhirst attempting Blimp. Photo Bruno Zielke.

Having done several hard climbs with Chris in the following months, we attempted ‘Blimp’. It is a rock climb in the middle of a cliff named Bundaleer in the Central Grampians in Victoria.

The cliff is overpowering, steep and with massive overhangs. In 1968 Blimp was the great unsolved climbing problem in Victoria, having defeated several strong attempts. It was named and made famous by the legendary Peter Jackson, who was regarded as the father of Australian rock climbing. The climb followed a long, finger-thin crack in a steep corner, between two smooth and overhanging rock faces. The exit at the top was blocked by a two-metre flat ceiling.

Chris tried very hard all weekend, but he always got stuck at the crux point about a third of the way up. If Chris could not do it, I certainly gave it no further thought, so we packed up and went home.

John Ewbank starting up Blimp. Photo Zielke Collection.

In January of 1969, I had an invitation to have another go at it, this time with John Ewbank from Sydney. He was the leading climber in Australia, and I regarded him with great admiration. Jackson told him about Blimp, and Ewbank asked me to climb with him. I was so excited, that it did not even occur to me to ask Chris for permission to do the climb without him. John Ewbank arrived in Melbourne with his girlfriend Valerie, who taught clarinet at the Sydney Music Conservatorium. And so along with Fred Langenhorst and Rein Kamar (both RMIT climbers), we all packed the gear into my car and headed for the Grampians. That Friday night around the campfire, Valerie and John played on their guitars, and she sang sad songs. Then John turned to me.

‘So you’ve already had a go at Blimp?’

‘Actually, no I haven’t. I spent all weekend standing on the ground, holding the ropes for Chris, who had several goes at it.’

On Saturday morning we arrived at the bottom of the climb, and everyone got busy. Valerie took off her T-shirt and stretched out on a nearby rock to work on her suntan. Fred and Rein climbed up a line of bolts, previously banged into the smooth rock face to the right of Blimp, for the express purpose of filming its first ascent. They alternately used my battered Minolta camera to get a different viewpoint. John stood at the bottom of the climb and quietly studied it, while I busied myself with fixing the ropes to anchor myself to a nearby tree, just like I did for Chris. If the lead climber fell, I would hold the rope and arrest his fall. His health and possibly his life depended and how well I did that. The cliff was in the shade and the air smelled of rotten eucalyptus leaves. I loved it.

Bruno Zielke belaying John Ewbank on Blimp. Photo Zielke Collection.

John had extremely blue eyes and long curly blond hair. He wore a red jumper and short golf-like climbing pants, with long red greasy wool Norwegian socks, which was the fashion of the day. A climbing helmet, equipment belt with lots of gear hanging of it, and climbing boots with smooth soles completed the outfit. We all dressed in a similar way. John oozed confidence and was eager to get going. I was quietly apprehensive that he may actually get up, and I would have to follow him. Rein and Fred were hanging from bolts high up on the face with my camera, ready for action. The scene was set. Eventually, all was ready and before John made the first move Valerie said, ‘You know a girl could get pregnant just being near you, with so much testosterone and adrenaline in the air.’ We all laughed and it eased the tension somewhat. I thought that John would show us how to do it and that we will have it on film. But aloud I said, ‘I like your red socks’.

 

John Ewbank on Blimp. Photo Fred Langenhorst / Rein Kamar (Zielke collection).

John moved up the rock with the grace of a ballet dancer and a cat, in short deliberate moves punctuated by a concentrated study of the next move. He placed protecting gear, such as pitons and crackers into the climbing crack and moved up again. He easily passed the first three of the difficult spots. Then John moved up to the point where Chris and everyone else before him reached and said, ‘Wow! I can see what Jackson was talking about’.

He studied it for a while, then came down and rested. John had several attempts but didn’t commit to the hard bit. We went back to the campsite for the night.

‘So Fred did you get some good pictures?’, said Valerie once we settled in. John cut the answer short. ‘What good would they be if we don’t make it up?’

We slept little that night. I thought, surely John will solve Blimp’s riddle made up of all those

strenuous and risky chess moves. On Sunday, John climbed up and down, always reaching the same point, and by three o’clock in the afternoon he came down and said, ‘It’ll have to wait till another time’.

