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Lost in Barbados An Australian Adventure - Roofs and Sea Stacks

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Cautiously climbing into unknown near horizontal territory, tensing every muscle to stay close to the wildly overhung rock, I stretched barely reach a chalk daub... “Damn!” it was a bad sloper. I retraced my movements to my last restful stance. Jamming my knees into the rock and letting my head hang down towards the ground, like a bat in its lair. I hung like this for a long time, trying to shake the lactic acid out of my arms. I had no idea where my next piece of protection would be – there were no cracks or obvious places to put gear, just pockets in a near horizontal roof... Ah, welcome to the Grampians!

The Grampians – a low range of gum tree covered mountains, rising out of the flat plains of Victoria, Australia, littered with outcrops of bullet hard orange sandstone. Offering a variety of fantastic climbing, from amazing sport routes, endless boulders, single and multi-pitch trad test pieces and limitless potential. Coming from NZ, Australia is practically my backyard and Arapiles feels like home. The location of my first-ever climbing trip and my most frustrating challenge – “Punks in the Gym”, the first 8b+ in the world! I finally completed the first female ascent in October 2012, when Ben Rueck selflessly came to support me. Yet, although Arapiles is only 40 minutes from the Grampians, we barely climbed there... This time Ben and I were focused on the Grampians. Our objectives ranged from super-famous iconic routes, to remote and relatively unknown test pieces, including several of the unique roof climbs protected only by traditional gear.
Taipan Wall
On arriving, we found the campsite closed and drove around aimlessly, so lost and jet-lagged, eventually finding a free-camping site, secluded in a grove of gum trees – home for the next three weeks. We awoke every morning to screeching cockatoos, fought off monster ants who were not afraid even though a hundredth of our size, and dodged stumpy tailed lizards sunning themselves on the red earth roads. On the maze of red dirt roads leading through the Grampians kangaroos and wallabies bounced unpredictably around our small rental car.

The Taipan Wall is impressive and intimidating – this orange and black streaked wall has been sculpted by thousands of years of weather, forming striking runnels, pockets and edges. The climbing is convoluted, runout and often simply terrifying, it took a while to relax with metres of slack rope trailing away below our harnesses. We climbed many of the classic routes on Taipan, including “Serpentine”, a proud line weaving its way up the centre of the wall and found many hard projects to return for.

Welcome to Barbados, Grampians
Disappointed to see there was no trail, Ben and I shouldered our packs with a sigh and trudged into the charred remains of forest, in the general direction a cave on the hilltop. After at least an hour spent fighting through burnt trees and mazes of boulders we struggled up one last steep hill, to find ourselves suddenly standing inside the huge red cave. Stumbling around in awe, we tried to decipher the line “Welcome to Barbados”. This epic 50 metre route only gains 15 metres vertically and has no bolts or fixed gear! Our only information was the first ascentionist’s gear list. Impressively, Malcolm Matherson, a local legend with greying hair and an impressive mustache, protected the whole roof by stacking wires into the pockets – barely using camming devices at all. Not having these wires, or knowing how to stack them, made the list relatively worthless...

Taking a deep breath, I committed fully, nearly five metres of rope sagged horizontally between my harness and the last protection and the weight of gear pulled me from the rock. Pushing fear from my mind, I kept moving between the small pockets, desperately trying to find somewhere to place... With strength quickly draining from my arms, I finally wiggled two cams into pockets – they were far from ideal, however, there were no other options. I had to trust them!

Trying to calm my breathing and shake some blood back into my rock-solid forearms, I studied the next section of rock. Finally, discovering the route angled downwards, I threw to my maximum reach and was surprised to find myself spreadeagled, yet still in contact with the rock. However, while trying to match hands, my arms gave out and with a terrified squeak I found myself swinging far below those average placements... Fear dissipated into laughter as I realised that somehow those cams, half jammed into pockets, had held!

