Christian Venetz on Anxiety Neurosis (26), The Bluffs, Mt. Arapiles, Victoria, Australia. Rising above the Wimmera Plains, the quartzite cliffs of Arapiles are an isolated geologic curiosity left behind by a receding sea. The weathering of the rock has created unusually aesthetic and varied climbs that have won accolades from local and visiting climbers alike. [Photo] Kennan Harvey

Mt. Arapiles

Posted on: October 1, 2006

Classic lines? Check. Bomber gear? Check. A raucous past? Check. In the four decades of its development, Arapiles has come to be recognized as one of the finest crags anywhere. A history, from six who mattered.

"I'm feeling weak as piss," Jon said.

He lay on the ground, rolling a cigarette, and gazed up at the steep, yellow wall that overshadowed me and my friends. Behind us, wheatfields stretched out across the vast Wimmera Plains of western Victoria, Australia, to meet an unbroken horizon. If it weren't for the four-kilometer-long band of rock that jutted up 150 meters above us, we'd be trapped in an infinity of bright sky and flat earth. Even after all the years I'd climbed there, the topography of Mt. Arapiles still seemed absurd.

"I was hoping you'd lead it," Roddy replied, "'cause I doubt I can."

I was fairly sure I couldn't even follow the route. It was sometime in the mid-1980s. We'd all been away for a while, at various far-flung points of the earth, and none of us was very confident about his climbing ability. Despite its relatively modest grade (20), the climb, New Image, didn't seem to have many holds.

The notorious Australian bolting system: carrot bolt and removable hanger. [Photo] Greg Child

Roddy put his boots on. "I'll just try this first move."

"Well, be careful," Jon said; he rolled his tongue across the edge of the paper, then spun the cigarette shut. "You could hurt yourself."

"Shit, that's bouldery," Roddy said, panting, just above the crux.

"Can you reverse it?" Jon propped himself up on one elbow.

"No, I don't think I can...." His voice faltered a little. "Throw me the rope. And the rack."

I watched, supine, as Jon roused from his lethargy to hunt for the gear.

Roddy finished the climb with unexpected ease and put me on. I surprised myself by arriving quickly at the top. As Glenn Tempest and Simon Mentz, longtime Arapiles climbers, wrote in their 1999 guidebook, Arapiles: Selected Climbs, "the Mount" (a common nickname for the crag), "reveals little of its true self when viewed from afar." Like so many aspects of Arapiles, this section changed as we looked at it more carefully: the holds were all there, after all, along with nicely spaced gear.

Jon, not content with a simple follow, tied the rope around his neck, "with just enough slack that I won't hit the ground—I wouldn't want to hurt myself." His enormous lats stretched thin as he pulled between holds, pausing little. Soon we all sat on a ledge, laughing, and looking out over the plains, glad to be back. It's good to laugh, especially at death. And in the blinding sunlight, I began to think of the friends and role models we'd found here, as well as those we'd lost—on Arapiles and on other, higher mountains—with a mixture of grief and heartrending joy.

Some mornings, when I get out of bed, I can feel every day of the almost thirty years since I first came to Arapiles as a naive young man. For ten years I could barely stay away from its intricately featured rock. When I finally realized that the connection between my life and this mountain's stories would be permanent, I conceded, buying a house in the local town of Natimuk. Each journey I make to the cliffs, in person or in memory, lets me read a text that I find endlessly compelling. Their convoluted surface forms a novel in which every little gully and face weaves an elaborate subplot: tragedies, heroism, epics, horror and occasionally romance... but more often, just plain comedy.

Each area presents its own chapters of time. As a preface, peruse the Organ Pipes' ageless 8- to 15-grade routes, many of which were developed in the 1960s, the earliest-known decade of Arapiles climbing; for Chapter Two, become engrossed in Yesterday Gully or Castle Crag, where an upsurge in difficulty shows how Henry Barber's 1975 visit inspired the late-'70s "New Wave"; then for a dramatic denouement, try the relatively short pillar of Uncle Charlie, where hard routes display the dark humor and mad creativity of the '80s, including Punks in the Gym (31)—once the most difficult climb in the world—to which the '90s would add the appendix of an even more challenging variation, Punks Addiction (32). Finally, here and there read the most recent addenda, the climbs that current activist Douglas Hockly calls "the lines between the lines," as the cliff has settled down to the simply popular classic that it remains.

Because Arapiles is a quintessential trad crag. Wind has weathered its quartzite into labyrinths within labyrinths of seams, cracks, holes, little chickenheads and large bollards. Much of the mountain's rock is gray with algae, and rough, but in sheltered pockets around the crag, bulgy orange sections can be found, impossibly steep and unforgiving; while in other places sheer, straw-colored stone prevails, with a minimum of holds. Unlike other crags, where one type of climbing is the norm, Arapiles' uniquely varied geology allows long, easy rambles; jug showrooms; short, problematic seams that destroy you with one move; thin walls and smooth, overhanging horrors; some wide cracks and some slabs. Routes separated by mere meters may be grades apart: the last route to be done in the Organ Pipes, Quiet Time, a slabby 23, runs tantalizingly close to one of the first climbs done there, Diapason, a 7.

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