At this point I felt a huge energy rush, and a determination swelling in me. Without knowing what I would do, I started putting my climbing boots on.

‘I wanna have a go John’, I said. Fred and Rein looked at each other puzzled and stayed up on their bolt line.

‘Yeah, you may as well, since everyone else has’, said John.

So we swapped roles and I started off. I remembered all the moves by heart, that Chris and John had made, and climbed quickly, preserving energy. When I reached the high point John got up to, I instantly understood why it had all ended here for everyone else. Above me was an overhanging thin crack in crumbly rock with enough space to push fingertips just half way in. That was all. There were no other handholds, nor footholds, and no place to put protection of any sort. I went on and on. This required total commitment and sustained strength. The long crack led to an overhang where I could probably place protection. But it was a long way off.

Bruno Zielke on the first ascent of Blimp. Photo Fred Langenhorst / Rein Kamar (Zielke collection).

Rein yelled out. ‘Hi Bruno give us a smile for the camera and go for it.’ So I turned around, smiled and committed myself. The adrenalin rush helped. Every two metres I had to stop and hang on one arm to rest the other. There was no support for the feet. I moved slowly, painfully, grunting a lot, and so focused on each next move that I was not even aware of the risk I was taking. If I fell off now I would hit the ground and be crippled for life. I was further above the last protection than it was from the ground level. My one thought was to reach the base of the roof above and secure myself. My weight training and gymnastics paid off here. I felt I could sustain the effort for a while. I heard no other noise except my own heart, heavy breathing and Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, the music thundering in my ears. The stress got unbearable, beyond fear, and beyond pain I could still register. My body numbed, but the fingers held on and that was all that mattered. Nothing mattered as long as I held on. Voices in my head started arguing with each other.

‘Go on fall off, you won’t have to struggle any more.’

‘Ta da, da dah’, thundered Beethoven.

‘Don’t listen to them, just rest up your hand and move up, again and again.’

First ascent details of Blimp in the January 1969 edition of Argus.

Eventually, I could stop and get a small purchase on one foot to take most of my weight off my arms. It was enough. I breathed heavily and I knew I would be alright for a while. A few more minutes and I reached the roof and rested. It was uncomfortable there. If I stood up my head had to be bent to the side or I have to hang on my arms again. I bent my head and banged in a solid piton into a crack and secured a rope trough it. I was safe now. My confidence returned. I surveyed the overhang. That was the next problem. The exit was to the left along a mossy ledge extending for almost two metres. There were holds for the fingers and absolutely nothing for the feet. The ledge started off several centimeters wide, sloping down and gradually narrowed to nothing at the end of the overhang. Having rested I regained my humour and yelled down, ‘This is really tricky, so hang on tight on the ropes’. I cleaned the ledge with my fingers, throwing lots of rubbish in John’s face below, and on the third attempt I reached the exit point. Time was running out, my energy nearly spent, and if I didn’t commit to the overhang now I would simply fall off from exhaustion. So with a loud ‘Urgh!’, I put my left hand on the only hold available and pulled up. The rest happened very fast. The feeling of exposure gave me such a boost, that I swung over the overhang and I was up.

I could not believe it. I had just done the first ascent of Blimp. Following lots of jubilant screaming from below, I secured myself to a tree at the top and yelled down, ‘Climb when ready.’ John climbed up, grunting and muttering mild obscenities in admiration, but with the confidence of the top-rope from his waist to my hands. Eventually, he came up offered his hand and said, ‘Welcome to the world class mate’. Strangely I felt humbled by the experience. I came very close to my limit on this climb.

Back in Melbourne John Ewbank got on the phone and told Chris Baxter and Peter Jackson about the climb. My life had changed. I acquired a ‘persona’ which did not agree with the usual image I had of myself as a person who was withdrawn somewhat.

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Law Unto Himself

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Last Monday Open Spaces in conjunction with the Victorian Climbing Club saw the release of Michael Law’s autobiography (of sorts) at Thousand £ Bend at Little Lonsdale Street. It was a wild Melbourne night of heavy rain and hail, yet despite this almost 70 people turned out to listen to one of Australian climbing’s most colorful and notorious characters. Michael provided the audience with a staggering 300 or so historical images, which he dispensed with in just under 1.5 hours and – unlike many slideshows – left the audience wanting more. MC for the night was Simon Mentz who opened with the classic line; “This book launch was originally organised for last week but would have conflicted with the big Chris Sharma road show. The VCC kindly changed it since it was obvious that nobody would have gone to see Chris knowing that Mike was in town”.