From then on the journey across this epic roof became fun, rather than a terrifying ordeal. Over an hour after leaving the ground, I finally pulled my tired body through a bright hole on the far side of the cave. Stepping out into the golden late afternoon sunshine, felt incredible – a rush of relief and satisfaction flowed over me, like finally escaping the monster’s lair after an epic battle. Sighing with relief, I pulled off my shoes and enjoyed the view, before scrambling down to join Ben on the floor of the cave. Relaxing, we nibbled dates while discussing the route – exact handholds, foot placements and resting positions. Less than 30 minutes later I was climbing again, weaving my way through the now familiar terrain. Executing the movements efficiently to survive the 50 metres of near horizontal climbing. Everything flowed perfectly and my exhausted body kept functioning until, with a cry of relief, I dragged myself through that hole for the second time!

Keen to sample the climbing, Ben quickly pulled his shoes on and with me shouting running beta, he valiantly fought his way through this epic test piece. Succeeding to conquer the mighty beast on his first attempt. It was amazing to watch him execute movements perfectly and control his fear of the huge runouts. With a disbelief and delight, Ben pulled through the excite hole in the last rays of light. Ecstatic, we packed up and stumbled back down through the burnt forest in the quickly advancing darkness. Arriving at the car, well into the night, filthy, tired and famished, yet unbelievably happy! It was a truly wonderful day... One of the few where both Ben and I had exceeded all of our expectations!

Kachoong, Arapiles
Kachoong, a “quintessential roof climb” was a cutting-edge route when first climbed in 1977, before belay devices or camalots had been invented. Glenn Tempest climbed the five metre roof with a waist belay and one hex placed at the very start of the roof. A fall would have resulted in a horrific crash into the face below. Luckily Glenn did not fall!

When Ben first arrived at Arapiles, on our previous trip, he was surprised as I pulled natural protection out of my backpack – fully expecting it to be a sport climbing destination... Kachoong was his first route, and Ben, having never lead a roof on natural gear before, was a little intimidated. However, after hesitating on the initial face, he campused easily out the huge flake system. On a hot afternoon we decided to return to Arapiles, to re-climb Kachoong and visit my old nemesis. Kachoong was the prefect addition to our roof trio and pure fun!
Passport to Insanity
Passport to Insanity is a perfect splitter crack on an atmospheric tower, located high in the Grampians. The crux is the exposed second pitch, a ten metre “more-than-horizontal” roof, which I have wanted to climb since first seeing a photo this stunning line. However, the weather became terribly unpredictable and stormy... Never good enough to head out to Passport, until the last day arrived.

We woke early to a beautiful day with high hopes. Yet, while driving south cloud rolled in, gradually thickening, till it obscured everything and crushed our hopes. Dejectedly, we pulled on our jackets and began hiking upwards. Soon enveloped in mist so heavy it was practically rain. Yet, lowering our heads, we kept trudging upwards. After two strenuous hours hike, we saw “the fortress” ominously looming in the mist above... We huddled peering up at the huge intimidating roof, filled with dread. We waited, desperately hoping that the clouds would lift. Motivation draining out of our bodies, almost as quickly as our warmth had.

Eventually, the cloud began to lift and the occasional ray of sun penetrated the clouds. Relieved to move we climbed the first pitch and were soon hanging directly below the roof. Clipping a few camalots to my harness, I paused peering out behind me, stunned that the lip was more than a metre lower below me. Summoning up my courage I jammed my hands into the crack, inching out the roof. Unfortunately, soon I was dangling on the rope, having misread my sequence. Instantly, my dream of on-sighting this famous route evaporated; yet instead of disappointment, I felt relief... At least it was dry enough to climb! I swung my feet around and climbed down to the lip of the roof. Suspended on this inverted fin of rock, staring straight out onto the expansive flat desert of Australia, I suddenly felt an intense sense of exposure. Breathing deeply, I tried to relax and enjoy this wild position, before summoning my energy to pull around the lip.

I lowered back to the belay and fired the pitch next shot – our roof trilogy was complete! Ecstatic we had succeeded to climb this route, despite terrible weather and very thankful of those last rays of sun. Now, it was time to pack our gear for the next adventure...

