Friday, October 31, 2014

Plans Made In Haste

After a couple of day walks in Grampians National Park our Canadian friends seemed anxious to be off on their bicycles again. Doug and I, who have never understood the appeal of cycle touring, were perplexed, but prepared to be supportive, although we had been looking forward to spending more than two days with them. Sitting around casually at dinner on what was supposed to be our last night together (coincidentally Doug's 51st birthday), we began discussing their cycle plans - which, at least to non-bicycle tourers, looked remarkably uninteresting (cycling through farmland to Wangaratta). One thing led to another, and, as we had been extolling the marvels of Australian sea kayaking for the last two days, plans suddenly changed rapidly and a potential sea kayak trip was on the agenda if it was possible to rent a double sea kayak in Victoria for R and M to paddle. 

Now, of course, the best course of action would have been to take a day to sort out such details as where and when a kayak could rented, how we would transport it, where we would paddle, and so forth. But, R is not the sort of person who likes "sitting about", while I am the type of person who is too much influenced by other people's emotions. Put these two together and who have a somewhat impetuous plan quickly conceived and just as quickly enacted. 

Next morning, R and M were up early and packed up ready to either begin cycling towards Wangaratta or begin driving towards a sea kayak rental destination. Feeling somewhat propelled along, Doug and I also packed up the caravan and we all drove into Halls Gap where we could get mobile reception. Sea kayaking is not a popular sport in Australia (despite the amazing coastline that is conducive to self-propelled sea adventures) so renting a double kayak in Victoria came down to one of two companies. The first was in Melbourne and, of course, offered many challenges, such as transporting three kayaks (our two singles and the rental double) through heavy traffic. The second was in Bairnsdale near Gippsland Lakes, and would prove logistically more simple, although the actual kayaking would be less interesting. Later, we would also discover that renting from Bairnsdale meant we got a much worse kayak for a much higher price. 

 Paddling in Corner Inlet

Neither company answered the telephone when we rang so we were forced to leave messages enquiring about kayak rentals. In hindsight, this is completely expected as both companies are relatively small and the owners could (were, in fact) be out guiding kayak tours (usually school groups) not sitting around the shop waiting for those telephone calls that never come. Again, I should reiterate that the smart thing to do would have been to spend the day planning a trip and awaiting a call back from both rental companies. This would have allowed much more rational decision making. Instead, however, we all somehow decided that we would go to Wilsons Promontory for a couple of days hiking and work out the kayak trip from there. Exactly how this was supposed to work, as I doubt we would have mobile reception at Wilsons Promontory, is not exactly clear to me in hindsight, but, at the time (and in haste) it seemed like a good idea. 

Doug and I had previously done sea kayak trips around both Gippsland Lakes and Corner Inlet and either of these seemed like a good destination for a sea kayak trip in Victoria. Corner Inlet, of course, offers more interesting paddling, but requires more careful planning as, despite all the islands available for overnight camp sites, the large tidal range combined with shallow water depths means that only some islands provide suitable landing sites. A kayak trip to Corner Inlet would involve renting not only a kayak but a trailer, and at least three trips into the heart of Melbourne to pick up the kayak at the beginning of the trip and drop it off at the end. Our caravan would need to be stored somewhere and, if we had windy conditions, the paddling would be more difficult for R and M. Gippsland Lakes, with smaller tides, and many well appointed campsites is a much easier trip to manage (particularly on short notice) but is much more developed and offers somewhat less exciting paddling. 

 Black Swans Corner Inlet

It was nearly noon by the time we got away on the (what turned out to be) long and somewhat harrowing drive towards Wilsons Promontory. R and M's bicycles and gear was stuffed into our caravan so that we could not access any food or drinks, so we were forced to visit a grocery store in some small town along the way to buy supplies for lunch which we barbequed at a nearby park. Driving through Melbourne was stressful, tedious and slow as we missed getting a toll-road (too much haste again) and had to sit through heavy afternoon traffic in the suburbs. We eventually, after getting lost a couple of times and having to visit yet another grocery store (we had rushed off so precipitously that we did not have much in the way of food), arrived at Lang Lang and a small, quiet campground where we had stayed two summers ago. It was late, we were all tired, and, as we barbequed a late dinner, another storm blew in and it began to rain. Hardly an auspicious start. 