As it was the night was a massive success. Michael signed loads of books and got a sore wrist, the Victorian Climbing Club sold a bunch of books and hopefully broke even (after paying the venue costs), and the audience had a great time. What was really interesting was the large number of climbing’s elder statesmen that obviously shunned their nightly rituals of comfy slippers, hot toddies and an early bed to brave the elements and see the show. It’s not often to see the likes of Michael Law, Robin Miller, Geoff Gledhill, Peter Watson, Glenn Robbins and John Chapman rubbing shoulders.

A big thank you to the Victorian Climbing Club who organised everything and to Tracey Skinner, Ben Wright, Dan Miller and Mike Poore who did all the behind the scenes work.

Michael Law’s book, Law Unto Himself ($27.95), is available at most climbing gear stores and through our online bookshop.

 

Michael Law entertaining the masses.
Michael Law entertaining the masses.

Michael Law signing books.

Michael Law signing books.
Michael signing books. Gitti Bulloch waiting expectantly with Steve Pollard behind.
Michael signing books. Gitti Bulloch waiting expectantly with Steve Pollard behind.
Michael Law and Tracey Skinner looking up to Dan Miller.
Michael Law and Tracey Skinner looking up to Dan Miller.
Glenn Robbins and Josef Goding.
Glenn Robbins and Josef Goding.
Glenn Robbins, Mac and Chelsea Brunkhorst and Josef Goding.
Glenn Robbins, Mac and Chelsea Brunkhorst and Josef Goding.
Michael the Showman with a pic of Glenn Child (left) and Greg Child (right).
Michael the Showman with a pic of Glenn Child (left) and Greg Child (right).
Robin Miller, Peter Watson and Glenn Robbins.
Robin Miller, Peter Watson and Glenn Robbins.
Martin Wood, Michael Collie and Robin Miller.
Martin Wood, Michael Collie and Robin Miller.
Simon Mentz & Michael Collie.
Simon Mentz & Michael Collie.
Michael Law & John Chapman.
Michael Law & John Chapman.
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The Art of Belay

So what sort of belayer are you? Are you a fashionable belayer? A safe belayer. Attentive or casual? Which belay devices do you use? Here are a few of my favorite belay scenarios, dug out of my dusty archives.

