Climbing the Arapiles

By Chris Ord 3 June 2014
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November 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of recreational climbing in the Arapiles, a rock formation so intricate it has yielded more than 3000 different routes.

FIFTY YEAR AGA recreational climbers first tackled the sandstone crags of the Arapiles. Today, Mt Arapiles (230m) is renowned worldwide and has yielded more than 3000 different routes. For any climber, it is a rite of passage.

Rising abruptly from the flat, arid landscape of western Victoria’s wheat belt, the Arapiles range boasts its share of fabled exploits. One example took place in the early 1980s and involved two notable outdoorsmen: Australian adventurer Jon Muir and the late Mark Moorhead.

While climbing a face called Tiger Wall, Mark, the lead climber, accidentally pulled off a block the size of a microwave. Belaying below, Jon took the brunt of the rockfall – the boulder crashed into his chest, broke his ribs and collapsed a lung.

As the story goes, Jon momentarily died on that ledge before a whisper of air snuck back into his lungs.

Ross Taylor, publisher of Vertical Life online magazine, picks up the tale: “They managed to get him down alive, then to hospital, and Jon has since gone on to complete probably the most outrageous series of adventures of any Australian.

“But my favourite part of the story is that after Jon went to hospital the block that hit him was dragged back to the Pines [a camping area for climbers], where it was inscribed:

‘To Jon, love Mark.’ If you look carefully in the Pines today, you can still find it.”

Rock climber’s paradise

Arapiles is like an island amid sprawling, flat farmland. This outcrop of sandstone is the last southern vertical remnant of the Great Dividing Range.

Ross has been returning to climb and muse over the Arapiles for more than 25 years. “I have a lot of fond memories of the place: endless summers hiding out in cool gullies, getting scared on the sharp end, freezing my ass off in winter, watching showers sweep across the wheatfields, climbing my first 28,” he says.

“It’s a funny old crag. From a distance it looks like a pile of rubble, but as you come a little closer – close enough to feel the rock – you realise the sandstone is something special, probably the best on the planet.”

Ross describes it as a “powerful” landscape. “When you are on the mount, you look out at this vast patchwork of very flat wheat fields and salt pans; it’s so flat that you can see the curve of the earth,” he says.

“You get the most incredible sunrises and sunsets. It is desert-like out there; it can be freezing at night under cloudless skies, which is also when you get the most incredible displays of stars. When you are there, climbing for significant periods of time, you also develop these tight-knit little cliques where you share everything: you camp together, you climb together, you go shopping together, you almost create your own culture. So you form these incredible friendships.”

“Then there’s the climbing, which is brilliant, technical and often scary. It’s the full package.”

World class climbs in Arapiles

Simon Mentz, co-writer of the first edition of Arapiles Selected Climbs (1999), believes Mt Arapiles has the edge over other Australian climbing destinations, such as the Blue Mountains and Grampians.

“Compared to the Blue Mountains, Arapiles has better quality rock, better natural protection and the routes are frequently more funky and require thought-provoking moves,” Simon says. “It offers far more routes in the easier to moderate grades.”

“Compared to the Grampians, it offers far greater convenience with everything being in one spot. It also offers a lot more quality, easier routes, particularly under grade 12.”

But Mt Arapiles is not just a local icon – Simon believes it ranks among world-class climbing destinations, such as Fontainebleau and Verdon in France, Yosemite in the USA and Frankenjura in Germany.

“I can’t think of another cliff in the world that offers the diversity and quality of climbing at all grades that Mt Arapiles does,” Simon says.

It has walls with everything from one-pitch to four-pitch routes, all with incredible variety, he says. “Whether it be wall climbing, slab climbing, crack climbing, roof climbing, seams, corners, arêtes, or freestanding pinnacles –every climb feels unique and offers something of interest.

“The cliff line consists of more than 20 sub areas. Individually, many would be considered outstanding climbing areas in themselves. The different cliffs have different aspects, allowing you to climb year round. The rock is exceptional in its quality and offers superb natural protection, which adds immensely to the character of many of the climbs. The bouldering is also very good and the base of the cliff is littered with problems at all levels.”

More than just a climbing destination

Father and son, Bob and Steve Craddock, are – along with a few others –  often credited with “discovering” Arapiles climbing in 1963. Even before then, it was a hot spot for adventurous young lads.

One of those was local climber and guidebook writer, Keith Lockwood. Born in Natimuk – 10km east of the Arapiles and its closest township – Keith used to scramble around rock faces with his brothers until he took up “proper” climbing in 1966.

“Some Victorian Climbing Club members, including the Craddocks, Bryan Oates and Jerry Grandage, took us to Tiptoe Ridge – we’d have rope tied around the waist, one or two runners and a waist belay. So I have climbed at the Arapiles for 47 years or more,” says Lockwood, author of the landmark 1978 guidebook and, more recently, a coffee table book titled Arapiles: a million mountains.

“The Arapiles really is a million mountains,” he says, noting that the formation is “so intricate that no two climbs of the 3000-plus are the same”.

Keith says, “You have to think in three dimensions – it’s dancing in the sky.”

There’s more to do than climbing here. “Arapiles is not only great for climbers, but also birdwatchers, orchid lovers, hikers, bike riders, picnickers, photographers and artists,” says Keith, adding that a master plan for the park is in development. “It will make the park a richer experience for all.”

As part of that master plan, he has been involved in developing the proposal for a skyline walking track. “Climbers cannot be so selfish that they deny others the opportunity to appreciate the mount in their own way.”

“You have to see it through the seasons. Through the years, watch the sunrise from the summit, feel the rain, see the kangaroos, echidnas, hear the peregrines, walk off the tracks and feel its heartbeat.”

Climbing the Arapiles anew

In the Arapiles, the 1960s and ’70s were about pioneering classic routes, the ’80s about developing new routes and audacious climbs. Today, jaded climbers claim the golden era is over and the area is “climbed out”.

Simon disagrees. “It would be fair to say that the best routes have already been climbed,” he says, “However, there are plenty of opportunities for people to push the limits of on-sighting.”

“Due to the technical nature of the routes, very few of the harder climbs have been on-sighted…Soloing is another aspect pushed by the likes Croft, Muir, Weigand and Moorhead in the ’80s. Whether that sees resurgence in the higher grades remains to be seen.”

One of the region’s many pioneers and chroniclers, Mike Law, wrote: “The climbs have been designed for the hard man, from grade 8 upwards. That is to say, they are complex and technical toys to stretch the mind and body.”

Mike also best captured the power of the place to change people: “One can trip up to the Arapiles and within a week become strange and incomprehensible; a creature of unlikely and unfamiliar ritual, jargon, dress and diet…”