Standing at the base of Bard belaying Doug up the slightly run-out slab that comprises about a third of pitch one, I thought to myself how easy it would be to maim or kill yourself climbing. Of course, we do (or try to) everything we can to reduce the risk of injury or death when climbing, but, in some ways the spectre of bodily harm, particularly on traditional climbs is always there. This, I think is likely the appeal of sport climbing. On modern sport climbs, adequate and solid bomber protection means that falling has little consequence. I've fallen off sport climbs before and never sustained so much as a bruise. On trad climbs however, I'm always thinking about where and when to place gear, how to protect myself from nasty falls onto ledges, low angle terrain or other protrusions, and, most importantly, whether or not the gear will actually hold a fall. Like most (all?) smart trad climbers, I'm placing protection but I'm also determined that I am not going to fall onto that protection.
Doug racked and ready to lead Bard
But, back to Bard. Doug speedily finished the first pitch and I followed him up to the belay at the top of the easy juggy ramp that ends pitch one. We swapped gear around, realised that we didn't have our mobile phone with us - we suddenly felt a bit more out there - and Doug led off on the infamous traverse pitch. This is a bit of a funny pitch - 12 metres of climbing, but you end up just a few metres above the last belay. From below, all I could see was Doug's butt hanging out over space and a lot of muttering about how difficult it was to see his feet. Soon enough, however, he was building a belay on a small ledge perched right on the arete of Bard Buttress. I was a bit worried about the traverse pitch as I really do not like seconding traverses. No matter how well the leader protects the second, it always feels as if a pendulum fall is imminent. I need not have worried too much as the climbing is not difficult, just hellishly awkward and Doug had placed lots of solid protection. Like Doug, I soon found my head jammed under the overhanging wall above my head as I inched my feet across, and, once your head is jammed under that overhang, it is surprisingly hard to extricate.
Head jamming the traverse pitch
Pitches three to five are just great Arapiles climbing, nothing too hard, in fact, Bard feels a bit over-rated by Arapiles standards to us. Pitch three has a slightly balancy traverse to the right, and then you climb up a good corner to a deep crack that has a couple of slightly strenuous moves as you pull onto the next ledge. Pitch four is classic Arapiles jug hauling and leads to the spacious Bard Terrace where we had a drink of water. Finally, pitch five starts out very steeply (you can also climb the awkward looking chimney) and gradually eases a little to the top.
Doug on Bard Terrace
The descent off Bard requires downclimbing into Ali Baba's cave - the most obvious way to do this is to slither down a slippery ramp to a big boulder and then make a stretchy (at least for short person) move into the bottom of the cave. It would be unfortunate to fall here - as is so often the case on Arapiles descents - as you could easily fall into a rock "crevasse" and break many bones in your body. Crawl through the cave and then join the standard Alis descent down chains. Last time we did this, we rappelled off another parties double ropes and got all the way to the bottom. As we had only one rope, and the rappel is over 30 metres, we clipped ourselves into the chains and lowered ourselves down the highly polished "grade 3" (ha!) descent. The chains run out before the bottom, but, luckily the last downclimb is not polished and is nice and juggy. It's probably goes at a YDS 5.3 (not class 3 as the conversion chart in the guidebook would imply).
Doug in Ali Baba's cave
Once we were down, Doug commented on how much more sense it would have made to simply add one more rappel station so that parties could rappel with a standard 50 or 60 metre rope. Way less hardware (there must have been a dozen bolts on the chain line) and way safer. But, such is the Australian way - mired as the climbing community is in ridiculous controversy about simple safety upgrades. Ironically, but not for the party involved, a climber was killed a few hours later descending another one of Arapiles "standard descent routes". In this instance, the descent requires downclimbing (most of them do) a slab (exact grade unknown but it's not unusual for the "descent downclimbs" to be YDS 5.7). The climber obviously felt unable to safely downclimb and had slung a big boulder with his rope to use as a handline. The boulder failed, the climber fell (only 3 to 4 metres) but, the boulder also fell, unluckily on top of the climber, and he succumbed to fatal head injuries. A couple of rappel bolts could save all that anguish.