1. Waist belay. Bundaleer, 1976. Jerry Maddox wondering if anyone will notice that the clothes he's wearing are the same ones he used on his numerous climbing trips to the European Alps back in the 1960s. Your secret is safe with me Jerry. To be fair, winter conditions at Bundaleer are not much different to those on the North Face of the Eiger.
1. Waist belay. Bundaleer, 1976. Jerry Maddox wondering if anyone will notice that the clothes he’s wearing are the same ones he used on his numerous climbing trips to the European Alps back in the 1960s. Your secret is safe with me Jerry. To be fair, winter conditions at Bundaleer are not much different to those on the North Face of the Eiger.
2. ATC. Ormiston Gorge (Northern Territory), 1996. Damien Auton obviously believes that belaying a mate on a difficult climb and an afternoon siesta should never be mutually exclusive.
2. ATC. Ormiston Gorge (Northern Territory), 1996. Damien Auton obviously believes that belaying a mate on a difficult climb and an afternoon siesta should never be mutually exclusive.
3. Sticht plate. Manali (India), 1986. As a professional climbing instructor Michael Hampton knows that belaying is a very serious activity that requires ones full concentration.
3. Sticht plate. Manali (India), 1986. As a professional climbing instructor Michael Hampton knows that belaying is a very serious activity that requires ones full concentration.
4. Waist belay. Lake Districk (UK), 1982. Chris Baxter telling me that a single-point belay in shit rock is totally acceptable when you are twenty metres back from the edge of the cliff and using a dodgy waist belay!
4. Waist belay. Lake Districk (UK), 1982. Chris Baxter telling me that a single-point belay in shit rock is totally acceptable when you are twenty metres back from the edge of the cliff and using a dodgy waist belay!
5. Belay plate. Wilson's Promontory (Trackside Wall), 1982. Eric Jones proving that a single sky-hook belay anchor is absolutely bomb-proof (as long as the second doesn't do anything silly – like fall off).
5. Belay plate. Wilson’s Promontory (Trackside Wall), 1982. Eric Jones proving that a single sky-hook belay anchor is absolutely bomb-proof (as long as the second doesn’t do anything silly – like fall off).
6. Sticht plate. Mt Buffalo, 1996. Professional climbing instructor, playboy and entrepreneur, Simon Mentz is well known for his dedication to climbing safety. Here Simon is trying to figure out if the girl on the lookout is a blonde or a brunette. Damn that sun!
6. Sticht plate. Mt Buffalo, 1996. Professional climbing instructor, playboy and entrepreneur, Simon Mentz is well known for his dedication to climbing safety. Here Simon is trying to figure out if the girl on the lookout is a blonde or a brunette. Damn that sun!
7. Italian hitch. Ben Cairn, 1987. John (Rabbit) Rawlin proving that a (casual) belay should never get in the way of a good full-bodied red.
7. Italian hitch. Ben Cairn, 1987. Jon (Rabbit) Rawlins proving that a (casual) belay should never get in the way of a good full-bodied red.
8. Figure-eight. Phra Nang (Thailand), 1991. Greg Caire trying to work out the odds of losing his ability to ever father a child (not to mention the worst inner-thigh splinters known to medical science) should the leader take a massive winger.
8. Figure-eight. Phra Nang (Thailand), 1991. Greg Caire trying to work out the odds of losing his ability to ever father a child (not to mention the worst inner-thigh splinters known to medical science) should the leader take a massive winger.
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The Rust Bucket

This new Grampians sport-climbing cliff is located just near the Mount of Olives, a couple of minutes walk off the trail linking the Stapylton Campground with the Mt Stapylton Amphitheatre (total walk-in time is about 20min). The cliff is very short (only 12m or so) but the climbing is steep on generally good pocketed rock. There should be enough to entertain most climbers here for at least an afternoon’s moderate cranking. At present there are just five routes (not counting variations) as well as a couple of projects.

Echo Beach (22) is probably the Rust Bucket's most popular climb. It doesn't look too bad from the ground but the moves turn out to be surprisingly steep. Here Steve Holloway contemplates the crux.
Echo Beach (22) doesn’t look too bad from the ground but the moves turn out to be surprisingly steep. Here Steve Holloway contemplates the crux.

 

There are probably another six or seven possible new routes waiting to be done. The Rust Bucket is most appealing as a summer destination as it faces west, which means that it is in the shade until about 4pm. It also conveniently catches any cool breezes and has an appealing high aspect overlooking the plains. In winter the Rust Bucket would be a very cold place indeed. A few of the routes require stick clips on the first bolts.

Martin Wood on the second ascent of Echo Beach (22).
Martin Wood on the second ascent of Echo Beach (22).

 

Ian Smith pulling the initial moves on Blink (24).
Ian Smith pulling the initial moves on Blink (24).

 

Glenn Tempest leading the first ascent of African Queen (23).
Glenn Tempest leading the first ascent of African Queen (23).

 

The following PDF topo provides approach and route details. It can be opened up in Google Docs Viewer.

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Point Perpendicular and Sapphire Coast.

As they say – ‘Best laid plans’…..
I’m not going to go into too much detail. Just a bullet point of events. Nevertheless, apart from one really foul day, I had a good time. But also needless to say…..I will be needing to head back. I have a few unticked boxes on my trip list.

PLANNED EASTER JAUNT

  • Overnight drive to Point Perpendicular
  • Cruisy camping at Currarong Holiday Park
  • 3 days climbing at the Point
  • Drive back to Melbourne

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED

  • Overnight drive to Point Perpendicular
  • Cruisy camping at Currarong Holiday Park
  • 1st day climbing at the Point. Fab!
  • Early morning wake up with Gastro bug along with all attached symptoms. In tent bed until 4.30 pm next day.
  • Overnight rain flooded campsite and tent. All bedding wet. All clothes packed wet. Only dry item – bathers!
  • Rained continuously all the next morning. Road into Point Perp closed for the rest of the week.
  • Cut losses and decide to leave early taking 2 days to drive back along the Sapphire Coast to Melbourne.
  • Lovely weather and drive. Fish and Chips on the Eden pier.
  • Arrive Melbourne

A few nice pics of the trip. Some pretty speccy coastline along the way.

