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Climbing (and cricket) at Mt Arapiles


Submitted by smallclimber on 2010-02-06 | Last Modified on 2010-02-08

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by smallclimber


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Venue

Mount Arapiles in North Western Victoria, Australia is rightly considered one of the southern hemispheres premier rock climbing destinations. The state park is about 35km from the market town of Horsham and 8km from the tiny village of Natimuk (pop = 500) and an easy 3.5 hour drive from Melbourne. The surrounding flat Wimmera Plains consisting of unending wheat fields, small homesteads, and empty lakes could not be less indicative of the incredible climbing to be found in this isolated rock mass. With your back to the mountain you simply would not believe that it was there. To be honest even when facing the rock it’s a bit surreal to see such a rock mass rising from nowhere.

Facilities

There is a beautiful campground in the state park, called the Pines, offering shady sites for a nominal fee, toilets and bore water. The campground is right at the base of the rock giving minimal approaches and hence allowing for vehicle-free living (once you get there). However international airline baggage weight restrictions (and impending middle age) meant that camping is not an option for us and hence an alternative was required. The only downside of Arapiles remote location is perhaps the lack of alternate accommodation and eating options if you do not want to drive to Horsham on a daily basis. The village of Natimuk boasts a milk bar (a tiny general store), a post office, a climbing shop and three art/craft shops. Important to ensure a good quota of art shops in any village of 500 inhabitents... Happily for us there is also a hotel offering accommodation. But in Australia a “hotel” is a bar, not a hotel as in a Sheraton or a Hilton so we were unclear what exactly our accommodation would comprise. It turned out the “hotel” had five caravans in their back yard each with a bedroom, bathroom and a small kitchen unit which proved prefect for our weeks stay and allowed us to make some of our own meals (nearest supermarket in Horsham). While Natimuk has seen better days (two banks, a second hotel, the court house and railway station have long since closed and been converted to private residences) it retains considerable charm and a strong sense of community, with active bowling, gymnastics, football (Aussie rules) and cricket clubs, an old folks home and at least five churches. The milk bar did basic take-away food in the early evening, the hotel serves remarkably good food (like kangaroo steak!) five evenings a week and, more importantly, beer all evenings of the week. Really, what more could anyone want from a town?

The Climbing

Mount Arapiles is formed from hard quartzite rock which is strong, and offers high friction and mostly excellent protection. The grading system in Australia is pretty simple ranging from grade 1 (a steep hiking track) to grade 35 (currently hardest known climb down under). While technically we should be able to climb in the 15-16 range (5.7-5.8), our plan is to enjoy some of the longer easier multi-pitch routes in the 11-13 range. Lower grade climbers are well catered for at Arapiles with many three star routes ascending to the summit, some of which are barely more than a scramble. However the exposure, route finding, occasional technical sections on the descents and potentially extreme weather (see later) mean that beginners would be well advised to start within their level.

Day 1

We climbed at Arapiles four years ago, during a two day trip. On our first day we had negotiated Bard (12) without incident, however on the second day a violent mid-summer thunder storm caught my partner on the first pitch of Muldoon (13) necessitating retreat from a gear anchor. As such a major objective for our first day was to retrieve our gear and hopefully complete the climb, which we had not had time to get back to previously. We wake up to clear skies and warm temperatures and as there are still a couple of weeks before Christmas everywhere seems pretty quiet. The warm up climb is Piccolo (11) in the Organ Pipes area, a nice easy and well protected route up a thin rib which Cam leads.

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The narrow ridge of Piccolo (11)

The narrow ridge of Piccolo (11)

We then move over to Horn Piece (13) which gives similar though slightly harder climbing. After lunch (very good sandwiches from the milk bar) we move over to The Atridae area to exact our revenge on Muldoon. Unfortunately there is a group already at the first belay and after observing a 30 minute changeover session we realize it might be wise not to get too close, so we decide to “run up” Clytemnaestra Buttress (9) while we are waiting. Despite the lowly grade it turns out there is no “running up” this climb due to an almost show stopper move at an overhand half way up, sort of reminiscent of reaching the traverse on Beginners Delight in the Gunks and thinking, “So where exactly is the 5.3 version?” We fail to see the rap anchors at the top of the column requiring us to undertake an equally interesting descent (from which we were able to spot the anchors for later use). Once we are down Muldoon is free so I rack up to lead the first pitch.