Totem Pole
Wind was tearing at my clothing, threatening to blow me off the rock face. Precariously poised the top of the Totem Pole, I waited, hoping the strong gusts would ease before committing to tenuous moves ahead. Finally in a fleeting moment of calm, I sprung into action, executing the delicate and technical sequence I had planned. Reaching to a small crimp, I smeared on a barely existent foothold, pressed hard and not daring to think, threw to a feature – desperately hoping for a good hold. My foot held and I stuck the hold, clipping the bolt with a sigh of relief.

The wild southern coast of Tasmania is both stunning and terribly intimidating. On arriving we walked into a local climbing shop to buy a guidebook. Where the shop attendant kindly informed us that Tasmania lies in the “roaring forties”, meaning that the weather is totally unpredictable and the forecast basically useless. “Great!” Our final objective was the Totem Pole, a stunning sea stack, located at the end of a long exposed peninsular with vertical walls dropping hundreds of metres into the unforgiving Tasman Sea. A climber’s dream aside from the terrible weather and difficulty of access – several hours of hiking, with 1,276 steps. (Yes, on our last trip out to the “Tote” Ben actually counted every step!) On the edge of the precipice, we finally caught a glimpse of our objective – a terrifyingly slender pinnacle rising out of the sea, so thin that on this stormy day one could see it shaking as waves hit the base.

On reaching a small terrace opposite the jutting spire, the adventures really began! I threw a rope over the edge and abseiled down into the depths, crashing waves dominating my world. Seaweed growing from the cliff faces like horizontal trees being blown around by a hurricane, huge pale jellyfish being swept against the rocks by the sea with their long pink tentacles trailing out behind and the occasional bark of a sea lion lounging on the rocks not far away! Icy winds cut through my jacket as I swung onto a small ledge just above the water line and I cowered with sea spray rising over my head every time a large wave hit, feeling small and insignificant in contrast to the the ocean’s massive power.

Ben dropped onto the ledge next to me, bursting with excitement, thriving on the power of the elements. Quickly pulling on his rock shoes, he proceeded to bounce over to the base of the Totem Pole – a good five metres of barnacle covered rocks and crashing waves separated us from the route. Several times he missed and swung back, crashing violently into the wall next to me. Finally, with a shout of delight he stuck the hold and quickly clipping his lead line through the bolt, he released the other rope, we were committed to the tower now! Ben proceeded to inch his way upwards, delicately moving over the rock, wet and slippery from sea spray.

Working his way up the pitch, Ben quickly deciphered the sequence and soon pulled onto a ledge halfway up the tower. “Oh yeah! Off belay!” came his shout over the crashing waves. Shaking life into my cold limbs, I pulled on my rock shoes and gingerly lowered myself out over the void... Dangerously close to the raging ocean now! Thankfully I made it to the other side, without a soaking and proceeded to climb hastily, keen to put some distance between myself and the waves! Glad for the rope above me, as the rock was soaked from sea-spray and my muscles felt cold, stiff and unwilling to function. As I pulled onto the ledge to join Ben, the wind hit me full force, tearing at us as it funnelled through this channel. We huddled against the wall for a few brief seconds while rearranging our gear... Then I braved the wind and headed up the beautiful exposed arête.

The climbing was stunning, a sequence of small holds weaving its way around the arête and face, creating an intriguing, thought provoking route. As our friendly shop assistant had said, the weather had been entirely unpredictable, on this day there had been squalls of rain passing every few hours. The rock was still partially wet, the wind was tearing at my clothing, and occasionally I could feel the slender pillar Ben and I were suspended on shake when an especially big wave hit.

Pulling over the top of the “Tote” was both fantastic and terrifying... There was no flat ledge, simply a slopping boulder perched on top of the tower – it was cleaved in two by a crack and neither piece attached to the tower itself in any way. While in Tasmania Ben and I climbed several sea stacks/towers, however, none compared to the “Tote”, in beauty, atmosphere or quality of climbing. It was the perfect end to a successful adventure in Australia.