View on our first day of climbing at the Point
View on our first day of climbing at the Point

 

Narooma and it's 'Picasso' blocks. That's what they looked like to me anyway.
Narooma and it’s ‘Picasso’ blocks. That’s what they looked like to me anyway.

 

It's a fence. At Tilba Tilba. But  a very nice, hand built fence.
It’s a fence. At Tilba Tilba. But a very nice, hand built fence.

 

Bermagui
Bermagui

 

Fish and chips and boat watching at Snug Cove, Eden
Fish and chips and boat watching at Snug Cove, Eden

 

Lots of scope to be arty with your pier photography. Snug Cove
Lots of scope to be arty with your pier photography. Snug Cove

 

No-one told me there was a party. Oh...they're not balloons.
No-one told me there was a party. Oh…they’re not balloons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Arapiles Pocket Companion: Out Soon

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It’s been five years since Simon Mentz and I released our Arapiles Selected Climbs guide. Although well-received by the climbing community, the guide did have one major problem. Weighing in at a hefty 715g meant that this was not something you could easily carry up The Bard or Skink. Great for bench-pressing but not really practicable for hauling up multi-pitch climbs. So, about three years ago, Simon and I started work on a pocket-sized version. The idea was to create a guide covering all of the Mount’s multi-pitch classics, yet would slide easily into your Prana pants back pocket. As the guide took form we also decided to include a good selection of popular single-pitch cliffs. Suddenly we had a guide that would appeal not only to the Mount’s regulars, but also to visiting dirt-bag climbers on flying visits and tight budgets.

Initially we made quick progress, but unfortunately other projects got in the way. Simon was giving birth to the Natimuk Cafe and I was having to finish off a couple of ‘real’ projects to keep the wolf from the door (not easy as the GFC descended and, coincidentally, the world of printed media began to crash and burn). Recently, however, we managed to find some time to revisit our pocket companion concept and it’s with a certain amount of pride (and relief) that I can announce that we are now nearing completion.

The Arapiles Pocket Companion will be published in an A6, full-colour format and weigh a very svelte 115g. Its 96 pages will describe over 750 routes and have around 50 detailed topos. The Pocket Companion will also be stitch-bound for strength and have a clear plastic cover for durability. There will be NO advertising in this guide as we figured that pages dedicated to advertising could better be used for cramming in more routes and topos.

The Arapiles Pocket Companion will retail for $19.95 and be available in the shops (and on our online bookstore) before the end of June.

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Granada – The Alhambra

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Granada is only two hours away from El Chorro so whilst it would have been lovely to stop at Granada and stay the night, doing so would have cut into more climbing days. I wasn’t going to miss visiting the Alhambra though. I have gazed lovingly and longingly at it for many years through the glossy pages of coffee table books, historical and architectural digests. Full of history and an absolute feast for the eyes!

So thank goodness then, for a chance conversation with a young german couple staying at La Finca La Campana. The young girl was studying in Granada so of course the discussion headed towards the Alhambra. Fancy my horror, when they said that you needed to book well in advance in order to buy a ticket. Some parts of the Alhambra are free, some parts are a general visit ticket which you can often buy on the day but the Nasrid Palace which is the jewel in the crown so to speak, had limited entry per day. And your ticket only allowed entry at a specific time. Get on the website they said.  Aargh, I was planning to go in two days. When I logged onto the site, my disappointment was palpable. The next available day to visit the Alhambra with the  Nasrid Palace included was another week and a half away. We would be in Madrid then and ready to fly out the following day to Marrakech. I kept rereading the page, refreshing it, hoping that miraculously it would present a vacancy available.No such luck. Then a little glimmer of hope – albeit a more expensive glimmer of hope. Missed out on a ticket? Click here for guided tour where there could be vacancies. And there it was – 3 spots left in the 4 pm Nasrid Palace visit.  Total tour would be 2.5-3 hours, needing to be at the Palace entry by 4pm. Three times more expensive but basically, this was it. Don’t go (not an option) or pay the price. Who knew when I would be back in Spain and what my itinerary would be when I was. Being so close, I couldn’t just drop it and not go. So out came the credit card and in a blink of an eye, our plan was set. Thankyou Cam for actually not blinking an eye to my Alhambra despair and going along with it like it was always planned that way.
A glass or two of Sangria further cemented my happy feelings of the outcome and I could also tell that One Ear Malloy was truly pleased with my happiness. Just to share the love I gave him and his tagalongs an extra ear rub ( or what was left of it) and cracked open a tin of tuna for their celebratory enjoyment.