The following morning, I cooked another breakfast for four people in our small caravan and called the Gippsland area kayak company getting hold of the owner, Brett, who told me I could rent a double kayak if I were to pick it up the next day between 10 am and noon. I had a poor mobile connection and feeling pressed, agreed to these conditions. We could have got a better kayak at a cheaper price from the Melbourne company, but, the thought of driving back into Melbourne, renting a trailer, and driving off towards Corner Inlet was all too much and the Gippsland kayak rental seemed the best option. Suddenly, Wilsons Promontory was off the agenda, and kayaking was on, in a hurry. 

 Soldier Crabs on the beach at Corner Inlet

We had another long drive from Lang Lang (which was out of our way now that we were not going to Wilsons Promontory) to Eagle Point (near Paynesville). Along the way we had to stop at Sale to buy seven days of groceries for the trip, which was relatively quick for Doug and I (who have done this many times before) but much slower for R and M who had not (at least for many years) and were unfamiliar with the lay-out of Australian grocery stores. Doug was kept busy trying to find a caravan park where we could camp for the night and launch from the next day as we could not transport three boats at one time.
Wearily, we arrived at King Lake Caravan Park (a rather strange establishment with mostly permanent holiday caravans but clean amenities, cheap prices and easy water access) at 3.30 pm for a late lunch. The afternoon was spent in a flurry of activity packing up all the gear one needs for a week of kayaking. It was another somewhat exhausting and somehow unsatisfying day. 

On Friday, Doug, R and M went into Bairnsdale to pick up the kayak (and buy some more items R and M thought they needed) while I shuttled loads down to the small beach and packed up our single kayaks. At around 11.30 am, I was happy to see our car returning with a large, heavy, beaten up, but at least functional double kayak on top. Packing an unfamiliar kayak, particularly when you are carrying seven days of food and water, takes some time, and the first pack of the double kayak was not all that efficient, but, by the next day, R had worked out an efficient method for storing all their gear and things thereafter went much faster and more smoothly. At 12. 45 pm, we launched the kayaks and began paddling. That, however, is the subject of another blog post.

Wandering In Wonderland And Lost On Abrupt

Two of our good friends from Nelson, BC, arrived in Australia in spring for a cycle tour and we were SO excited to be able to spend a little time with them. After arriving in Melbourne, they cycled west along coast roads and then north up to Dunkeld where we met them late one afternoon. We had a couple of days to spend with them walking in the Grampians before they continued cycling east to Wangaretta and eventually on to Tasmania. 

Our first hike was up Mount Abrupt, which should take an hour or two return, but which we managed to spread over quite a few hours as 3/4 of the party managed to get lost! Floods in 2010 washed out much of the track and it has been rerouted slightly south of the original location. A good track switchbacks up under the cliffs of Mount Abrupt and we were strolling along chatting when we came to a very prominent switchback marked with three yellow arrows. I took the switchback to the south and shortly thereafter arrived on the ridge north of Mount Abrupt where I stopped in the sun to wait for the other three, who never came. 
 R and M on top of Mount Abrupt
After waiting five minutes, in some perplexity, I jogged back down the track to the prominent switch and walked a short distance north under an overhanging cave before thinking "this is so overgrown and obviously not a track they would not come this way." I turned back, walked a short distance back up the main track, rethought the whole affair, came back to the switchback and jogged along a faint trail into a saddle south of Signal Peak hollering at the top of my voice. The faint track branched somewhere in the saddle and I decided to turn back yet again in case by some remarkable feat of levitation or translocation, Doug, Roland and Murielle had actually passed by me on the main track. 

