The Australia Day long weekend presented too good of an opportunity for climbing to ignore. At my request for some lively action shots to accompany a subsequent interview for Chockstone, Neil Monteith had invited me along to his playground, the Victoria Ranges, with promises of big falls on his latest grade 25 project. Needing at least three people to make filming possible we valiantly tried to round up takers for a grand tour of the remoter classics, with some new routeing thrown in. At one stage we had as many as half a dozen ready to join the possie. However, in the cold light of day (or should I say blazing 43 degree heat), it was down to just Neil and I.
Above Right: Peking Face as seen from the road.
The plan was to begin the tour on Peking Face, below Bundaleer. Making the drive down in just under three hours, I followed Neil's instructions to continue past Bundaleer carpark until "the road turns to shit", an apt description for the severely steep and rocky goat trail that it soon became. Leaving the Camry whimping at Neil's site, we saddled up his Subaru 4WD, and cruised the access to Peking Face, passing a spot where Neil claimed to have met, the day before, a sedan and trailer hopelessly wrestling the terrain, with a worried family onboard.
Launching up the horrendously steep and loose approach hike at four times the speed of sound, carrying all the gear, Neil soon disappeared from my sight. An event that was to repeat itself with monotonous regularity for the remainder of the trip. As I dragged my breathless carcass up to the base of the cliff, I barely had time to dump what little equipment I carried before hurrying to get in on the route scouting. Neil picked a sharp looking grade 20 line, "Ancient Warrior", for our "warm up" and began racking up for the lead. At this point I realised I'd forgotten to apply sun screen and resigned myself to a round trip back down to the car or suffer the consequences of climbing through 43 degree UV. Panting and straining I returned to the cliff some 20 minutes later to find Neil racked and ready to roll.
Sculling water I hunkered in the shade and belayed while Neil commenced battle on "Ancient Warrior". The crux proved to be a pumpy finger crack mid-way up the pitch, where an absence of feet made jamming difficult. Dogging the second I arrived at the anchors feeling worked, but through-ally enjoying the experience. We rapped off a dry old conifer and considered our next route.
My turn to lead I requested something far easier. The two pitch "Pagoda", at grade 15, looked like the ticket. Unfamiliar with Neil's gear I racked a little nervously, then headed up stemming into a thin corner littered with large jugs on the right side - my kind of climbing! All too soon, however, I entered a left wards traverse at the base of a mini-roof. Here I discovered the one element curiously missing from Neil's "light and fast" rack, namely slings. Doubling draws together and resorting to tying things off with my prusik cords I pulled through the roof traverse, arriving at the belay ledge with serious rope drag. Parched, I hunched under a slice of shade and tried not to think about water, while hauling the unyielding rope double handed. Neil popped over the lip with "Hmmm, a little goey for a 15 eh?", and lead through the second pitch, which turned out to be a fun chimney. I cleaned his token placements, and topped out more thirsty than I'd ever felt before. The air was so dry and heat, radiating off the rock, so intense it was sucking the very life from our dehydrated bodies. I staggered down the walk off, trailing behind Neil, who in typical Queenslander style seemed unaffected by conditions. Arriving at the packs I downed a litre of tepid water, which never tasted so good!
We slithered down to the car (Neil well in front), and partook of the area's saving grace - a small, but tranquil, fresh, and breathtakingly cold plunge pool, right beside the car park. As the heat dissipated from my body, and the chill waters enclosed me in their loving arms, instantly restoring wellbeing, I was able to appreciate the climbs retrospectively.
Far Left: Me standing a top Tower Hill. (Photo by Neil). Left: Crap bolts on Tower Hill grade 22 route.
We wallowed in the luxury of the pond for a good hour or so, before Neil proposed we move on and check out the nearby Tower Hill. The Subaru reversed the moves back up the incline with impressive ease, and before long we'd hiked in and were standing (thankfully in the shade) below a grade 22 Mike Law classic "Stryletzia", complete with two of the mankiest looking bolts ever spotted. Dodgy home made hangers, all but rusted through offered meagre protection for the moves above, so Neil slapped a top rope on it, and subsequently cruised up in good style. In fact he found it such a soft touch he decided to lead it as well, despite the death bolts. In comparison, I flailed wildly near the first bolt and incurred a calf muscle cramp that quickly put a stop to further upwards progress, and indeed much else but pain. Massaging it back to health (though it still hurts days later as I type this), I managed to amble up an easier arÍte to dismantle the setup. Unfortunately Neil's rope had incurred sheath damage from the sharp edge.
Calling it a day we drove back to camp, and decided to shift the cars around to our originally intended destination, Neil's hidden "Shallow Graves" camp site in the Victoria Ranges. Neil drives the same way he hikes: fast! This time, however, the turtle was to beat the hare, as he was forced to make a 47km backtrack to collect his food box, which he'd neglected to grab.
Above Right: Neil on the FA of "Up The Road", grade 18.