One Ear Malloy bursting with excitement at the prospect of my Alhambra visit
One Ear Malloy bursting with excitement at the prospect of my Alhambra visit

We headed off to Granada mid morning with a plan to arrive, find best parking and then have a nice civilized lunch, quick wander around the town itself before meeting the tour guide for the tour. I generally much prefer to visit places and wander around on my own steam but was heartened to hear from a number of people before our visit that the Alhambra was probably one of those places that could benefit from a guide. So extensive – the information a guide could present ,would help with the understanding of the site, its history and culture.
Granada’s history has an interesting mix of the Spanish, the Moors with their islamic culture and the Jewish community. Granada was long under the rule of the Moors, where the Jewish community also flourished. In 1492 this was to end though with the taking of Granada and other Moorish strongholds by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Enter the Spanish Inquisition.The Moors and Jews were given the option of conversion to Christianity or expulsion from Spain.  Right. There you go. My one little foray into the history of Granada.You will of course need to fill in the huge amount of gapsThe old jewish quarter next to the Alhambra is a promoted area to vist.  This older quarter of Granada certainly contains a charm to it and wandering about it’s small streets and alleys, one could get lost for a good part of the day.

Guitar shop in Granada
Guitar shop in Granada

After lunch, we joined the masses eager for a viewing of one of the most beautifully decorated historical places in the world. As I noted above, this is a history lesson that I won’t go into any detail here – far too much over such a long period of time to do it justice. There are numerous sites that can fill you in on the rich history that the Alhambra has. Instead some photos that hopefully show the beauty, that for me was breathtaking. The details in the carving – someone must have had some mighty big blisters from chiselling away at that with such control. Colours. Shapes. Viewpoints. Everything had been thought about for maximum effect. This was coupled with the beautiful light in this part of the world. The carved windows, glass work, arches and doorways that seemed to lead to another doorway and yet another all within view of each other, all vied for another photo on the camera card.

Door detail in Baths
Door detail in Baths
Doorway and detail
Doorway and detail
Tower of the Princesses
Tower of the Princesses
Mexuar column
Mexuar column
view to the gardens of General Life
view to the gardens of General Life
Pond in General Life gardens
Pond in General Life gardens

My brain had definitely reached overload by the end of the day and was screaming out for rest. Eyes were sore, feet were aching, tired of being around so, so many people. Having said that though, it was worth it. By the time we reached home late that night, there were no visits from One Ear and his cronies – and just as well. Cam and I stumbled into bed. I had a swirling mess of geometric patterns, fountains and arches trying hard to keep me awake. Cam just stumbled. The drive home had wiped out his remaining brain cells and it was all he could do to stay on the right side of the wrong side of the road for us. More rock tomorrow.

Glorious light transforms the colours of the Alhambra
Glorious light transforms the colours of the Alhambra
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Mountain Magazine: Brave New World

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I bought my first copy of Mountain magazine at Bushgear in Hardware Lane. It was the January 1974 (no 31) edition which, due to a six month sea voyage, didn’t reach our shores until almost September. It cost 30 pence in the UK, $1.25 in the United States and $3.50 here in Australia. I remember pointing out to Reg Marron (who worked at Bushgear at the time), that as a 15 year-old school-boy there was no way I could afford such a high cover price (this in an era when Simond steel carabiners were regarded as expensive at $2 each). He took pity on me, gave me a 50% discount and a handful of tricounis*, which suited me very nicely.