Yellow arrows might be hard to miss
Back on the ridge, there was still no sign of anyone so I decided to hike up Mount Abrupt thinking that, at some point, all three would realise something had gone wrong and would turn back. I topped out on Mount Abrupt, but did not stay long as it was windy, cold, and I was still wondering where everyone was. Hiking back along the track I ran through various possible search methods in my mind, but, luckily, did not have to initiate any as a short distance above the spot where I had initially waited I came upon a much chagrined Roland and Murielle. Doug, apparently, had sprinted down to the vehicle to see if I was there, but, technology allowed us to call his mobile telephone and he quickly turned around and came back meeting us on the summit just 40 minutes after leaving the vehicle. There was much consternation about how three people had missed three big yellow signs. 

View from The Pinnacle

Next day, Doug planned a circuit walk that would take us through the popular Wonderland Range. The track out of the Wonderland parking lot is pretty jammed with walkers but travels up an interesting little rock canyon, grandiloquently called "Grand Canyon" to a narrower slot canyon (Silent Street) and soon out onto the rock shelves of The Pinnacle. There is a fenced lookout on The Pinnacle and you can look out to the flat land to the east as well as north and south along the range. We continued south past the Garden of the Grampians to a management tracked. We took the management track down steeply to an old "closed" track (supposedly for flood damage although there is none evident). Half a kilometre of bushy track led to Turret Falls, a thin stream of water over a short cliff, where we rejoined a good (open) track that led quickly back to the Wonderland parking lot.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Climbing Lessons

I am not by any means a great climber, it would probably be even a stretch to say I am a good climber. When I am climbing my best, I can lead straight forward 5.10a's or, occasionally, if I know the route 5.10b (19/20) clip-ups. On gear, I'm struggling to lead 5.8 (16) with any degree of confidence. Climbing, particularly on gear, is such a mental game, and I frequently (especially on gear routes) freak myself out worrying about whether I'll get gear, whether I'll be too pumped to place it, and, of course, whether it will actually hold if I fall on it. 

Today was one of those days when you psyche yourself out the first lead of the day and never really get your mojo back. Happens to all climbers, at all grades, drives all climbers crazy, but, in the end, you have to learn something from it and move on. 

I certainly learnt a few things today. First, if you look at the climb and think it will be hard, it will feel hard, no matter what. Much better to look at the climb, think the moves through, work out where you will rest, where you will place gear, where you will move on through, and then set off with confidence. 

Second, don't overprotect. I tend to do this on gear climbs when I am feeling sketched out. Sometimes, I look down and see that the double length draw from my last piece reaches down to my second last piece. Sure, you need the confidence of a piece of gear to make a hard move, but, at some point, over-protecting just saps your strength and makes you even more doubtful about your ability to lead the climb. 

Stay calm, breathe deep, shake out, and go for it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Climbing At The Organ Pipes, Stereotypes

So, guy pulls into Lake Natimuk Caravan Park in low slung black utility vehicle with motorbike on the back and, while he sets camouflage tent (!), immediately starts blasting the throbbing beat of some noxious music, spoiling the otherwise peaceful surroundings. It is impossible to give up stereotypes when people keep reinforcing them.

 Doug way up there on Piccolo

Doug's pick today and we went to the Organ Pipes, which, according to our guidebook, is one of the busiest areas at Arapiles. We were lucky, I guess. One other party of two older Kiwis (Kiwi's are always tough - another stereotype) showing solid form climbing 18's - who nipped off for morning tea around 11.00 am, and a guided party of three (how come guides here don't use autoblocks and belay two seconds at once?) on Diapason. 

Doug topping out on Piccolo

Doug started out the day leading Piccolo**, a very aesthetic route up a narrow "pipe." This was good value even for an Arapiles 11 with some very thin moves at the crux and fiddly, widely spaced gear. After that, we moved over to D Major**, the second pitch is a real corker. I was a bit nervous leading the first pitch (only a 9) after the thin moves on Piccolo, but the climbing was easy, the gear good, and I finished up through the hole under the big boulder. Doug led the money pitch which has tremendous exposure up a steep airy rib. 