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Bottom of Muldoon (13)

Bottom of Muldoon (13)

This is a truly amazing pitch with the crux move being a step around and up to the left after negotiating a stemming gully to start. At the crux I tentatively edge left, I can see the hold but can’t reach it. Step back, breath and step out again, left foot finds a hold which gets me higher but I still can’t reach with a static move (and I don’t do dynamic on lead!). Step back, breath, reassure belayer and move again. Try right foot up this time, and yes I am on the hold, hesitate for a moment as another move will take me to the point of no return, breath and move. Fantastic! I am so psyched that I actually traverse too far after the crux and have to back track before going up to complete the first pitch. But can you believe it – our gear anchor from 4 years ago is not there! Bloody hell, but that what can you expect from a nationality descended from convicts? Just as well it was only a couple of nuts. Cam leads the second pitch and as we only have one rope we move over to Clytemnaestra Buttress to rap. It’s now 3:30 in the afternoon and the temperature is 34oC, jet lag is kicking in and we are almost out of water so we decide to head back to the caravan for an early night.

Day 2

The temperature is predicted to reach 38oC today so we get going early and chose Pheonix (11), a three pitch route on Tiger Wall in partial shade which climbs a chimney/corner requiring a range of moves to reach the top. The climb finishes on Flinders Lane – abroad ledge about half way up the rock. We find a shady cave for lunch and consider going to the summit on a second route. However this would be in full sun and it seems finding a route lower down in the shade may be more sensible. The descent from Flinders lane requires climbers to squirm through a small cave (Ali Baba’s cave) and then descend a third/forth class scramble equipped with via Ferrata type chains.

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Descending through Ali Baba's Cave

Descending through Ali Baba's Cave

By the time we reach the bags it’s so hot that even a climb in the shade is out of the question and we decide to wait til evening to venture out again. After sitting out the afternoon we return at 5.00pm to Mitre rock, a lone outcrop situated a mile north of the main rock, with a number of easier routes on. The rock overlooks Mitre Lake – a salt lake containing more salt than lake.

The temperature is still above 38oC and although Archbishop (11) is in the shade the heat is quite debilitating and we call it quits after the one route. Tomorrow is predicted to be even hotter...

Day 3 – Partial rest day

Temperatures are expected to reach 40oC today, and the day has been declared a total fire ban day, which includes camp stoves. Learning from the day before we plan an early start and a single shady climb, Kestral (13) and will use the rest of the day as a rest day. Kestral is also on Tiger wall and takes an interesting chimney/corner similar to Pheonix but with harder moves. We split it into two pitches to allow us to remain in the shade for longer, and (as we don’t have two ropes for rappel) a full rope length scramble to reach Flinders Lane is required. By the time we descend, retrieve our bags and reach the car the temperature is 42oC and the rest afternoon is well justified.

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Too hot to climb...

Too hot to climb...

Later that day a climber was evacuated by helicopter from a low grade climb suffering dehydration and heat stroke requiring an overnight hospital stay.

Our guide book recommends taking a swim in Lake Natimuk for a rest day activity so after lunch we take a drive, only to find the lake dry, an old wooden jetty hovering two meters above the grass, and a horse riding track installed in the lake. Turns out there has been no water in the lake for 15 years! Disappointed we return to the caravan and spend the afternoon watching cricket instead.

Cricket

This bit has nothing to do with climbing but is included for educational purposes, anyone planning a trip to Australia is advised to read up on this topic to allow for some interactive conversation with the locals... Cricket is a game invented by the English, played between two teams, be they schools, towns, counties, states or countries. The American game it most resembles (though not very much) is baseball, in that one team bats and one team bowls and when all the batters are out (by being bowled, caught or run out), it’s the end of the innings and the teams swap. A game of cricket lasts for upto five days. At the end of this time the result is usually declared to be a draw, even though in many circumstances it’s blindingly obvious that one team is miles ahead. While some might consider this somewhat of a waste of five days that could be more productively employed doing something else(for example climbing) it’s very popular in a number of countries, and Australia are consider one of the best international teams. And so the afternoon is passed watching the first day of a cricket test match between Australia and the West Indies.