index

On the train home I pulled the mag out and carefully studied the cover photo; Chris Vandiver leading Outer Limits (5.10) on the Cookie Area in Yosemite Valley. At that moment I knew that I would one day go to Yosemite and do that climb. I turned each page and read every single word. Interestingly there were only four major articles. Pondering the Improbable, a literary critique by Mike Pearson, was essentially a review on the literary style of some weird-ass book called D’haulagirideon by Michael Charles Tobias. Blowing in the Wind by Leo Dickinson described an adventurous ski across the South Patagonian ice-cap and an ascent of two active volcanoes. Joe Beige Meets Godzilla was an hilarious cartoon adaption of Joe Brown and Don Whillans’ recent ascent of a spider- and snake-infested sandstone prow in the jungle’s of South America’s Roriama. It had been written by Ian McNaught Davis and illustrated by an E. Lovejoy Wolfinger the third (!).

joe-beige

But the article that really captured my imagination was Jim Bridwell’s Brave New World. Seven awesome pages recounting in detail the hardest new climbs in Yosemite. It was packed with spectacular images, Californian skies, smooth granite walls and even a list of the Valley’s hardest routes. I was 15 and loved lists. The photos of Nabisco Wall’s test-pieces, Waverly Wafer, Wheat Thin, Butterballs and Butterfingers, were nothing short of inspiring. The American grades meant little to me, although I knew that 5.11 was nails hard. There were even a couple of photos of local rock star, Rick White, seconding Outer Limits. The magazine had, in essence, everything an impressionable boy required to change the course of his life.

brave-new-world

Mountain magazine was born of the genius of Ken Wilson, a London architecture student and climber, who brought a whole new level of professional publishing design and layout to a market long accustomed to crappy standards. Mountain quickly became an international success, was published ten times a year and ran from 1969 to 1991. It really was the benchmark for all other climbing and mountaineering publications that followed.

eb-shoes

A few years back I donated all of my Mountain magazines to Simon Mentz for public use in the Natimuk cafe. The only one I couldn’t part with was Mountain 31. I still occasionally pick it up and flick through its black and white pages. Sure, it’s easy to laugh at the outdated advertising and bad fashions, but the truth is Mountain was like no other magazine. And for me Mountain 31 started it all.

* Tricounis are steel nails, once used on the bottom of leather-soled boots to provide better grip on smooth rock or ice. The story goes that the then owner of Bushgear (who mistakenly believed they were still in vogue) bought tens of thousands of them at a ‘great’ price from a European distributor. Of course they never sold a single one and legend has it that there are still sacks of tricounies gathering dust in an attic somewhere.

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El Chorro – Camino del Rey

El Chorro
El Chorro

I love travelling from place to place and it suits my propensity for boredom – doing one thing for too long. Having said that though, I am a homely creature in many ways and love to find a spot to settle in and call home even if for only a little while.  It’s a constant fight in my head really. So the opportunity to stay still for a little longer was appealing and El Chorro in Malaga was it! El Chorro is a small village in Andalusia, southern Spain. Being located next to the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes (“Gorge of the Gaitanes”)  means that rockclimbing is pretty high on the things to do list in the area. No denying that we were there to sample that but there were other delights of the area and the the Camino del Rey (being a climber helps)  was a definite for me. More on that later.

Gorge at El Chorro Camino del Rey
Gorge at El Chorro Camino del Rey

Granada, which houses the Alhambra (design obsession coming to the fore again) is two hours away so rather than stop and stay overnight there, we decided to do a day trip from El Chorro. Stay tuned for my Alhambra experience – look away if you don’t like architectural and archeological design! More of that in another blog post.

Railway bridge at El Chorro
Railway bridge at El Chorro

We had obviously timed it just right as the roads in the area had only just opened after being washed away from the floods over the past couple of days we were in the Costa Blanca. There were tell tale signs as we drove closer, of mud washed houses and deep ruttings in the olive plantations situated on the steep hillsides.  People had been working diligently in order to get these narrow roads open.  For many of the smaller villages in the area, these roads are vital.  I am glad we drove in whilst in was still light.  It allowed us to see the washed away and collapsed sides of the road.  This meant that we were at least aware of them when driving along them in the dark for the following week. Always important to know when the road is really only wide enough for one car. My girly protestations of not playing chicken with the other oncoming car were thankfully taken on board by Cam.