Protection is a little sparser than normal on pitch one of Bard
The day after Bard, I picked a couple of routes in the Harlequin Cracks area. Right now I'm feeling pretty solid leading 8's but I want to push that up to 10 or 11. This might seem a lowly goal - and it probably is a lowly goal, but bear in mind, I'm over 50, I've never been a really brilliant leader or climber, and I haven't done any significant climbing since moving to Australia two years ago.
According to the conversion chart inside the cover of the Arapiles guide, grade 10 is 5.4, but, anyone from North America knows that is nonsense, just as grade 3 is not class 3. Grade 10 is probably around 5.7 here at Arapiles, and grade 13 feels like about 5.9. When I was climbing well, I could lead 5.10a's and the occasional 10b on bolts, but, I only ever led to about 5.7 with perhaps the odd move or two of 5.8 on gear. I suffer from a real lack of bravery when it comes to leading on gear.
Me leading the diagonal crack on Tale of Woe
In any case, I'm now picking routes that have some pitches of 9 to lead, and, Tale of Woe, had a nice range of grades on the route and I would lead it all. I started by leading BA Mosquito (5) which is just a tad run-out. I had only one very manky chock to make the crux moves and the piece below that was so far down I would have hit the ground from 20 metres up if I fell. I've been experimenting with only placing gear where I feel I need it, instead of obsessively sewing up grade 6 routes. This works well until the route suddenly gets harder and you have no possible gear placements and your last piece is a long way down. Trad climbing is a balancing act between placing so much gear you move slowly and pump out, and placing so little gear that you risk a death fall.
Eyeing the crux on the grade 9 pitch
Tale of Woe starts from the top of BA Mosquito and goes up a nice looking diagonal crack (grade 8). I enjoyed leading this pitch although I inexplicably felt a bit nervous - must be all the morbid thoughts I've been having lately. I kept calm however, and just focused on placing solid gear. Ironically, one of my chocks pulled when I moved past so clearly my gear was not as solid as I thought. At the top of pitch one, Tale of Woe joins Beau Geste. My third pitch was grade 9, and had that de ja vu, I've been here before feeling as all I could get to start up the crux moves was a manky chock and my last piece was way down below and off to the side. Luckily, a couple of juggy moves later I got a good cam.
I was using all double length runners to reduce rope drag which left my rope hanging well below where I had climbed and as I moved past it got caught in a crack under a flake. Both Doug and I engaged in some frantic flipping to try and extricate it - not that comfortable on a tiny steep ledge - but it kept catching itself back in. Just when I had given up and figured I'd just have to go for it and hope for the best, Doug managed to flip it free and kept it free. You'd never believe it, but, I've twice in the past had ropes jam in cracks when I was leading and both times the ropes jammed in so solidly that I actually had to untie and keep climbing. Luckily, I was climbing on double ropes both times and only one rope jammed so I was not completely soloing (happened on the rope eating cracks at Red Rocks, Nevada).
Finally, the last pitch on Tale of Woe/Beau Geste is a bit of a let down as there is about 8 metres of good climbing up horizontal breaks before the pitch deteriorates into an easy ramble. I ran the rope all the way up to the top, but you could easily just solo the last section. I was happy to have led all the pitches and Doug enjoyed his day being "guided."
It was starting to feel pretty hot when we finished, although it was only about noon, but, I thought I could squeeze in one more pitch before the heat became intolerable. So, after walking off (long but easy) we went over to the shady side of Mitre Rock and I led the grade 7 first pitch of The Baptism. I've led most of the other easy shady routes at Mitre Rock and it was way too hot to climb in the sun. Doug started to lead pitch two (a grade 13 hand jam), but the opening moves were hard to protect and a fall would have landed him onto the big belay ledge so he wisely climbed back down and led Wee Skerrick (also grade 13) instead. I totally butchered this route as I was not expecting it to be as hard as it was, and ended up dogging on the rope. Personally, I thought is was way harder than some of the 15's and 16's we've climbed at Arapiles but Doug didn't agree so maybe I was doing something horribly wrong. Which brings me to today's rest day - forecast to be 40 Celsius and way, way too hot to climb.