 Doug popping out of the tunnel on pitch one of D Major

After lunch, in the shade (first time for that since we arrived), Doug led Hornpiece***, 13, which takes another aesthetic line up another pipe and has a steep, somewhat intimidating crux at the end. Again, the gear was a bit fiddly and not always consistently available. Doug did a fine job looking solid and working out the moves. There is a rappel descent from Hornpiece (!) which meant we didn't have to carry up shoes or do some exposed downclimb. 

The airy crux moves on Hornpiece

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Holding Steady

A while ago I was lamenting the catabolic effects of being endlessly on the road and generally whining about how hard it is to maintain certain health maintenance activities. I guess I got kinda fed up with not feeling my best and came up with a strategy which I can maintain while travelling, climbing, kayaking, and doing all the other things we do as we travel about Australia. 

It's pretty simple: I eat real food, I walk an hour in the morning and an hour at night, and I do three body weight workouts a week which are (right now) 15 minutes long. Written out, it sounds kinda pathetic - definitely not badass - especially in these days of 100 km ultra-runs. But, when you add it all up, in addition to whatever I am doing that day (climbing, kayaking), I am engaged in some form of exercise (or more importantly not sitting) for about three hours a day. 


As I was wandering along the track last night in incipient darkness with a blustery wind blowing, I was thinking that, contrary to my previous whining, I am actually holding my own pretty well. I can hike uphill at 600 metres an hour, lead rock climbs at about the same level as I led at back in Canada when I thought (was) in far better rock climbing shape (maybe that doesn't say much for how well I was climbing back in the Great White North), do pushups, pullups, and ankles to bar (haven't got that front lever). Given that my goal is to be a reasonably functional human, not run an ultramarathon or lift more weight than Sly Stallone, perhaps I am not doing as poorly as I originally thought.

Tiptoe Ridge, Bushranger Bluff

We are back at Mount Arapiles after an 11 day house-sit at a lovely little hobby farm at Jindera in NSW. Met two wonderful people and had a fun time looking after a range of animals, including a couple of poddy calves who were hand fed twice a day. Fritz, the dachshund was the cutest dog, but not the sort of dog you could take on a long walk - a combination of extraordinarily short legs and being 14 years old. 

I've neglected my blog of late as I've been too busy to sit down and write. Furthermore, I doubt this post will win any awards for witty, compelling or even moderately interesting writing. Our first day back at Mount Arapiles it was disappointingly cold and windy. Victoria is a windy state, and, at least in spring, the temperature yaws up and down like a storm tossed boat. Today, it was barely 11 Celsius with a gusty wind when we set out to climb, but, by the weekend, it will be 30 Celsius and climbing in the sun will be impossible.

I was up for the pick today (we alternate picks) and, initially, I had wanted to climb Xena (four pitches, grade 10) on The Pinnacle Face, but, I also thought that if Tiptoe Ridge - which the guidebook calls "an absolute must do" had no parties on it, I thought I might pick that instead. Tiptoe Ridge, at grade 5, is ranked as the best route at the grade in Austalia - who can resist - but frequently has multiple parties (some quite slow) strung along the route. School holidays, however, are over, the weekend has not yet arrived, and Arapiles was back to being pleasantly quiet. In other words, no-one was on Tiptoe Ridge.

The first pitch is an easy (the whole route is easy) amble up a buttress. We simul-climbed with running belays the first pitch and a half up to a good ledge with a bomber thread belay just below the summit pinnacle. It was windy and cold, and, arriving at the belay, I thought we might pitch out the last steep exposed half pitch to the summit which the guidebook says is "not well protected." Doug led this pitch and it turns out the protection was quite adequate. We opted to rappel off the pinnacle into the gap as the downclimb was very steep. For a rappel anchor, you simply sling the summit pinnacle. We made sure the rope was not too far down the pinnacle and that it pulled easily before the last person rappelled down. There are two more easy pitches, which, in hind sight, we could have easily simul-climbed, but, from below they looked very steep. Of course, this is Mount Arapiles, and, although the climbing was steep, the rock was also liberally sprinkled with jugs and good protection placements. 