We stayed at La Finca La Campana which I have to say was a great choice. A choice of accommodation options is on offer, camping, bunkhouse etc but we chose one of the great little bungalows. I am an interior and design obsessed climber so whilst I am more than happy to just camp wherever there is a bed, I do love to stay where my eyes can feast on interesting details. So indulge me here for a moment. A cute and quaint little bungalow with Spanish and Moorish little design details, painted white stone and shuttered windows to lock out the hot midday sun. A private courtyard with wrought iron doors. Nothing fancy mind you – just a rustic moorish feel to the residence. Perfect for whipping up a quick meal after a day at the cliff, sipping on a Spanish red and planning the next day by spreading guidebooks across the hand hewn table. A pool with slackline about 10 metres away, a number of shared community recreation areas, bar, kitchen, small shop and regular visits of resident cats that will either give you the attention you want or leave you alone. I’m a cat person so loved sitting down with my glass of wine whilst attending to the needs of the finca’s cat population.

Cam being clever on the slackline
Cam being clever on the slackline

First morning saw us waking up to a sunrise fighting it’s way through the low lying mist. There was a lovely calmness about it and I just knew that we were going to have a great week. We chose to start off our climbing adventures in a nearby area that was home to a variety of climbs from 4a up to about 7a.  Once again, after a few quick warm-ups which were pretty unmemorable, we jumped on a couple of 5b+ and 6a’s. These were much more enjoyable but the sun was starting to develop it’s bite for the day so it was time to head off for less strenuous activity. When I say less strenuous, I don’t mean, chilling out on the lounger by the pool.  I mean climbing and walking along the Caminito de Rey. (the Kings little path).

Cam at the start of the Camino del Rey
Cam at the start of the Camino del Rey

This was  a path built along the gorge walls in 1905, that  gave access to a hydro-electric plant and took its name after an official visit by Alfonso X111 of Spain in 1921. In quite a dilapidated state, it was officially closed to the public in 2000 by removing some of the path access at the start. There are numerous reports that people have died on the walkway but from my research, whilst people have died, it hasn’t been because of the state of the walkway, or from it collapsing. More from human error such as a tyrolean traverse that went wrong.

Tracey crossing the start of ca
Tracey crossing the start of the Camino del Rey

Being a climber, and also someone who has no issue with heights, my experience would no doubt be different to someone who doesn’t climb much and who does feel nervous at heights. I am not going to go into too much detail about the complete access as that would be a complete blog in itself but basically, the first part is the sketchiest. You need to access it via a number of steel posts that stick out from the cliff.  There is a thin cable that has been installed so you can use it as a via ferrata of sorts. This first section does require you to hug the cliff face and take steps of about a metre apart to reach each steel post.  Once you have passed this section and up a number of stacked blocks you reach the walkway proper. As you can see by the photos, some sections of path are ‘solid’ whilst other bits are ‘holey’. Another missing section of path requires you to step long and reach long.

Cam crossing the void
Cam crossing the void

 

For long limbed ‘ape factor’ people like Cam, not a problem.  For short limbed normal people like myself it was reachy. Still not an issue for me though – I loved it.

Tracey over the void
Tracey over the void

As the day was hot, walking the path was a cool adventure. Both in terms of temperature and of awesome rating. For me, I would recommend doing it if you had the chance. From reports, it appears that the pathway will be rebuilt to make it safe and accessible for all. Inevitable I suppose, considering the interest in it, but no doubt the element of fear or adrenaline that people may experience in its current condition will be lessened.

Tracey on Camino del Rey
Tracey on Camino del Rey

For those interested in the history of this kind of infrastructure, it really is a great spot to visit. Walking along it and seeing the various little caves and tunnels that were used by the workers throws your mind back to the goings on of the time. And might I say, there are a couple of cool looking climbs you can access from there. Just a couple of grades out of my current reach though. Next time……

Boy, was I tired at the end of that day. One glass of red, plate of rice, beans and chorizo, a pat of the brutish but friendly beaten up tomcat that I named One Ear Malloy and the bed was calling my name. I collapsed. And I think there was a smile on my face.

Sunset at El Chorro
Sunset at El Chorro
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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….