Finally, two years to the day after we arrived in Australia, we parked at the Melville Cave track head, hefted up big climbing packs and strolled along a good track to Bushranger Bluff. It was a warm, sunny, strikingly calm (it has been excessively windy lately) Sunday and we were expecting to find climbers swarming all over the rocks. Not quite, in fact, not even close. We saw about half a dozen other climbers all day, strangely all of them were top-roping, something we saw repeated over the next two days.
Our first day at Arapiles it was hard to decide where to climb - our guidebook has 1,200 climbs listed (although most of them are out of our grade) - on a confusing labyrinth of bluffs, buttresses and gullies. In the end, we chose Bushranger Bluff, a long cliff-line that runs roughly north to south. One side is sunny all day, the other, especially at this time of year, shady all day. A group of four from Melbourne were having some kind of instructional session at one end of the sunny side of the crag, and some top-ropers were haunting the shady side, but other than that, the crag was quiet. We had a great first day climbing mostly on the sunny side where the routes are short, mostly easy (there's a challenging grade 16 at the far north end), but also did one longer slightly harder route on the shady side. The quality of climbing was very good, the grades - although no where near the YDS equivalent listed at the front of the book - are very consistent, the protection is great, the walk-off easy, the rock clean, the moves fun. Really, it was all quite wonderful.
Doug at Revolver Crack
Our second day we walked part way up the tourist track to a side track that leads to Charity Buttress. This crag has a lot of crack and face climbs in the easier grades but the rock is quite different to the knobbly, steep, jug covered Bushranger Bluff. The rock is smoother, steep without the big jugs and the climbing more technical. Great climbing again, more thought provoking, even in the easy grades than Bushranger Bluff, but again, great protection, easy walk-off, clean rock, engaging climbs, consistent grades. Another big group of top-ropers arrived again, so we wandered further along the crag and did an obscure but easy climb up a big buttress to end the day.
Doug and I alternate picks when we are rock climbing and Tuesday was my pick again. There were a few routes at Bushranger Bluff that I wanted to lead so we went back there only to find it inundated with groups of top-ropers. There must have been about 30 or 40 people top-roping there, mostly adolescents with "guides". Ropes were strung up on every climb along the sunny side and many climbs on the shady side. Loath to pack up and go somewhere else (truthfully I hadn't studied the guidebook enough to come up with anywhere else) we climbed on the shady side in a blustery cold wind. The routes we did were really awesome, up a series of steep grooves, cracks and open books with good protection, fun moves, and great ambience, the only problem was it was freezing in the 30 knot wind. Arapiles climbing is very steep and can be intimidating, but, again we found the grades consistent and, if the guidebook said there was good protection, there was good protection. Having a good rack of cams and chocks (don't buy that party line that all you need at Arapiles is chocks) helps, as does double and triple length slings to cut down rope-drag.
Doug leading one of the beautiful crack climbs at Charity Buttress
We did finally manage to get on one route on the sunny side in a brief period between one group of top-ropers monopolising it and a second arriving as soon as the first had left. I was quite shocked at the anchor set-ups the "guides" had put up to top-rope all these adolescents off as they were constructed of long pieces of static line (nothing wrong with that) tied off with loose granny knots! Half of them looked as if the knots were about to unravel and I tightened several as I walked off after leading a route, although tightening up a granny knot gave me great pause. I really wanted to rip the entire set up down and rebuild it.
Finally, as we were planning a rest day the next day, we gave in to the overwhelming tide of top-roping - we try to lead rather than top-rope - and put a top-rope on a grade 16 . This was a pretty burly haul up a steeply overhanging wall. I came off first go and was hanging so far off the wall that Doug had to push me in and I had to swing hard to finally latch a hold on the wall. As we suspected, a baby has better grip strength than we do, but it was fun to climb until our hands couldn't grasp the holds any more, particularly as we have a day to recover.
So, what about Arapiles? Is it the "best crag in the world?" Those are big shoes to fill, but the climbing is certainly high quality. Even in the very easy grades, the climbing is engaging and the protection good. There are a few things about climbing here that are pleasant surprises after climbing in other areas of Australia. One is the guidebook which has good route photos, access directions, sun/shade information, and, most importantly, consistent grades. I don't really care what number grade I'm climbing (although like all climbers I do like to improve) but it sure does make climbing more fun if the grades have some degree of internal consistency. It's not merely frustrating, it's down right dangerous to find yourself on some run-out, sandbagged horror show. Too many Australian crags have such variable grades that you really have no idea if the 10 you are about to climb is really a 10 or is actually a 20! Under some circumstances, it can even turn out to be a 5. The only thing that could improve our experience now is if the wretched wind would abate and the sun have a chance to shine through.