Day 4 – Enforced rest day

A cold change has come through, the skies are cloudly and temperatures cool the next morning but its dry as we head to the rock. However by the time we arrive a downpour has started and looks set to last all day. We can see a group on D-minor (14) a two pitch climb, caught in the storm. They are wearing t-shirts and shorts and (not surprisingly on a 2 pitch climb) are not carrying any extra gear. The leader is half way through the second pitch, they will probably take another 40-50 minutes to complete the climb and descend, by which time they will have been soaked for over an hour. The temperature is about 14oC and there is no wind, they will be cold, but probably not dangerously so. However it brings home a strong reminder that this is a destination where one day a person needs to be rescued due to the heat, and the next day a group will end up getting uncomfortably cold on a relatively short climb. It quickly becomes clear that the weather will not clear quickly, and fortunately (as mentioned previously) the cricket game will last five days, so a second day is spent watching under its increasingly soporific spell.

Day 5

Next day dawns dry, clear and with moderate temperatures forcast we are anxious to make up for our lack of activity the last couple of days so we head to Watchtower faces. Our first climb is Panzer (12) a three pitch meandering route with some great moves.

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Cam leads the first pitch of Panzer (12)

Cam leads the first pitch of Panzer (12)

We then move over to Arachnus, which despite being only a grade 9 has been recommended by a number of people as a fun and exposed climb. It is both of these and we are pleased to find that it does actually feel easy.

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Topping out on Arachnus

Topping out on Arachnus

From the top we rig an anchor and take turns to lower each other a rope length down the awesome Watchtower Crack (16) and climb most of the final two pitches with a top belay. What an awesome route, highly recommended although for now we can only dream about leading such a route.

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Watchtower crack - route finding should not be an issue

Watchtower crack - route finding should not be an issue

We return to Fang Buttress area and finish the day on Bygone (11) which is fun and also feels easy. It’s good to finally climb a couple of route with should feel easy and actually do.

Day 6

This is our final day, family duty (Christmas with the in-laws, arrrrhhhh...) is calling us back to civilization, however there is just time to tick off a couple of single pitch routes at Mitre rock.

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Mitre rock (left) and Castle Crag (r) seen from Mt Arapiles' summit. Note the water in Mitre lake after the rain.

Mitre rock (left) and Castle Crag (r) seen from Mt Arapiles' summit. Note the water in Mitre lake after the rain.

The Bishop and Serpent are both grade 11. They are in the shade and the lower temperature coupled with a stiff breeze actually make the climbing quite cold (difficult to get the temperature right at this place!), but the routes are fun, easy and well protected. By midday it’s time to pack up and start the drive back to Melbourne, with the (still) ongoing cricket match being broadcast on the radio to keep us amused as we drive…..

Logistics

We flew direct from LA to Melbourne with Quantas. Mt Arapiles is a 3.5 hour drive north and west from the airport. Traffic rules (including speeding and drink driving) are strictly enforced, the blood alcohol limit is a low 0.05% and spot checks are common. Horsham is a medium sized town about a 30 minute drive from the climbing with a few motels, supermarkets and eateries (though no fine dining). Closer to the rock the only accommodation option other than camping is the Natimuk Hotel which has five self catering caravans ideal for couples or a small group of friends and a few BandB rooms in the hotel. Food is available 5 evenings a week, the milk bar in town sells sandwiches, basic provisions and take away food some evenings. The Pines campsite at Mt Arapiles is popular, however on total fire ban days a camp stove cannot be used. There is a commercial camp site at Lake Natimuk, but since the demise of water in the lake this is not a very attractive option any more. We used the 1999 guidebook “Arapiles selected climbs” by Simon Mentz and Glenn Tempest, there is a more recent edition which has color photo topos which might help on some routes. Climbing is possible year round, though would be a little chilly in mid-winter. We were there in mid December and had debilitatingly hot weather for two days, lost a full day to rain, and endured a chilly wind for the final day. So come prepared!

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4 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

 sonso45
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 2010-02-07
5 out of 5 stars Excellent read. Very informative. I've always wanted to visit Arapiles. I'd want to go in the fall or spring since I don't like camping in the cold very much.
 ajkclay
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 2010-02-07
It's Australia, winter isperfectly fine to climb and camp... remember, no water (well not much anyway) in the lake for years.

Great article, encapsulated Araps nicely...

but if you found the grades a bit stiff and the climbing remote lucky you didn't go to Moonarie, it has a habit of scaring off Araps regulars ;-)

 kachoong
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 2010-02-08
Great article! Thanks for taking me home. We should see some of these TR articles more regularly, rather than just in the TR forum.
 iammiles
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 2010-02-09
5 out of 5 stars Very well-written article! Makes me want to go down to Australia. Thanks for the information.

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