It was only 1.00 pm when we finished so we had a chilly lunch down at the car, and drove off to climb a rappel-in route from the summit, but, driving past Bushranger Bluff parking area there were no cars, so no climbers. This just never happens at Arapiles as Bushranger Bluff is a favourite haunt of top-ropers and climbing schools and is generally festooned with dozens of top-ropes and inexperienced climbers falling their way up. Taking advantage of the lull, we changed plans (again) and walked to the sunny side where we were pleasantly sheltered from the wind and even had some sun. It felt great to be warm for the first time. I led a couple of steep but fun 7's and Doug led his first 14 - a very steep and pumpy route with a slick start. The routes at Bushranger Bluff are incredibly good. I've done all but one climb on the sunny side, and a half dozen on the shady side and all are high quality. The only down side is that the routes on the sunny side are too short.

So, there are no photos to accompany this post as I didn't take a single picture today, despite having my camera with me (it's hard to get anything but a butt shot anyway). Finally, a note on grades. According to the YDS to Ewbank conversion chart we were climbing between class 4 and 5.7. In actuality, we were probably climbing between about 5.9 and 5.3. The conversion scale is off, but, the grading is (as I've said before) consistent, although the discrepancy in grades seems to get smaller as you move up in the Ewbank grades. As usual, solid rock, great protection. Now if the bloody wind would just stop.

Monday, October 6, 2014

To Bolt Or Not To Climb

Since we've been rock climbing at Mount Arapiles, I have, naturally enough, been thinking more about rock climbing, particularly the somewhat sad state of rock climbing in Australia. Coincidentally, back in Canada, the festering bolt wars resurfaced to a small degree with the recent (unsanctioned) addition of a bolted cable leading down the second class ledge into Mulvey Basin (widely hailed as "dumbing down" the mountain environment). In a related but strangely non-controversial incident an anonymous individual bolted four rappel stations on the class three route up the Copilot near Squamish claiming that it was a "5th class rock climb," presumably implying that all fifth class rock climbs (even the ones that are really third class) require rappel anchors.

But what does bolting rappel anchors on scrambling terrain in the alpine in Canada have to do with climbing in Australia? Well, in both cases, relatively easy routes were made much, much easier by the addition of some hardware that will undoubtedly increase traffic in those newly bolted areas by lowering the standard of skill required to safely navigate the terrain. And traffic, measured by climber participation is exactly what Australia does not have. I don't have hard data, I suspect no-one has hard data, but, as a proportion of the population I am convinced that rock climbing is much less popular in Australia than it is in North America. You can rock up (pun intended) to any one of the most popular climbing areas in Australia (as we have done) mid-week and the place will be deserted. Come the weekend, a few people will arrive, more if you are closer to a large urban area, but not many, and the climbs will be a long, long way from crowded.

In Europe, where via ferratas, mechanized access (e.g. the funicular), and safety bolting is much more prolific so is the participation in climbing activities. As retro-bolting, upgrading of routes, rappel bolts, and other safety improvements become more widespread and accepted in North America, so has the popularity of climbing increased. When I started climbing over two decades ago, sport climbing did not exist, long run-outs on easy (even hard) routes were the norm, and consequently learning to climb was difficult indeed and required a degree of tenacity that not many folks possessed. Now, if you want to learn to climb, you can take any of a number of courses, join a climbing gym, hook up with (hopefully) more experienced folk via social media, and safely and happily begin clipping bolts at any one of the number of excellently equipped sport climbing crags spread widely throughout the country (unless you happen to live in Australia, of course). 

 Doug on the stunning corner pitch of Siren

I've always thought I knew roughly where I stood on the bolting debate. Don't bolt cracks that take good gear, but, do bolt the run-outs in between cracks to a standard whereby a climber leading at their grade is reasonably safe from death falls (even if the route is only 5.6/Ewbank 13), bolt belays on multi-pitch climbs only when gear belays are unsafe, unreasonable (e.g. in the line of rock fall), the route is very popular or the descent involves rappelling the route. Install proper anchor bolts at the top of popular climbs at popular crags - there really is little point in every climber building a gear belay on every 5.10 (Ewbank 18) clip-up at the local crag.

