Curious to discover what was so addictive about climbing, I decided to join a trip to Arapiles over the Easter break. I was, by all accounts, a beginner. I had never set foot in a climbing gym, let alone tackled any outdoor ascents. In fact, I had avoided climbing in the past. Hardcore climbers with their secret language littered with jargon seemed a bit inaccessible to a beginner like me. However, I was convinced that our crew - led by Timmy, Alice and Kate - would provide a good introduction.
There is something magical about Arapiles. It towers out of nowhere, the only upright feature in miles of flat farmland. It felt special being there, like I was part of a secret clan. Walking around the campsite you can here the sound of racks of gear (a noise which could strangely be mistaken for cow bells), clinking and clanking as climbers head off for the day.
Araplies - photo courtesy of Alex
On our first day Timmy chose to lead Mikey and I on a 14. I carefully watched Timmy head up to the first belay ledge. I was scared yet composed and kept telling myself that I could do this. It was not until I started climbing that I realised just how frightening this sport can be. Admittedly the climb was probably too hard for me, but my anxiety came more from the reality of the situation; I was trusting my life on the three pieces of gear Timmy had placed to form an anchor. Although logically this sounded safe, my inspection of the gear prior to leaving the campsite left me wondering how on earth a little metal nut could hold so much force. All of this ran through my head whilst I was clinging to the rock. But somehow, with all his superior convincing powers, Timmy managed to persuade me to keep climbing, at least up to where he was. Although I was convinced I wasn’t going to make it, somehow, I scrambled my way up. The sense of achievement was overpowering. Even though I stopped that climb after that first pitch, I felt I had conquered one little demon. I had stepped out of my comfort zone and kept going even when I desperately wanted to stop. I had also discovered what would remain one of biggest fears about climbing: trusting the gear.
Can you spot Mikey?
On day 2, LUMC superwoman Kate decided that she would lead Mikey and I on an easier, multipitch climb. Timmy gave Kate and Mikey some final tips about gear placement on the nearby boulders whilst I mustered together some food. We then set off, glancing every so often at the handwritten directions I had copied out of the Araps Bible. The different rock faces all looked remarkably similar to me, but Kate somehow managed to discern where we had to go and found the beginning of our climb.
After our previous day of climbing, Timmy had taken some time to teach me about different pieces of gear and how they work. This had helped (but not fully allayed) my fear that the gear would somehow dislodge. However it had (importantly) given me the confidence I needed to attempt another climb. I was initially hesitant about starting the first pitch as it required a traverse out onto an exposed cliff. Although we had only just started climbing, we were already up fairly high, which left me feeling quite vulnerable as I climbed out onto the rockface. Despite my fear of heights, I started to acclimatise to being up so high. I was somewhat distracted by the pain that came with wearing shoes a size too small for me but at least this made me feel like I was part of the climbing fraternity.
The heat was intense as the sun belted down from the middle of the sky. When we reached the end of the second pitch, we paused to discuss how we were going to tackle the next obstacle of downclimbing and crossing over onto the main rock face. Kate and Mikey both being very logical and bright people, took their time to discuss the pros and cons of different ways of approaching this part of the climb. Once across to the main face we took refuge in the shade it provided. As the day grew older, we became slower and our pace dropped. I became more relaxed and began to enjoy myself and the great company of my fellow climbers.
LUMC superwoman: Kate
As we approached the final pitch, darkness began to fall, the sky still had a hint of pink but that was fast disappearing. We had not planned on the climb taking this long and Kate had packed our only head torch. Kate elected to climb the last pitch without her head torch as she felt that Mikey was going to need it to remove the gear. Mikey and I waited on this last ledge nervously while Kate finished climbing and struggled to set up her anchor in the darkness. Although I was in high spirits after having an enjoyable afternoon I was extremely apprehensive about beginning a climb in darkness. Finally came the call “Cat, you are on belay”. Off I went. The first couple metres went well, I scrambled around with my hands feeling for holds as I could see very little. I then believe that I started to climb just shy of where I should have been. It was dark, the wind was blowing and I was exhausted. I desperately searched for holds but could find nothing. My fear of heights was also taking hold of me as I realised just how high up I was. The pull of the rope drag on my harness was zapping me of the little energy I had left. I called out to Kate that I couldn’t see where to go. She urged me to keep trying. I clung onto the rock, stationary for what seemed like minutes trying to find the courage to keep going. In desperation I made one final stretch upwards in an attempt to find a new hold, lost my footing and fell, swinging a few metres and crashing into the rock with my knees. I was completely terrified and in tears. I began cursing rockclimbing and all associated with it. My mind went straight to the worse case scenario: what if I couldn’t climb this last pitch? At this point Mikey decided (and I agreed) to climb down back to the ledge to rest and regain some composure. Here Mikey informed me that Timmy and Alice were on their way - with light.
Our failure to return to the campsite after an hour or two of darkness had concerned the crew and they had yelled up to Kate from the main track at the bottom of the rock, asking if we needed help. We waited patiently on the ledge for an hour. This gave me enough time to dream up a range of different rescue plans; my mind was clearly still being irrational. Finally Timmy and Alice arrived. Timmy climbed down a few metres from the top and illuminated the rockface with his torch and called down to us, urging me to climb. I asked Timmy if there were any other options. Under strict instructions from Kate, he replied a simple “No, not unless you want to stay on the ledge overnight”. This wasn’t a possibility in my mind so off I went - take two. The higher I climbed, the worse the rope drag became - but being able to see where I was going made the job much easier. It was surprising how much the encouragement of my friends above was able to give me the confidence I needed to continue. As I got closer to the top, I could hear Alice and Kate giggling and talking about what food they were going to cook. Everything seemed normal once again. Mikey followed, gleaning the last bits of gear and finally, after 10 hours of being out on the rock, our climbing epic was over.
It probably took a couple of weeks for me to think logically about what had happened. The sheer terror that I had felt when climbing wasn’t going to disappear fast, but over time an equal sense of self-satisfaction began to develop. Climbing provides a buzz like nothing else I have ever done before and challenges me both physically and mentally. There is no doubt that this feeling is addictive and will ensure I return to outdoor climbing in the future. Perhaps the most valuable and enjoyable aspect about my trip to Arapiles was the close friendships that I made. Although you have to rely on yourself to get through a climb, I would not have been able to continue without the amazing support and encouragement of those around me.
Safe & happy climbing guys!