A delightfully cooler morn saw us refreshed and ready for action. Neil's "under development" area of Gondwannaland was to be our destination. Again the hike in was steep, but this time included the absence of a track. Carrying the rack, and worried I might loose the way, I fought to keep up with Neil's faster than light travel. Fortunately he was often captivated by unexplored rock, so I had ample time to recoup while he scouted. Spotting an attractive, unclimbed arÍte (pictured right), Neil racked up to claim the prized first ascent on trad gear only. The single pitch line proved to be a hoot to second, with very enjoyable moves. Neil christened the climb "Up The Road" for reasons that will be explained shortly.
We top roped a nearby, fairly straight forward, previously untried face climb off the same anchors before rapping down off a gum tree. The 60m rope didn't quite get us ground wards in comfort, forcing some dubious down-climbing. Anyway, at this point Neil said something like "we'll head down the road a couple of minutes for the next climbs", and promptly disappeared into the bush like a native. By the time I'd repacked and started following he was out of shouting distance. Assuming he'd intended us to return to the car, and head "down the road", I took off at a hurried pace hoping to catch him. I arrived at the vehicle, exhausted and minus one spritely Neil. Where was that elusive elf now? "Damn these super fit mountaineers" I mumbled to myself, and shouted at the top of my lungs "Ahoy Neil!!", only to be answered by shouts from back up at the crag.
Left: Neil photographing the FA of a nearby arÍte route.
It turns out, he'd only vanished behind one of the many perplexing gullies (pictured left), a mere few metres from where he'd left me. Darrr! Shoulder the weighty pack. Back up the non-existent track again. And here he is chatting away to some climbers, who needed his directions. (They ended up doing an FA of an arÍte, pictured left). I collapsed in a pool of sweat and stared up at "Wild Iris", the grade 18 pocketed sport route, that Neil had developed some time ago and was now encouraging me to lead. Gulping down water I tried to convince my body to heed his persuasions. Soon enough I was clipping carrot bolts and tugging on delightful pockets. One reachy move almost barred my passage, but side pulling a pocket and standing on tip toes I felt my fingers curl gleefully around yet another deep crevice. Lowering off the chains I was happy with the lead, despite a forearm pump.
up Neil top roped, then lead, (with falls) his grade 25 face project
(pictured above and below), as
yet unnamed. Fortunately Neil's friend Nick arrived on the scene allowing
me to film (and rest), while he belayed. Traversing in from the left to
avoid a super hard direct start, the line looks very cool, with sturdy
ring bolts well spaced. We found out just how steep it was when, with a
shout of alarm, Neil plunged off at about midway, taking a sizable, but
safe whipper. Returning to his high point he worked the moves above,
before topping out, the FA remaining yet unclaimed.
Above Left & Centre: More shots of Neil on his project. Above Right: Neil takes a fall!. Check out the video footage. Gondwannaland Project (2.7 Meg, 44 seconds) - Falling! Neil takes a sizable whipper on an FA attempt of his grade 25 face project at Gondwannaland in the Grampians. Part Two (3.2 Meg, 52 seconds) - He continues, working the moves to the top.
Grabbing my rack (minus the slings) Nick led, shortly afterwards, a neighbouring route called "Pineapple" at grade 18, struggling with rope drag as he deviated off route somewhat. What is it with these hard climbers and their aversion to slings? I usually take so many I look like a mummy. Anyway we packed up and hiked out, bidding farewell to Nick, and his wife, who had patiently waited by the cars. Returning to the Shallow Graves camp, we cooked up more pasta than two people could sanely consume, and fell asleep tired, but in good spirits.
Emu Rock was chosen as our crag for the final day. Hiking into Mt Fox we eyed the quality routes there, but instead continued left and upwards, through devilishly sharp and evil undergrowth, questing the mythical cliff. Spikes raked my flesh as I plunged head long, glissading down loose rock before crawling upwards again, thighs burning in protest. Neil did his vanishing trick more than once before I finally caught up. Brushing half a forest from the back of my neck, I joined my expeditious companion in scoping the line, a grade 16 multi-pitch called "Patagionia" (pictured below right) heading up deceptively steep, but juggy terrain to a wild looking traverse.
Neil took the first lead, halving my already cut down rack, and cruising up 45 metres to a hanging belay. I followed the pumpy, but rewarding pitch and nervously sorted gear while dangling in my harness. It wasn't until I'd led off a ways that I felt comfortable again and could appreciate the spectacular surrounds and the novelty of our exposed position. Unsure of the path ahead I floundered a little before committing to the right traverse, which, from my slightly off route location was now down trending! With great satisfaction I hauled onto an arÍte and safe ground, an easy grade three amble between us and the summit.
Right: Me seconding the first pitch of Patagonia, grade 16. (Photo by Neil). Far Right: Neil seconding the 2nd, traverse pitch.
We regained the packs and hiked off via Muline Cave. My first visit, I was very impressed with the severely overhanging, deeply orange rock and routes going as hard as grade 33. A pleasant stroll down the Muline track (why hadn't we approached this way?) brought us to the road, and we were soon driving (Neil at rally speeds) into Halls Gap for much anticipated ice creams.
Departing Neil's company in the late afternoon, I had the 2.5 hour drive home to reflect upon our adventures. Muscles ached in places I didn't know I had them, and my arms were a series of messy cuts from the prickle bushes, but I was smiling and feeling good. Thanks Neil for a great trip!
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