The bolting that we've seen recently in Western Canada where easy (under class 4) routes were bolted by unknown "climbers" is harder to judge. I've always thought that, at some point, a certain level of competence is required in the mountains and, if you don't have that level of competence you should either lower your objectives or raise your skill However, if you extend this same argument into technical terrain run-outs on easy (say 5.8 and under) terrain would largely remain unbolted and consequently unclimbed.

My "rules" for bolting made a lot of sense to me, until I thought about what people actually do in practice. Consider the mixed climb, where you bolt the run-outs between cracks, which sounds like a really good idea, but, in practice doesn't work all that well, at least on single pitch climbs. For years there were a couple of Davey Jones' routes at Skaha (5.8) that were incredibly popular (most of Davey's routes are good), but which required the placement of a couple of pieces of gear on each route because Davey (at the time) did not bolt protectable cracks. But Skaha is a predominantly a sport climbing area (although there are some good gear climbs) so people always climbed these routes with just a handful of draws thus having a couple of long run-outs. Eventually, succumbing to popular pressure, but not perhaps not logic (a couple of chocks or cams covered the run-outs) a couple of extra bolts were placed to make the routes true sport climbs. On the one hand, it can be a pain to lug a full rack up a short climb simply to place one or two pieces of gear, but, it is easy enough in the guidebook description to specify which pieces of gear you need. There is a place for mixed routes, they are a good stepping stone for sport climbers moving into trad climbing, but that place in modern climbing is quickly becoming lost.

Need protection, place gear

A few years ago, Doug and I developed a little climbing area near our home town of Nelson, BC, that instantly became incredibly popular because the routes were all under 5.10b (although one route was recently upgraded to a 10c from a 10a in the new guidebook). In total, we put up about 16 new routes, half of which were gear climbs (a couple were mixed climbs). I think I was proudest of the gear climbs because easy to moderate trad climbs are hard to come by in the Kootenays. and it is hard to get into alpine climbing - where you must place gear - if you can't practice on smaller climbs first. The crag we developed in the Kootenays was sorely needed when I learned to climb all those years ago. While it was gratifying to see so many people enjoying the climbs we'd put up, it was also dismaying to discover how few people climbed the gear routes. Trad climbing is getting lost as much as mixed routes.

Again, I guess you are wondering what all this has to do with climbing in Australia where bolts are not well accepted at all and the ethic that "real climbers suck it up (long run-outs)" still prevails. Well, these attitudes contribute directly to the low level of participation in rock climbing among the general populace. Australia is where Canada was 20 or 30 years ago, when sport climbs were virtually unknown (or only really hard routes had bolts) and climbing was not very accessible to the general public because the risk of serious injury or death was, for most, unacceptably high. So, maybe there is a reasonable argument for bolting easy routes, reducing run-outs, and making climbing just generally more accessible. 

 Clean solid rock, great gear

I'd be all for bolting some easy routes in Australia as long as the top-anchors were put in a position whereby climbers had to lead the route to use the anchor. One of the really bizarre, and frankly irritating, things about Australian climbing is that routes are not well set-up for leading (long run-outs, dodgy carrot bolts, poor to non-existent protection, high possibility of ground falls), but, instead of fixing the route by slapping in a few ring bolts and making it amenable to leading, the answer seems to be to whack in a dodgy top anchor way back from the top of the climb so that people can top-rope the route. There is nothing inherently wrong with top-roping but real climbing is about leading.

Which finally brings me full circle back to Mount Arapiles, arguably Australia's most popular climbing area which, strangely enough, just isn't that busy. I'm not sure whether that is because there are virtually no clip-ups at Arapiles or because poor crag/route development has stymied the growth of rock climbing as a sport. Ironically, Mount Arapiles is actually one of the safest areas I've climbed because the rock is so solid and the gear placements so plentiful.